The Business of Training, Part I

Considerations for trainers contemplating their own training company

 


 

R.K. Miller | From the November 2011 Issue Thursday, November 3, 2011

It’s a question I’ve been asked before: “How did you do it?” This could apply to a lot of things, but I’m not copping out to anything more than this month’s topic: How I started my training company. This question typically comes from instructors who want to do the same. For those of you who’ve reached this point in your instructional careers, I thought that this month it might be helpful to discuss my experience.

Why We Do This
My first piece of advice is to start with an honest status check: Why do you want to pursue such an effort? Is your primary motivation to help cops and others learn how to do things right? Or is it because you want to make money? If you’re thinking your company will bring in lots of “Benjamins” and “U.S. Grants,” then your priorities are off the mark. Especially during these tough times, expecting police departments or individual officers to pay good money for substandard or poorly motivated training is, frankly, unrealistic. 
 
This undertaking can be very demanding on your time and your professionalism. Your commitment to quality training must be a priority. If you’re serious about this, realize as well that the job often involves telling officers what they need to hear—not just what they may want to hear.
 
No Credibility Gaps
Credibility is a must. The success of your business depends on it. Credibility is derived from, among other things, demonstrated hard work, experience in your chosen fields and a passion for training. (To draw an analogy, earning a college degree has a level of real accomplishment attached to it. But there are also people who lack this commitment and basically “buy” degrees over the Internet. There’s a difference between the two paths to obtaining a degree, just as there is with establishing one’s credibility.)
 
Your students will want to know that their instructor is the “real deal.” Cops are good at recognizing when credibility is lacking—or, worse yet, self-fabricated. If that’s the impression, many won’t attend. Others may attend and then recognize the instructor’s shortcomings. They won’t be back.
 
 A resume should be a reflection of your credibility. It’s a foundational part of your business. This document represents what you’ve accomplished and your professional status. When you look at the resume, is it an honest accounting? Keep in mind that it should be built upon facts—not fiction. Those who can’t be honest with themselves, let alone the outside world, need not apply. This is not only unethical, it’s also unacceptable. Remember: At some point down the road, this career accounting will most likely be examined by someone with a critical eye.
 
 Credibility also hinges on a solid, safe training record. Trainers—especially those involved in firearms programs and other “hands on” subjects—can’t expect to have a successful business unless they have a commitment to their students’ wellbeing. Good instructors are good risk managers, who look out for the students’ welfare. Let’s face it: Cops—and especially instructors—talk. Honestly, they gossip. That means that if instructors run a loose training program that isn’t focused on student safety, the word is gonna get out. Have a complacent attitude or just ignore safety warning signs and, again, the word is gonna get out. Sooner or later, your approach to training will become the topic of discussion. Safety matters. When someone Googles the company name or yours, the search should reveal positive comments about your approach to managing student risk as well as the quality of the training.
 
Taking Care of Business
Earlier, I used the term business plan. Although you aren’t going to launch a Fortune 500 company or be a contestant on The Apprentice, you should map out what it is you want to accomplish. If you have bucks to spend, then getting some professional advice could be helpful.
 
Here’s the truth of my own business. I more or less fell into the initial stages of a business plan rather than developing it in a thoughtful manner. It began when Phil Singleton (then the director of training for H&K) and the NRA’s Law Enforcement Training Manager John Recknor were each kind enough to hire me as an adjunct instructor with their respective companies. I learned a lot under the guidance of these two men. Eventually, I started hearing a voice in the back of my head saying, “You can do this.” 
 
Once I decided to get going, there were a number of steps that proved right for me. The very foundation of this was to make sure my wife agreed. She had more business experience than I did, and I knew I’d need to rely on her sound advice. If you can, you should do the same. Additionally, this was part of our retirement plan. I enjoyed training before retirement and wanted to continue it into my “golden years.”
 
You can also start a business with a partner other than your spouse. My advice is to make sure that the relationship is sound and built on some commonly shared principles of mutual respect, trust and honesty. An ethical approach to doing business is a must. If there’s any doubt about creating such a business relationship, take some time to carefully reconsider before you engage in a legally binding partnership.
 
I’m No Attorney, But . . .
I’ll stop for a moment to remind you that I’m not an attorney. Consider consulting with a good one before you get started. When we decided to incorporate our business, we contacted a reputable lawyer to guide us through the process. There are a number of benefits but also some costs associated with such a structured step. However, I’d strongly suggest that you do so. Legal guidance will help you choose the right type of corporation and avoid other pitfalls.
 
