Going from offline to online: creating virtual dojos

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Samurai mask

Moving from the freedom to gather to a world of screens and isolation is a challenge for many. Not many folk are wearing a full Samurai mask, thankfully, just restricting themselves to blue cotton surgical masks. Getting the Covid 19 closedown in context, our experience in JKA Scotland is not that much of a stretch compared to the experiences many people are having right now. But it has been a dislocation. Moving from socialising and meeting three to four times a week face to face, and having a bit of chat before getting moving and training, we’ve gone to no face to face contact at all.

Revenue disappearing

From a revenue point of view, we’ve gone from a steady revenue stream to nothing at all. For however as long as we’re asked to stay closed. That causes a bit of a moment when you stop to think about it. Dojo rents will still require to be paid, assuming our landlords continue to refuse to adjust our terms and there are bills to pay. At JKA Karate East Lothian, we’ve gone from fully offline to online tuition through Zoom and moved to an online membership solution on a special protected website. I’ve built an e-commerce solution alongside that, using WordPress, WooCommerce, Wordfence and the S2 Members plugin. I’ve worked with colleagues who admit their skillset is punching people to transform the way we work, and it’s not over yet.

Tools for our new normal

Use CaseSolutionCosts
Live virtual lessonsZoom Pro£12 – £16 a month
Membership areaS2 MemberFree
Host websiteWordPress£30 plus a month
Video hosting spaceVimeoPro£16 a month
PaymentsPayPal Business% of transactions
Attendance trackingMyAttendanceTrackerFree

Before it disappears from my head, I’m using this blog to track what we’ve changed, how we changed, and how much more we still need to do. I’ve got to ten observations/ reflections serendipidously, so here’s my Top Ten Thoughts on going from offline to online. If this interests you, I’ve written the work up as a case study in my portfolio section.

Ten things we did

1) Accept the change is happening and plan for a year at most

Quite a lot of people in our clubs have a police, health or emergency services background. In my background I’ve handled short term and long term crisis communications for the NHS and for local government. So when the news came out of China of a new disease, I paid attention. I worked on swine flu comms at NHS Lothian and knew how these diseases ripple out across the world quickly. I saw the lockdown coming when Italy experienced its outbreak and I started getting others to take this seriously, and to plan for an incident that would have implications for more than a year.

That meant we were already thinking about the longer term at a point when others were refusing to believe a lockdown was a possibility.

That meant we were quicker to conduct a honest appraisal of our weaknesses and vulnerability than we would otherwise have been. Planning beyond a year is really difficult, so we kept the horizon to the next 12 months.

2) Plan according to your own liabilities

The first thing we did early was establish our financial position. What were the bills we could negotiate over? What were the outgoings we could cut immediately? Out of those discussions came the first decision point, and the first resulting actions.

So where we had lets on dojos we didn’t own, we put the owners on notice about their cancellation. The client had their own bespoke dojo, leased on a longer term basis. We approached the landlord for a concession immediately. Because we had that facility, we were not able to go the route some people have gone, which is absolutely the valid route for them – doing live broadcasts on YouTube on a free of charge basis to anyone who wants to watch. We had to show a return for our activities because the costs are not going away. Within that new offering, we had to offer value for our loyal members. So that drove our second decision – we had to invest in providing an excellent experience to get our membership engaged. At the same time, we had to think about providing a return for those members who had paid for a dojo membership – an annual fee which covers their membership of JKA Karate East Lothian – because we want people to renew in January 2021 and not to ask for refunds on their 2020 memberships.

3) Put aside a budget

Once we had established a need to generate income, that pointed us towards putting a new infrastructure in place. It had to meet our child protection needs, it had to be simple and straightforward (otherwise it would become a real pain to operate) and it had to be secure. Having the freedom to spend some money meant not having to use workarounds which might expose us to unnecessary or unexpected risks.

4) Options for Video-Conferencing

My first research showed there were at least 5 good choices which would meet the requirement for our instructor to be able to see all participants. Because we knew we needed to offer members an enhanced service, to justify a fee, (to try and generate some income) we needed more than a broadcast sysem like Facebook Live or You Tube live-streaming. These are valid options if your instructor is going that way, but they don’t offer the possibility of live feedback and it’s easy for students to slack off. My initial shortlist to explore was:

a) Microsoft Teams – because I use it at work a lot. Like seven hours a day when working from home. It was a nightmare to try and get set up. So I dropped it pretty quickly.

b) Zoom – because it was getting a lot of press – good in terms of its ease of use, bad in terms of its reported security shortcomings.

c) Google Hangouts – because I vaguely remembered there was an offering from Google

d) Skype – I started off testing Skype with my sensei, Sensei Bert Stewart, and it worked well for one on one conversations/ video call training sessions. But he reported it looked too complicated and had problems using it. I established his problems were connected to faulty broadband and not Skype but by that point, Skype was off the list.

e) WhatsApp – this was soon discounted because the limit for participants on WhatsApp group video calls is four.

f) Discord – this gamers’ tool was my family chat tool with my student son but its whole air/ culture was very off-putting for the people I knew would have to use this tool to set up video classes.

g) EzTalks – this highly-rated free tool made it to my shortleet of two – EzTalks and Zoom – for downloading and exploration. .

