Sean Spangler is a competitor any which way you look at it. Whether it’s athletics, real estate, or starting his own martial arts business, Spangler thrives in an action-packed environment. The former wrestler and Las Vegas real estate agent is now the founder and owner of Spangler Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Academy, a martial arts school in Cary, North Carolina. How did somebody like that end up owning a martial arts school in small-town North Carolina? Well…

Discovering Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Spangler started wrestling with the North Carolina State University team in 1987 and wrestled competitively until 1991, when an injury ended his career. In 1994, he moved from Raleigh, North Carolina to Las Vegas to pursue a career in real estate. There he was introduced to martial artist and former MMA fighter John Lewis and, through him, to the world of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ).

To say that Lewis is a big deal in the American martial arts scene is like saying that Beyoncé is a big deal in pop music.

Meeting Lewis changed Spangler’s life, and soon he was competing in BJJ tournaments in Nevada, California, Utah, and Arizona. His day job was still real estate, but his heart was in the ring.

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Real Estate in Las Vegas

Spangler’s real estate career stretched almost 20 years, from 1995 to 2014. A market boom in 2003 led to huge gains and a level of financial security for him and his family. But it was becoming clear that BJJ is what he really wanted to do.

After deciding that the Las Vegas market was too expensive to start a new business in, Spangler and his family moved back home to North Carolina in 2011 with the idea of establishing his own gym for BJJ enthusiasts. The move got the family out pricey Las Vegas and put them closer to family.

Martial Arts in North Carolina

Spangler opened his BJJ academy while continuing to work as a real estate agent. He shared gym space with a friend from his wrestling days to lower the start-up cost. “We shared a space for two years. Then it became obvious that both of our businesses were growing and we needed our own spaces,” Spangler says. “With the help of my wife, I located an old martial arts academy that was going out of business. We were so lucky to find this space in such an amazing location. We immediately contacted the landlord and secured 2,500 square feet of space.”

Challenges of Starting a Martial Arts School

That was just the beginning. Next came the big financial challenges. “We had to sell our house in Las Vegas to get the money we would need to buy mats and remodel the space into our vision,” Spangler recalls. “Forty thousand dollars later, we had built an academy that looked exactly like what we had envisioned. It opened in August of 2016.”

But the past few months have not been a cakewalk for Spangler. He admits that the biggest struggle has been on the financial side, because he has “no experience in running gyms.”

Still, Spangler is not disheartened. He clings to his vision through the ups and downs.

“My income has been less than my outgoing monthly debts for a couple of years,” he says. “I’ve had to borrow and use what savings I had to continue building [the academy] instead of selling real estate. It has paid off, because now I’m able to cover my family’s living expenses each month and my academy growth seems to be strong as well.”

Now that Spangler can breathe a little easier, he’s focusing on instruction techniques. “Keeping the classes fresh and easy to follow has also been one of the struggles,” he explains. “Teaching styles can affect the retention rate for BJJ instructors, and if you aren't able to translate the technique to as many students as possible, many will quit. But most important, faith in myself and belief in God help me commit 100 percent to this endeavor.”

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Lessons Learned From Starting a Martial Arts School

Spangler wants everyone to pursue their passions, as he did. But he also doesn’t want others to make the same mistakes as he did initially. “Without an organized business plan as well as curriculum for your students, you’ll fail,” he warns. “I wish I had prepared a structure up front instead of developing as I grew. Beyond that, I’m still learning as I go, but I feel confident in my progress so far and positive about my future.