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Schooled In The Trade

In this series of articles, Simon Moran looks at the issues involved in starting and running independent ESL schools.

July 03, 2013

Going Solo

Lots of people think about starting their own school, and, of course, lots of people already have. A quick Google search shows hundreds, if not thousands, of small, independent language schools here in Japan, and many thousands more worldwide. Book publishers complain about the difficulty in reaching all elements of this fragmented market, and local laws may or may not ensure qualifications or adherence to standards, of teaching or business law, are necessary to operate.

As for me, I finally tired of the two rooms above a flower shop that passed for the English school I worked split shifts in. It was untidy, unorganized, had no curriculum, no reception or admin staff, no telephone, didn’t provide paid holidays and last minute cancellations went unpaid. I couldn’t, I reasoned, do any worse myself, so in 1998 I turned the spare room in my very small apartment into the first Modern English school, and built my business up from there.

Overnight, my life changed. I was now responsible for everything – including a host of things I had not thought of and knew even less about – but everything started to mean so much more. I applied myself more, paid more attention to my students’ needs, and we all benefitted from it.

Speaking enough Japanese (though I shudder now thinking of some of the things I must have said) I ran an ad in a local free magazine, and waited for the telephone calls. The response was fantastic. I explained my lessons and prices on the phone and met prospective students for a free trial in a café near the station. Within a year my income was double what I received above the flower shop, for a much kinder working week, and I’d built paid holidays into my yearly schedule.

It wasn't long before I couldn’t cope alone. As I was teaching lessons in the evening, the phone would ring. The businessman in me twitched at the potential lead going unanswered while the teacher concentrated on his lesson. There was no longer enough time to take all the calls, do all the free trials and teach all the lessons myself. School management consisted of a file, a notebook and an envelope full of cash, and I needed to expand. I hired a former student as a receptionist-cum-teacher and a part-time native English teacher, moved out of the apartment and converted it into three classrooms. The school’s income doubled again, and a year later we were in newly-refurbished premises next to the station with signs outside, a freedial number and in the next year, we doubled in size again.

Today, we have 12 bricks-and-mortar schools, an online self-study platform, teach via camera over the web and publish textbooks worldwide. We have thousands of students and total revenue several hundred times my last monthly salary above the flower shop.

My role has changed many times and although I still teach the odd classes, is completely different from when I first struck out on my own, in ways I could not have imagined. It has been a long, and at times a very challenging road, and we constantly need to learn and adapt to thrive.

So, you may well still be thinking the same as I did 15 years ago – should I do it myself? Should I start a school? What does it take to do that? In the following articles we’ll take a look at making the break from employment into school ownership and all that entails, both good and bad.

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