In the early days of Musby, there was an English teaching component to our service, although we pivoted away from that afterwards. During that time however, we interviewed a bunch of English teachers and school owners to get a better idea of our market. Stephen was one of the connections I made, and when we fist met he introduced Project Kobe to me. It was still brand new, although the site was well designed and looked great. About a year passes, and I find out he has over 10,000 followers on his Facebook page. An amazing feat no question.
We kept in touch, occasionally catching up. Project Kobe has turned into a great source for promoting the city of Kobe, and I took the opportunity to grab him for an interview.
Let’s start from the beginning. Where were you born?
I was born in Geelong, which is a town outside of Melbourne, Australia. I lived in a little town called Lara. I lived on 5 acres. Not a farm, but my sister and brother liked horses but I never liked horses. I always rode BMX bikes.
5 acres is pretty damn big.
I guess so yeah, compared to Japan haha. I didn’t think about it at the time.
Where did you go to school?
Primary school, my mom just drove me 5min down to the local primary school. When I was there, we celebrated getting 300 students across the 6 grades. In Australia, junior and high school are together. We just call it high school. Mum would drive me to the bus stop in Lara, then the bus would go 20min to the high school. My high school actually had 3 campuses. 2 junior campuses which were year 7 through year 10, and there was the senior campus which was year 11 and 12.
The last 2 years of high school in Australia you can choose what subjects to study. Everybody must do English, and then I did a math subject, physics, IT, and Japanese.
What was your original interest in Japan?
It almost started in primary school. My school had a Japanese teacher come over. Definitely in year 7 when I was 13 years old, my school had half a year Japanese, half a year French. It was our system to study another language. And I just continued with Japanese all through high school.
I studied IT in university in my hometown Geelong. It was Deakin University. I did a Bachelor in computing. I was always interested in website development. My IT course, we studied many different subjects. I studied database architecture and computer graphics. I can’t remember exactly everything they taught me haha. It’s all blurred into one. Networking now that I think about it was kind of interesting. We studied a bit of C and visual basics. Each subject ran for half a year.
How did you end up in Japan after graduating?
It was soon after actually. My final exams finished in the November of 2003 and I came to Japan in May 2004. In that time I was looking for an IT job, but I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do. I wasn’t sure exactly which field to take. There was no real job that jumped out at me. Then I saw the job to teach at NOVA in Japan, and I always had that interest from high school about Japan. I was planning to come here for 1 year. Now it’s 13 years later haha.
What led it to being more than 1 year?
The first year over here went super quick. The first 3 or 4 months I had the English teacher training in Osaka, then I got moved to Kobe. I started working for the school. I was on a working holiday visa I should say, so I was only working 20 hours a week. I was 21 years old at the time, so I was going out a lot drinking.
Which do you like better, Osaka or Kobe?
Definitely Kobe. As soon as I got off the train here in Kobe the first time, the roads seemed wider than Osaka. Just generally, the vibe.. I was based out on Myohoji, which is on the Kobe subway line. It was a small little school. There were 4 English teachers out there and a couple Japanese staff. All the students were kind. My manager at the time, he was a great guy. He took me around different places. The Kobe NOVA community was a tight bunch.
Where was your go to spot?
Second Chance. Wednesday night, 300yen beers. That lasted for quite a few years. And then they brought in hot dogs. 500yen for a beer and hot dog. All the NOVA teachers, we used to go there every Wednesday pretty much. Must have been 30-40 people, the teachers and the Japanese staff. It was good times.
How long did you work for NOVA?
Until they went bankrupt in 2007.
Right~ they went bankrupt haha I forgot. Tell me more about that time.
Actually 2007 was a bad year for me. I broke my ankle playing Aussie football. That was around spring time. I went back to Australia for about 4 months for the operation and rehabilitation. I still got a big plate in there. And then I came back around the end of August I think. I came back to Japan, and my boss at the time kept the job open for me which I appreciated. But then when I came back a few months later, NOVA closed its doors. That 4 months I was back in Australia I didn’t get payed and then 2 months back working I didn’t get paid. We were supposed to get paid on the 15th of the next month like always. The next month rolled by and they sent out faxes saying “sorry there was a delay in the payment, please continue working and you will get payed bla bla bla”.
I actually just stopped going to NOVA. I thought this was going to close and stopped. I officially resigned but then a couple days later they put up a notice on the door, and apparently students and teachers went there and just the doors were closed.
Were there signs that NOVA was going to close?
When I got back from after breaking my ankle, there were people talking about it. And just when they stopped paying us, I thought I’m not going to work without getting payed. I was trying to wrap my head around what to do.
I had no idea at the time what I was going to do next. I was lucky – that year I got the 3 year visa so my visa was still good. Nova wasn’t directly tied to the visa, I don’t think they were anyway haha. Nova was the biggest employer for foreigners in Japan at the time. They had like 900 branches or so throughout Japan. It was a huge company. At Hello Work, we could get 3 month compensation, sort of a government assistance kind of thing.