You must also obtain a federal tax identification number for your company. There are many good reasons not to use your social security number. There’s no way to get around paying taxes. However, proper and honest bookkeeping will probably help you maximize legitimate deductions. We invested in an accounting software program to track income and expenses. However you do it, you must properly manage the money coming in and going out. 
 
Looking at your long-term financial protection, I’d suggest company funds shouldn’t be commingled with your personal assets. There should be a separate company checking account used exclusively for business. A company credit card would also be an essential financial step. A company debit card usually works well too. In addition to receipts and invoices, such cards provide a back-up tracking of expenses.
 
Are You in Good Hands?
Firearms training and other forms of potentially injurious instruction will place your company in the liability food chain. Forming a corporation may provide a “financial shield” to protect from personal liability exposure should a lawsuit come your way. Understand that combining personal and corporate funds may allow a plaintiff to “pierce” this shield, winning an even larger and more personally damaging civil judgment. It could even become an issue of who’s going to live in your house.
Another aspect of corporate protection is liability insurance. Again, I don’t have all the answers, so you should contact a knowledgeable person to assist you. That being said, here’s what’s worked for me.
 
A personal liability policy is always a good idea in our business, but it’s equally important to have a company policy as well. When I started out with just firearms training, an easy fix was available through the NRA’s Firearms Instructor Insurance Program (www.nra.org). However, when I branched out to such courses as less-lethal instructor and diversionary device instructor classes, they were beyond that insurer’s scope.
 
I found the answer with Joseph Chiarello & Co. (www.guninsurance.com). Although their fees are competitive, the deciding factor was the good relationship that developed with a helpful account executive—Toni Rouse. She asked the hard questions about our training programs, but she also gave my company a chance to prove we were a good risk. That was a number of years ago. We’ve worked successfully together ever since. Recently, Chiarello added an insurance option for instructors conducting force-on-force training. Although there are other companies offering similar services, I’ve found a comfortable insurance “home” with the Chiarello folks, and that’s important. As you build your company, don’t overlook investing in proper insurance. A lawsuit is a tough process to go through. Doing so without insurance to back you up is even worse.
 
Common Thoughts
At the suggestion of our editor, I contacted a veteran trainer—Jim Glennon—who’s also been down this road. A retired police officer, Mr. Glennon has been training cops since 1991, so he has some level of experience with this month’s topic. His business plan evolved after he wrote a well-respected book on interaction skills for law enforcement titled Arresting Communication. His training abilities led to his involvement with the Street Survival seminars and eventually his own company, Lifeline Training (www.lifelinetraining.com).
 
While we talked, I found that we shared similar views on law enforcement training and starting a business geared toward teaching cops. One of his first thoughts gave me an indication of his maturity: He credited his wife, Lisa, with being the financial brains behind Lifeline’s success. Beyond that, Glennon shared some solid advice. First, one of your company’s goals should be to offer classes that make sense for cops. Mr. Glennon drew from business legend Peter Drucker: You must provide a product or service that’s necessary and create a situation in which people want it.
 
(Editor’s note: I’ve had the privilege of co-presenting with Jim Glennon and can attest to the quality of his training. Glennon and Lifeline Training have become key partners in the Below 100 effort, and we’re very appreciative of their efforts.—Dale Stockton)
 
Less is More
The second “pro tip” Mr. Glennon shared was the importance of developing a relationship with the students that will lead to your recognition as a quality training provider. To accomplish this in the early days, Mr. Glennon would present seminars at a reduced cost or even tuition-free. He pointed out that since he started, there hasn’t been a class that didn’t generate additional business. That’s part of a successful business plan.
 
Another important point that Mr. Glennon touched on was the choice of instructors. He has a number of other trainers he works with. They have to be “dynamic” in their ability to deliver quality training. But they must also be talented people who really know what they’re doing. He reciprocates by doing his best to not overburden them with bureaucratic rules and procedures.
 
We’ll Be Back
Law enforcement needs great trainers to keep officers prepared for a difficult job. If you’re up for the challenge, I hope this article helps get you started down the road to business success. Next month, we’ll continue the discussion. Until then, train safe. God bless America.


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R.K. MillerR.K. Miller, Law Officer's Train the Trainer columnist, retired from the Huntington Beach (Calif.) Police Department as a lieutenant after 30 years of service and is currently a reserve officer with the Orange (Calif.) Police Department.

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