You need to be able to show prospective students what you will teach them and how they will progress. A solid curriculum is a good idea, and it’s probably a good idea not to write it yourself from scratch, no matter how much you want to. There are not many people who can run a business, answer the phone, take the money, do the books, clean the floors, change the light bulbs, teach and on top of that write a full curriculum all at the same time while still finding enough time to sleep. At Modern English we have more than 20 years of original material, and it has been an enormous undertaking. Given my time again I would think very seriously before starting it all over.

Off-the-shelf curricula of all types are legion and can be easily adapted. In a competitive, often unregulated, fragmented market, your local publisher’s agent can be very helpful with free materials, training and advice. Sign up to all the publishers’ newsletters, attend all the expos you can and get to know as many different materials as possible. There is always help.

Once the curriculum is decided, you will most likely need to give demo or free trial classes. These should give students and parents a taste of your school, teachers and approach. It’s also a good idea to have both parents and students walk out of the school with something concrete to take away – a giveaway with your contact details on it at a minimum – and also some new English.

We do killer free trials at Modern English and sign up over 80% of our prospective new students. The longest-serving of those went into an old people’s home after staying with us for 17 years, 10 months, 23 days (my database tells me) from the very first day I started.

That represents a very large financial commitment, approximately JPY2,500,000 (US$22,000), so the free trial is key. Plan it all the way through and rehearse so you do it the same each time and can handle anything that comes up unexpectedly.

Business practices here in Japan gave the ELL industry a very bad name for a long time, and this has educated the students – the consumer – in what they can and can’t expect and how they are protected under the law. Long-term, binding contracts and the finance to buy them with are out, and monthly pay-as-you-go is in. As great as this is, it means schools can be hit hard at certain times of year when students leave or take a break, such as summer, year’s end, and the end of the school year. You need a watertight service agreement that your students (if they are adults, their parents or guardians if not) read through carefully with you or a member of staff and sign. Have a lawyer check your paperwork before you start using it to avoid any nasty surprises. The lawyer’s bill will probably be your first nasty surprise, but it is essential to keep on the right side of the law. Here in Japan things are straightforward and complaints few, but word will get around quickly if you don’t treat people well.

Your student service agreement should explain exactly what you provide, for what price, at what conditions, and what is expected from the customer to terminate that relationship.

Your employment agreements should state the same, and you should be well versed in local employment law. Your local Labour Standards office will give free consultations in Japan. Unions can actually be helpful here, as they mostly advise their members to honour employment agreements and know the relevant laws. Great resources also exist online, and most cities offer legal aid. If not, joining the local Chamber of Commerce will most likely help you find what you need.

A word of caution: the online world is full of boards and blogs with people spouting off. (Much like this one!) Be sure to research individuals’ backgrounds before you take their advice.

Once your new school is full, it would be a mistake to think you have done your job. Each student has a ‘study life’ and each month they study they are closer to leaving, so if you are not constantly recruiting new students, you’re actually contracting.