All my family was telling me to come back to Australia, asking why I was still in Japan. I couldn’t really answer that. I don’t know what really made me try and stick around. I guess I wanted to leave on my own terms.
I was looking for a job, but I didn’t want to work at a regular eikaiwa again. I worked part time at an English school and I met some of my old NOVA students. I started teaching them privately at cafes. At the time it was pretty tough. I didn’t have much income at all. For half the year I hadn’t received an income. It was a bit of a struggle. Then I slowly started a few little odd jobs here and there at different schools and part time jobs.
I had a pretty good network of friends, and I started getting more students. It got to a stage where in 2010 or 2011 I got a little office at Regus at Kokusaikaikan – the service rental office.
Was it hard building up that first clientele?
Yes and no. I was pretty lucky. A lot of my students fell in my lap through connections. I wasn’t prepared though. One of my kind students – she set up me in a big apartment building with a common room you can rent out. We put flyers out in the common room, and she lived there so she could rent out the common room. I was well underprepared and we had too many kids come. It was a disaster haha. It was a complete disaster. I didn’t plan it well at all.
From all that, there were actually 40 or 50 kids that came through, but there were only 3 that stayed. And the 3 were old students that happened to remember my name.
The one on one lessons I started preparing for a bit more. It was mostly one on one lessons to start with. It’s mostly word of mouth. I did put up flyers and a lot of things but there were no contacts from there. All the ones that stayed around were word of mouth.
What kind of lessons do you do now?
Now I do a whole variety. I do a lot of business classes. Mondays I go to a company in Itami. Tuesday I go out to another company in Uozumi (Akashi). It’s mostly engineers I teach at these companies, mostly male clientele. I have my office, SMB language services, where I teach group and one-on-one lessons, ranging from seniors who are retired to high schoolers. I work at an elementary school once a week and also do a couple of afternoons at the Kobe YMCA. One-on-one lessons are good but you can only make so much money from one-on-one lessons. Group lessons are definitely more beneficial.
How did you land these group lessons?
The Itami one I’ve done for a couple years – that was through a friend who did it and he went back to the UK. The other one, I can’t remember actually, but I’ve been doing it for like 5 years. Private lessons have been mostly through word of mouth.
What brought you to start Project Kobe?
I’ve always done website design. Back in university in Australia I was doing website design for the company my father worked at. They wanted a new website. I was doing an IT course at the time. My dad asked me if I could make the website and I said yeah. They put me on the books, but they could only pay me like $200 a month. Whatever the Australian tax laws were – they couldn’t really pay me more than that…
That led to a few jobs I made. I made over 10 websites during my university days. I still maintain a couple today actually. I was always interested in IT, and I always wanted to do something in Japan with IT. I had different ideas over time. An associate who has an English school near mine – we said we should do something together. We had one plan but that died out for various reasons which I won’t get into. I was discussing some ideas with a good mate Frank and parts of that led into what is now Project Kobe.
What are you trying to do with Project Kobe?
I don’t know exactly the end point where it’s going to go. It started out as a language related idea – where we would teach English lessons to hotels and businesses and do other services like make English menus. I wasn’t keen on the English teaching so much. I enjoy English teaching, don’t get me wrong – I love my students. But I wanted to focus more on IT. The idea was to have the website as an offer where we could give you English lessons and we can put you on our website and advertise your business.
I’ve already pivoted a little bit from where it started out to be. Now I’m making more content not just based on business listings and such. I’m trying to advertise for events and what’s going on in Hyogo.
I always went out to a lot of places, but I started to record them more – taking videos and stuff like that. I started to follow it a lot more. There’s a lot of Japanese sites that advertise more than the official English pages for Kobe city and Hyogo and stuff. I’m looking at those websites and my wife helps me a lot. She says “hey here’s a good event going on in Harbor Land or Merikan Park”, then I look it up in Japanese and I use Google Translator a lot and get the information. I try and write about it before the event, and then when I’m there I try to take photos.
There’s a lot going on in Kobe and Hyogo. Hyogo’s a huge prefecture. There’s a lot of things going on that I never knew about before. For example I teach at a primary school in Suma. Behind Suma there is Suma-dera, a temple area, which is beautiful. I’ve never been there before. No one knows about it. I went for the first time about a month ago, after my classes I had a bit of free time and I just walked up there and I was surprised. There are different areas and little different pockets. Nunobiki dam and Nunobiki falls… These places, I’ve been here 13 years in Kobe, and I’ve never been there before.
Any interesting events coming up?
I would like to get first hand knowledge somehow of these events. I would like to link in to some of these places and they send me the info. At the moment, there are a few Japanese websites I look up, and search for things. I type in Kobe and see what pops up about news or events or something like that. If there’s no English information about it I use Google Translate and get my wife to help out a bit.
