Hi Lina, welcome to the show!
Hi, thank you so much for having me.
No, that's my pleasure. Before we start the episode today, I'd like to note that of course we are both French speakers, but we'll record this episode in English. So I would like to apologize in advance to all the listeners for the French overload they might feel listening today.
Lina, we've known each others for a few years now. Actually I think the first time we met was in 2017. And we've always discussed about a lot of different things. About creating companies, about business ideas, about visa issues and a lot of entrepreneurial topics. But I've noticed recently that we never really discussed about Japan and why you came to Japan, why you chose the country to create your company and do all the activities you are doing now. That's why I was thinking you had a very interesting story to share and I wanted to discuss about this today. Is that okay with you?
Yeah, absolutely! We met a while ago and you've always been there to give me advice and always had my back. So I'm very grateful for that. Thank you for having me today.
No worries! To get started, could you please simply introduce yourself and let us know how long you've been living in Japan so far?
First time in Japan
My name is Lina and I'm half French, half Chilean. My story with Japan started, like many other people from my generation, when I was quite young because I grew up watching Japanese anime and playing Japanese video games.
Because of that, I decided at an early age that I wanted to learn Japanese and I even switched my major at university because in France you can't really double major. All our schools are specialized. You need to pick a major and if you want to study something else on the side, then you might have to attend two universities, which is usually physically not possible. I was majoring in engineering and I made the not very wise choice of changing my major for Japanese studies. Then finally when I was 20 or 21, I went to Japan for the first time. That was 10 years ago.
So around 2009.
That's it, 2009, 2010. That was my first experience in Japan. After having learned the language for three years at university, I finally stepped inside the country. After that I never really had a chance to go back to Japan because I did my master's, I started working. Eventually I decided that I wanted to go back and try to rediscover the country after having grown up a little bit. I applied for the working holiday visa. There's an age window to apply for this visa. So I did that telling myself: "okay, I'll just go back to Japan, see if I like it or not, if I want to stay or not. I might be there for two months. I have no idea". And now it's been three years!
Before coming to Japan, what were you doing? I know you traveled a lot.
Just before going to Japan three years ago, I was living in Dubai where I was working in commodity trading. Agricultural commodities like rice and all types of seeds. Quite a different type of lifestyle! Basically my life nowadays in Japan is the exact opposite of the life I had in Dubai.
Is that what you were looking for when you moved out of Dubai?
Yes & No. I just wanted to go back to Japan. Purely for exploration. I knew you need to be at least below 30 years old to apply for the working holiday visa. But I really had no particular goal in mind except that ever since my mid-twenties, I've known I wanted to start a company. I had dabbled a bit in entrepreneurship in my twenties. So that's always been there. This is something I knew I wanted to do no matter where I was. But the reason for going to Japan actually was purely to rediscover the country.
That's very interesting and it resonates a lot with my experience as well. When you say double major, I first studied law. I went to law school in France. Then I studied Japanese. Then I studied something else. End then I finally came to Japan.
Did you study law and Japanese at the same time or did you major in law?
I studied law first, didn't really like it. I switched to Japanese and Japanese language & cultural studies. Then to business. Then I came to Japan. That's always interesting to see that there is no linear progression to reaching something. Life just happens. You go with the flow and you see what happens.
It's so funny that we did the same thing, but I think it's so regrettable that we can't have a double major in France. You have to pick one major and the system is very difficult if you want to, if you have more than one interest, it doesn't accommodate that.
The fact that you studied Japanese is interesting as well. When we study Japanese at school, we tend to learn very specific things. We learn in textbooks. We learn in ways that are not always very practical. When you arrived in Japan, you had your working holiday visa, no specific plan and a bit of background speaking Japanese. How did you feel? Did you feel comfortable with the language? Did you feel that you had to re-learn everything from scratch? What was your experience on this?
Not at all. I was not feeling comfortable at all. The thing is I studied Japanese at university. I don't know what your experience was, but I had such a great time. My professors were amazing. I really loved my university INALCO (Langues'O) in Paris.
