How Did Super Kicks Get Started?

In After School, Personal Stories, Summer Camp by Don Alley

Everywhere on Facebook for the last week, I have seen people bashing 2016, and cursing the entire year. I will admit, we lost some pretty amazing artists during the last 365 days, and have had our ups and downs. However, if you look back, I would also imagine that we have all had some pretty special memories, and some pretty incredible moments with the people we love. So, it couldn’t be all that bad, right? 🙂

And so as I reflect on 2016, I can’t help but reminisce and contemplate how I got here. How WE got here. How Super Kicks in Ashburn went from an idea, to the number one school in the area. And since many of our current students and families in Ashburn don’t know how it all started, and what had to be done to create it, I thought I’d share a brief history of the beginnings of the martial arts school that has captivated me for the last 28 years.

I had been teaching martial arts in Lynchburg, VA since I was 15 years old, so at 30, I decided it was time for a change. Born and raised there, I always yearned for the opportunity to move away and start fresh.

I was also excited about the idea of starting from scratch. When I started teaching at 15, I simply took over from my instructor, Grand Master Arthur. I ran all of his classes, and helped him grow his school. Even when I became an owner at 22, I bought an existing location, the one I had been running. So moving to Ashburn was not only a chance to start fresh, but start completely from nothing. What would it be like to waltz into a town where no one knows you? How do I secure a good location? How do I even FIND OUT where a good location is? In Lynchburg, I felt like I had the home court advantage…I knew everyone, and everyone knew me. When we wanted to get into the elementary schools to teach classes, I went to my old teachers and they let me do whatever I wanted. Thirty years of relationships paid off…would it work in a different city? I had to believe it would.

Houses. Houses upon houses, separated by shopping centers and parkways. And townhouses. And water. They sure do like their water. Ponds and manmade lakes, everywhere.

Welcome to Ashburn. Located in the richest county in the United States, with 31% of the population ages 5-18 years old, and homes stacked on top of each other circling a shopping center. I did my homework. The perfect place to start a karate school, with massive amounts of kids and families! The only problem was, I was not the first to realize this. Every other shopping center in the area had a karate or martial arts school…so I had to improvise. And I did what any rational person would do when told they couldn’t move into a retail space.

I opened in a hotel ballroom.

We started in The Hilton Garden Inn for the first month. I can still remember the general manager, watching me inquisitively, bringing families in through the front, and walking them back to our ballroom. They’d walk in slightly skeptical of the karate man they met at the gas station, who had invited them to a free lesson at a hotel. And then they would leave with a smile, a new karate uniform, and a 6 month commitment to my program. Well, not everyone of course. But about 50% of all of my  “intros” did. I would sit at the bar in the lobby at night and write thank you notes, good job notes, and send text messages to all of my new students. My girlfriend (now wife 🙂 ) hadn’t yet moved up, so I would usually eat dinner there by myself, and then head home. My first month, I enrolled 22 new members. Not a bad start for not knowing anyone, and teaching out of a hotel. Pretty sure my website wasn’t even done yet. And then, something terrible happened…

The Redskins came back to town.

It was August, time to train preseason, and those animals needed the entire ballroom area just for their meals. So my humble little karate school that was meeting inside of a hotel, was being pushed out by a team of overgrown men with insatiable appetites, and there was nothing I could do. I argued with the hotel, I pleaded, but it was useless. They paid more than I did. And it was, after all, the Redskins.

Luckily, the Hilton also had a relationship with The Embassy Suites, and they were able to switch me to a new hotel, just one mile down the road. Looking back, this was a WONDERFUL switch because there was so much more room, The Embassy had a FREE happy hour (awesome), and they also had an indoor waterfall. It was great.

Meanwhile, I was busy scouting for a permanent location, and found our current shopping center. Originally, my goal was to put us in Loudoun Stations, since I was also living there at the time. It was an up and coming storefront, with a movie theater on the way, and lots of other businesses. Plus, the best part, my commute each day would be a long, laborious elevator ride to the 1st floor. First world problems, right?

