By Hope Tinney, Washington SBDC
BELLINGHAM, Wash.— In Jeff Shaw’s previous work, he was fighting to save the planet. Now, as owner of Bellingham BJJ, a training academy for Brazilian jiu-jitsu, he’s helping students learn to fight for their own improved physical and mental health.
“It’s definitely as rewarding [as my previous work was],” said Shaw, a former deputy director of communications for the Sierra Club, who has been practicing jiu-jitsu since 2010. Creating Bellingham BJJ has been a passion project, Shaw said, something he felt compelled to do for his own physical and mental health. He said sharing it with others and seeing the business grow has been the most gratifying thing he’s ever done.
Known primarily as a self-defense martial art that also won the first three Ultimate Fighting Championships, jiu- jitsu attracts students for diverse and often overlapping reasons, Shaw said, including physical exercise, intellectual challenge, competitive fighting, and social connection. Whatever the varied reasons for embracing jiu- jitsu, the benefits are often similar, he said, including more strength, more endurance, more agility, better ability to concentrate and improved self- confidence.
Shaw, an Oregon native and longtime Bellingham resident, discovered jiu- jitsu while living and working in North Carolina. He and two friends signed up for a jiu-jitsu class on a lark. When it was over, his friends said, “Never again,” but Shaw was hooked. He earned his black belt at a training facility in Durham that is affiliated with Royce Gracie, a member of the family credited with creating Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Fast-forward to 2018 when Shaw’s wife, Betsy O’Donovan, was offered a faculty position at Western Washington University. Shaw was excited to return to the Pacific Northwest, but knew that if he wanted to continue training at a high level, he’d have to create his own classes.
Shaw calls himself an accidental business owner, but, with the help of the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at Western Washington University, what started out as a couple classes in someone else’s gym has turned into a thriving business.
Located in Bellingham’s downtown commercial district, the training academy is in its fifth year of operation, has eight instructors, more than 200 students, and regularly hosts guest appearances by luminaries in the sport. In late 2022, Shaw was able to quit his day job to focus on his business and advancing the sport of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Shaw and O’Donovan first reached out to Sherri Daymon, an SBDC business advisor in Bellingham, in early 2019. Shaw had been teaching at a mixed martial arts gym for about six months and enrollment in his classes had continued to climb. He wanted to open a space dedicated solely to jiu-jitsu.
The Washington SBDC is a network of nearly 40 business advisors and three international trade advisors who work in communities across the state to help entrepreneurs start, grow or buy/sell a business. SBDC advisors provide no-cost, confidential, one-on- one advising to small business owners and entrepreneurs at any stage of business development and in just about any industry.
At the time, he thought it would essentially be a break-even side hustle. He’d continue his communications work and teach a few classes. Student tuition would cover his facility costs—he hoped—and he’d be able to create a safe and supportive training environment for himself and the 15 to 20 students he expected to attract.
But, when he met with Daymon, she encouraged him to think bigger. According to the spreadsheet they created together, the business’s growth potential was significant, especially when they started looking at different revenue streams.
Even so, Shaw decided to start small with 1500 square feet of mat space in a former printshop. But, pretty quickly, he said, word began to spread and enrollment increased. Instead of teaching two or three days a week, he was teaching three to five days a week and he needed to bring in additional instructors.
Daymon credits Shaw’s “start small” approach with setting the stage for future success.
“Both Betsy and Jeff take a conservative approach – they understand it takes time to “scale up” and didn’t overestimate the number of members possible, right out of the gate,” she said. “They also know how to “boot strap it” and grow organically.”
Shaw was confident of his marketing and communications skills, but Daymon was his go-to resource for questions about how to grow and sustain his business, including everything from when to hire a CPA to how to manage employee benefits.
It was particularly important for Shaw to pay instructors as experts, rather than minimum-wage employees – a rarity in martial arts. Shaw said he was especially appreciative of Daymon’s financial analysis and business projections as Bellingham BJJ brought on two full-time employees and six part-time workers. The spreadsheet they created early in the early days of business planning has stood the test of time, he said, and he returns to it often to review the progress they’ve made.
Even so, the progress has not been linear. Like many businesses, their operations were disrupted by the pandemic.
“We went from ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ to shutting it all down,” Shaw said. “You couldn’t design an activity less suited for practicing during a pandemic. Everyone is absolutely in each other’s faces.”
Shaw paused operations even before the state-mandated business closures, but he was committed to keeping his employees on the payroll.
With Daymon’s help, Shaw was able to get a Working Washington grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce, which helped a great deal, and some other COVID- related disaster assistance.
fThey tried doing classes on Zoom, but that had its limits. Eventually, they started doing small classes outdoors, in masks, right on Holly Street.
Shaw figured it would go one of two ways—either people would give up on group activities and continue to isolate or there would be an incredible hunger for social connections and the demand for outlets like jiu-jitsu would grow stronger.
By early 2023 it was clear that both had happened. Some people were staying home, but jiu-jitsu was becoming more popular than ever. In March, Bellingham BJJ expanded its mat space to 3000 square feet. Now, Shaw’s school offers 60 hours of classes each week, has nine employees, and had to set up a waiting list for its monthly intro classes.
Shaw firmly believes that jiu-jitsu is for everyone and for every body. “The people who like it, love it, and can’t imagine doing anything else,” he said. The youngest student at his academy is 14 and the oldest is nearing 60.
“It’s not my job to tell people what their goals are; it’s my job to help people reach their goals,” he said.
In that way, he’s exactly like an SBDC advisor.
“Jeff and Betsy don’t wait for a crisis to reach out,” Daymon said. “Be it an idea, an opportunity, OR a challenge, they often send me an email to just check in. They see the SBDC as one of their thinking-partners to help them continually grow their business.”
As Shaw’s goals evolve, the SBDC at Western Washington University will continue to offer advising, education and research to help him reach those goals.
The Washington SBDC is operated through a cooperative agreement between Washington State University and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). The SBA funds about half the SBDC program and the other half is provided by state and local funding partners, including Washington State Department of Commerce, Washington State University, Western Washington University, other institutions of higher education, economic development agencies and business and civic groups.