Today we’d like to introduce you to Brent Kekoa Ramos and Barbara M.J. Ramos.
Thanks for sharing your story with us Brent and Barbara. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
Our story is likely akin to a tall-tale. Hold on for the ride folks, but rest assured, everything we say here is absolutely true.
[Brent] At eight years old, I started training martial arts after watching Daniel Larusso (The Karate Kid). The attraction was not sport-fighting, but more so the path transcending between a young man finding himself, with the unlikely teacher, Mr. Miyagi. Flash forward and after a stint as a full-time punk rocker, high school teacher, barista, and bellman, I found myself headed to San Francisco to open a kung fu School. No support, and no franchise, or proven chain to be part of, just myself.
Not knowing the full extent of the brutal financial climate of San Francisco, I found myself teaching in a rainy park called Sutro Heights. This period was tough, because failure seemed imminent once I was out there and fully realized how tough this area was, and the stakes were high with my daughter in tow. After months in the park and showing up to zero people, I was able to convince a wellness studio in Chinatown to let me rent 2 hours a week from them and somehow garnered the first few students. The space was an embarrassment, we would be squeezed between stripper pole fitness class, and row-ga, a form of yoga with rowing involved. But, we made it work. From there, we started to actually grow – but I had no place to actually teach besides the park at this point.
Groupon at this time was brand new, and they had never tried a martial arts studio. So I reached out to be a pilot out of pure desperation. Keep in mind, this is when Groupon would do only one deal for 24 hours, and it was like… a “thing to grab”. I remember driving to Starbucks parking lot at midnight just so I could submit because I could not even afford internet. Lo and behold, I show up the next day with over 100 Grouponers ready to train, and absolutely nowhere to host them. I came up with a “staggered” approach and relied on charm to ease people through it. Out of those 100, two people stayed for the next seven years. One of them being Barbara, sitting next to me here now, and co-founder of Koa House (also my wife – and yes, we still have that Groupon today, and yes, it was a damn good deal in my opinion).
There was nowhere to go. San Francisco was too expensive for a solo martial arts venture, so despite my Groupon fame, I was expecting to pack my bags. Walking home one day, I noticed a temple with a “for rent” sign. I called it for weeks as a final hail-mary, with no return. Until one day someone responded in Mandarin. I got a translator, met them in the temple, had dinner with the family, described my goal – and they let me rent from them at 80% beneath San Francisco median prices, simply because they believed in the vision. The temple as it turns out is for Guan Yu, the patron saint of China, in all realms of business, martial arts and war (among others). So there we were, in the heart of SF 1 block up from the TransAmerica building, in the temple for Guan Yu.
We aptly named this school 108, after the Chinese Wuxia story of 108 outlaws. Our decentralized, punk rock, no B.S. zero-lineage approach attracted a whole new crowd to kung fu, and the school thrived especially in its final 3-4 years. 108 became a jewel on the pantheon of SF kung fu. It was around this time that we knew it needed to evolve not only in physical space but in depth. 90% of students were not training for sport or to fight – it was primarily to transcend to a path of empowerment, healing, and strength for themselves; and we wanted to lean into that side of martial arts to the fullest.
During all of this, I got better at martial arts, but healing was part of the journey to mastery along with some others that I write about in our manual, and I wanted to focus on it. I have Hawaiian heritage, so we set off to Maui (where my family roots from) to learn Hawaiian Lomi Lomi Healing in Makawao. We researched what I consider the best of our time, Jeana Iwalani Naluai from Ho’omana Spa, and made the commitment. Jeana took us far past just simple modality training, and into a cultural and heritage spark that cut me deep on the first day of training. From that spark, we dove into all things culturally Kanaka Hawaiian, and we are still learning today. After Ho’omana we continued seeking Kumu (teachers) on the mainland and as much learning as possible from language, hula, cosmology, navigation, medicine, spirituality, and more. What Jeana sparked for me, was something I had yearned for all my life but could never find. So when I was introduced to real Hawaiian (Kanaka) teachers and the incredible amount of power and depth they had which I never knew existed, well it was game over. This was what I was missing and had inklings all my life. The urgency to be a part of it ongoing, and call to contribute was engulfed entirely. My incredible wife grasped it just as tightly, if not more than me, and we embarked back to San Francisco with an expanded vision.
Flash forward: Through Hawaiian thought, we knew the warrior and healer were one and the same. Both sides of the same coin, seamlessly intertwined that everyone carries. And we experienced this as teachers on both ends to know it first hand. Everyone healing ultimately aims to reclaim personal power, and warriors ultimately train to heal at the highest level, both within an endless cycle. The next evolvement HAD to have both… But how do we bring it together in a presentation and business that people can consume? How do you present this to western audiences? How do you scale? We took three years off and went through a ton of work to figure it out. Looking to our teachers, our own experiences, our family, our ancestors, our heroes…. And finally. We now have Koa House. The first “martial spa”.
[Barbara] Brent really said it so beautifully that there’s not much to add. I’d just say that we both had this vision in our minds of what our space would look and feel like. I’m a playwright as well so this idea of visioning something into being is not new, however that doesn’t take away from the magic that’s created when you start to make this vision real. Little choices like paint color or what to name certain treatments, they all go hand in hand to developing the business. But it’s still funny to be in the space and Brent and I will look back and laugh about, “wow, this is a far cry from our gritty San Francisco Chinatown days!” Which don’t get me wrong, I LOVED. I mean, hey, that Groupon REALLY worked out for me! The space we’re in now and everything we put into it – even the music – all has intention and meaning behind it. We want to create a space that truly feels inviting, healing, and mesmerizing to people. All so they can feel comfortable going on this journey of empowerment and healing with us. We feel very fortunate to hold this space.
