As the world gears up for the big “UFC 129” main event in Toronto, there is a growing momentum for anything related to mixed martial arts (MMA). For Revolution MMA Fitness and Fight Store owner Joel Gerson, the timing couldn’t be better. In terms of MMA fitness and self-defence classes, Revolution is well-known in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).
With two locations, approximately 25 employees, a large MMA gear store, and beautiful facilities, Revolution is a highly respected club in the MMA industry. Joel Gerson, the company’s President and Chief Instructor, is a skilled mixed martial artist who very effectively uses his skills to teach others this fine art.
In 2006 the first Revolution location opened in Thornhill, Ontario. Revolution was created not only for MMA fans, but to serve as a facility that also catered to individuals looking for a fitness alternative to the traditional gym.
Speciality classes geared toward beginners were offered combining both the technical and practical aspects of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, boxing, Muay Thai kickboxing, judo, Krav Maga and wrestling with the fitness and weight-loss benefits offered by each of the individual styles. The club also offered Combat Fitness classes for those seeking a class limited only to the fitness aspects while others, like the Krav Maga (Israeli street survival) focuses primarily on self-defence for any kind of street scenario. The club was also the first to offer a full MMA fight store, and became a destination spot in Toronto for purchasing all of the most popular UFC branded fan and training gear.
The initial location proved too small to satisfy the exploding demand for all things MMA-related. Sensing it was only the beginning of what would be a massive paradigm shift Gerson signed a lease on a 13,000 square foot industrial warehouse that was nearly four times the size of the original location and hired the design firm 2PiR to renovate it. Six months later, the second Revolution location opened its doors at Leslie and the 401. Boasting the largest MMA retail space in the GTA, a foyer that looks like it is from a boutique hotel, three large training studios, UFC octagon, boxing ring, gym and steam rooms, this facility has become known as one of the nicest of its kind in North America. The Revolution MMA clubs and fight stores have pushed the brand to become the industry leader, setting the benchmark for training and MMA lifestyle gear.
Joel Gerson has been actively involved in martial arts since the age of 13. After competing in local judo competitions throughout high school, he went on to compete at the national level while attending McGill University and later, the University of Toronto. Throughout this time, he garnered several national titles in Jiu Jitsu. In his 3rd year of university with his father battling cancer, Gerson was offered what would be the fight of his career. It was the opportunity to fight Rumina Sato, the undefeated Japanese Shooto Champion who at the time was considered the best pound for pound MMA fighter in the world. Despite being the heavy underdog, Gerson successfully used a strategy he had prepared for months in advance and to the dismay of the thousands of Japanese fans in attendance, defeated the legend in the first round using an arm-lock submission.
Gerson has been teaching MMA since the age of 15, developing a student base and his own loyal following, which allowed him to open a school with one of his coaches in 2004. Gerson realized that, like many partnerships, the pairing had run its course, and decided to go a different direction on his own in 2006.
I have been very protective of the Revolution brand and its reputation.
What inspired you to start your business?
My own club was something I had considered since I was a teenager, but didn’t have all the necessary tools to pursue realistically until much later in my life. When I was studying for my LSAT’s, all my friends and every lawyer I knew told me I would be miserable and talked me out of continuing down that path. Since my lack of a background in sciences precluded me from becoming a marine biologist or a doctor, and an arts degree makes no promises of financial freedom, I quickly realized my real competitive advantage would be in developing my passion and my brand in a familiar industry. Back then I was spending so much time following MMA in my spare time, that it made sense to make my passion my business. I decided I wanted to be in control of my own marketing, branding, processes, and sales, but most importantly, my teaching philosophy and curriculum.
Where did your business’s seed capital come from and how did you go about getting it?
Seed capital for the first location came from savings and a small business loan which was paid off in full in six months. The funding for the second location came from revenue driven by the first location and the bank.
Tell us about your products/services.
Revolution MMA offers specialty classes for all levels, but offers classes especially tailored for beginners for fitness and self-defence for ages 3+ in the following: munchkin, junior and adults MMA, Muay Thai kickboxing, boxing, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Krav Maga, Combat Fitness, judo & wrestling, and other styles. We also sell training and MMA related fan gear (Tapout, Hayabusa, Bad Boy, etc.).
As my mother says, “When you enter a room, your name always enters before you.”
What makes your fitness facility unique?
The instructors are all at the top of their game and are engaging, enthusiastic, approachable, friendly and technically skilled. They know how to structure classes that make you sweat but also make you laugh so your workouts are effective, dynamic and efficient. The schedule of classes is perfectly balanced across the week. Aside from that, the facility itself is the nicest of its kind in the country, according to great feedback from professional fighters and industry leaders.
How did you build your current management team?
I don’t have a management team, but all my senior staff members were groomed from within, based on existing skill set and growth of the company.
How do you keep your staff motivated and engaged?
They have different drivers. Some look for recognition, others for responsibility, while some thrive off the energy and relationships they develop with their students. All in all, my staff knows they are part of something larger, and are lucky they have the opportunity in life to do what they love at a well respected, professional facility.
How did you brand your business and market it?