But actually when I came to Japan the first time, I couldn't speak very much. During my first year I didn't even practice Japanese that much. I was speaking English because I was mainly hanging out with other international students. So when I came back two years ago, I didn't have to re-learn everything from scratch because there's always something remaining, of course.
But I really put a lot of effort into going back to the language and remember very clearly that during the first two months, I would get so tired from my brain trying to make sense. Make sense of the language. Make sense of what is written here and there. The language barrier is so big that my brain would get exhausted. So exhausted that there were days when I remember going back home, taking the subway, I was just telling myself: "okay, don't pass out, don't pass up, don't pass out. Okay. Five more minutes, five more minutes." And then I would somehow make it home and just crush on my bed and basically enter a coma. Just from the effort that was required for my brain to try and make sense of my surroundings.
We usually say that when you start dreaming in another language, whether in Japanese, whether a programming language or anything else, that's when you start making progress.
When I was studying Japanese at university in Tokyo as well, I remember dreaming in Japanese the first few times. That was very surprising. That's when you know that your brain is actually working, processing all the information you get during the day. And that's also when you start making progress. So if you start dreaming in Spanish or Chinese, that's a good sign.
But you know, I never remember my dreams. So I feel like I just have no idea!
We need a startup for that!
So you came to Japan with your working holiday visa, you kept on studying Japanese. We can come back later to the language aspect, but what did you do when you arrive?
The first thing I did was to try to look for students. I knew there is a big demand for language classes, especially one on one. It's a job that pays well. So I knew that if I wanted some minimum amount of cash, I would start to register on online student and teacher matching services.
That's the first thing I did. I even created a little website for my teaching methodology. I studied on how to teach English, just to get some cash in. I really prepared for that trip. I did a lot of research beforehand. What job could I do? Where I could live? Reading a lot of blogs about what is necessary, know if you want to find a job during your working holiday. Once I got to Japan, I kind of already had an idea of the first steps I needed to take to get going.
Was it easy for you to find students and how long have you been teaching that way?
It was quite easy because the demand is there. And I also had some work experience. I'm interested in business so I specialized directly in business English. That's what I was interested in through my previous experience as an assistant to the CEO in commodity trading. A lot of my job was about communication. So to me it was natural to specialize in English for business purposes and offer a method of teaching where I define what I do as coaching. Which requires a minimum of effort for my students.
I think because I proposed something that was a little bit different, it allowed me to get more and more students. After two months, I was at a point where I knew that if I was finding a "regular" job, I would have to stop teaching. Which is when I made the decision not to look for a "proper" job but try and do things differently. Try and survive on my own.
That's a very good point!
I know there are already a lot of different teachers in Japan.
When you start something, looking for the unique value proposition, the unique thing that can differentiate yourself and bring value to your users/clients can help you a lot. That's exactly what you did while focusing on business English.
You said you tried to survive by other means. How did you do that?
Well, it did not include prostitution.
Haha I didn't mention it.
Very early on I found Impact Hub Tokyo.
While I was in Dubai I was doing a little bit of volunteering with the Hub in Dubai. So I knew Impact Hub and I researched if there was one in Tokyo. I found them, I wrote to them, I met with Shingo, their founder. After our first meeting he was like, okay, if you want to work for us on a part-time basis, we'd be happy to have you. That's how I started working part time at the Hub, which is where we met.
That's another good point in the experience. Even if you arrive in a country where you don't know anyone, you are always connected in some ways to people from previous networks. You went to what you knew already back in Dubai, The Hub, a coworking space and found the same thing in Japan.
I really think the moment you're out of usual environment is when you realize how much you depend on others for your survival.
A good way to make the transition to a new environment smoother is to think beforehand: "okay, what do I know? Is there an alumnus association or a previous co-worker who might be in the country?"
Just starting by who you might know, who you might have connections with. Nowadays on the internet there's so much already researched. You can already contact people even before going to the country. Once you are in a new country where you're faced with so many problems to solve or things that might be difficult just because of the language, the people who you're surrounded with is what will make the difference. All the expats, if I can say, are in the same situations. We have to help each others.
