When Nate Bennett and Thanat Tanachon first decided to open their martial arts facility, they wanted to shatter the misconception that martial arts is a violent and aggressive sport by revolving their business around building a community based on respect. Now, The Little Giant Muay Thai is a 5-star business on Yelp with tons of glowing reviews. Reviewer Samantha N. shares what sets Little Giant apart and why she travels so far with her kids to be a part of their community.
On the Yelp Blog: Learn how to lead your business with respect and create an environment people can’t wait to come back to.
EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Behind the Review features conversations with business owners and customers who wrote one of their Yelp reviews. In our discussions, we talk about lessons they’ve learned that can be used by other small businesses to improve their own reviews…and their bottom line.
This week, I’m speaking with Thanat Tanachon, also known as Kru Chon, and Nate Bennett, the owners of The Little Giant Muay Thai, a martial arts facility in Falls Church that made America’s Favorite Mom & Pop Shops list this year. That list from Entrepreneur and produced in partnership with Yelp, is 150 businesses strong, with Little Giant ranking #3 (out of 15) in Fitness and Instruction category.
In Thai, Kru means “instructor,” someone who teaches new generations the long tradition of Muay Thai kickboxing. While one doesn’t need to be a champion fighter to be given the title, Kru Chon is, in fact, a champion with more than 120 fights in his career and is the two-time national champion in Thailand, his home country. Nate has been training under Kru Chon for more than five years and is an active MMA fighter with several titles as well.
You’ll also hear from Samantha N., our reviewer whose three children train with Coach Nate. After moving to Virginia from Houston, Samantha was looking for a place to take her children to continue their Muay Thai training. She had high expectations based on their previous facility. And like most people who move to a new city, she did her research and shopped around for just the right fit for her family.
SAMANTHA: I was actually looking around because we just moved back into the Northern Virginia area and I was looking for a Muay Thai gym to bring my children to.
I have three of them. They range in age from five to 14. And It’s really important for me to find a gym that I’m willing to invest my time and money in because as you know, three children, it adds up a lot. And then the time that I’ll spend there, it definitely has to be well worth it. So I actually googled a whole bunch of different gyms in the area, and then
I basically called to see if I could do a trial class for all of them and went through and set my kids in and took notes while I was there. How the kids were reacting, how the teachers were coaching, and just based it on that. And I did have high expectations because we actually stayed in Texas for two months.
Luckily we were in the Houston area where there was already an existing gym that was really famous. I didn’t realize how famous it was until I started going down the rabbit hole. I signed my kids up and I loved it there so much. So then I already had expectations based off that gym. So that’s what I was looking for when I was coming back to the area.
So we tried maybe, I think, three gyms out of all. This Muay Thai gym wasn’t the first one I checked out. It was actually the third one I checked out. So I already saw what was in the area and I came here and as soon as we walked in, I wasn’t impressed with the facility because it was a smaller facility- and it’s basically an office building they converted into a gym.
The owners told me that it was their first year, so they were just starting out. So I gave them the benefit of doubt. ’cause I know that it’s rough when you first start a business and I was willing to check to see what they’re about because my husband works with his mom and it’s like a mom and pops HVAC business.
So I’ve definitely gotta support small-time businesses in the area because that’s important for our community and for our economy and it’s special. It’s not just a cookie cutter place. So I go in and I meet the coaches and I see the classes, and I love the way they handle the children.
Even though they had expectations for their physical activity, they still made it fun and they still made it engaging and they made it silly. And they overall had a good time in class. And I love that.
And the techniques and everything can be a little questionable sometimes, because you’re not used to seeing somebody being that way with your child. But then you realize, it’s important that you have somebody in your village that pushes your child. Because children can only rise to the occasion. And if we set the bar low for them, they’ll never be able to get anywhere. So I love that because I go there and I realize these people here definitely have heart, and they definitely have discipline and commitment. You could see it in the way that they work and the way that they interact with your children and with the parents.
When you come through, they make sure to greet every single person, acknowledge the fact that they’re there and it shows a lot of respect. If you can go somewhere and they already have respect for one another, you know there’s gonna be great things that happen there.
EMILY: On Behind the Review, we talk openly and often about first impressions – with both business owners and consumers – because ambiance and aesthetics can make a big difference in consumer reviews. In this case, Samantha wasn’t terribly taken with the physical space of Little Giant. They were still very new in business at the time, and the space they held classes was pretty bare bones and underwhelming.
