Written by: Jason Daley
Ed Samane is a trim, compact 43-year-old, with the ropy muscles and physical ease of a lifelong athlete. He looks like the type of metabolically gifted man who has never had to worry about what he puts in his mouth. But that's the furthest thing from the truth.
At age 11, Samane weighed in at 215 pounds, putting him squarely in the morbidly obese category. "Because I was overweight, I had low self-esteem," he says. "And I was bullied a lot in school, beaten up or picked on two or three times a week."
Desperate to change his body and stop the taunting, Samane attended martial arts classes, dedicating himself to a Korean form of karate. Six months later, the bullying was over--not because he unleashed the dragon on his tormentors, but because of his change in attitude. "My self-esteem and confidence had shot up," says Samane, who dropped 40 pounds and eventually earned his black belt. "I stood up to the people bullying me, and then they left me alone."
That experience shaped Samane's Pro Martial Arts franchise. Sure, his instructors teach kids how to kick butt, but all that takes a back seat to developing character and learning how to prevent and peacefully handle bullying. "Our goal is not to produce a karate champion," he says. "It's to produce a solid black belt who's a good citizen and productive in other areas of life."
Since Pro Martial Arts began franchising in 2008, Samane has opened 13 units in five states, with 30 more in development. For 2012, he hopes to sell 60 more. We pulled Samane out of the dojo to find out how he smacks down the competition.
What problems did you anticipate for martial arts franchises?
The biggest weakness in the martial arts industry that I saw was owners wearing two hats: They had to be a karate instructor and a businessperson. The other problem is that martial arts styles are like religion. Once you have it, you're not going to change it. No one has been able to unify around a national franchise, because everyone thinks the way their master taught them is the best. But my business owners don't care about style. That's secondary to what we're trying to do, which is help youth.
I think that's why we're getting so much traction at this point. Because the businesspeople get that, and the karate people don't get that. My approach was: This is franchising. Karate's got to fit franchising, not vice versa.
Are your franchisees all black belts?
Some have martial arts experience, but the vast majority of the ones we're getting now don't. We hire martial arts experts for them, and they oversee what's going on. Franchisees can be semi-absentee; they don't need to work on the business 40 hours a week. They can still keep their job and do it 20 or 15 hours a week. All of them have a passion to influence kids and develop character, and a strong drive to stop bullying and prevent predators.
What type of bullying-prevention classes do you offer?
We do an hour twice a month for our students on basic bullying and predator prevention. It's broken down by age: 9 and younger and 10 and older. Then, once a month, we have a parents' workshop. We also ask that our franchisees offer two hours a month of seminars free to the community. It's our way of giving back. In fact, our franchisee in Colorado is tied in with the district attorney there; they're presenting to thousands of youths every year. What we're doing is taking that franchisee's program on bullying and we're retooling and rebranding it so that we can launch it nationwide into all our schools.
Do you address cyber-bullying?
Fifty percent of our predator-prevention program is focused on cyber-bullying. Our franchisee in Colorado became interested in this when he checked his daughter's cell phone to see who she was talking to. He found out she was talking to two or three predators in chat rooms pretending to be kids. Can you imagine that? It was like a bomb dropping on his life. That's what we want to stop. That's what our mission is.
This article was originally published in the April 2012 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Making Sure the Kids Are All Right.