The language could be an issue, sometimes. That's true that in Japan it's always easier to speak Japanese. But as you said, the people you surround yourself with are your biggest asset for anything.
I guess it's always true in life, right? But particularly in this situation were you are in a new environment and you don't know anyone, that's when it will be I think absolutely critical. That's why I stayed that long for that matter.
Teaching English as a non-native
And for that, the Impact Hub of is a good place. During that time, what kind of opportunities did you identify, leading you to your current situation? And what major challenges did you face?
I think it's a pretty good question also because deciding to do what I'm doing now was an opportunity that I didn't get. I just started realizing that I loved teaching completely. I'm not a native speaker, very obviously, but I love English, it has been my passion for so long. I'm very interested in business. I love teaching. I just wanted to keep doing it.
You know, it's tiring when you are a teacher on your own. You have to look for your own students, make them sign contracts... If they can decide not to have a class for three weeks, that's a problem for your revenue.
So I looked at the big English schools. I think the situation has changed now, but at that time if you could get a job as a business English teacher, it was quite well paid. But they would only accept native speakers.
The thing is, I might not be a native speaker but I did study in the States, in London. I've worked in English my whole life. And I felt that being a native speaker does not guarantee that you're a good teacher. Although I understand why they have these criterias, I don't think it makes that much sense in practice considering that in international environments, most English speakers are not native speakers. If you need help to lose weight, would you rather get support from someone who has been thin his whole life or would you rather get support from someone who successfully lost weight and maintained it?
That's when I also started thinking I could maybe do things differently. As a non-native speaker, my relationship with my student is quite different. I'm more of their senpai or their coach than I am their teacher. It has a lot to do with me getting to the point I am today with my company.
What are the challenges you faced that are, you think, very proper to Japan?
Well, I guess there are the obvious ones, right? Which is just the language.
I need to do sales in Japanese for instance. Now I'm getting better at it. I can exchange some emails, explain stuff about my service. But doing sales in Japanese is not only a matter of making sense. You also have to use the right degree of politeness. It's a bit cliche but it means that anything I do is going to take me twice more time.
There might be another challenge: when you created your company.
I just realized we haven't mentioned your current company. The name is?
Center for International Careers.
Creating her own teaching methodology
That's where you teach business English to Japanese people using your own pedagogy?
Basically I don't teach. I coach.
Meaning we are going to define a goal with any student who comes to me. My role is to help them achieve that goal. This means we need to define something they truly care about.
Typically my clients are professionals and there's something they need to do. They want to find investors, they want to pitch their company. They have a business trip. They want to make a presentation at an international conference. So we're going to use this goal. Sometimes we have to make one for the purpose of study. And we're going to use the school as an opportunity to learn English.
Because we have a goal that matters to the student, that's where they get motivation. That's where they can enjoy the process more as well.
Then after a while, I really realized that a lot of Japanese will say their main problem with English is that they don't feel confident.
I have been reflecting a lot on what this means. Eventually I've realized confidence in a language is just knowing within yourself that you are able to influence the world around you through this language.
Meaning you can get the results you want. It's not about using perfect grammar or using the most refined words. It's just about these inner convictions that you can get results using the language. The best way to demonstrate that to my students is to get them to achieve results that they might not have thought were possible, by pursuing a goal and eventually achieving it.
That's my methodology!
It's famously known that Japan is having difficulties with its official English teaching process. I was reading an article recently saying that Japan was ranking lower than all the developing countries in the world, in terms of English skills.
I believe part of it is due to the way Japanese people learn English both at school and then during their work life.
Do you think that your activity, the way you teach now, could have been done 20 or 10 years ago?
Or can you do that because of the environment now in Japan? Because the environment changed a lot, because they have to deal a lot more with tourists, with international business, with big events like the Olympics or the Rugby World Cup that make them need to have good English?
For sure the demand is there. The demand has only been increasing, is going to keep increasing.
Yes the English education market is currently saturated in Japan. There are so many services and that makes it particularly difficult when you're trying to start an activity. Just because you're doing something different does not mean people are going to be interested in it. They are perpetually being bothered by advertisements, whether it's online or offline, for English services.