But Little Giant is a great example of how with the right culture and customer service, a business can overcome those physical limitations as long as they are up front and honest about the situation. Kru Chon and Nate acknowledged it wasn’t their ideal space at the time, and that they were looking to move to a bigger location. That, along with the excellent instruction and the careful attention to each student, was enough to keep Samantha coming back, and her family becoming a part of the Little Giant community. And of course she had to write a review! Let’s take a listen:
SAMANTHA: If you’re looking for a serious gym that has an extremely friendly and positive vibe, this is it.
Our kids have been training here for over a year and a half now, and they love it. We have kids in each class. We have the tiny giants, young giants, and team giants. Every single class Kru Chon and Coach Nate and all the other coaches bring the same experience, consistency and enthusiasm. They have the kids work on conditioning their bodies as well as on technique.
The difference in their strength and stamina has been incredible. I love how my kids are getting stronger and healthier as well as learning a practical life skill. I also love how the kids are still having fun in class, playing games, while also practicing good manners and sportsmanship. I couldn’t recommend this gym more.
There are also adult classes offered throughout the entire week. Many professional fighters train here as well. Recently we have a famous Buakaw so if you’re looking for yourself to compete or get healthier and stronger, or for your kids, this place fits all your needs.
EMILY: That was a great review. So much information and context to help other potential consumers! Sometimes business owners dream big—and build big—right out of the gate, and that can be disastrous. The facility that Samantha found lacking wasn’t going to be the “forever home” of Little Giant. When they started the business, Kru Chon and Nate made a very conscious decision in choosing the first location.
NATE: So when we started, when we were looking for the place we wanted to start very small. One – because that’s what we could afford, and two, because we wanted to really make it a small, tight-knit, like small group classes, small community.
And that way, you’re able to focus on each individual student. (I’ve) Taught a hundred people classes where he had to stand up on a chair. I think you said in China you had to do that. And it’s hard. I mean, you can do those classes, but it’s not as one-on-one.
Just like private school compared to public school, you’re gonna get more attention. And I think that this space gave us the opportunity to do that. And I remember when we were looking, our realtor was like, man, I think I found the perfect starting place for you guys. It’s small, but it’ll do, definitely growing out of the space, we should be moving to our new location on the first.
But I think that providing that community aspect and making people wanna be here and that kind of stuff, they look past the small space that we have, which is great. And it worked out too, because it’s Little Giant, little place, you know what I mean? But we’re giant big hearts, that kind of thing.
So it really just fell into place. And I think even this, getting this new location, I was looking everywhere, because I was talking to, I was like, I dunno how many more students we can fit in here. We gotta make sure that everyone’s safe and there’s enough room.
I was actually on the phone with my girlfriend again and I was in a parking lot. It was raining outside. I looked over to my right and I saw a for lease sign. And it wasn’t listed online. And everywhere I would go on like LoopNet and like Xi and all those websites and I needed to find a place that was close by.
We couldn’t go five miles away because parents, there’s a commute. Also not too much traffic, a great, great area, da, da, da. And I called my realtor and I was like, I don’t see it listed online. Can you see what’s up? And it happened to be the perfect spot and they showed it to us and me and Kru Chon looked at each other, we’re like, this is it. This is the perfect spot. We want it. The goal is September 1st. There’s some permit hold ups with the county because we wanted to add a second bathroom. But all the cosmetic stuff’s almost done. We’re putting in the mat this weekend. So I think that’s where we are right now.
EMILY: It’s exciting to expand your small business, and Kru Chon and Nate are looking forward to opening up a shiny new studio that can house more students and classes. It’s also completely nerve-wracking. It should come as no surprise, though, that two people who earn a living walking into a ring to proactively face a difficult challenge, face another person who basically wants to beat them up, find it a little bit easier than most to jump in feet first.
NATE: You said a word there called jump. Which is a huge word for us. There’s a Steve Harvey video on YouTube called Jump, and it talks about every successful entrepreneur and everybody that wants to make something for themselves and whatever, and that.
We all have bills and we all have dependents and all this stuff. But at some point, you just have to jump. And have a leap of faith and follow the plan. And it’s funny, as soon as you said that word it rang in my head. And every time me and Kru Chon talk about, yeah, every time, even me fighting and me still competing and us, ‘Hey, let’s get this new location. Let’s do this!’ He always looks at me, I look at him, it’s like, jump.
We have to jump. We have to go to the next step. It’s been great. It’s surreal. I come together, family and stuff was always nervous for me. And obviously there’s some doubt that creeps in the back of your mind with anything. And it’s just amazing that everything just keeps coming together.