I was the first to market in my industry. Since day one I have been very protective of the Revolution brand and its reputation. As my mother says, “When you enter a room, your name always enters before you.” It’s very true about people but it’s equally fitting for companies. Everything I did related to print and web marketing was very carefully crafted with the idea of establishing a top tier, leading brand in a new industry. The marketing is also driven by my personality, so it is often a little edgier and comedic whenever possible, which helps promote the brand.
A business is like a chain on a bike—if you have one cog that is rusty or broken, the whole bike becomes grueling to ride at best, and inoperable at worst.
Could you give a brief description of your biggest success so far?
I signed the lease for the second location before I secured financing, assuming I would have no problem getting the okay from the bank based on my history with them. It ended up working out, but that was pretty risky, especially considering unbeknownst to me, they had changed their terms for lending money. After I had the loan, I was able to build the large space to my ideal specs and make it profitable quickly. I achieved this at the height of the recession in Canada, and many people thought I was crazy for even considering such a venture.
What other milestones can you share?
Both the Thornhill and Toronto locations have secured top level instruction from former UFC Champion Carlos “The Ronin” Newton. This is significant because while some clubs offer instruction from UFC fighters, those individuals are actively fighting and not able to focus on teaching and students, and typically travel outside of the country for training. Carlos was Canada’s first UFC Champion, and is the only fighter other than Georges St. Pierre to hold the belt on Canadian soil. He is considered MMA royalty and also happens to be an old training partner of mine. For regular people to get access to such an experienced veteran in their neighbourhood training facility is unheard of, and I’m quite proud to have him on board.
it made sense to make my passion my business
With the rise of MMA and UFC popularity in the mainstream, do you have plans to expand to new markets/products?
I am considering plans for a third location.
What are your goals as an entrepreneur?
To constantly outpace my competitors and be at the forefront of the industry.
What is your exit strategy?
I don’t know what I would do with myself if I wasn’t doing this. Right now, I’m still along for the ride. This could change however, if someone wants to pay me a lot of money to not do this, and fund my research of the world’s greatest beaches!
Do you have any other ventures you are working on?
I am 100 percent focused on my business but a fun fact is that I am also the match maker for The Ranik Ultimate Fighting Federation, which has the exclusive permit from the Chinese government to hold MMA events in China. They have the same license the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was trying to get (but didn’t). They are being sponsored by Nike and Ducatti, among other major companies in China.
Having the opportunity to positively influence and watch people build themselves up through tools you’ve established is very gratifying.
How do you define success?
To be able to do what you love to do everyday while being able to enjoy some of the finer things life has to offer. Doing some good along the way doesn’t hurt either.
To what do you most attribute your success?
Ambition driven by obsessive-compulsivity, fueled by a fear of failure and perfectionism. Also, I’ve been working at my craft since I was a kid, so I got my 10,000 hours in; that has inherent benefits.
What three pieces of advice would you give to others who want to become entrepreneurs?
Here are four:
- Trust but verify.
- Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you should make it a business. But if you are going to make a business out of something, make sure you’re passionate about it, because it will consume you night and day. Or at least it should, especially in the beginning.
- A business is like a chain on a bike—if you have one cog that is rusty or broken, the whole bike becomes grueling to ride at best, and inoperable at worst. Inspect each cog whenever you can, you’ll be surprised what you’ll find.
- If you do business with good people, you don’t need contracts. If you do business with bad people, no contract will protect you. But always, always get it in writing.
If you were to recommend a book or movie to a young entrepreneur, what would it be?
Maybe The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand, and possibly the 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, by Al Ries and Laura Ries. The important thing for young entrepreneurs is to keep reading/learning about the major players in their industry and find out what made them successful, so everyone’s reading list is different.
I quickly realized my real competitive advantage would be in developing my passion and my brand in a familiar industry.
How has being an entrepreneur affected your life?
There are a lot of benefits to being your own boss. I like being in complete control of my own destiny and being able to build something, whether it’s a class or a facility or a marketing campaign, to my own specifications. The quality of your life improves dramatically the second you don’t hate your boss or your job.
What is the best part of owing a business?
The pride of creating and also building something that people enjoy is very, very satisfying. In my case I have the opportunity to improve the quality of people’s lives dramatically. I’ve lost track of how many people have lost a hundred pounds or gained a huge boost to their self-confidence through self-defense and fitness training. I’ve had children train with me for over ten years. Having the opportunity to positively influence and watch people build themselves up through tools you’ve established is very gratifying.
If you had the chance to start over again, what would you do differently?
I always try to hire the best I can find for professional services. As a business owner you’re always looking for the most cost efficient way of getting something done. Sometimes you think you cut corners and you get someone to do something for very inexpensive. It’s usually a mistake and ends up costing you more in the long run. There are a few instances I think I should have avoided doing this.
All in all, my staff knows they are part of something larger, and are lucky they have the opportunity in life to do what they love at a well respected, professional facility.
A Heavyweight Champ in the Fitness Industry
In a world where anything goes, Joel Gerson has built a strong brand for Revolution by keeping true to his personality. Gerson’s passion for the sport and the many years of experience in the MMA industry has provided him the expertise that he needed to establish his business during the peak of the recession. There is a growing momentum for anything related to MMA and as the world gears up for the big UFC 129 main event in Toronto this weekend, the hype and fanfare should prove to be a winner for Revolution as the ever growing popularity of MMA reaches a fever pitch.
For information about all the classes and services offered by Revolution, check out their website.