But just like you pointed out, there is such a need for English communication training in Japan. It's not about learning English as in knowing all the rules of grammar and a list of words, it's about being able to express your ideas in a way that is impactful.
In order to achieve this, what you need is not just a knowledge of the language, but an understanding that the way you communicate ideas is different.
If you look at information transmission in Japanese and in English, especially if you take American English, you'll notice that people just don't say the same thing. Even though the end goal, the meaning is the same, they're not gonna use the same amount of information nor deliver it in the same order. There's an incredible amount of lost opportunities because of that on the Japanese side. They might try to express themselves, but it's going to fall flat.
As Japan is opening itself and as more and more foreigners are coming to Japan, this idea that it's not just about English but all about communication skills is where the real problem resides. It's taking grip deeper and deeper into people's minds. So you are perfectly right to point out that timing is so essential.
There couldn't be a better timing for me to do what I do because the need is here. It's never been greater. But at the same time, we are at this tangential point where the idea of coaching in Japan is not really well known. For most Japanese, coaching is related to sports. Like a sports coach yelling at you to do some crunches.
Again, it resonates a lot. Timing is key indeed. A lot of opportunities are opening in Japan.
That's a great time to try businesses, try ideas and develops things.
Practically speaking, how difficult was it for you first to create a company and even more as a foreigner?
Incorporating in Japan & Visa
The most difficult part of the process was the lack of information.
To find out that my current visa existed, that I was eligible for it and to understand what was the best solution in my given situation took me months. I first went to one administration and they just told me about one type of visa. Then I went to a second administration and they mostly talked about a working visa and that wasn't exactly what I wanted. The only reason that I eventually got the information I needed was through the process of going to the administration again and again and again.
I kind of became friends with one of the consultants of one of the administrative agencies. He kind of became my mentor. I sent him an email where I was explaining there was a business manager visa. I knew it was not meant for entrepreneurs but this is what I wanted to do. I was willing to get this the visa, explaining I'd do this and that.
It is because I sent these emails saying I was ready to fight for it that he offered me to visit their office during the next week. He took me to a room and drew on the whiteboard explaining all the possible visas I could potentially apply for. Then he showed me that what I needed was the visa I'm currently on.
But to get to that point, it took me months of visiting the administration again and again.
The information you find online are not sufficient. It's not up to date, you will read things that will contradict themselves. The only way to get reliable information is to talk to people.
This has been my experience with Japan. I don't know if it's true or not but in practice everything is negotiable and dealt on a case by case basis.
That's why every time you make an application to a Japanese administration, they will ask you for documents. If you only submit the necessary documents, you can be sure that you will get denied. What they want to see is that you are committed, that you like Japan. If they ask for four documents, you better send 10 completed ones with pictures, a personal statement of why you like Japan. You really need to show your enthusiasm and your commitment.
My experience is that the administration makes decisions based on how much time and effort you put into giving extra information that might not be required, but it actually shows that you are motivated.
It's almost a way to show your commitment and your respect for the process you're going through. At this point, I've gone through many administrative procedures. I've applied for a certification, for grants, I'm currently looking at the loan. I've had the visa renewals.
This is really my main take away for dealing with the Japanese authorities.
This is a very valuable piece of advice. We always think the Japanese administration is robotic, very bureaucratic, faceless. And it's true in many cases. But what you explain is that as long as you show efforts and commitment, and I think commitment is a very important notion in Japan, things can go in your way.
What you explained right now can be applied to a lot of different fields as well. I was thinking about visas, when you apply for a long term residency. Or in other edge cases it could be applied to some issues with your taxes when you live in a Japanese city. It's very practical, very useful for other people.
I don't think we mentioned it yet. What's the name of your visa?
It's called in English "Business Manager" visa. In Japanese 経営・管理 (Keiei Kanri) visa.
Visa is a very wide topic and I'm sure we could do a full show about it.
Yes, we did events on it!
One last question about your activity.
What are your next steps from now for, let's say, the next two years?
I have been iterating on solutions.
Right now, this is the third version of my service and I'm working on implementing the fourth version. To tell you the truth, I still wasn't sure that I had a business six months ago.
