The Challenges of Starting an English School in Japan
Starting English School – When I started my own school, I vowed I would be the best manager I could and have a school teachers would want to teach for. I would try to have great conditions, a competitive salary, if not high, at least reasonable, and give as much as I could. After years of striving for this, tinkering, trying to improve, I found teachers were never satisfied. This isn`t a complaint. It is human nature. Humans have always tried for more. It is what makes us great as one of the animals of earth. It helps us solve monumental problems. But as a manager, you need to remember that everytime you do something special, everytime you improve things, no matter how great things get, your employees will always want more. They aren`t selfish. It is just human nature.
by Kevin Burns
Starting English School – one mistake everyone makes is thinking they have to start a school at a separate venue from their own apartment, or they are too square or stubborn to do it out of the place where they live. I think that is a huge mistake, and part of my success was starting our first school in our home. You should tell the real estate agent that you want to do some tutoring in your apartment – you are starting a tutoring business. You rent a place on the first floor of a good solid building with good walls. So as to not disturb the neighbours. You get some good signs made for your door and fence if that is available. I also had a Canadian flag on a pole. All of this helps. But keeping costs down is the main thing. Then every student is gravy as you need a place to live anyway. You can have a good 30 student school right in your apartment and then pick up part-time work elsewhere. You can also self-sponsor yourself for a visa if you have enough work.
Things have changed! It is much more difficult now. Japanese are studying online. Many are going to the Philippines to study English. Many people of the Philippines teach English in Japan, and good on them! I love the Philippines!
I state above that you can just start a school in your apartment. Before that was true.
Now though, even though I am a bit of a celebrity in the English teaching world (with Speak Master) and such, it is difficult to get students!
I think networking is extremely important. But you need to go about it in the right way. If people sense you are just getting to know them, to make the sale, it won`t work. I enjoy meeting new people. Hopefully you do too. Put that to good use by getting to know the people of your area, and hopefully that will lead to students.
Also, it seems that unless you are willing to teach children, it is difficult to have many students. The children tend to bring in the adults (parents, or people who know the parents).
If you choose to start a school, good luck with it! It can be a very rewarding thing to do!
Back in the Gold Rush Days, what would I have done?
“I would have set up a stall on the side of the road and sold pans. You see, every single one of the diggers would have needed a pan. Let me put it another way. Do you think you can make a better burger than McDonald`s can? Of course. But can you come up with a better system for selling burgers?… Interesting isn`t it?…Don`t try to sell to people who don`t want to buy. Rather stand by the road and sell to people who desperately want to buy. You only need one thing to make a fortune in the restaurant business–a starving crowd.
If you`ve got a product or service everyone wants, then it`ll sell itself. Marketing is so simple when you stand in the path of people who really want to buy rather than your having to go out there to sell.”
–Bradley J. Sugars, “Billionaire in Training,” p. 135
(Pictured above, Our English school and Canadian home, imported from Cloverdale,BC)
Starting English School
I told my friends and family in Canada that if I stayed in Japan I would open my own school. They laughed.
My father asked: “Are you crazy?”
Everyone was very supportive.
My father did his best to show me articles about the Yakuza attacking Canadians in Osaka and anything with the word earthquake or volcano in it.
Once it became evident I was serious though, my father would come home with guidebooks on Japan and even co-signed my loan. He was a great Dad and I miss him terribly! He and my mother have passed away in the past two years. I miss them both.
(Starting English School Map – Now we have three schools in Odawara and Minamiashigara City in Kanagawa)
I knew nothing about starting an English school. But I have always been a dreamer, and I have always dreamed of different businesses I could start and run.
I didn`t know anyone who had started an English school in Japan, so I talked with friends and got ideas from them.
In my first two years in Japan I taught for four different schools and at even more branches of those schools. I got to know owners, managers and teachers. I kept my ears and eyes open and tried to glean what I could about what I felt was positive about each school and what wasn`t. I planned on taking the good and using it at Kevin`s English Schools, once I started them.
Starting English School – St. Mary College, Nunoike
I worked in Nagoya at first for St. Mary College and it was a good start for me overall. I learned the Berlitz method there from a teacher who had taught it. They used the method at St. Mary. Also the atmosphere was quite classy, and I vowed to make my own school classy yet homey.
Starting English School – Working for ECC
ECC had us stamp a time card at that time 1989-90. I thought this was bad for the atmosphere. Supposedly we were professionals and could be trusted to show up on time. If not I felt those tardy teachers should be fired after two instances of being late. To me it is basic that you show up on time ready to teach. If the teachers need a time clock then perhaps you really need different teachers.
Starting English School – YMCA
The atmosphere of the Tokyo YMCA was much more relaxed and friendly. No time cards, and a great family environment. The secretaries would greet you warmly, and I got along well with the teachers and students. It was a small branch run by a great manager, a man named Minamida. He was warm, friendly and cared about the school. I wanted to emulate him and the `Y` one day with my own business venture.
A year before my Japanese wife and I got married, I started to teach English in her apartment (owned by her father). The building is cute. It looks like a house on the first floor, with the apartment on the second floor. At the start we sat on cushions around a low table.
