The strange world of the English learning market
I moved over from the Zexy division in 2014, and at first, I was involved in looking at overseas opportunities and developing strategies for JyukenSapuri, but after a while I wound up in charge of Shikaku (Certification) Sapuri.
At that time, the most promising programs in ShikakuSapuri seemed to be those related to bookkeeping and TOEIC. TOEIC performed the best, and eventually we grew that into StudySaprui ENGLISH.
I had a strong personal interest in the English learning market. It was fascinating to me that it was so poorly executed. I mean, so many people spend money on some kind of English learning, but so few of them actually seem to learn to speak. I bet 95 percent of them can’t speak English. It’s so strange. If we could do something to change that, wouldn’t it be great? That was the source of my interest.
So, the English learning market is kind of a strange place. Despite it being a multi-billion dollar market, you don’t really see any great solutions out there. For example, there are products promising that simply by listening to a bunch of recordings, you’ll automatically become able to understand English, right? Even though scientific language acquisition theory shows that it cannot be very effective, they have lots of users.
I used to play baseball, and there used to be a lot of irrational practice methods and rules, like don’t drink water while practicing and so on. It seems like the English learning market is still at that kind of level.
But little by little, we find methods that make sense, and we’ve built up our service by incorporating these.
The key to learning English is creating a system that fosters learner persistence
The business had a difficult birth. We decided to put together a formal proposal, and on the evening before the presentation, Bunyo-san looked it over and asked me to re-do it from scratch. It took me almost until morning to finish it.
There is plenty of content for studying English available for free on the internet. But no one seems to be getting any solid results from it. There appears to be a large gap in expectation between the service providers and the users. Why is this? Of course, sometimes it’s due to the content or methodology not being right. But even when those are OK, many users find themselves unable to keep on studying.
So if we could have a system that encourages learners to be persistent, their results should improve. It turns out that such a system was being developed in the department right next door. That was our StudySaprui Online Coaching program, of course. It was still at the testing stage, but we could already see that if coaching is done properly, users will get into the habitat of studying. So I thought, definitely, let’s implement coaching for ENGLISH as well.
A lot of people make New Year’s resolutions with the best of intentions, but many wind up quitting pretty soon, right? Well, even this core “quitters market” is managing to keep using our service.
Which should we prioritize, user value or monetization?
I joined RECRUIT in 2005 and worked in new business development for a long time. I had two big failures during that time, and both of them were things that didn’t go well due to prioritizing monetization over value for users.
Of course, proper monetization is very important, but creating value for users has the higher priority of the two. Users can always tell whether you are putting them or the financials first.
I think we should always keep this in mind as we go about our daily work as well. For example, when we have to decide what to ask our engineers to work on. On the one hand, there may be a request for creating a more efficient way for learners to review their studies. But investing in that development won’t bring any short-term financial return.
On the other hand, there may be a request to generate a certain number of coupon codes, which could improve the short-term cash flow. But investing in that development doesn’t really improve the product for users at all.
Since engineering resources are limited, we can only do one or the other. Which do we choose? These kinds of everyday decisions add up to have a huge impact over time. Maybe the coupons are important, but everyone has to understand that we can’t just spend our development resources on that.
Money has a strong attraction, so if you’re not careful, everything can start to revolve around it. Maybe that’s because it’s easy to understand, since it can be quantified in numbers. It’s much harder to do that for user value.
But that is something I think we can improve on. We have implemented a clear measurement for user value and are adopting that as our primary metric. On the other hand, I also want us to avoid working on things that don’t contribute to that metric.
To put it in terms of the English learning business, the goal is for learners to become able to speak English. So we are working on understanding what it really means to be able to speak English, and we are developing ways to measure that and give learners clear feedback on their progress toward that.
An environment where engineers can express their opinions
In my university days, I worked as an engineer. The reason I didn’t go ahead with a career in engineering is that I didn’t want to wind up being forced to make things that I didn’t believe were any good, just because it’s my job.
Thanks to that background, I’ve made it a point to establish a work environment where engineers can express their ideas and opinions about products. If they don’t agree with what the business folks are saying, they should be able to say, “Well, here’s my idea!”
We have set up a system so that if you have an idea, you can take action. The system is open to everyone and only requires that you put your proposal into writing in a way that’s clear to everyone. The important thing is that it’s an open and transparent system and I really hope to see our engineers using it.
The infinite possibilities of coaching
Looking at our entire Quipper and StudySaprui business, I think the coaching project seems especially promising. Some people say that AI will be able to take on coaching roles in place of humans, but that is really doubtful. For people to persevere at anything, they have to be emotionally engaged. And emotional engagement is the most difficult thing for AI.
So it’s fine if AI can efficiently determine what or how a particular learner should study, but it should still be a human coach who communicates this to the learner. Because it’s the human coach who can emotionally engage the learner.
I’d like to see the online coaching model continue to grow. For example, suppose there is a former cabin attendant who is now raising a family. If she would like to put her English skills to work in her free time, it would be great if she could work online as a coach. People could put their skills and spare time to work, using technology to overcome geographical distance. That will enable more and more people to work, and learn, in new ways. The possibilities for Quipper and StudySaprui are truly enormous.