“A black belt is a white belt that never gave up,” says Wael Al Sayegh, founder of the Family Martial Arts UAE Leadership Academy (FMA), a franchise unit of the Liverpool- based institution of the same name, a concept that offers martial arts, fitness and self-defense programs alongside life and leadership skills training, developed by British martial artist Ivan Rolls. The UAE branch of the Academy, covering 5,000 square feet, is today located at the Gold and Diamond Park in Dubai. It is a larger space that they moved into last year to fit in more than 200 students, from three-year-olds to adults, who are currently enrolled in the program, which has five classes daily for six days a week.
Five years after opening the academy in Dubai, the mixed martial artist explains that there are many lessons that entrepreneurs can learn from the world of sport. “At times, when I really feel out of my depth, like when I was told that we needed to pay extra service charges to the landlord in full, which was just after we had signed a contract using every penny we had dedicated to our rent, I remember that every Richard Branson started small. They were all white belts in business before they became black belts. This helped me push through the challenge, and I now have the wisdom of hindsight in my favor, when it comes to all things service charge related.”
Al Sayegh studied at the University of Glasgow, obtaining a master of arts degree and a diploma in insurance, before returning to Dubai to enter the corporate world. After a few years of holding reinsurance and banking posts in Bahrain and the UAE, he decided to follow a path that he believed would enrich him from within. In 2010, he enrolled in a black belt training course with Geoff Thompson, a writer, teacher, and selfdefense instructor, which was where he also met Rolls. Impressed with FMA’s concept and structure, he signed up for the franchise package and brought the brand to Dubai.
“Our USP is found in our unique combination and blend of life leadership skills, martial arts, fitness and selfdefense training,” Al Sayegh explains. “This makes us very different from most other schools which mainly focus on the physical development of their students only. We take the personal development of the student as seriously as the physical development. As such, we look and treat the student as a whole and not just a part. The skills they learn with us as they journey deeper into our syllabus are transferable to other things off the mat. This makes us a very good return on investment.”
Looking back at his enterprise’s origin story, Al Sayegh notes securing startup funding as being the biggest obstacle. With not enough personal money to be ploughed into the project -for the FMA franchise license fee and the rent for a venue- Al Sayegh approached the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development, and won a grant that helped him get the business off the ground. The Mohammed Bin Rashid Establishment for Young Business Leaders also supported the new venture by allowing a discounted license issuing fee for the first three years of operation. “The UAE government opened the door for me; it was my job to walk through it and keep going,” Al Sayegh says.
“It was a challenge I accepted gladly, and am forever grateful for. The other major obstacle was my lack of knowledge about the process of opening and operating a martial arts academy according to the UAE law. It was overcome by me going into various government departments and asking them where to start. I got sent to many places, but eventually I figured out the pattern, and learnt what was needed to get all the approvals from the ministries, various government authorities, and sports federations and councils. I am now often asked by those who are starting up a business where they need to begin. I smile, look them in the eye, and say, ‘First, you begin with breathing.’”
And to his credit, Al Sayegh’s persistence paid off. The business growth FMA has been enjoying has urged him to consider changing the company’s legal status from a sole proprietorship, in which he owns 100%, to an LLC and find creative ways to fund further development. Al Sayegh made use of Dubai-based peer-to-peer lending platform Beehive, to fund FMA’s operational expansion. Applying for a loan on two occasions, FMA raised a total sum of nearly AED300,000 with a 24-month tenor, in each of the cases, using Beehive’s 14- day reverse auction system and attracting 45 and 61 investors respectively. As per an emailed statement from Beehive, the first raise was used to expand into new, bigger teaching premises, while the second was used to fund the purchase of new stock items and to contribute towards paying off some of the outstanding costs of the fit-out of their new premises.
Al Sayegh admits, however, that successfully surviving the most hazardous first five years in business reminds him of another important sport lesson: “Black belt is just the beginning.” He adds, “When I first opened the business, I was very excited, I worked hard for many years, and saw the business grow from two to more than 200 students in a few years. Then one day it dawned on me that I had accomplished what I had set out to do. Now what? This was when this lesson really helped me. At the end of the day, a black bet is just a belt around your waist, it holds no magic power over you or others. Only the work that has been put into it has the influence to do that, in other words you are a black belt with or without the belt. The same holds true for starting a business. When you first start off, it is all about ‘accomplishing’ the goal. Then when the goal is accomplished, it is all about truly ‘becoming’ or ‘being’ something beyond the accomplishment of the business actually being there."
"This is where you really begin. Many athletes get their black belt and stop training. It has statistically the highest dropout rate on a person’s martial arts journey. Getting a black belt is all people dream about and desire when they train as non-black belts, just like folks dream about opening their business and working for themselves in a field that nourishes their soul. But once you get there, you understand that despite what people may think, you now know more than ever before that the accomplishment is not going to ensure that you are in business next year. You need to go beyond that accomplishment. You now know the magnitude of what you don’t know. Others may call you an expert but the truth of the matter is that you know that you are just a few steps ahead. Your journey has really just begun.”