Of course anyone can make a living teaching English in Japan, the demand is simply there. So I reflected on my savings and gave myself until October. If I had not made progress by October, I would cut my losses and stop there. So I had quite a busy summer.
But my efforts paid off and I started to realize what my unique value proposition is. Now I actually think that I have some basis for building a full business.
My next step, and that's what I'm working on while implementing the fourth version of my service, is to transform my business operations. I am basically a glorified freelancer at the moment. My objective is to turn this into a full fledge business with proper marketing and sales funnels and segment my offer. The day I can hire help or someone part-time to join the business will be the day I know I've reached the next step.
"Glorified freelancer". That's a very nice term!
We wish you all the luck in succeeding in your targets, leaving this status and be able to hire people Good luck on this!
Thanks so much Paul!
Advice to younger self
Thanks a lot for sharing your feedbacks!
I'd like to conclude the episode with a few questions that might be helpful and relevant for our listeners.
The very first question is a classic in podcasting. I think in the context of Japan Life Stories, it is very relevant because we are here to share insider lessons, to look back to our experience and see what kind of things we would have done differently.
My question for you is: if you could go back in time, let's say three years ago when you just arrived in Japan, what would you say to yourself?
One thing for sure is that when I started this, I had no idea what I was getting into. This is my first true entrepreneurial experience.
And then of course I didn't know much about Japan. I've discovered so much. I guess what I would tell myself back then is just that it would take me 10 times the amount of time I imagined to get where I wanted to go.
The learning curve has been so slow and so hard for me. It's my personality in a way, but I was just incredibly naive. On the other hand, had I not been that naive, I would never have started!
So the lesson is: get started, trust yourself and see what happens. Go with the flow!
Yeah, I guess so. There's no other way.
Favorite Japanese Word
This links to what you mentioned earlier: leaving your comfort zone and a take on challenges. Okay.
Next question: what's your favorite Japanese world?
Oh my gosh. So many!
I love learning Japanese words, but I'll tell you my favorite word is not a word.
It's a Kotowaza, a proverb: 急がば回れ (isogaba maware).
That's actually the legal name of my company. It means "if you hurry, you turn in circles".
I'm an impatient person, I have a bias for action in a lot of circumstances. I think that it serves me well, at least as far as business is concerned.
I know I need to be more patient. Sometimes I need to slow down and take more time to make better decisions because I have a tendency to just do and then I get slapped in the face. Then I realize that was pretty obvious that I should not have done this in the first place.
So I try to remind myself: 急がば回れ. Be more patient!
Okay, last question.
Is there anyone, a foreigner or Japanese person or even a project that you would like to give a shout out to?
A project you find useful?
A good initiative about anything that you find interesting?
There are so many services and people I would recommend.
I'm thinking of what might be useful to your audience... I would say two things.
For one, my good friend, Ema Tanaka is starting a service. It's an app called Travelr. You can download it on iPhones and Android. This app is a social app for solo travelers. Members can organize spontaneous events and meet in Tokyo (only location at the moment) and also experience the city like the locals. I've been to a number of events and I've had so much fun each time. You can meet residents and non-residents. It's a lot of fun. To anyone who is in Tokyo and wants to explore the city and meet interesting people, I would really recommend using traveler.
Next, for those more advanced on their journey and already thinking about either starting a company or applying for a visa, I would really recommend my administrative consultants. The company is called June Advisors Group. They are the ones who helped me get my visa. They've been absolutely wonderful. They are a big part of why I've been able to transition into being an entrepreneur in Japan quite smoothly.
The two shout outs are Travelr and June Advisors Group.
We'll put everything in the show notes. Thanks a lot!
If people have questions, if people want to know more about the Center for International Careers, about anything you are doing right now, where can they find you online?
I think the best way to see what I do is through my Facebook page: CFIC.tokyo.
And my website of course where they can check out my offer and also contact me.
Sounds good! We'll put everything in the show notes as well.
Thank you very much for your time, Lina. It was a pleasure to discuss today! Good luck in your adventure with your company and talk to you soon.