We just recently hired a general manager and she’s amazing. It’s funny because I knew her when I started in and I was watching how I was like, man this girl’s so good at this. It was great to see her, and now to like circle back around – and she’s working for us now and I’m able to focus more on training and competing ’cause I still got a couple years left in me where I wanna fight and compete and stuff like that.
It’s all come together and I think just hard work and consistency and I think there’s a little bit of luck in everything, but I think overall we’ve definitely just jumped and that’s helped a lot.
EMILY: If you’ve never taken a martial arts class, you might think that it’s pretty violent and aggressive. It can be, that’s for sure. Samantha mentioned in her review that it’s really more about building the entire person, from physical fitness to mental fitness, and generally just learning to be a good human being.
NATE: There’s a misconception for a lot of martial arts gyms where it’s just like we’re just trying to beat everybody up and that kind of stuff.
But, we really try and preach good, healthy habits. Being disciplined. A decent person. Obviously we all make mistakes, but that’s super important to us. And even with the kids, we really try and, have fun with them, but also, ‘yes sir, no sir.’
Have that discipline, have that courage, push them. Keep that competitiveness. I think that being competitive is super important. I think sometimes we forget that and it’s good for everybody to be that way, in my opinion.
That’s how we run our school. And I’d say 5% of people here wanna be a fighter. Most of the people that come here, they just wanna work out. They wanna learn, they wanna be part of a great community. Which we’re, that’s one of the things we really wanna try and bring here is people are working all day. They’re not having the best time. We want when they come here – we want them to be happy and feel special and feel like this is a place where they can be themselves and have a good time and work out.
One of the things Kru always says when we’re teaching is ‘Sweating, having fun and learning, are some of the most important things that we try and run our classes by.’
And that’s kind of how we teach our instructors.
EMILY: We’re going to take a quick break – when we get back we’ll talk about those instructors at Little Giant, and how even as they expand they keep the same culture and feeling.
EMILY: I discovered Little Giant through a project where Yelp and Entrepreneur Media teamed up to name the top 150 Mom & Pop Businesses in America. You may wonder how that’s even possible! How can you compare a plumber for example, with a yoga studio or a restaurant? For this reason, we decided to identify the top 15 businesses across 10 distinct categories. We caped each category list to 1 business per state so we could see variety and diversity across the country. Little Giant was #3 in the Fitness and Instruction category – based on a variety of data points on Yelp including reviews and consumer engagement in the past year.
This engagement and accomplishment is in many ways due to their personalized and community approach.
NATE: I think that’s one of the biggest things is community, but also the instructors. I mean, Kru Chon is The best instructor I’ve ever seen for any martial arts class that I’ve taken. I’ve taken a lot of Muay Thai and jiu jitsu and wrestling and all this stuff.
There’s great instructors, but I think he’s second to none. And all of my classes that I teach myself and I try to base him on how he teaches. And I’ve been so fortunate enough to see him for years and be like, wow, he does this for his warmups. This is how he communicates with the students. He knows everybody by name, first name, last name. He knows where they’re coming from, what they’re going through. He talks to them at the end of class.
And as far as the community aspect goes, there was a student here before we opened – somebody that I knew for a while. He actually asked the question “what do you offer?“
And I was like, we do this trial period we offer martial arts classes.
He said, no, you offer a place for people, a community somewhere that people can belong and be part of something. And those words that he said to me really struck a chord. And we were already doing that, but I think he really helped me go in the right direction and really double down on that aspect.
I think that’s really brought us to the next level. Even we have new instructors now, Roger. We have a couple other instructors too that we’re able to kind of show them our way as best as possible. And the fact that he’s taught all in so many different countries, it’s like he has a plethora of experience.
EMILY: That systematic approach of checking in with each and every client during a class is the bedrock of that incredible customer experience and community Samantha mentioned. In our interview, Kru Chon said he understands everyone comes from a beginner’s mindset when starting something new, and if you teach with your heart, like he does, your clients will feel more comfortable and confident trying something new.
Unfortunately, a super loud siren went off as he said it, so I’ve paraphrased.
Hiring new employees is one of the more difficult parts of owning a small business. There are plenty of ways to be qualified to teach Muay Thai, but Kru Chon and Nate want to make sure their instructors are the right instructors, and teach from the heart the same way they do. And it starts with a service mindset.
NATE: So we actually have a plan. I don’t know how we’re gonna do it exactly. It’s on my list. It’s a little bit lower on the list, but I’m getting to it. I wanna record how he teaches and they’ll do edits and cuts and that kind of stuff. I wanna record how he and I teach and make a little instruction kind of thing for instructors that come on.