Al Sayegh quotes Scott Sonnon - a martial arts expert who was amongst the six most influential martial artists in the 21st century by Black Belt Magazine and named one of the top 25 fitness trainers in the world by Men’s Fitness Magazine – to explain his approach to scaling up the business. “Sonnon once said, ‘The best you can hope for in competition is the worst performance you can deliver in class. We do not rise to the occasion but rather fall to the base level of our training.’ This means my base level, my worse performance on the mat must be good enough to get the job done, even by an inch,” he says. “I hold the same philosophy with our business systems. They must be robust enough to withstand any challenge they may face, and if they are not, then we must see what needs to be changed, added, taken away, simplified or made more complex to rectify it.”
In line with that, the last sport lesson Al Sayegh would advise entrepreneurs to learn from is a principle found in many grappling martial arts styles, such as judo, Brazilian jiu jitsu, and various wrestling styles: “Position before submission.” He explains, “Before you find finishes in grappling, you must first set them up properly with your position. This will better secure a finish. But if you just seek to finish and do not secure your position first, the chances of your opponent or opportunity escaping are high. In business terms, this lesson has always helped me to think of setting up proper business structures and systems before going out and engaging with the client."
"I know we can go straight to the front line and just go for it as we clearly see an opening or an opportunity for growth. However, doing so with proper systems put in place means that we can be more secure in what we do and be better positioned to enjoy a good result in our favor. We have produced many business systems from this very principle. Some of these systems have now been passed back to the franchisor and added to the processes for other franchisees to use.”
An insider view of how athletes approach starting and scaling up a business would be incomplete without asking Al Sayegh whether fair play is as applicable in business as it is in sports. “It all depends on what is meant by play and what is meant by fair,” he responds. “All is fair in love and war. What I do in business or sport is not a play for me. Others may see that on the surface of things, but to me it is a deeper expression of my higher self, it is my being. But if you are going to call it a play, then call it a serious play. As for fair, all I can say is that as long as integrity and respect are upheld then it is all good. In life, we are not given equal skills or abilities, but we are each given an opportunity to use and develop the skill and ability we have, no matter how small it is, to the highest level we can and given the resources we have. If someone else has worked harder and smarter at developing their skill and ability than me, then all fair play to them. The same is true for business. If a business has outperformed my own, then I want to know how they did that. What did they do differently from me? I would go up to them and ask them for guidance, so I can do the same for me and my team.”
Going forward, the business is expected to reap monetary rewards that are just as important as sport trophies. Finding this balance between being commercial and staying true to his vision as an athlete, Al Sayegh says, was a process with lots of trial and error. “After years of this, I came to the realization that the two could not be balanced because they were in fact one and the same,” he says. “If you are a successful athlete but are commercially poor as a business, you are not truly a success. On the other hand, if you are commercially successful but a poor athlete, then this is also not a success. The goal, for me at least, was to find a way to be both commercially successful as a business leader and successful as an athlete, at the same time.”
As for combining a passion for sport with one’s business acumen, Al Sayegh has the following guidelines for those who wish to follow in his footsteps: “Don’t let the love of the sport or activity you do cloud your strategic business objectives. For your business to grow you need to be as passionate about developing your business systems and team members as you are about doing your sport. You are no longer just an athlete. You are now a leader to others. Take this role seriously and responsibly, as it comes with a price.”
Wael Al Sayegh lists his three do’s and don’ts for small businesses.
“Do keep your vision for the business clear and updated. Without this you are just a social training club -with all due respect- and not a serious business. If that is what your vision is, then great. If not, then make sure you always keep the vision updated, clear and share it with your team. They need to know where they are being lead to and how their role fits into the bigger picture.”
“Do empower your team to ask questions that challenge the status quo and help better reach the business vision. You may be an accomplished athlete in an individual sport, but business is a team sport and you need to keep that in mind and make strategic decisions based on that.”
“Do learn how to become a better manager and leader. It is essential that you pick up these skills and continue to develop them consistently.”
“Don’t let the business systems development take you away from the sport or activity you love no matter how busy, successful or challenging things get. You’re an athlete at the core, or should be, who placed himself or herself in a position of leadership. Stay true to your art and your journey, but lead those who have trusted you enough to follow your path.”
“Don’t forget to enjoy the journey. You are walking a path many people fear of even dreaming about, and here you are living that dream. Try and get into a habit of dedicating a few minutes of each day to be grateful for what you have in terms of investors, team members, clients, health and fitness.”
“Whatever you do, don’t give up, but change, adapt, alter or delay, close down and reopen if you have to, but don’t stop. The world needs you to succeed and all you need to do is to continue believing in yourself and to continue developing the skills that are needed for you to keep on growing both as an athlete and a business leader.”
Related: Using Sports As A Force For Good