Starting English School – Read, Read Read!
Read all that you can about starting a business, about good teaching, about marketing and SEO (for your website).
I read a lot of positive thinking (I think I can, I think I can) type books to keep me going. Starting your own business can be depressing as things go slowly at first. I found myself questioning if this was really going to work, as we weren`t in a large city and near a minor train station. But I kept going and my wife kept encouraging me.
Starting English School – The Pamphlet Man
I put pamphlets in mail boxes. I put posters up wherever I could get away with it. Which frankly now, being older and hopefully wiser, I don`t recommend.
Reading the Guerilla marketing books and other books on marketing. They are a big help. The books on managing an English school are good too. There is a good one by Heinemann publishing called the ELT Manager.
My wife plugged the school with her customers and this was probably the best advertising. She was well respected in the community, and I was a harmless and gentle looking young man, so people were willing to give our school a try.
Plus at the time, 1991, there wasn`t much competition in the area.
Starting English School – David Harrington Gave me Good Advice
I started to order books from a store called the English Resource, which was owned by David Harrington. I bought books from him–all our books, and he taught me what he knew about starting an English school and getting it going. He was a big help, and we became a great customer.
I think finding these kinds of relationships when you are starting a new business venture is really important. Getting the right help at the right time is instrumental in getting a school going.
It was near the tail end of the bubble economy. The school chugged along slowly ten students for 6 months, then 20 students finally at about 8 months we were up to 50, then 80, then I hired a couple of part-time teachers to help me as we peaked at 125 students within a year! Things really took off after I decided to teach children as well as adults.
Don`t limit your school to only one kind of student. If you don`t want to teach junior high students or children, then hire a good teacher who does, but don`t limit who can come and study. Once I stopped limiting the school to adults, the school went from 20 students to 125. Also don`t limit which days you offer classes at first, you may even want to offer them seven days a week and see how many students come in for which days. You can always hire someone to work on Sundays if you don`t want to.
Go to city hall and find out the demographics of each area of the city. Which is growing? Which has many young families with children? Which is the highest crime area? It can be deceiving.
I think giving students a pleasant experience of enjoying English is the main thing. I try to be funny and a cross between Conan O`brien, Letterman, Larry King and your mother! I think humor is a great gift and Japanese love humor. Many students unfortunately have had some pretty scary teachers over the years, and I don`t just mean for English. Japanese from coaches, parents down to teachers can be very, very strict with the children. So just stepping into a classroom with a teacher is a huge forbidding step for many Japanese with study anxiety.
Surprise them by being warm, gentle and friendly. They may wonder where that nice breeze just came from! If you treat them well the students will come. Plus luckily for you, there are many teachers with Phds on down who should never have stepped into the classroom. Some are lousy teachers and some are even arrogant to boot. This will help you.
The more I see hundreds of teachers every year in all types of work situations, the more I believe good teachers are born, not made.
The Bubble Bursts
After the bubble burst it was not as easy to get students, plus more schools opened in our city. So more competition for fewer students. Student totals went down, and then it was a struggle to keep things going at a reasonable rate.
We started a website in about 1995 or so. It didn`t bring in so many students, but occasionally it would bring in a big contract. We got a company contract through our website and that lasted for about 10 years, until the company moved to Kyoto.
Fuji Film is the main employer in our area, and they have been having a tough time for the past 15 years or so. So it has impacted on our business too.
But our schools continue to go along. We are no longer going great guns as in the bubble years, but we pay the bills, and even have a full-time teacher, a part-time teacher and myself teaching classes.
Starting English School – Luck and a little help from my friends
In my case, of – starting English school – I got lucky. I was in the right place at the right time. The bubble economy was still ongoing for about a year after I started the school. I married a great lady who really did so much to get the school going.
As well I found people who were able to give me bits of knowledge that could help me. David Harrington gave me advice. In exchange I bought books and supplies from his store. Teachers love to teach, no matter the subject, and many teachers know something you don`t. Pick their brains!
Starting English School – Failure not an Option
By shear guts and determination, I was committed to making it work. Failure was just not something I wanted to entertain, I didn`t want to go back to Canada and have to tell my parents I failed at getting the school going.
I was not willing to do that, and I see that in all successful entrepreneurs. They just refuse to give up. You must too if you want to make a go of this business as it is not easy and it is not get rich quick.
But if you want to do it, don`t let anyone tell you, you can`t! You can, but you need to find the right area, and you may need to move if circumstances change in the area you are in. Many owners say the same thing. Good luck and let us know how you are doing!
Starting English School Advice
Can you give one piece of advice to others wanting to start their own businesses in Japan?
“Network!! Don’t be afraid to let people know who you are and what you are doing and what you want to do. Build genuine relationships with other people. You need to be interested in what other people are doing. Your relationships need to be mutually beneficial. People get a very good sense if you are out there only to benefit yourself. The business community is very small in Tokyo and if you don’t have a genuine desire to help others build what they are doing, you can’t expect them to help you. People are generally very helpful; you just have to be sincere.”
–Caroline Pover, from the Downtown English Homepage