Staff interview #07 Shutaro Ikeda

Fateful encounters with amazing teachers. What connected us was the “Sapuri Philosophy”

The very beginning of StudySapuri came about during the summer of the third year after I started working. I was a member of the product planning staff in the Preparatory Education Business Division (currently Manabi Business Division) and, in a tiny meeting room, Bunyo-san [Fumihiro Yamaguchi], who was General Manager of Product Planning at the time, and I were brainstorming about what kind of product we should make next. And everything really started from something that Bunyo-san came up with then in that little room.

From there, we decided to put something together for New-RING, did a lot of research and marketing work, and eventually won the Grand Prix and jumped right into starting up the business. So that was the process from planning to start-up, and during the first phase of that, I was in charge of developing the video content.

This business model depends on having top-quality courses to attract customers, and we were trying to figure out if we could really deliver that online. In the case of our competitors, the prep schools, their students formed a kind of captive audience for each school’s content. But in any given school, not every teacher was going to be particularly charismatic. What could we do to compete against that? We could use the power of the internet, which allows our content be viewed anywhere, anytime, and gather our own team of so-called “charisma teachers” for each major subject. This was an absolute requirement for us.

So the first thing was to gather those charismatic teachers. But at that time, I didn’t have any personal connections in prep schools or cram schools, so I just started making phone calls one by one to every teacher that every friend of a friend could introduce me to, and I was getting turned down by every single one of them until I called the last name on my list, and finally this one prep school teacher in Shizuoka agreed to come all the way to Tokyo and talk with us. That was Mr. Gaku Hijii, who later became our very first StudySapuri instructor. By the end of the first hour, we had built a great rapport. “To be honest, I came from Shizuoka with the intention of turning you down, but I really sympathized with the Sapuri philosophy of eliminating the education gap regardless of where and how one was born and raised.” And having said that, he left Tokyo and the next day, we got an email from him formally agreeing to join Sapuri. After that, he introduced us to his good friend, mathematics instructor Mr. Keisuke Yamauchi, and later we met Mr. Masao Seki, whose wonderful lessons made him one of StudySapuri’s most famous instructors. So all that was before Jyuken Sapuri (now StudySapuri) had even launched. Nevertheless, what moved those teachers to join us was our Sapuri philosophy, and the foundation of our team of amazing instructors was laid as we came to meet, one after another, teachers who share that philosophy.

There is no one right answer for online learning; there is only data-based iteration

After that, we worked on getting ready for the launch, and my days were filled with steadily producing videos for each lesson, one by one, together with the instructors we had headhunted. We didn’t have a place to do the filming, so we rented space in a basement in Hatchobori in Tokyo and built a studio from scratch. We uploaded the videos, interviewed customers to see if they could really study from those videos, shared the feedback with the instructors, and constantly worked to re-do and improve the quality of the videos.

But there’s a limit to what you can learn from customer interviews and marketing activities, and we were always feeling our way forward to improve the quality of the videos. Ultimately, what we came to trust was the data. From the start, we had planned to measure improvements by tracking viewer engagement in one-second increments.

Generally, viewer engagement is more than 90 percent at the start of a video and drops to 20 or 30 percent by the end, but it’s not just a smooth drop-off over time. We saw that there were particular inflection points where engagement dropped suddenly.

For example, right at the beginning. If the instructor starts going into something like, “The purpose of this lesson is…,” then we already start to see viewers dropping out. The students watching the lessons are extremely practical, so they just want to quickly get to the part that explains the questions they worked on. Or if the instructor takes a moment away from the blackboard to work through a reading comprehension question, we see another drop-off. So the videos really need to stick to the point and move the lessons along briskly. No matter how confident an instructor was about a particular video, we continued to refine the methodology with an eye on this data, and if any video scored less than 4.5 on our 5-point scale, we reshot it. So, using technology to solve what we could, we continued polishing up the videos.

We now have a good range of content with about forty thousand video lectures, and we have really focused on quality, I think anyone who uses them can recognize how good they are. I can say with confidence that our video content is unmatched by any competitor.

And since we developed our scheme for assigning instructors and creating videos early on, we are able to use the same method to create content for Quipper Video in each country. Indonesia, the Philippines, and Mexico are implementing the same cycle of finding their own charismatic instructors, creating videos of their lectures, and iterating for improvement, and so by exporting this production scheme, we are spreading high-quality video content throughout the world.

Redefining the customer: teachers are the key to getting into high schools

A year and a half after we launched, about the time we began to advertise using commercials to gather online customers, a new idea sprouted for using our service in schools. The first inquiry was from a teacher in Okayama who wanted to use it for extra classes. After that, more and more inquiries started coming in, and we saw that high schools had a need for something like this.

