A Business Built by Black Belts: One Couple’s Entrepreneurial Karate Journey
Kim Lachance Shandrow | February 24, 2017
Welcome to Becoming the Boss, our series celebrating small business owners who have made the transition from solo-entrepreneur to employer. Check back periodically for new installments.
Tara and Colin Van Deusen aren’t your typical husband-and-wife entrepreneurial team, and they don’t run your typical Main Street business. For them, an average “day at the office” means working barefoot, breaking a sweat, and even confronting physical pain — what they call the strength-building, “good kind” of pain.
Together, the Van Deusens own and run the Power of One Self-Defense Institute, a karate studio in Long Beach, Calif. They launched the company after falling head over heels for martial arts — and for each other — as a way to teach people of all ages and abilities how to defend themselves.
The busy couple, who are also raising three of their own budding martial artists — two young daughters and a young son — have empowered thousands of individuals in their urban seaside community through the teachings and techniques of Kenpo karate, jiu jitsu, kickboxing and a variety of other forms of self-defense.
We had a chance to ask Tara, known as “Mrs. V.” to her students, what it’s like to run a karate studio with “Mr. V.,” what they’ve learned over the years, how they’ve expanded their impact around the world, as well as what’s next for their labor of love:
What inspired you to start Power of One?
“Colin originally started out on his own, offering classes through Long Beach’s local parks and recreation program. He chose the name and created the logo for the Power of One in the summer of 1992, when he began teaching out of Gold’s Gym in downtown Long Beach.
He had returned from Australia where he was teaching a martial arts seminar and decided then that he wanted to follow his passion and teach full-time. He later quit his regular full-time job at General Electric and moved on to teaching out of multiple parks and rec centers throughout the city, until we met and opened up our headquarters on Long Beach Boulevard together in the summer of 1999.”
How did you come up with the name Power of One? What does it mean?
“The movie The Power of One had just come out in theaters and Colin liked the concept and title without even having watched the film. The Power of One is about the ability of one person to make a positive change for the better. Whether that is igniting others to join the common cause for a larger purpose or one person having the heart, mind and determination to change even their own life for the better.
Even the largest of waterfalls begins with just one drop of water.”
How did you both fall in love with karate — and with each other?
“I began training in the martial arts up in my native country of Canada as a young girl of four years of age after having watched the first Karate Kid movie. I told my mom I wanted to do karate in the movies, like the main character Daniel-san, so she enrolled me at the local recreation center’s karate and acting classes. As a young single parent, she also understood the importance of me knowing how to defend myself. She was very supportive, even though very few young ladies trained in those days.
Colin began his training back in his home state of Vermont, closer to 10 years of age, when his mother was looking for a way to encourage him to have better focus and discipline in school.
Our paths crossed many years later after both having found ourselves living in Southern California and attending a national martial arts competition that I was fighting in. At the time, my favorite and most meaningful book since the young age of 11 was The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay, and although Colin insists we had met before, I didn’t take notice of him until he invited me to his upcoming local Long Beach tournament, called “The Power of One World.” I attended only because of the name, of course, and he chased me down from that point on.”
What is your favorite part of being co-entrepreneurs and running your own business together?
“Being able to make a measurable difference in other people’s lives and sharing that with each other, and now with our kids, too. We are both fortunate to get to earn a living doing something we love. Taking business travel trips together is a definite advantage, too, along with the setting and achieving of goals as a team.”
What are the opportunities and challenges of operating your company as a couple, and how do you address them?
“Some of the biggest challenges are knowing how and when to turn off the work, and when to switch and focus on the family or other aspects of life. I would like to say that we have implemented a ‘no work talk’ policy at home, but it simply doesn’t work for us. Some of our best ‘ah-ha’ moments may be sitting on the sidelines watching one of our children’s soccer games or on a lazy Sunday afternoon. We are now both more perceptive and aware of each other’s mental place and respect when the other doesn’t want to talk business. We work diligently to create family memories and really appreciate those moments.
There is no business talk allowed in the bedroom, though. As our work hours finish later than 9 p.m., it would be easy to bring a work-related question or thought back home at night, but we’ve learned the hard way that it doesn’t help.
