The Inner Circle - Problem-solving and Entrepreneurship -- An Interview with Faisca, owner of VirtualCapoeira

Problem-solving and Entrepreneurship -- An Interview with Faisca, owner of VirtualCapoeira

A capoeira studio, as we all know, only functions with a lot of behind-the-scenes work.  On the surface, teaching classes seems to be the most important thing, but sneak out of the classroom and find a storage closet, or a handy drawer, or even the trunk of the instructor’s car, and you’ll find a hodgepodge collection of unlikely objects: unstrung berimbaus, messy loops of wire, assorted sticks and rocks.  Piles of pants and shirts, pressed and folded and ready to go.  Old gourds, long cracked and re-glued.  All the accreted gear necessary to keep a school running and its students outfitted. 

It all must come from somewhere.  There are probably as many different avenues for sourcing equipment as there are capoeira schools in the U.S., many of them circuitous and inconvenient.  Shipping stuff from Brazil is notoriously tricky, filled with Customs issues and hidden traps.  A friend of mine recently spent almost a year nailing down a new source for his studio’s uniform pants—first traveling down to São Paolo, meeting a business acquaintance who knew a guy who knew another guy, setting up a handshake arrangement, flying back to the States, placing an order which was promptly seized by Customs, paying several fees, and finally receiving the box of pants only to find that they were a different material from what he and his source had agreed.  Most of us, unfortunately, are familiar with some version of this story.

However, there is at least one man in the United States who has taken the trouble to set up a reliable, consistent import business for capoeira schools.  Jon Hoeger (Faisca) has been involved in capoeira since the late 1990s when he started training as a college student in Utah.  With a background in gymnastics and an acrobat’s mindset, his game stood out for its persistent flips and tricks.

He is also the owner of, a website devoted to providing anything a capoeirista might need.  But he didn’t start out intending to be an importer.  “I started training in 1999.  It was hard to get stuff, you know, trying to get berimbaus and pants and that sort of thing.  And, I remember I bought my first berimbau online and as a starving college student you kind of pinch your pennies.  I think it was like $120.  I bought it, I got it, and I went to string it and it cracked!  I was so frustrated.  I didn’t have another $120.  So I went to Home Depot and bought, you know, blue and yellow and green tape so it’d look like the Brazilian flag.  But I remember thinking, gosh, there’s gotta be a better way to get this stuff.”

After training for about a year, Faisca left Utah to spend several years in South America.  “While I was in Venezuela I ran into some people who did exporting and importing.”  At the time, it was only a small event in the middle of a large adventure, but it proved fortuitous.  During his absence, Faisca’s teacher Mago had launched a small business called CapoeiraGear that sold (appropriately) gear for capoeira.  “By the time I got back, Mago had started CapoeiraGear.  After he moved, he asked to me to take over for him.” 

It wasn’t Faisca’s first choice.  “We [Faisca and his wife, Pipoca] were moving after I finished school…with the intent of starting our [capoeira] school.  We applied for an SBA loan to open a capoeira school—we actually hired a consultant out of Arizona, a guy that ran, like, six tae kwon do schools down there, to help us get our business plan together and all that.  And it got denied.  So we were up the creek without a paddle, didn’t know what we were gonna do.  We were building a house here, and we said, well we need some income.  So we took the next seven months and—we didn’t have kids at the time—we worked twelve-, thirteen-hour days every day.  We spent money we didn’t have to go down to Brazil and line up some suppliers.  Then we launched  It was kind of our fallback plan that ended up being Plan A.”

Faisca, far left, with hand wrap and his wife Pipoca, with baby

The more we talk about it, the more animated he becomes.  It’s clear that he looks back on those beginning years with a sort of fond ruefulness, the way you might look back on a camping trip where you very nearly died but eventually walked out stronger, wiser, and with a good story to tell.  “It was an adventure, for sure.  We tried to be a little more progressive...this was back in 2005—pre-Wordpress, pre-Magento, pre-Shopify—we actually had to hire a web developer and it cost us, like, $25,000 just to build the website.”

