When I heard about Rosette Obedoza's business for the first time I was skeptical that it could really be as she said it was. Rosette is the director of a private preschool in Okinawa, Japan. Not only that, she is the owner, having established it herself just a couple of years ago - with just three registered students, one her own daughter.
None of this will seem incredible to you, if you live outside Japan, but for those foreign nationals who do live here - then you'll know how difficult a task this must have been. The elephant in the room, it's Okinawa, home to more than 8 US military bases, so that makes it easier? Tons of Americans everywhere? The preschool is on-base? No, yes and no are the answers to those questions. Being located in Okinawa has not made it easier, I'll explain why in a moment. Yes there are tons of Americans everywhere, so they do make up a large percentage of the roll, a slight advantage. And no, the preschool is not on base.
Wow, we need to get to the bottom of this story. I'm getting those butterflies in my stomach as I begin to appreciate the magnitude of Rosette's accomplishment.
Not one to take no for an answer
Let's back up a bit. Rosette is a military wife with her husband on active duty in the Asia Pacific area. Rosette herself was a civilian employee working for the military for many years as well - that is until a policy change which led her to resign from her job. Having worked for a time in a co-op preschool in another military base in mainland Japan 10 years ago and with a graduate degree in Education, she dreamt of one day perhaps opening a preschool.
Nobody thought it was possible but Rosette dug her heels in, got business advice from a compassionate entrepreneur in Tokyo, convinced her husband to give up most of their savings and secured a personal loan.
It took a whole lot of faith to go against the grain - why not look for another job at one of the on-base child developments centers, said her old boss. Rosette just smiled and carried on building her dream. It felt like everyone was waiting for her to fail. This just drove her even harder.
Rosette hadn't been in Okinawa, Japan long at this point. She didn't speak Japanese and knew virtually no one. She decided that neither of these things would hold her back. But it's Okinawa? People speak English? NO. Not in the official government offices and off-base. It is still very much Japan. So Rosette hired a translator.
She still needed a lot of help - lawyers, real estate agents, teachers. She put out a call to the universe (using The Law of Attraction philosophy) and met people who she now calls her angels - who continue to help her to this day. She spent many long and frustrating hours sitting in the dingy halls of government buildings, wading through bureaucratic red tape. Even these hours were used in a way that would later pay off. She struck up conversations with strangers, shared her story, made connections. These newfound friends always knew someone who could help Rosette rent a space for the school, hire teachers and get students through the door. They did this with no strings attached, through the kindness of their hearts. Rosette's passion - it bordered on crazy - this needs to happen, her heart said - won people over to her (im)possible mission. Dealing with the Board of Education was a frightening experience but as we can see Rosette just doesn't take no for an answer.
Opening day of ELIS Okinawa was just Rosette and three registered students (including her own daughter). Each day as they locked the doors they said a little prayer "Please can we have some new children tomorrow" and they came. Was it all hope and prayer? Not at all. Rosette was still talking up a storm with anyone who would listen - employing a word of mouth marketing strategy.
The school is strategically located in an area of Okinawa where there aren't as many preschools but where there is a need. While waiting for approval from the various government offices Rosette hit the streets with her jogging stroller and blitzed the surrounding neighbourhoods with flyers advertising her new school.
High Tech Back Office
Distributing flyers and using word of mouth to get students into her school are just two of the many marketing and business management techniques Rosette employs.
Let's take a look at her highly functioning website:
Critical pages are used to great effect. The home page is interactive and alive with a YouTube video of the past year and a rotating photo gallery. Visitors to the site immediately get a sense of the school's philosophy - it feels fun and alive. The website is also social media-connected, mainly using Facebook where they have a good number of fans, the page is regularly updated and people are commenting, sharing and excited about the school's upcoming happenings.
Other important pages include the About page, the testimonials page (Praise), more photo galleries and a blog which they use to share parenting advice - further espousing the school's philosophy.
All this sounds like a lot of work - maintaining the site and interacting with social media as well as managing the actual school. A virtual assistant takes care of website maintenance, sends a regular newsletter to the families and takes care of some scheduling. The school also uses an automated online scheduler so that parents can easily make changes if their child is sick, needs after school care or the family will be away. Automating this process gives maximum flexibility but also reduces the time spent going back and forth trying to get the schedule worked out.
Rosette proudly told me that she employs nineteen staff members (including teaching and non-teaching teams). She's created a nurturing team environment for the people who work on and off-site. Everyone is trained to very high standards - which is important since nobody knows when they could be relocated to another base, as in the case of the staff from military families. When they leave they do so with some excellent skills for their next position but the school recovers quickly since everyone knows how to do most of the necessary jobs.
Technology plays a part in maintaining team morale and high quality work. We chatted via Skype. When Rosette is away herself she's able to check in with the team the same way. It's not about micromanaging though - hiring the right people, giving them support and training, then trusting them to do their work is what Rosette believes in. Part of their on-boarding training will soon be delivered online - pretty awesome!
It's a challenge running a private preschool but Rosette has established a beautiful school that fills a need in the area for quality preschool education. Like any business it needs to turn a profit. With a heavy emphasis on efficient systems, an A-team staff and a long-term strategic business and marketing plan Rosette feels confident that the future looks bright. I agree, with Rosette's military precision, firecracker personality and a lot of heart this business is here to stay. It's a shining example of strong small business management - make no mistake, it is a business. Rosette financed the school with her personal savings so she needs to see a return on investment.
No stone is left unturned when it comes to all the moving parts. It begins with a commitment to providing the best customer service possible. The students and their families are the customers and without them Rosette knows she doesn't have a business. Special attention is paid to student/family loyalty - this year's students will be next year's too. And happy students means good reviews which will in turn attract more families to the school.
It's incredibly impressive what Rosette has had to overcome but she takes it in her stride and is humble about her accomplishments.
I couldn't have done it alone she says. Such a role model!
ELIS Okinawa is located Kadena-cho, Kadena, Nakagami District, Okinawa, Japan.
Check out the website here.