Symbiosis — A Successful Business Model

Do you know how lichens function? I love lichens. They are a composite organism. A perfect symbiosis of two companion organisms, usually an algae and a fungus. The fungus grows tough, fibrous filaments and provides the algae with structure, anchoring, protection and it also draws moisture for the algae from the environment. The algae in turn produces food for the fungus through the process of photosynthesis. Lichens are very prolific, very hardy and are extremely long-lived.

There is strength in symbiosis.

As a martial artist, I like to observe nature and learn important lessons about survival from the way organisms have evolved to make the best use of their environment. I am not unusual in this regard. Martial artists throughout history have observed nature in order to develop better strategies for survival in combat. Our great animal and nature forms have evolved from this observation. Forms like Tiger, Crane, Leopard and Monkey have all been derived from the movements and tactics employed by the respective animals.

Am I about to embark on a description of lichen form? It would be very slow-moving indeed. A Tai Chi form would be over long before the opening move of lichen form was completed.

No, I’m not going to describe lichen form but I will describe how lichens have influenced our current martial arts school business model.

I have been engaged in a regular, daily training program for a few decades now but when we started teaching martial arts 11 years ago, our training became even more critical for us. I have always believed that you can’t teach something unless you are fully committed to practising it (incidentally, I also do not believe in requiring my students to do anything that I am not prepared to do personally).

So we ramped our personal training up several notches when we started teaching. It was always my belief that the quality of teaching that we were providing for our students was directly proportional to the quality of training that we were engaged in personally. Our training provides anchorage, support, substance and power to our teaching while our teaching provides additional stimulation and relevance to our personal training as we encounter new people with new needs and try to find new ways of describing the subtle disciplines of traditional Wushu to a changing audience.

Does this approach sound familiar? It could be likened to a lichen. A symbiosis in which our training and our teaching form a cooperative partnership. This symbiotic model has provided us with the kind of durability as an organisation which has given us the strength to survive through some very adverse times. We have survived because the school is built on our personal training. While we are training, the school will survive. We’ve survived through times which would most likely have been the death-knell for most other businesses and business models.

Just recently, we decided to expand our business and our school because we noticed a growing need for our services in the area. Of course, as our business expands, our business model has to change to suit this expansion. When we were first considering expansion, I was concerned about losing the quality, integrity and accessibility of the traditional martial arts school that we have built with hard work, sweat, blood and tears.

But of course, in order to support the plans that we have for enrichment of the services that we offer and expansion into new markets, something would have to change. I was concerned about having to turn students away because they couldn’t afford the fee increases that would be necessary to support expansion. The last thing I ever want to be found guilty of is stopping a good, committed, humble and respectful student who genuinely wants to learn traditional Wushu, just because they can’t afford to pay the fees.

The Symbiotic Business Model came to our rescue once again.

We decided that, apart from natural growth, nothing about our traditional school would change at all. The fee structure would remain as accessible and transparent as it always has been and the traditional school would continue to function as a traditional family-based system. Instead of ‘muddying the waters’ of the traditional school with commercial concerns, we instead instituted a ‘commercial arm’.

The commercial arm of our organisation is a series of diverse initiatives like corporate health and wellness courses, school programs and community outreach projects. The commercial arm and the traditional arm of our organisation are like separate organisms that have formed a symbiotic relationship with each other. The commercial arm relies on the traditional school to provide it with stability, support, substance and power while the traditional arm relies on the income generated by the commercial arm to support its continued growth and enable us to keep the tuition costs reasonable for traditional students.

Instituting the commercial arm of our organisation was a brave, new step for us but our approach is based on a tried and tested model that has helped us to weather some of the worst storms that life could throw at us. It is our hope that the Symbiotic Business Model will enable the school and the system to survive and thrive for centuries in Australia. Much like the hardy, long-lived lichen.

Written by Lester Walters, head of the Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia