Running a Tai Chi Business in Portland, Oregon
by AJ Allen, senior teacher
History: In 1988, Patrik Donahue and I, A.J. Allen, moved to Portland Oregon and started a new branch of the Tai Chi Foundation. We have rented space from a variety of organizations and also taught through the local community centers and community college programs. Over the years, we have taught weekday evenings and weekend mornings, with occasional weekend intensives. Classes have ranged from basic Tai Chi introduction, Tai Chi Philosophy, Qi Gong, up to Push Hands 3. Class sizes have ranged from 5 to 40; some students have studied with us for 15-20 years. We have sponsored 3 apprentices, one of whom is still teaching with us; and 3 more are in the process of becoming apprentices. We have taught indoors during the cold/cool weather and outside during the late spring/summer seasons, usually taking a break during August. Students were encouraged to practice together during the break. August break is preceded by a 3-4 hour Tai Chi intensive and a School-wide picnic.
In the past two years, we have gained significantly more new students; and for that, we are grateful. Health care professionals and friends of current students are referring people. Also, our participation in some community organizations has spread the word about our classes: Sing Portland, Chinese brush painting classes, book and writing clubs, and Multnomah Chorus.
Over the years, we have mostly operated as a ‘mom & pop’ business, without going through many official hoops. The ‘climate’ has begun to change in Portland and we are adapting to those changes as best we can. Following are some of the issues that have arisen and how we are approaching them.
- Rental Space: Over the years, we have rented several spaces for our classes, mostly on a ‘handshake’ basis. We have signed rental contracts only with local community centers. Finding suitable, affordable, uncarpeted space has become a big challenge recently. For a few years, we taught in a dance studio; when we asked to renew our rental beginning in the Fall, we learned that the studio was being converted into a bar. So, we had to scramble to find new space. We started renting from a neighborhood church but their priorities so often displaced us that we eventually had to find yet another space. We now rent from a community center; however, the city of Portland has placed it on a list for possible closure. Because of increasing demand for rentals, organizations are tightening their criteria for renters. Some organizations will now rent only to nonprofits.
- Business Designation: It was important to decide whether we wanted to be officially recognized as a business. Some businesses simply use a DBA (Doing Business As).You can license a name (to make sure no one else can use that name), or use a single name to cover more than one activity. In our case, Diamond Essence Trainings is the umbrella for the Portland School of Tai Chi Chuan and Patrik’s Process Work practice.
- Type of Organization: We had to decide whether we wanted to be a nonprofit organization; and if so, whether we wanted to be certified only in our state or both state & federally. That decision was based on how big we expected the business to be and how much paper work we were willing to endure. Federal nonprofit reporting can be time consuming and expensive; however, it does allow people to make federally tax deductible contributions to your organization. State nonprofits in Oregon must have bylaws, pay an annual registration fee, and submit EOFY financial statements. We have gained state nonprofit certification.
- State Regulation: We find ourselves reluctantly investigating state laws/rules/regulations for businesses to determine any items we want or need to incorporate into our planning, including insurance and liability.
In our 30 years of operating the Portland School of Tai Chi Chuan, we have never had an injury or any other claim. We are now considering those possibilities. Even though we teach only one day a week, our insurance company charges all businesses the same rate.
- Relationship with the Tai Chi Foundation: Membership is, of course, necessary. It might be helpful to be designated as a certified teacher with the Foundation, especially if you are working with established organizations. Would that influence potential rentals in your community? We haven’t encountered that issue recently.
- Promotion: We continue to use flyers, posting only in locations near the teaching site and asking current students to post them locally. We hired a web designer who also updates our site as needed. www.taichiportland.com We pay a yearly fee to maintain our exclusive rights to the names Diamond Essence Trainings and Portland School of Tai Chi Chuan. We have considered whether to join local community organizations (Better Business Bureau, city forums, etc.) in order to inform/attract new students.
Other options include YELP, Facebook, and MeetUp groups and keeping all of those sites up-to-date. We use all of these options and ask all new students how they heard about us so we can informally monitor which methods are most helpful. We encourage current students to ‘like’ us on Facebook and Yelp. We also respond in a timely manner to inquiries about our school.
- Adjunct functions: Other ways to promote classes include providing free introductions to various groups in the community. Or making your organization available to conduct research, maybe with other local organizations, on the effects of Tai Chi on special groups. If so, what issues do you need to address to be eligible?
- Evaluation: We have considered doing student evaluations. When students drop out of classes, complete a 10-week session, or other circumstances, it would be helpful to learn what they learned, how they liked it, and to get feedback on their experiences. We haven’t done so, though some students have offered various reasons for leaving us.
Lessons Learned: Starting to teach Tai Chi in Portland in 1988 was very easy; we really didn’t consider any other alternative. After several years, we have been faced with a few unanticipated challenges: finding suitable rentals, deciding whether to become a nonprofit, attracting students in a growing competitive network of Tai Chi teachers. But we love to teach so it has been worth the occasional hassle.
We really don’t know if our lessons learned and approaches chosen resonate with other locations within the Tai Chi Foundation. We would appreciate hearing about the experiences of other sites.