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3 Savvy Strategies That Helped This Small Jiu Jitsu Gym Survive the Pandemic

Thousands of small businesses shut down during COVID-19, but Unicorn Jiu Jitsu wasn’t one of them.

The small self-defense gym in Portland, Oregon, launched about two years ago, and yet somehow, they managed to survive the pandemic despite state-mandated lockdowns that lasted months on end.

How did they do it? Foray Business Group sat down to chat with Hillary and Brian VanOrnum, founders of Unicorn Jiu Jitsu, to find out their secret.

Turns out the VanOrnums’ strategies weren’t so secret after all—but that doesn’t make them any less powerful.

Small-business owners can learn 3 powerful lessons from how Unicorn Jiu Jitsu navigated the pandemic, and it all revolves around relationships. (Keep reading to the end of the post to get a bonus tip, too!)

1. Cultivate a brand culture that attracts the right customers.

From the very beginning, Hillary and Brian were purposeful in the culture they created at Unicorn Jiu Jitsu, starting with the name!

They knew they didn’t want to be another “bro gym.” Instead, they wanted to create an inclusive atmosphere where women—and everyone, really—felt welcomed.

At first, they hesitated to include “Unicorn” in their business name, but a marketing strategist they spoke to said they should keep it.

“We didn’t want to turn anybody off,” Brian said, “But they said, ‘No, stick with Unicorn because you’re going to weed out the majority of the people you don’t want in there to begin with.’”

The VanOrnums took it a step further by setting small things in place that made women feel included. For instance, their bathrooms are gender-neutral, smell nice, and have female products like hair ties, deodorant, and makeup remover—things regular gyms might not think to include.

And at while it’s typically the man who’s the black belt and main instructor, Unicorn Jiu Jitsu is different. Hillary has been a black belt for about six years while Brian is set to get his soon. When women see that Hillary is the head coach, they feel drawn to the gym.

Whatever industry your business is in, be intentional about what kind of clients you want to attract. The more your customers feel at home in your business, the more loyal they will be during the hard times.

2. Listen to what your customers want.

When the pandemic forced most businesses to close their physical locations, Hillary and Brian were concerned about their gym.

But instead of forging ahead with their own plans and strategies, they took time to listen to their customers and see what they wanted.

As it turned out, many of their customers wanted virtual classes. And although it’s difficult—if not nearly impossible—to do virtual jiu jitsu classes because it’s such a close-contact sport, the VanOrnums did host daily workout classes over Zoom.

That simple step made their customers feel heard and valued.

When restrictions or economic downturns hit, turn to your customers and ask: How can I serve you better? What changes would you like to see happen?

3. Build real relationships with your customers.

In addition to the daily virtual classes, Unicorn Jiu Jitsu hosted a weekly “Zoom Happy Hour.”

Each Friday after their virtual workout, the VanOrnums extended the Zoom session for anyone who wanted to stay online and chat.

“We just stayed on the Zoom call, and everybody went and grabbed their appetizers and their drinks,” Brian says. “This was early on, when no one could go out anywhere, even to grocery stores. We had a lot of folks who either lived by themselves or just with their partner, so this was their social outlet.”

During those weekly happy hours, members laughed, swapped stories, and gave each other virtual tours of their homes. It was a time to bond with one another even though they couldn’t gather physically.

Think: How can you incorporate a social element into your business? How can you build relationships with your customers that can’t be easily replaced?

Bonus Tip: Stay connected with other business owners in your niche.

While Brian and Hillary worked hard to stay close with their customers, they also kept in close contact with other gym owners. And since Unicorn Jiu Jitsu is part of an affiliation called One Jiu Jitsu USA, it was fairly easy.

“I reached out to friends across the country in different places to see what they were doing,” Hillary says. “We had Zoom meetings with our head coaches and said, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing?’ We shared ideas, and they shared ideas, too.”

This doesn’t mean you have to talk with your direct competition if that doesn’t work for you. But at the very least, form relationships with people who run businesses similar to yours. Chances are, when tough times come, they’ll have some great ideas to share with you and vice versa.

What other advice have you found helpful for staying afloat during the pandemic? Share your tips in the comments below!

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