After a research phase of about six months, we set up a sales force focused on high schools. But we didn’t yet know how to position our services, or what sales style would fit the high school market. We had to pivot several times on that point. At first, we thought schools could use StudySapuri video lectures in their regular or supplementary classes, so our sales proposed mainly the video lectures. But the video lectures overlapped with the main role of the school teachers, and not many schools had the IT infrastructure for that anyway, so there wasn’t much chance that approach would lead to explosive sales.

So that lead us to rethink who the actual customer was. Inside the high schools, the real customers were the teachers, not the students. We decided we needed to be more helpful for teachers, so we tried and solved the problems teachers were having. And from that line of thought, we developed our Achievement Tests. The schools were already using third-party practice exams, but somewhere along the way, these exams had become ritualized — they were given just because that’s what was done the previous year — and the teachers needed to be able to make real use of the results because the original purpose of the practice exams was academic improvement. In order to solve that problem, we decided to create just such a test.

The existing practice exams just identified what field a student was having difficulty with at a high level, but our Achievement Tests could specify exactly what a student failed to understand in much finer detail. So for example, instead of just reporting that the student was weak at English grammar, we were able to pinpoint that within tenses, the student was having particular trouble with the present progressive form. And we could even recommend exactly which StudySapuri video lecture to review in order to improve on that point. So teachers could very easily provide each student with an extremely detailed personalized remedial learning plan. Students could proceed with their own personalized review plans using smart phones they already had, without any burden on the high school’s IT infrastructure, thanks to Sapuri’s original technology-enabled test that pinpointed their weak points. We pivoted our proposal to focus on this test.

By focusing on solving the problems of our customers, the teachers, we were able to understand the needs of the market, and now StudySapuri is serving nearly one thousand high schools and we have a sales force of over hundreds of people growing our business all over Japan.

Partnering with teachers to broaden students’ horizons

Japanese high school teachers are said to be the busiest in the world. I really feel the need to lighten the burden on those teachers so that they have more time to spend with their students. That’s what we’re mainly focused on with StudySapuri for TEACHERS. The first step is to move their paper-based homework to online versions. That alone cuts down on an amount of work for them. Their staff rooms are overflowing with papers, so reducing that by even one page is something that reduces the teachers’ burden. Also, it would be fantastic if we could help to increase their facetime with students from 10 percent to 40 or 50 percent of their total worktime.

There are currently over 2,300 high schools eligible to use StudySapuri for TEACHERS.  I’d like to keep brushing up our proposal values so that more and more schools will adopt our services.

It may take a little more time for us to see even more growth in the number of high schools which use StudySapuri. Unless we demonstrate more and more that StudySapuri is a solution that genuinely helps students improve their studies to reach their goals, we can’t hope to see speedy adoption by the schools. It’s now the second year since we’ve taken up the challenge of putting homework online via StudySapuri for TEACHERS at schools using our service. We should be able to see improvement in their results over a period of time. Then we’ll be able to show data proving that schools using StudySapuri really do experience academic improvements. And this, in turn, will enable us to further increase our appeal to more schools.

When proposing StudySapuri, one of the things that many teachers ask us is if there are any real success stories out there. What schools have used our service, and how, to achieve good results? Most of the teachers to whom parents and guardians have entrusted their children approach their work with a keen sense of responsibility, and believe that it’s up to them whether these students have a bright future or not. They do their utmost not to fail in this. That’s why they are keen on using good tools. That’s very natural, isn’t it?  Also,that’s why I believe I need to talk about things that will move those teachers’ hearts.

But I believe that StudySapuri is a powerful tool that can act as a strong partner in helping teachers to broaden students’ horizons, and that’s the kind of service I sincerely want to go on developing. We must go on developing products that will move those teachers to want to use them, generating evidence as the basis for our sales approach and proposals.

Helping learners see a more exciting future

I want to work toward a world where it’s natural for schools to use StudySapuri and StudySapuri for TEACHERS. And I don’t think it’s that far off in the future.

I want to make opportunities for learners to see a more exciting future and get genuine enjoyment from learning. This requires not only showing how the future of education could be, but also helping each learner build up a sense of accomplishment with each problem they are able to solve on a quiz. Online learning can make it easier for us to do that with much greater attention to detail. So if we get more and more teachers and students to use our services, I believe that we can change the way the world learns.
  1. Quipper Career London
  2. Staff Interview
  3. Shutaro Ikeda

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