5) Why ease of use was the killer deciding factor for video-conferencing

Zoom use was exploding at the time and it was close to becoming a verb in common use. So it was familiar to the users. But I kept reading about this and that government leaving Zoom due to its lack of end to end encryption. The reason we went with Zoom in the end was that it was easier to explain to club members/ customers than EzTalks. I knew I didn’t want to produce the regular classes (ie be there to run them) so the platform had to be simple enough for Sensei Stewart to use. He tried Zoom out, liked it, we devised a further set of requirements around control of the experience for child protection reasons and that pushed us towards the Zoom Pro package. As a host, he can now record sessions and prevent participants from looking at the gallery of participants, and he can mute them all by default. That’s all working well now.

6) Simplify the language, cut things into chunks

I work with people whose skillset is punching things. But they’re well used to the concepts of training – of stepping outside your comfort zone, or repeating and checking your technique to ensure it is an effective way of bringing force to bear on an opponent.

In Karate, there’s a set of mottoes/ maxims contained in something called the Dojo Kun. The most applicable to our context of starting from scratch was Cultivate the Spirit Of Perseverance. So I knew that as long as I couched the technical learning in these terms, relating it back to the experience of karate training, I had a chance of getting friends and colleagues to listen and learn. And they have. Working together, now all the participants learn from each other. On one class, we had a challenge where the camera kept switching away from the instructor. A 12 year old girl found the confidence to explain to the 20 or so people on the call about the concept of pinning a speaker on an Ipad – which helped massively with making the virtual experience easier to follow. I set out a phased plan for getting us up and running, keeping the focus on what we could do on a weekly basis. First priority was getting comfortable with Zoom Pro. Second priority was sorting out the Membership Area for the website. Third was getting the webshop up and running, secure and well-tested. Fourth was getting the specialist content shot, written, designed and displayed in the members’ area. Fifth is going back and spending more time on the design and user interaction techniques in the website – adding the polish to the fundamental platform. To use some jargon, we went through Mobilisation, Research and Development, Requirements Confirmation and Rating, delivery of a Minimum Viable Product, to a soft launch, to a full launch and now we’re in the evergreen Continuous Improvement stage.

Cultivate the Spirit of Perseverance

Dojo Kun

7) Document what’s agreed and keep that plan up to date

I started out on this process with a determination to avoid heavy documentation. The priority was to get something – anything – of business value in place as soon as possible and I thought the project process could be simple. It was simple, but it wasn’t non-existent. The more research we did, the more it became clear that some documentation was going to be required, both to keep the work focussed, and to meet the legal constraints in place. As the project was going to involve handling confidential information, I arranged a Non-Disclosure Agreement and had that in place to protect both me, my client and the members. Next I had to put some formality around the site’s terms and conditions, and our privacy policy. That meant writing two documents, getting the client’s involvement and assent, publishing that information and then designing the site and its interactions to ensure we complied with what our policies said. The Information Commissioner’s website helped with the GDPR-related Privacy Policy and my day job came in handy for the other preparatory documents, which we put in place in parallel with my research on how we were going to meet the identified requirements.

8) Content Plan

The other blow to the plan to minimise documentation was the realisation that we had to be organised about the creation of content such as text, pictures and video otherwise it simply wouldn’t happen. I was reminded of the need to be specific and definitive after an open brainstorming session with six instructors left me with no content and no volunteers assigned to create the content. We generated some headings of content, but I didn’t have what I needed – people taking responsibility to provide content within a particular timescale. I then moved to a more directive style and allocated content and deadlines to colleagues, which I then tracked. And nagged. This was much more productive and soon the Members Area had more than 70 pieces of content

9) Payment methods research

One of the most pressing decisions in the research phase was the risk assessment around payment choices. Clearly, we needed a safe way of taking payment from members. But did we set up to be able to take credit card payments, or insist on bank transfers? Would members go with bank transfers? Who pays for what when you take credit/ debit card payments? We know there would be fees, but who pays? Once again I hit the research trail. The first warning flag against setting out to accept debit/credit cards was the risk of chargeback fraud. If you don’t know what this is, I’d urge some research. Bottom line, chargeback fraud was a risk to the personal credit history of the client and so I recommended against going down this route. We went with accepting payments through Paypal, and forgoing some of the income in order to have the peace of mind that the financial relationships are between ecommerce giant PayPal and our customers, and not with us.

10) Giving people a way to buy

Once we hit that fork in the road, and plumped to outsource payments to a third party, that simplified things around provisioning a web shop. As the client already had a WordPress website, I upgraded it to get a SSL certificate and installed WooCommerce, following a quick review of Squarespace and Shopify. If the client didn’t already have a site, I’d have been seriously tempted to recommend Shopify, which looks to be a great fit for businesses with no technical knowledge/ resource available to them.

I got invaluable help and advice on setting up WooCommerce from Ferdy Koepershak and Tyler Moore. The advice is straightforward and easy to follow from both and I heartily recommend taking a look at what they have to say.

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