How can people get in contact with you?
email@example.com – That’s the easiest. Businesses can add their place to the site for free. One of the things we wanted to initially approach was hotels and offer English lessons, but there are already so many hotel websites out there. I’m adding hotels myself at the moment. If I have free time I walk around to a hotel and take a couple of pictures. I’ve had quite a few friends visit from Australia and my family’s been here a few times and they’ve stayed in different hotels. From that knowledge I’ve wrote up little descriptions. I’m trying to monetize that through booking.com, an affiliate program. That’s going to take a lot more visitors to come to my website and look at the hotels and click the link to book through booking.com. That’s going to be a big step to actually get anywhere with that.
Were you always into entrepreneurship?
Well, when I was in university I was working for a pub in Australia. In Australia you can drink when you’re 18. The pub was connected to an outside bottle shop. People walk through the bottle shop and I’d sell them alcohol and stuff. One day a kid walked through and he had a fake ID. I didn’t check it very well, it was a Saturday night and it was busy. I was only 18 or 19 years old myself. He came through and I sold him a six-pack of beers. At the time he was walking off, police were coming through and stopped him and said this is clearly a fake ID. At the same time the manager who was off duty was driving through. He said “I’ll speak to you tomorrow morning”. I eventually sort of got fired from that job haha. They wrote me a beautiful reference though, because technically I shouldn’t have been fired but they were under the pump from the police.
From there is when I started doing the websites. As I said before, through the company my dad was working for, they needed a website so I did that. That linked to a volunteer website job. My town every year they had a historical parade and they wanted a website. I volunteered and did that. I started my own sole trader company in Australia. That company name was SMB – SMB is my initials. SMB Hyper Mega Net was the company name. “Hyper Mega Net” is from the Simpons. Homer had a computer company called “Compu Global Hyper Mega Net”. So I started that, and then I got more connections. Doing the volunteer website was really helpful because that got my foot in the door with local businesses and quite a few companies came wanting a website. That’s how it all started. My last couple years in university I didn’t have another part time job, I just did the websites.
I’ve always enjoyed working for myself. I’ve liked the challenge of setting something up. Seeing what will happen haha. I’ve never really had a corporate job. I’d say NOVA is just English teaching, not really corporate, so I’ve never worked in a business office. I don’t know how I would go about that to be honest. My English teaching job now, I’m my own free man. I do work a couple companies and stuff and those schedules are sort of set, but everything else revolves around my own schedule, how I plan it.
Do you find it stressful?
Sometimes yeah. Still now, financially especially. Financially you feel the stress. Now it’s not too bad. I kind of have a stable client base and that’s what enabled me to start Project Kobe. But a few years back it wasn’t so steady if you go back 5 years. Students were coming and going and I was living month to month. I had no savings or anything like that. I’ve been pushing a lot into Project Kobe now. I guess I’m lucky, I’m in the position where I can do that at the moment.
What’s next for Project Kobe?
I would like to start offering not just an online guide, but real guided tours. There’s a couple other websites that I would like to link in with. I’m speaking to a friend who owns a restaurant. We’re thinking about teaming up to offer a Japanese cooking experience. Right now he has a kushikatsu restaurant, but he’s opening a new place. He hasn’t decided the venue yet. When he opens his new place then we’ll decide what to offer. The first few cooking lessons we might try okonomiyaki but if that’s not really popular we might change to what the customer wants.
Any advice for people trying to do their own school or business?
Make connections first. Japan’s definitely a word of mouth society. I think if you just open up a school and hand out flyers, I don’t think that would work. I have students now since my NOVA days who have stuck with me. Some students I’ve taught 10 years ago when they were in elementary school, and now they are in university. They stopped a little bit in the middle but they’ve come back now that they’ve got more free time or they started wanting to travel or something. It’s definitely about tight connections and build from that. It’s definitely who you know.
If I gave you $1million, what would you do with it?
I would fully establish Project Kobe. I would put some aside for my family of course. But I would set a goal and push that towards Project Kobe and advertising more and getting more clients and getting the word out there – setting up something more permanent and maybe building a team around it. I definitely love the challenge of building a website. I realize I like travelling. Linking travel and Kobe and websites and English in Japan.. Linking those ideas together I enjoy.
Any last thoughts?
English teaching, a.k.a. Eikaiwa, is a brutal industry and reality for many foreigners in Japan. For those who do not enjoy it, there may not be as many options out there as you would like. For those that are passionate about it, you face enormous corporations as competition – corporations that have proven to not be above shady practices that undermine the reputation for the entire industry.
Stephen was able to break through and build a stable foundation for himself to pursue projects that he is passionate about. Now the proud owner of a popular travel guide and business directory, Stephen connects the best of Kobe to those willing to explore.