March 10, 2009
March 10, 2009
How to look for them and what to do if you find one
Hello my name is Guy Cihi. Perhaps we’ve met at a recent ETJ or JALT event or maybe you’ve known me for many years. Either way I look forward to sharing some of my experiences and adventures as an ELT entrepreneur. I hope you’ll find something useful here; a nugget you can apply to your own ELT story. I look forward to your comments and questions. To get things started on the right foot let me begin by saying that while I am a hardworking man, I also know that I have been a very lucky one too. I am eternally grateful for that.
I came to Japan in March 1985 as vice president of marketing for a newly formed venture called Learning Technologies. I borrowed $10,000 from my father to buy stock in the fledgling company. Other than that I had about -$6,000 in credit card debt to my name. I flew in on JAL with my new business partner, Herb Scheidel. We arrived at dusk and rode to Tokyo in his new ‘Benz’. I’d always thought of them as Mercedes. What did I know? Not much apparently. I was 27 and I remember thinking how good it felt to be riding in those leather seats. It snowed the next morning and I don’t mean a light dusting - it was six inches deep in Tokyo. The hotel manager said it was rare thing; an auspicious sign. Herb took me for a ‘welcome to Japan’ lunch at Nadaman in the New Otani. Our table looked out over beautiful snow covered boughs, painted bridges, waterfalls and stone walkways. The New Otani’s immaculate garden is breathtaking on any day. It was magical on that particular day. Within four years our company was dominating in Children’s English and my stock was worth several million dollars. I paid my father back for the loan and, although he never asked, I paid him back for my college education too.
Before coming to Japan I worked as an industrial designer at several top design and marketing research firms in New York, Connecticut and Atlanta. I was pretty good at it. By age 24, two of my designs were selected for the Museum of Modern Art’s catalog. The first was a nifty socket wrench set for Litton Industries and the second was a beautiful, compact garden hose and reel for the Toro Company. The lessons I learned in my early career have helped me to be a successful entrepreneur. The dean at my design engineering school, a wise old rascal named Bob Redmond taught me that the first step in any good design process is to correctly identify the problem. When you think about it, you’ll see that the best designers, entrepreneurs and teachers, the really successful ones, have correctly identified and solved an underlying problem of profound magnitude.
I began my design career at a firm called King Casey Designs for Marketing in New Canaan, Connecticut. The founder, Eugene Casey, introduced me to a really clever approach. Every design program started with interviews to discuss existing competitive offerings. If we were working on snow blowers for the Toro Company, for example, we would interview people who purchase and use snow blowers. We would also interview people who make and sell snow blowers. Only after making a careful effort to understand the human / machine psychological interface would we start working on improved designs. The next step was to draw sketches and make working prototypes to take back to the consumers and salespeople for feedback. The finished designs that we produced for our clients were always the ones that the consumers and salespeople had said they preferred most. It sounds like a fairly obvious approach right? You would be shocked to discover that most design shops just wing it and work from creative intuition. The same goes for many would be entrepreneurs. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! I wonder if there any language schools and teachers out there just winging it? Nah!
At age 24 I left Connecticut to join a design firm in Atlanta, Georgia. It was there I got my first little taste of culture shock. One of the designers asked me if I knew the difference between a Yankee and a damn Yankee. A Yankee, he patiently explained, is a Northerner who comes down south for a visit. A damn Yankee is a Northerner who comes down south and doesn’t go back. I loved Atlanta! My work ranged from re-engineering blood dialysis machines for Abbott Laboratories to designing set-top cable TV boxes for Scientific Atlanta. Cable TV was just getting started in those days and the Clash had just released London Calling. The owner of the design firm, a good man named Jack Seay, taught me some words of wisdom that I think capture the essence of the entrepreneurial spirit. I smile whenever I think of him with his booming southern accent saying, “Guy, there’s no no such thing as a problem, just an opportunity waiting for a solution!” I have tried to live by those words.
The role of every good designer, every good entrepreneur and every good teacher is to search for problems that can actually be solved. Many good opportunities can be identified by dissecting what consumers and salespeople say, but it’s really quite difficult for people to pinpoint subconscious needs and concerns. It’s also next to impossible for people to imagine things that don’t yet exist. Sometimes it is easier to get people talking about things they don’t like, but dislikes are not opportunities, they’re only clues. You’ll have to methodically chip away at a subject to reveal the good opportunities. If you do succeed in identifying a juicy opportunity, be prepared to invest the money, time and effort necessary to make a sample or a working prototype of your solution. Without it, customers, investors and students will find it very hard to understand what you’re talking about.
Next time I’ll write a little more about my early days in Japan and what I learned then. I’ll also write about branding architecture and provide an example of it. I’ll wager that every teacher and school owner in Japan can materially benefit from thinking through and developing their own branding statement. It always helps to be clear about who you are and what you stand for in life.
Guy Cihi, CEO