We actually both worked in the service industry for a while. I was a waiter and all that kind of stuff, and he was, I think, the bartender and everything. And I think that really helps us because when you’re working in the service industry, you have a bunch of tables and you gotta make sure everyone’s good. You gotta make sure, okay, their food came out. Is their food too cold? Did they get their drinks? Did you greet them or how are you, did you, whatever? They might need their check.
I think coming from that industry really helped us. And the way that he describes it to me is it’s just like serving. Person in the class, you go around – make sure you talk to them three different times. Fix their technique, that kind of stuff. And my plan is to show that in the recording of watching Kru Chon and watching how he’s clapping and he’s jumping up and down and he’s making noises.
That’s kind of the plan that could keep it consistent. And luckily, Kru Rogers our main instructor. Who has almost the same amount of experience as him. So he’s seeped right in pretty seamlessly, which is great. And then we can also record him and kind of go from there.
EMILY: In the hundred plus business owners who have been on this podcast, I would bet almost all of them mentioned working from a service mindset while building a successful business. It’s a pretty universal theme in working with clients and customers.
That service mindset has served Little Giant well, as it’s one of those businesses with 100% 5-star reviews. I’ve spoken before about why that’s certainly commendable, but not necessarily ideal. Without a thoughtful negative review or two, it can be hard to see opportunities to improve your business. As an owner, you don’t get the same experience as your consumer, and it’s important to understand their perspective. Everything might really be sunshine and roses, but it might not. And not to mention, oftentimes Yelp users don’t trust that the perfect score is real.
Nate understands that, and is appreciative of their 5-star reviews and the impact it has on the business, but knows it might not last forever.
NATE: I think it plays a huge role. Most of the people that come here at this point, they come in and, and most of the time they either Googled it, Yelped it, or one one of those.
And then we see the glowing reviews and we love it. That’s typically, I think, very important for why people come here. I noticed too, when I go out to eat and when I go out to do stuff, I’m always looking at reviews. You’re not gonna make everybody happy. It’s just impossible. I always keep that in mind when I go to places, if they have a lower rating or whatever. But I think that’s really helped us, and it’s funny you say that because I actually had a dream. It was either last night or the night before that somebody wrote a great glowing review, but they accidentally clicked zero stars.
It was like a nightmare. we’re trying to keep this five star forever, but we can’t make everybody happy. We can only do our best. It’s not always gonna be perfect. So it’s probably inevitable that someone’s not gonna leave here with a smile.
But we’re always gonna do our best – and that’s kind of where we are. I think we have more Google reviews and then now we’re coming up more on the Yelp reviews. I think that’s really, really helped business.
EMILY: The longer Kru Chon and Nate are in business, the more likely it is they’ll get a one – or two-star review down the line. It’s nothing to get bent out of shape over, as long as their response to those negative reviews is respectful and genuine.
And sometimes negative reviews help other Yelp users see what kind of business you are, and what you’re not. If a review discusses something that the business isn’t, whether through an unmet expectation, that can actually be useful. Yelp users get a good look at what your business offers, and what it doesn’t, it can keep them from coming to your business and walking away disappointed.
Samantha wrote a really great review, not just in the 5-star rating, but the information she included. A well-written review answers questions most other Yelp users might have. It helped that she had a list of expectations — things she wanted in a Muay Thai training facility — when she found Little Giant.
SAMANTHA: I think that a lot of it had to do with the fact that I already had a criteria to look forward to when I was going to the gym to check out for my children, I wanted to encompass a lot of things because I realized that some gyms, they only worked on one thing or another.
And I really wanted my children to work on all the above. When I’m there, I want them to work on conditioning, stamina techniques instead of just working on one or the other. Because when you’re going somewhere, you wanna make sure that you’re spending your time and not wasting a single minute of it.
To be honest with you, I drive an hour each way just to go to class with my kids. So I live towards Front Royal and I drive an hour all the way to the Falls Church/Arlington area for this gym. And this is how much I love this gym, that it’s fine for me to drive an hour there and an hour back because I know it’s money and time well spent. And that’s what I look for is quality. Because it’s not easy to find a place that offers everything that you need and really makes you feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth. And then on top of that, you’re building a community and friendship and you have these mentors that your children are spending time with and looking up to, and they set these good examples for my children and that is irreplaceable team as a parent.
And for my children to realize that a village isn’t just where you pop yourself. You build your own village with your children. Knowing that I am able to handpick the people who spend the time with my children and what kind of character they have and what kind of commitment they have, they bring to the table, all those things are important to me.
And in my reviews I look at if I was a parent, what kind of things would I be interested in? To see how they treat my child, how they treat me, how they teach to respect one another. Those are all things that are important to my family and the values that we hold. So finding people that connect with the same values is important.
