Staring a business, any business, can be pretty scary. You really don’t know what is going to happen. You really have no idea what is going to come your way. We were really struggling. There is no other way to put that. My wife was still working as a professor at a local college, I was working full time hours for a private high school, and we were building this company on the side.
We lived in a very small apartment. Our kids were getting older, and another one was on the way. Everything was starting to feel a bit tight. We were extremely careful with money, and every week I had to look in my pockets to see if I had enough money to buy whiteboard markers, lamination film, paper, pencils, and all those little things that we need for the day-to-day running of our school.
Our first classroom was very stark. We couldn’t afford curtains so we got some long white material (like sheets) and hung them on rods we could jam into the windowsills. It was not so great looking, and the people behind our school were noisy on their motorcycles and barking dogs, and the toilet was in terrible condition, and the room was a bit industrial looking, but it was ours. It was really ours, and it was from here that we would make it or go bust.
I have to credit my wife for sticking with me through this time. It was a very hard time for us, and it was tremendously humbling to be turned away at so many places when I was looking for a basic English teacher job. We really struggled with what we need to do to make this school survive, but in spite of all of the pressures to “go the easy way” and just entertain the kids, we decided to listen to our inner voices that said quite the opposite thing.
We decided that we were going to just “do the right thing” and “teach REAL English”. We refused to follow the trend of entertaining, games, songs, and fun. Instead we focussed on core knowledge and making good classes that gave kids power and confidence in English. With about half of the parents our approach was what they wanted. They were astonished that we taught their kids how to spell and write in a couple of months when they got zero results in these areas with the previous owners. There were glad to see that we cleaned up their pronunciation, taught them how to form basic grammatical patterns, and have fun even when they were working hard to learn something new.
We did lose a certain portion of our “client list” that we purchased from the previous owners. The games were over. The fun was done. There was no more full-contact English classes with tickling and wrestling (seriously, that was one thing we had to stop). We just taught the basics, with patience and as much kindness as we could muster. And we would not budge from our position of making each class count for something for kids.
Doing the right thing, we discovered, is not cheap. If you want to do things right you have to do your best when things don’t go your way. But doing the right thing was right for us, and our remaining clients started to do the unbelievable-they told their friends about us. Each week we had more trial lessons. Each week the classes grew and grew. We had such a big sense of relief, and vindication. We were very afraid and full of doubt. Every day we would sit late at night in our very cramped apartment and look at each other through our sleep-deprived eyes and together we decided to keep pushing ahead.
To give you a sense of what we managed to do in a single year, we took our base number of students and then grew the school 150%. Then we did that the second year too, up another 150%. And then we knew right down to our bones that we were on the right track.
It turns out that “doing the right thing” isn’t just “right”. Doing the right thing pays, and it pays right too.
I was asked by a friend if I might write a business book, like a start-up book about “How to get your language school going!” or some such thing. Maybe I will in the future, but right now it does not seem like I have much to say on the topic. Just the two things that I have repeated so far. The first is that you have to be like a “dog with a bone”, and be fiercely tenacious, and never never never give up. The second is to just do the right thing. Don’t take anything that you didn’t earn. Don’t try to cheat or swindle someone from something that doesn’t belong to you. No shortcuts. You got to do it the “hard way”.
I think that I need to put a caveat here about what it means to build a language school. I need to, because there are a lot of different shapes and sized, just like a lot of things. Some people make a language house right in their own house, and have the kids right in their own living room. Classes are small, parents are happy, kids get the attention they need, and everyone is happy as clams. That is perfectly fine. When I talk about the things “you gotta do”, I really am talking mostly to myself, and to people who want to make a school that goes beyond the “mom and pop shop”.
Also, there is nothing wrong at all with the “mom and pop shop” style. Lots of people do it, and lots of people like it. What we are working towards, however, is a deeper and broader affect that we need to make on the “eikaiwa market” as a whole. My plan is to keep pushing our company forward, like Sisyphus, and raise the English language school industry as a whole to a higher level of expectations, and thus a higher level of results and accomplishments for kids. We may not make a scratch nationally here in Japan, but we are going to set a pace that will be hard to keep up with. We are moving forward, and we are not stopping.
We are going to do what is often not done right. We are going to raise the bar.
Next blog on this topic, we will talk about how to go from one shop to TWO and.. beyond!
Thanks so much for coming by friends and neighbors! Have a great day.