What’s it like to run four companies while doing a part-time degree at the National University of Singapore (NUS)?
27-year-old Singaporean, Yutaro Kitahara, is the second-generation owner of Hougang Japanese Language School (HJLS), the founder of an event company and an IT company, and a franchisee of a global education centre.
We asked him how he juggles all of that, and also the lessons he learnt as a serial entrepreneur.
He Never Had A Full-Time Job
Yutaro’s degree is in business analytics, which he described as comprising of half IT and half business elements, complements his computing background in polytechnic.
“I used to do food delivery, parcel delivery, cook in restaurants […basically] jobs that most people are not interested in. But I learnt a lot and met different people from everywhere. I also gave tuition for primary to secondary school students,” he told me.
So, after completing his National Service, he started running his own IT services and events management businesses on a freelance basis.
In May this year, he became a franchisee of an Eye Level centre after more than one year of becoming a Japanese teacher at HJLS, the language school his father started in 1983.
His stint at the language school started when he was a polytechnic student helping out as an admin staff.
“As time went by, nothing has changed in the school. I started to find places where we could improve, but my dad didn’t want to implement initially as it was time-consuming and costly,” he recalled.
“I wasn’t heavily involved (in the language school) until three years ago as I was busy with the other businesses.”
At that time, he had only helped his father with errands while honing his Japanese language skills.
It was only in January 2017 that he officially started teaching Japanese.
“I was not ready but like everything in life, it was an on-the-job training,” Yutaro said with a laugh.
“Due to that, I spent more time at the school and my dad saw my capabilities. His faith in me grew and he eventually let me manage and handle most of the business so he could focus on teaching.”
A Generation Apart
I had assumed that as an entrepreneur himself, the elder Mr. Kitahara would be more than happy to help his son with his businesses.
However, Mr. Kitahara was “skeptical and not very supportive” of Yutaro’s entrepreneurial endeavours at first because he believed Yutaro should further his studies and “get a proper job”.
When it came to digitising the business at HJLS, Yutaro said the because of “traditional mindset”, his father wasn’t readily receptive to his efforts.
“He was not willing to pay for the ads,” Yutaro chuckled, “Even when I print out the receipts and data of SEO and online ads, he also seemed uninterested.”
“Eventually, when more students told us that they found us online, he started to leave everything up to me,” he shared.
Mr. Kitahara also felt that mastering English and Mandarin should have “priority” in Singapore, as Yutaro revealed that he wasn’t taught Japanese by his father, but by the senior teachers who are currently still teaching at HJLS.
He first picked up Japanese in primary school and learned it on and off for over the decade.
When asked about his early memories of him and his father, Yutaro shared that he unfortunately doesn’t have a lot.
“As our students are mainly school students or working adults, lessons are conducted until 10pm,” he began.
It was only when he was older that he realised how hard Mr. Kitahara worked for the family, hustling seven days a week at the language school.
As he reflected, he found it ironic that his family is like their young Japanese students enrolled at HJLS.
“[Their] Japanese parents did not have time or energy to teach their own children, hence they send them to us,” he explained.
But he added later that they have produced students who study in popular universities like Waseda.
From Old School To New School
So far, Yutaro has put in a “low five-figure” sum into HJLS.
HJLS has reportedly reached six digits in revenue for the first time last year, the number of new students doubled, and there are now about 15 full-time and part-time teachers.
He was also credited for the fivefold growth of the school.
More than just a boost in revenue, he also implemented some new processes such as a customer relationship management (CRM) system for students, and a Point-of-Sale (POS) system, seeking government subsidies to pay for them.
“It made our lives a lot easier. Also, we are now a lot more active and responsive on our website and Facebook page,” he said.
With his IT knowledge, making the school transition from traditional to digital “was a breeze” for him. When he needed help, he’d consult his friends who are in IT.
“We published our first-edition in-house textbook with the aid of Nakai-sensei, our principal of the Hougang branch this year right before we opened our Jurong branch in March,” he added.
He first found out about SkillsFuture through his former business partner and Tekong buddy who encouraged him to register the school to be SkillsFuture-approved.
This made their already affordable rates even more appealing to Singaporeans.
On why they decided to keep their prices low after so many years, Yutaro said:
“It may help them travel with more fun, understand J-drama and anime, or work in Japanese companies. We want our students to have this advantage without burning a hole in their pockets.”
Their altruistic trait led Yutaro to start giving free classes to students from low-income families. They have five students aged 12 to 16 enrolled in this programme so far.
“It was at the Safra entrepreneurs marketplace at Toa Payoh Safra where I met Shaun, who founded Glyph with Si Hui, which provides services for children from low-income families.”
“He told me more about Glyph and I agreed to offer free classes as our missions align. I think if everyone helps one another, the world would be a better place to live in,” he said.
Yutaro has also opened a children’s class for kids aged six to 12 and there are 10 of them in that class now.
Drawing Lessons From His Own Businesses
He believes that keeping money in the bank is an “opportunity cost”, so before his savings hit $50,000, he would invest or start a new business every time.
Yutaro said, “My first few businesses are low capital so risks are low. I read a lot of self-help books, business and marketing, which aids me in my business.”
“I’m proud to say, up to date, I have had seven businesses and none were failures. Sure, some businesses were not worth the time that I put in but I take them positively. Lessons were learnt and experiences were gained,” he shared.
Having capable and trustworthy partners, managers, and staff has enabled him to balance his schedule as a student and an entrepreneur.
Running his own businesses have also helped him with managing the school, like coping with demanding parents, dealing with unreasonable customers, and the sacking of employees.
Leveraging on the services of his events company, he organised the first Japanese culture event for HJLS last year, the Kitahara Matsuri – and response was overwhelming, according to him.
On his experience as a serial entrepreneur and second-generation business owner so far, Yutaro says that he would do it again if he had the chance.
“Second-gen business owners don’t have to go through the hardships their first-gen counterparts experience. We have a lot of advantages, and one of them is being tech-savvy,” he noted.
The family owns a freehold shophouse across the causeway, in Johor Bahru, and plans to use the place to teach Japanese.
They are also in talks with universities in Japan including Kyoto University and ISI Japanese School, and they would like to open a centre in Japan to teach English and Chinese.
Eventually, he hopes to turn the family business into a multinational corporation in 10 years’ time.
Yutaro also revealed that they intend to revive a Japanese ramen stall they owned in a coffeeshop in 2013 and grow it with the help of his sister and his brother-in-law.
At the moment, the language school is looking to open their fourth branch in Singapore and is planning to organise the second Kitahara Matsuri.
His advice to people looking to digitise their business is to give it a shot, to make use of the free and abundant information online, and to take advantage of the consultation services government agencies provide.
“Compared to traditional way of doing business, digital seems be more efficient and rate of returns are higher.”
“In this Internet era, it is the best time ever to do business,” he said.
Featured Image Credit: Yutaro Kitahara