Kru Chon is a master in Muay Thai from Thailand. So he actually has championships under his own belt. So he has experience. He is not just coming to teach something that he doesn’t really know or just learned. He’s actually been a master at it and is actually pretty famous in the Thai community.
And he has a lot of relations with the Thai embassy in DC and the, when I mentioned earlier about Buakaw, he is actually a world champion in Muay Thai and he recently came to DC for the DC Thai festival and he actually made an appearance at our gym. And this guy has been around for a long time.
He’s a big name in the game, so it was really exciting for my kids to meet him and we got his autograph and pictures and everything. So I don’t think we would’ve been able to get that kind of experience going somewhere else.
EMILY: I wanted to add clarity to something Samantha said earlier, and just mentioned again about Little Giant’s techniques of instilling discipline in their students. Teaching children is a delicate balance of taking care of the kids while keeping in mind the paying customer is actually the parent. Choosing the right people to surround and teach their children is a big decision for parents, so I asked Nate to elaborate for me about their methodology.
NATE: I think one thing my girlfriend always says to me is balance right having balance in your life and I really try to bring that here. As far as being strict with the kids, but also letting them be themselves. I remember when I was a young child, I did karate and TaeKwonDo and it was just so strict and formal and as I was such a rambunctious child, and my mom was a single mom, I’m always running around being a crazy kid.
So I just remembered that and I remembered, trying it out for two weeks and just like, man, like I just felt like I couldn’t be a kid. You know what I mean? But I still think the parents that are bringing their kids here, they want that, but they don’t want to drag their kids here. They don’t wanna ‘come on Johnny. You have to come. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.’ They want their kids to wanna go and I find that so many of the kids, they come in, ‘oh, hey coach Nate. Oh hey. You know’, and, but they’re still respectful. They still bow on the mat. They’re still working hard.
It’s still, yes sir. No sir. Yes ma’am. No ma’am. All that good stuff. And I think parents really enjoy that. I think it feels great when you see a kid just enjoy himself, but all or herself. And also just crushing it and sweating and really wanting to run and race and duck and dive and all that good stuff.
It really feels good. For myself and obviously for Kru Chon and it’s great ’cause his daughter takes the classes too. So I get to be her coach and he’s my coach. Ryan, he’s been my coach for seven or eight years, so it’s great that they can see that I’m still, yes sir. No sir. To him. And they’re Yes, sir. No sir to me, and then his daughter as well because even though he’s. Father, she’s gonna get away with some stuff, but for me, I can be her coach and kind of push her and it’s just a good connection that we got going on.
So I think the parents see that, when they see his daughter Mina in class and they see us playing with the kids, at the end of class, oh, you got one minute to go, run around, have fun, and then whoever brought you here go back to your parents. You know what I mean? They listen pretty well.. So I think that balance of having fun but competitive, but learning kind of atmosphere, I think that really helps. And I think the parents really enjoy that. And I think that the kids genuinely want to come and they want to work out and they wanna show like that, how strong they are and how fast they are.
EMILY: Kru Chon and Nate expect to move to their new location this fall, sometime after September first. It’s not too far from the current location, so it will be an easy transition for most students. But if you’ve built a great community and a welcoming atmosphere, your customers would follow you just about anywhere.
SAMANTHA: I went there and I wasn’t very impressed with it. There it is just drywall and there’s lots of places where I was just like, oh, my kid can get hurt there.
But I saw the people and I was just like, these people are, they have potential. They’re gonna take it far. They have the heart for it. And they have the commitment, dedication, and they’re pouring into your children and to each other, and to the other fighters and the adults that come to class, whether it’s just for strength training or for professional fighting.
They put their heart into it. So I know that they were gonna grow and I just wanted to be part of that growth with them.
EMILY: Growth is exciting, and big things are ahead for Little Giant. I asked Kru Chon and Nate what advice they’d give other small business owners, and it is exactly the same as the training they give their students — just jump.
NATE/KRU CHON: I would just say follow your heart. If you ever want to do something, just do it.
Obviously plan it. But you gotta pull the trigger, you gotta jump, and you got one life. So if something makes you happy and you wanna do it, there’s always a way to do it. We couldn’t be happier right now. And everything’s going great. Not that it always goes great, but everything’s going well.
I think if you wanna be an entrepreneur, it’s totally possible in this country. We’re very fortunate where we live and you have great opportunities to do that. Also, people don’t want to learn all the time. They’re scared to learn. Please come. I am a hundred percent happy to help because even, uh, zero knowledge is very come show up. I can help you.