From the beginning, set out to distinguish itself from similar websites.  “We tried to do some different things.  We created the Affliates Program and the Wholesale Program to try and get customer loyalty.  We did the Virtual Points Program [more on all these programs below].  Some things that nobody else was doing at the time.”  As noted earlier, the supply chain for capoeira gear can be shaky, and Faisca and Pipoca did a huge amount of preliminary work to make sure that their customers could count on a reliable and consistent inventory.  “When we went down to Brazil we tried to get a bigger product offering.  Most other websites had berimbaus and pandeiros but only a couple people had atabaques, not very many.  People would have, like, a couple of pairs of pants but that was it.  And they were almost always out of stock…We just tried to give a more comprehensive offering.  So we went down there and met some people and suppliers.  I think we launched with 120 different products, and that wasn’t counting different sizes and colors.  We had a bunch of stuff.  That was our first real entrepreneurial venture outside of running a small capoeira studio.  It was a lot of work.  Looking back on it even now I’m like, wow, it was a lot of work.”

Fortunately, that work has paid off.  Any studio using VirtualCapoeira can essentially “fire and forget” its supply orders.  Virtual smooths out supply-chain wrinkles and handles the quagmire that is international shipping law.  “What we offer for people is we have stuff in stock, we’re consistent, we fight the battles with Customs so you don’t have to.  I’ll tell you that over the years, there are at least half a dozen instructors in [a capoeira group] that own schools that’ve had boxes stopped in Customs and they call me, ‘Faisca, what do I do?’  And I’m like, oh, don’t worry about it.  I call my Customs broker and…so there’s an annual bond that you have to buy for Customs broker to even be able to release shipments for you.  And so it’s not enough just to go hire a broker, you also have to buy a bond.   So we would declare ourselves the importer of record for the benefit of ‘x instructor,’ and then they could piggyback on our bond and get the boxes released.”

For me, unraveling all those tangled steps would undoubtedly unravel my sanity, but Faisca seems to delight in it.  Listening to him, I can understand why he’s an entrepreneur: there’s a particular mindset, a cheerful embracing of the next problem.  “It’s all these little things.  This is business.  Business is all about solving problems, you know.  If you’re buying from Brazil you’ve got quality control issues, potentially, because the factories down there aren’t exactly as resurrected as the ones in, say, China or the United States.  So getting a consistent product is not always easy.  And then getting it here by the time you have your batizado is also not always an easy thing.  It’s all of those things put together.”

As for the website itself, offers plenty of special programs specifically designed to help studio owners.  “We have our Wholesale Program.  If you’re a running a capoeira studio or teaching in a group of any kind, then we allow you to buy the same products that we retail at wholesale prices with a minimum order quantity.  Then you can turn around and use them in your studio or retail them to your students or whatever it may be.  And we also do the Batizado Sponsorship Program.  We’ll give you some free gear: some fliers you can pass out to promote the studio—we put a little code on them so people can come to and save money—but also so that you can hand them out to parents and friends, everyone who comes to watch the batizado, and promote your studio too.”    

There’s even a way to get your logo onto a shipment of uniforms.  “We also have a Custom Pants Program.  We’ll do either a screenprint or an embroidery, when people want to order pants and they don’t want to deal with sourcing or paying to get them embroidered in Brazil.  There’s a setup fee to get started but then after that the minimum order quantity is only two pants so you can order as little as two at a time.  They just come in the mail with your customized studio logo either embroidered or printed on, and you’re ready to go.  So [studio owners] can focus on running the studio, they can focus on teaching classes, focus on getting more students.  They don’t have to worry about being an international importer or worry about supply-chain issues.” 

What's a wedding without some flips from the groom?

I switch topics on him.  Faisca happens to be a member of an angel investment group in his hometown.  An angel investor is someone who provides capital up front to help a business get off the ground in exchange for, say, convertible debt or ownership equity.  Sort of a more concentrated, official version of crowdfunding.  As such, he has plenty of experience identifying good and bad business practices.  “The things that we really look for, the big ones are: what the product or service is, how painful is the problem that the product or service solves, the management team—who they are, what their experience is, what their capabilities are, if they’re fighters or if they’re just going to quit—and then market size.” 

What does he mean by, “the painfulness of the problem the product solves”?  Faisca gives me a personal example, a website he and his wife built called  In exchange for a $10 per month subscription users got access to a whole slew of capoeira instructional videos.  The videos covered dozens of movements, with replays, slow-motion, multiple angles, and a teacher on hand to point out key techniques and common mistakes (as a teenager and newly-minted capoeirista I was very taken with these videos).  Unfortunately, the website never got off the ground because, Faisca believes, the problem it solved simply wasn’t painful enough.  “So take LearnCapoeira for an example.  I thought we had a good product and service, I thought our management team was good, we were pumping out good content and we had some business experience, and then the market potential from the research we had done was going to be huge, to us.  But what we overestimated was the painfulness of the problem we were trying to solve.  And apparently, the problem of, ‘Hey I can’t get capoeira classes locally’ was not painful enough for people to pay 10 bucks [to solve].  That was the mistake we made.”