Has it been a smooth road?
[Brent] The road is never smooth in business. But for me, the road was a minefield from the depths of hell, residing under demonic literature, riddled with doors that lead to no doors, haha. I was a bellman when this path started. There was no business plan, no mentor, no knowledge of marketing, sales, or even finance when I started. I was a bellman who liked kung fu and had a huge adversity to risk. However, necessity is the mother of invention! Not only did I learn quick trial by fire, I did so well that it captured the attention of real companies who saw what I was doing with 108, and hired and trained me to work for them to do the same. Once on the inside of these conglomerates, I just kept learning more and more, underneath real business and marketing people. By the time we ended 108 and transitioned to Koa House – I had nearly mastered entrepreneurship by a combination of both learning under the big boys, plus searing it into me with hardships from the Do It Yourself pain of starting 108.
Now, with Koa House, the path is crystal clear and was put through a strict program and branding process, which I call “Soothe Saying & Gunslinging”. Before we even think about going to market with any idea now, I will run it through this process. I have also started taking other SMB entrepreneurs through this program so they avoid the minefield I had to go through. I focus on SMBs only, and take no equity, exiting after seed ideation & branding phases. If anyone wants to start their own business, I have the utmost respect for them, and want to be a sherpa if needed. For the readers, if you have a dream – give me a call, and let’s go get it!
Specific struggles? It boils down to the seven fundamentals of business, and how well you can understand and execute them to the deepest level along with market-fit, unfair advantages, and whitespace. My deficiency was literally all 7 of them plus no firm plan to begin with.. Fun struggles? Everything from challenge-matches in Chinatown, fights in Oakland parks, driving 60+ miles daily to live in the cheapest area of the bay, community exile, training endlessly, dumpster diving for office items, ditching lineages, all on top of jetting off to start in the most expensive city and market in the world…
Koa House is the shining result of transversing that minefield and surviving it in the early days. My advice to all is, keep going, embrace the challenges, listen to your heroes and ancestors, and enjoy the ride, it is all for a reason.
[Barbara] To tack onto Brent, I had no designs whatsoever when I was younger, past college, and even into early adulthood, to be teaching martial arts or do massage. Though I did always dream of being a director or leader of some sort of some type of community-based space filled with artistic pursuits. So, for me, it was less of having to traverse specific boundaries and more of the mindset shift. It was acknowledging this spark from within that said, “this is where you should be and what you need to be doing.” And I had a lot of doubts whether I should be doing any of this – teaching kung fu and taiji, doing lomi lomi massage, perpetuating Hawaiian values and culture. I think the most important thing when you have those doubts is to listen. To listen both to yourself, your inner most self. But also to listen to what the world is saying. It’s as if you have to listen to an undercurrent of the ocean, deep beyond any surface noise. What can you hear when you truly tap in? If you’re able to do that, it’s a lot easier to feel confident about the road ahead regardless of what obstacles there are. Oh, but trying to build a business and also raise a baby? Hard. Very very hard. Haha.
So, as you know, we’re impressed with Koa House – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
Koa House is a family operated Hawaiian infused spa and martial arts gym. Bringing health and empowerment under a single roof. It’s a program that turns wellness into a conscious journey – located in Littleton, CO.
We specialize in authentic Hawaiian Lomi Lomi massage services and martial arts training. We are unique in that we blend both spa & martial arts together seamlessly, not just housing it in the same building, but actually as a fused together experiential program. Further, our exclusiveness to 100% Hawaiian Lomi Lomi Massage exists only here at Koa House for the Denver community, and our martial arts system, 108, is the only school outside of the original started in Chinatown. These two services specifically are what we are best known for. However, we also offer Muay Thai, Tai Chi, Yoga and more wrapped up as offerings in our memberships.
We’re proud to offer something so unique, but not simply for uniqueness sake. It is rare to find the depth with which we can present to a client in either our spa or martial arts/fitness side. It’s really important to us to be able to present accessibility and incredible value to the people that walk through our doors. And I do think we’ve achieved that balance. Folks that come to us are going to be able to continually uncover more interesting facets as they return. And I think because we think all of this stuff is so cool, others will get to do cool stuff with us!
Let’s touch on your thoughts about our city – what do you like the most and least?
We love Denver and all surrounding areas. Personally, I was raised in Englewood with my mom while my dad was out in Lahaina. Although I have left Colorado for periods of time and come back, I always enjoy it. Most recently coming from San Francisco, we love the accessibility to nature at every turn and do not take anything for granted that our city has to offer. We love going to the mountains, leaf-peeping in Vail, and even exploring the greater south-west states. Denver’s growth has been crazy since the last time living here, but it has been fun to see a small city grow. Diversity & SMB opportunity has always been something I hoped would grow within the area, and I am starting to see that develop – Koa House I hope can be a beacon for this.
- $50 First Time Signature Lomi Lomi Massage
- $99 Martial Arts Only Memberships
- $159 Massage + Martial Arts Memberships
- These are Grand Opening Rates, subject to change, so get in NOW.
- Address: 5601 S BROADWAY SUITE 40, LITTLETON, CO 80121
- Website: https://koahouse.com
- Phone: (720) 722-4190
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: @koahouse
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KoaHouse