Things I’d Wish I’d Known Before Starting My School in Japan
I arrived in Japan in June 1999, after almost 20 years working as a high school teacher in the UK and Australia. During the first few years, my working time was shared between working as a pro rugby coach and English teacher. In the UK and Australia, I had not worked as an English teacher, but as a PE Teacher and was also a WRU Level 3, Premier Division rugby coach, hence my decision to move to Japan where rugby was professional and unofficially always had been! However, working as a freelance rugby coach meant moving around a lot and in addition to not enjoying this so much, I began to feel that I could honestly run a better English school than most of the owners I was working for.
What is it they say? Ignorance is bliss?
So, in 2003, I opened my own school, which I named Queens Education. Within months I opened a second school and forged a collaboration with a local successful Juku school. In the UK, in addition to being a classroom teacher, I had also been head of year 11 ( 200 sixteen year olds) and I had lead a team of seven teachers. I was also part of the school senior management team which meant I certainly had a skills set, however, it wasn’t long before I started to realize that this would certainly not be enough when trying to set up and run an English school business in Japan. I had little business training and the key word was most definitely “business”!
I learnt that that there are 3 types of people required to run a successful business ; the technician, the manager and the entrepreneur. If you are all three, or you have all three types running your business, then you are off to a very good start. Like many teachers who start schools in Japan, I was the technician! The curse of the technician is that loving what you do so much and being good at it, can convince yourself to turn ithat skill into some kind of business but beware!a business. Your baby can quickly turn into an out of control monster.
The manager is very good at creating systems, schedules and making the office run smoothly, what we might call “operational efficiency” or OE. While this is extremely important,it is not “strategy “ and can only give you a competitive advantage for a limited period of time, in fact until your competitors copy what you are doing. I have seen Japanese owners have many problems when hiring and working with “ foreigners”, because with all due respect, culturally, most Japanese find it difficult to understand how foreigners “think and tick” and vice versa. My advice would be to delegate this managerial role to a trusted foreign senior teacher or someone who understands both sides well. The entrepreneur is the third vital skill trait required. He or she is the person with the vision for the company, the one who wakes up every day with “another” good idea and the one who untimately takes the company forward. My wife often says to me these days, “ no more good ideas please, just make some money.”
As I stated above, “operational efficiency” is not strategy. I wish when I started my business, that I had had a basic knowledge of strategy, as it would have helped me a lot in knowing where to position myself within the market.
Strategy by definition is “ the creation of a unique and valuable position, involving a different set of activities, that are different from your rivals or similar to your rivals but performed in a different way “ ( ref- Michael E Porter )
Let us assume that there are three basic positions you could occupy within the market, however, they are not mutually exclusive and there is some overlap!
“Serving the few needs of many customers”– for example, a pronunciation school or exam based school.
“Serving the broad needs of a few customers”– targeting a niche market such as business professionals or medical practitioners and serving all of their needs from specific lessons to study abroad etc.
“ Serving the broad needs of many customers in a narrow market “– for example, having a monopoly in a small village/town with few rivals and serving the needs of all community members.
These are often points that new school owners don’t consider and yet if considered carefully can lead to a significant competitive advantage. Of course, there are dozens of other questions to ask when starting a business but too many to cover in this article.
After several years of learning developing and evolving I believe we have found some ways of being unique and ahead of the market and our competitors.
To take myself as an example, I basically fit into position number 2.(serving the broad needs of a few customers and it seems to finally work well for us. I run two schools in parallel; one school focuses on elementary school kids, and the other, my adult school has an in house and online presence. In the adult school we focus on high end business professionals, who have the financial ability to pay but little time for study and a great need for flexibility. In both I use native English speaking teachers and Japanese teachers who interchange smoothly on the timetable ( a monthly 2 lesson/2 lesson system ). I use a proprietary video analysis software system in the classroom which combined with a video sharing platform allows parents and adult students to view what happens in the lessons. I also have packages available for kids who want to combine English and juku study. We use our own original (licenced) textbooks and the overall effect is that we have , I believe, created a tight interlocking system. Can you see where I am going with this? By attempting wherever possible to be unique or to create pockets of uniqueness, it makes it difficult for our competitors to copy what we do. This therefore, helps to give us a competitive advantage and creates a barrier of entry for others. The IP ( intellectual property ) which we have created has create also added value to our business. That was the all important strategy which we had to develop.
Looking back, I wish I had known some of the business basics that would have allowed me to do the above before ever opening my doors for business. As it is, I do break some of my own rules about strategy ( as listed above ) because my business wasn`t planned out from the beginning but has evolved over the last thirteen years into what it is today. I am proud of what a Rugby coach has achieved and I am hoping that this article will help you to set your school up on a potentially successful trajectory from day one!
For those of you who enjoy this kind of talk, lets take it a step further. Business and marketing has historically been based on getting the 5 P`s right! These are still relevant but nowadays there is the need for an extra P, the “Purple Cow” ( Ref – Seth Godin). In our industry especially where there is an English school on every corner, the need to stand out has never been more important. The Purple Cow concept states that the products and services you provide need to be “ remarkable” if they are going to be seen! Question – “What is the opposite of remarkable?” The answer is “very good”! Being very good, is therefore not enough. If you intend to enter the kids’ video music area, or write a new English text book for kids or open a school in an area that is saturated with schools, then you better make sure that your product or service is 10times better than those of your incumbent competitors otherwise you are going to be diving into a bloody red sea of competition, which is not what you want to be doing. The secret is to look at what your potential customers are buying, then create a remarkable product or service for them. Niche it, then micro niche it (and micro niche it once again), go deeper and deeper and be the “very best” within your micro niche !)
Businesses that are historically recognized as “Purple Cow, remarkable in their own way include such businesses as Starbucks, who re-invented the drinking coffee experience, Curves, who re-invented the ladies fitness industry, Cirque du Soleil, who totally revolutionized the industry combining circus and theatre, docomo`s “ i-mode” function and of course Apple’s i-pad and i-phone.
Who has created a purple cow in our industry, a product or service that is truly “remarkable” ? I am looking forward to your response to this question!
When you have identified that product or service, ask yourself “who” did it and “how” did they do it, then go out and try and do it for yourself but better.
Good luck !