This week we have a chance to hear about the first steps of a female entrepreneur originally from Brisbane Australia: Pam Casey. Before coming to Japan, she was Director of Studies at a major English School Chain in Australia. She then spent a couple of years working for one of the Japan’s major schools, before opening GetGO an English language conversation school in Chiba. Unlike previous interview, this time we focus on the topic on how to allow a new company to survive and grow in the future.
Sibylle Ito: You are making a difference in a field where competition is very tough, but as well English schools seem to burst quite often. What is your approach of making sure that GetGO is still functioning as a company in five or ten years?
Pam Casey: We are trying to make a difference, anyway! But we are still in the early days. 英会話 competition is tough in Japan, but the demand for English lessons is high. We take the collapse of Nova, GEOS et al as reminders to
– maintain standards of quality, even when rapid growth without quality control is possible. For example, in most developed countries, a degree + a TESOL certificate is a minimum prerequisite for teaching ESL. However, the supply of such teachers doesn’t match demand in Japan, so there are a lot of unqualified teachers even in eikaiwa with good reputations. GetGO is focused on ensuring that all our teachers either have or are working towards those minimum qualifications.
– never accept a customer’s money for something we cannot provide. Nova made a complete hash of their finances as a result of their ‘point’ system, whereby students could keep buying ‘lessons’ that Nova did not have enough teachers to actually provide. GetGO uses a month-to-month contract. It is impossible for us or the students to lose track of how many lessons are owed – they simply pay for a month of lessons & we provide a month of lessons. So it’s easy for us to realize if we can accommodate a new student. If we realize that we can’t accommodate that student, we will put them on a waiting list until we can provide the best possible lessons for them.
– decentralize operations as much as possible. GEOS’ headquarters was overloaded with underpaid managerial staff, who were out of touch with what was actually happening in the classrooms. I think this is a common problem even in the currently successful big eikaiwa. There is little communication between frontline staff & management, and frontline staff have very little decision-making power. As a result, customers’ experiences can be frustrating, because frontline staff don’t know/ are not motivated to care about how to be flexible in scheduling, recommending courses etc. GetGO plans to empower the staff at each school we open to make their own decisions when it comes to operations. Of course, this system will require a lot of training, but we think it will be a worthwhile investment.
– run the company in English Only… It’s culturally-insensitive, and I feel extremely guilty about this… But lack of communication between teaching staff & managerial staff is another of the weaknesses we perceive in the big eikaiwa. At GetGO, we want the teachers to be involved in the business and we want the administrative and managerial staff to be involved in the curriculum. It’s much easier and more efficient to find Japanese staff, who can use English than it is to find teachers, who can use Japanese. Besides, if Rakuten & Uniqlo can do it…
SI: For the company set up how much Japanese was really needed for you?
PC: A lot! GetGO is a joint venture between my husband Junshi (a Japanese national) and me. So I was spared having to negotiate with real estate agents, partition builders etc as Junshi did it all. I speak such poor Japanese that I cannot even handle a walk-in customer properly. But we’ve hired an absolutely brilliant woman (a refugee from GEOS’ upper echelons) to handle customer liaison. When she’s not in, I hand out little forms asking people to leave their contact details so that she gets in touch with them later. Plus I’m studying Japanese…
SI: Globally Japan is sometimes perceived as a unwelcoming society for foreigners and giving only limited opportunities for women. You are an example that it can be made. What is your perception on this topic?
PC: Well, discrimination exists in every society. Of course, Japanese history means modern Japan has less experience in dealing with foreigners than almost any other country has. Further working conditions in Japan certainly make it near-impossible for women to have children and a career at the same time. But you just get on with it and do what you can, don’t you? Any other direction, madness lies.
I’ve only experienced discrimination personally once. An old lady living in an apartment above GetGO wanted our school to close down, because she misunderstood and thought the school was some kind of Hostess Club. The fact that I wear no make-up and shabby clothes didn’t seem to register – I’m Caucasian, so to her I looked too sexy (I wish!)… I didn’t know whether to be flattered or hurt! Anyway, the body corporate overruled her. So the majority were against discrimination.
Anyway, I’m a little sick of hearing middle-class whities like me complain about being discriminated against in Japan. Of course it exists and of course we have a right to be angry about it. But at least let’s put it in context and realize ‘Well, hey, at least no-one is wearing a pillow-case on their head and trying to lynch us.’
SI: From the time you have started the company until now, do you have any comments in regard to “I wish I had known this before I started”.
PC: I wish I’d learnt more Japanese. I wish I’d gotten a Hanko earlier!
SI: You are quite active on twitter. Do you see an effect on your business?
PC: In terms of attracting customers – no. But I have only been active for a couple of months. At the moment, I’m just experimenting with it. But I’m learning so much – it’s a fantastic network to learn. I have learnt heaps about how to use technology in the classroom. And if chatting to @getgo_pam makes someone feel more excited about learning English, it gives me a warm glow.
Thank you so much Pam for taking time to go over so many questions. Definitely I am impressed about the drive and honesty of Pam. For sure Pam is fully aware of the challenges in the English conversation field, but has clear set quality principles that must let customers feel treated fair. I wish only the very best for the future of GetGo.
More info in regard to Pam Casey can be found at
Brought to you by Sibylle Ito (シビル伊藤）