Speaking about LearnCapoeira’s collapse, Faisca sounds pained.  He invested a lot of time and money into the business, only to have it flop.  For precisely this reason, entrepreneurship is frightening to contemplate.  Depending where on the internet you look, only about two out of ten startups make it five years, and only one of those will last to ten years.  Moreover, running a small business (like, for instance, a capoeira studio) can be a heavy mental burden.  As the owner, you are responsible for absolutely everything.  All the problems come to you.  Your business becomes your world, and that world only turns by your hand.   

Of course, stopping the buck yourself can be immensely satisfying.  It’s clear that Faisca understands both sides, having seen and done it plenty of times.  “We’ve invested in a bunch of different companies and some of them have done really well, some of them not so well.  Once you get into business, you have to change your business model halfway through.  But that’s one of the fun things about being in business, you just have to get started.  And you can’t see the end from the beginning.  Once you get far enough down the path, you can get to a corner and maybe see around the corner that you never would have been able to see from the start, when you were a mile back.”

Faisca, center, with arms crossed

My final question to him is simply: what advice do you have to someone trying to start and grow a capoeira studio?  His answer was remarkably thorough; here it is, unabridged.  “I guess the first thing I’d ask them is what’s your objective?  Are you wanting to make this your full-time living?  Or are you wanting to keep your day job?  Are you in this for the love and the passion, you know…what is the thing you’re trying to get out of it.  At least for me, my approach to running a school would change quite a bit depending on what my objective is.  There’s a lot of things that you do that fall into different buckets of why you do them.  For example, if you’re out doing demos, what’s the purpose of the demo?  Is it like a piano recital where you get together and give the students an opportunity to showcase their talents and let the parents see what they’ve accomplished?  If you’re trying to grow your studio and you’re trying to get it to be your fulltime job—which is a great objective, it’s not a bad objective—then maybe how you approach the demo is going to be a little different than if all you’re trying to do is let your students showcase what they’ve learned.  You might not do as much marketing, passing out fliers, plug your classes.  It’s going to change. 

“If you’re starting a capoeira studio, make sure that you have a very realistic project put together.  Make sure you really understand what your costs are.  And that includes soft costs and not just hard costs.  And in your soft costs make sure to include your own time and your opportunity cost.  What else could you be doing if you’re not going to [start a studio]?  Let that weigh in on your decision. 

“The other thing that we learned early on is that once you get your budget put together, separate your fixed costs and your variable costs.  If you can understand that, you’ll have a much better plan for how you’re going to expand as your student base grows.  Because, for example, rent is mostly a fixed cost.  Whereas variable cost, if you’ve got employees teaching regularly, for every additional class you add on you add a little bit of cost.  Or for every student you sign up you’ve got to throw in the cost of their uniform or whatever.  I think that if you go in with your eyes wide open, it’s going to be a lot easier for you to figure out what it’s going to take and how you’re going to grow. 

“And the next thing I’d probably tell them is go sign up for [disclaimer: CT only payed in kudos for the endorsement] because there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel and learn it the hard way.  At least in my career, having a mentor has been the most important thing for me.  If you don’t have someone to teach you when you come across things you don’t know—and when you’re an entrepreneur every single day you come across things you don’t know—then you’re going to get stuck.  And it’s also helpful to have a community as a sounding board that you can bounce ideas off of.  And to have a group that keeps you motivated.  Because that’s a big thing.  Just waking up in the morning and having that desire to get better every day.”

Like most of us, I enjoy talking to anyone who has real experience and competency in an industry.  Someone who’s spent a decade or two innovating, surviving, and succeeding in a vocation has gained a unique fluency and perspective.  Like chatting with LeBron James about defensive formations in basketball or watching Warren Buffet check a stock report, there’s a sense of deep processes going on below the surface.  That more information is available and analyzed in a glance than I could get in hours of staring.  And the most devoted individuals implicitly communicate such an infectious love for their craft that I’m able to see it through their eyes and forget, for a moment, my own ignorance.  Faisca has an easy, contagious enthusiasm for problem-solving.  He naturally generates empathy in the listener—hmm, what would I do in that situation?  Pretty soon you’re swept along in the story, fantasizing about growing your own little business venture.  It’s almost enough to make you strike out on your own, abandoning the 9-to-5 safety net for the heady frontier of entrepreneurship.


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