As part of our recent video project with select Bank of the West Merchant Services customers, we met Tony Thompson, who has a surprising story of business success as cofounder of West Coast Martial Arts.
His business was started in 1977 with a handshake, he says. He and cofounder Ernie Reyes were training partners in martial arts before they started the school together that year. Headquartered in Campbell, California, the business has since expanded to eight states and trained countless students.
Tony’s story is a fantastic example of how passion may help build a durable enterprise, as you’ll see in the Q&A below, followed by our video that explores his use of payment processing.
Q: You started your business right after college. What inspired you and kept you going during the early years?
A: Ernie and I love the sport. Basically, that was it. We competed together; and we figured if we want to keep doing this, we’ve got to figure out how to cover our expenses. We used to travel the national circuit, and that can be expensive. So we were basically covering our expenses by opening up a martial arts school. It was a way to live our dream, absolutely.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in your long-running business?
Responsibilities. At first it was just fun, going out and competing. And then we got a little bit ahead and had employees, and we knew we had to take care of them. We also wanted the martial arts to grow. Our basic foundation was if we could improve somebody’s life through martial arts, then we have to keep going.
Your business has seen big geographic expansion. How did you plan for and handle the growth?
When we first started, we did not plan big enough. We just thought it was going to be a Bay Area thing. But then our team began doing demonstrations in Hollywood, and my partner’s son, Ernie Reyes Jr., ended up doing a film with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Then the business just started growing.
So Hollywood had a part in your growth?
Yes. We already had some national exposure since Ernie and I had competed on the circuit. But we had some forethought as Ernie’s son started appearing in films and other shows. Every time he did a film, it was like a great advertising campaign for us. We sent our team to do demonstrations outside the theaters, and interest grew from there. Whatever it took!
What tips would you give to somebody who just starting a small business?
You need a plan. I think we made a mistake in not making a plan from the start. We just went by the seat of our pants, and you can’t do that anymore.
You also should get to know people. Yes, social networks are a big thing today, but I believe in seeing people face to face, not on the computer. When you go out and meet people – even if you are just talking with somebody at the bank – you get a lot more out of it than if you are interacting by computer. That can help you.
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