When Matt Fiddes left school aged 16 and with no GCSEs his mother was horrified. “My mum was a lawyer and her family had all been to university so she wanted me to get a good education.” But instead the young martial arts enthusiast wanted to set up his own dojo (martial arts centre) and teach Taekwondo.
So in 1997 Fiddes rented a church hall in his native Barnstaple and began offering classes. “My age wasn’t a problem because I was already a second dan black belt and had been helping out in lessons since I was 11 years old.” Fiddes began to pick up customers and put on nights in neighbouring towns, but it “was never a serious moneyspinner”.
After a year of “surviving” on sales of a few hundred pounds a week, he decided to look further afield for inspiration. “In America, martial arts was a big business and the guys running it were multimillionaires.” Fiddes rang one of the leading martial arts centres in the US and was invited to visit. “I think they liked me because I was a youngster trying to start out.”
Fiddes flew out and took copious notes. “They did everything differently. They had detailed lesson plans, organised individual training programmes and even had scripts for how you should speak to customers.”
An excited Fiddes flew back to Barnstaple ready to implement the new techniques. “For the most part it was a big success. More attention to detail meant that I retained customers and started building up class numbers.” Soon his firm, Matt Fiddes Martial Arts, was earning “around £2,000 a week”.
His rapid success story caught the attention of the press. “I used to be bullied at school and the papers loved the fact that I’d become a successful martial arts entrepreneur just a few years after leaving.” Then, out of the blue, Fiddes was contacted by the self-proclaimed psychic Uri Geller. “He wanted us to combine our mental and physical strengths to make a new type of fitness video.”
That video raised Fiddes’s profile and helped his school expand. Another PR boost came when Geller asked Fiddes to act as a bodyguard for close friend Michael Jackson. “I helped look after him when he came to the UK.” Jackson also gave Fiddes some useful business advice. “At the time my business was just based in north Devon, but Michael told me that I should build a national or even international firm.”
Fiddes decided to expand the school to neighbouring Somerset. By 2001, business was booming, but “there were more opportunities than I could handle on my own”. So he created a franchise model to allow other instructors to set up under the Matt Fiddes Martial Arts umbrella. “I offered them training and support in exchange for an upfront free and a percentage of their turnover.”
Fiddes also developed a range of products for franchisees, such as women-only training programmes and child classes. “I targeted gyms because they already had the facilities and my schools were a way for them to make more money.” Fiddes also teamed up with celebrities to raise his profile.
By 2010, with hundreds of UK franchisees, he felt ready to launch in Germany and Australia. Over the last few years annual sales have peaked at £7m. Fiddes, 33, remains confident. He is planning a big TV advertising campaign – “that would really take us to the next level”.