Unfortunately (or fortunately), the rent was more than I was interested in paying, and they wouldn’t back down. So when a local tae kwon do school closed its doors in Ashburn Farm, I was able to step right in. The buildout happened fast, and four months after walking into Ashburn unannounced, with no friends or familiar faces, I proudly took my 80 students from the hotel and moved them into a brand new karate school. It was a fantastic feeling.

class-in-new-studio

The new location was small, but I knew we could make it work. I remember teaching classes there on the first day. I remember the first family I enrolled from the hotel congratulating me. I remember packing the place out and having students on the floor like sardines. (Sorry everyone.) I have so many special memories from that small location, so many friends that I’ve made that have stayed training over the past four years. I could write continuously about one experience after another, one wonderful family after another…all I can do now is simply smile and feel amazingly grateful.

And then the rest is bliss, right? Kinda 😉

Fast forward two years from that opening, and I jumped on the fence to determine whether or not to open an after school program in the shopping center. Originally I said I wouldn’t have an after school program, but as a businessman, I grew tired of taking phone calls from people asking about my non-existent service. But I also didn’t want to change the culture of training that we had established in the karate school. Good, strong martial arts. “No babysitting!” was one ad copy that I wrote. After much consideration, I decided that another suite in the shopping center would be the best option, to give those students their own space, and keep the martial arts training floor separate and special. I bought three, 15 passenger vans, eventually had to buy a bus, hired a director, more staff, and vuola!! Super Kicks had an after school program. In one paragraph, I just quickly detailed (and trivialized) six months of really hard work…The stress of new staff. Risking capital for a new venture. Five years of lease debt that had to be paid whether or not the business was successful.  But it was worth it. after-school-van

Obviously there was a business component, but it also dawned on me as I was creating the service that by offering an after school training program, I would be able to teach and reach students who, otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to help. Working parents, commuting parents, so many had the need for an after school program so they could work. The prospect of getting home at 6pm, fixing dinner, and THEN coming back out for a martial arts class at 7:30pm didn’t appeal to everyone. So I was very excited to create the service that we now have. I am 100% sure that I have students now who would have never been able to enroll in our evening-only martial arts classes.

And then immediately, because I apparently have some sort of compulsion that can only be appeased with opening things, once the after school program was complete and operational, I began asking the question, What else can I create or open that would serve the community? What other interests do I have, what other passions do I have, that I could turn into a dynamite program? I felt like the karate guys had the market cornered on after school, right after the licensed preschool and child care academies. But as I looked around, I found nothing that I really liked that catered to performing arts, and music and theater, some of my favorite pastimes. So, armed with confidence from a successful opening (as well as the confidence from helping my wife open her pet sitting and dog walking business Wags and Walks), I began brainstorming what would become the best and most exciting Montessori based preschool in Ashburn, VACenter Stage Preschool & Child Care.

I opened my journal on August 14, 2014 to write down my first thoughts on what Center Stage would look like and become, and on August 29, 2016, two years later, we opened our doors to welcome our first 37 students for preschool. Again, one paragraph to encapsulate two years of HARD work…but it has been one of the most exciting times, and difficult times, of my life. And I would do it all over again.

And so now, four and a half years later, as I ponder life and work, Super Kicks Karate in Ashburn is run by an amazing team of instructors, dedicated to creating disciplined, respectful, high-talented black belts, that are committed to being leaders in the community. We have an after school program that serves working families, and is run by a team of counselors that are passionate about children. We run an amazing summer camp program that allows many families to see how their child/ren will like us, and it leads directly into our after school program.  And now a preschool, that is making such a lasting difference in our community. The children at Center Stage preschool are taught the importance of being respectful of other cultures, and they are introduced to exploring their creativity through the arts. It is one of the most amazing programs I have seen, and had the pleasure to be a part of.

And now, what does the future hold for Super Kicks Karate in 2017?!

CANI. Constant, And Never-ending Improvement. Happy, but not satisfied.

We want to grow. We want to serve our clients at a higher level. We want to continue to earn the respect and trust of our students and families. We want to improve our communication. Our reach. Our influence. I want us as a company to live up to this idea: That we make a positive and lasting difference in every human being that we connect with, and with every business deal we make.

incredible-2017

Don Alley
Don Alley is the owner and chief instructor at Super Kicks Karate in Ashburn and Leesburg, and has been training in the martial arts for 28 years. He is currently a 6th degree black belt, and has dedicated the entirety of his adult life to teaching children and families martial arts. He is also the owner of Center Stage Preschool, a Montessori-based, performing arts preschool; and co-founder of Testudo Addiction Recovery, a non-profit organization serving families in the Northern Virginia area.