As for the opportunities, there is nothing better than being in control of your paycheck or time. If you want to make more, you simply find a way to work smarter or harder. Ultimately, creating the freedom to choose the times you work or don’t work in the end — in one word — it gives us CHOICES.”
When did you know it was time to make your first hire?
“It was time for our first hire well before we had the money to hire, so I took a second job in movie production and acting. We had a very talented martial artist friend who wanted out of his current job and we knew he had much to share with our students. I was still competing internationally at the time, which was still my first priority.
Essentially, I took a job during the day to help pay for our first hire’s payroll and then came back and assisted at the studio during classes at night. We were still caught up in our love for the martial arts in and of itself. That said, Colin and I hadn’t really learned that there had to be a business side in order for our company to be successful. Fast forward a few more years until there was a baby needing diapers and food, then we started taking it serious.”
How many employees do you now have in all, full- and part-time?
“Not including ourselves, we have seven full-time employees, and five part-time employees averaging 20 hours a week. All but one of them teach or assist in classes and kids’ camps, along with working the front office, and maintaining the upkeep of the studio and its current number of nearly 1,000 students. Some have additional responsibilities on the business side as well.”
“Being ‘the boss’ to us means having the power to make the decisions that will positively affect our future. It also carries with it the weight and responsibility of the success or lack thereof.”
What’s your number one tip for effectively managing employees?
“After much learning through trial and error, I would have to say a constant flow of effective communication and weekly staff development meetings have proven most effective for us.”
What does it mean to have created not only your own jobs but jobs for others in your community as well?
“It’s definitely empowering to know you have turned your passion into your vocation. As for creating jobs for others, that’s a big responsibility. When we first started our own business, if we didn’t make enough money to pay the bills that month, we would simply go win some karate championship’s grand prize money, teach a few extra private lessons or get a job on the side to help out all while eating ramen noodles a few extra days per week.
Once you start hiring employees, your responsibility is bigger than yourself and I think your motivation, too, becomes stronger. Add starting a family to that mix and your need to succeed grows exponentially.”
How do you mentor your employees?
“Throughout our weekly staff meetings we work to continuously expose them to new materials, concepts and seminars with other martial arts leaders to help them grow on and off the mats. When needed, we bring in professionals from other important areas in life, such as financial advisors, to help them find a better balance for all around happiness.”
“Although we have several business mentors and continually study business leaders from the present and past from a variety of industries, Mike Metzger from the Martial Arts Industry Association has provided one on one coaching for us that ultimately allowed us to systemize and open multiple business locations.”
When and why did you decide to license your business?
“We license as opposed to franchise our business. We decided to start licensing five years ago to create the opportunity for our instructors to earn more money while pursuing their passion. There is a lot to running a martial arts business, yet many instructors want to focus on the teaching instead of the marketing, branding, advertising and other business aspects. Licensing from us allows them to be better and more effective teachers.
We currently have four licensed California locations, in Long Beach, Carson and Lakewood, with two more coming soon.”
How do you weave giving back into your business, and how do you involve your employees in your social good mission?
“Due in large part to our goal of making a positive impact in the world, and showing others that they, too, can make a positive difference, we created a non-profit. We raise funds for it through a variety of annual events, such as martial arts tournaments, back to school picnics in the park and other initiatives, to raise money to help make that positive change.
From raising enough money to rebuild and add an addition to a school in the Solukhumbu region in Nepal that was destroyed by the earthquakes, to trekking in thousands of dollars of medical supplies to two remote regions in Nepal, to providing hundreds of school backpacks, school supplies and other important needs for our local schools here in Los Angeles County, we feel giving back is important.
Our students, parents and staff get to be a part of this in whatever small or large part of way they choose. More than 24 of our staff and students have accompanied us on our trips to Nepal, and many others participate in bringing needed items and supplies to our local community. It just feels good for all.”
What’s next for Power of One?
“While continuing to maintain a level of integrity, our goal is to continue to duplicate this successful formula by allowing current and future black belts to pursue their passion full-time. We will also continue to grow our brand through merchandising.”
What advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs?
“Surround yourself and gain as much experience as possible in the industry you are choosing to follow. Find a mentor who is where you want to be and ask them questions. What worked for them? What were some of their biggest mistakes or learning lessons? Have a clear vision of what exactly it is you want from the beginning and never lose sight of that vision, regardless of the trials and tribulations that may come.”