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Schooled In The Trade

In this series of articles, Simon Moran looks at the issues involved in starting and running independent ESL schools.

July 26, 2013

Where and How?

Having made the decision to leave the shackles, or as you may yet come to see it, the safety, of regular, paid employment, new ESL entrepreneurs are faced with a decision to make about how to go forward. It may be too costly to fund the opening of a new school and start with no students – i.e. with bills to pay and no revenue coming in. Until that break-even point can be reached, or instead of taking the plunge into bricks and mortar at all, there are various other options:

Solo teacher
A grammarian gun for hire. It is possible to make a good living from private lessons and private students. It helps if you speak the local native language and can do all scheduling yourself by telephone and email. A Google calendar and documents can keep you organized. A small website and blog are easy to start. Lessons can be taught in your residence, at cafes, at students’ homes or places of business. Networking, word-of-mouth, business cards and flyers can all attract students. Just don’t arrange things so that your gigs are too far apart – always factor in travelling time to your prices and keep a meticulous record of not only who has studied what, but who has or hasn’t paid.

Jobbing teacher
Flitting from part-time gig to gig is the way some prefer to make a living. To this business owner this seems like swapping one unsuitable employer for many, and not so much jumping from the fat into the fire, but into multiple furnaces. However, a teacher with a wide network will always hear of the better jobs going. University jobs pay well and provide decent holidays, but many institutions are cutting back on recruitment, and you could wait around a long time to fill dead men’s shoes only to find they end up on the pyre, too.

A short, snappy name can carry any nationality and will be easier to use in marketing and advertising.

Bricks and mortar
Lets face it, you’re not a school owner until you have a school with a sign, a website, a phone number, and your name on it – though hopefully not literally. Bill’s English, Bob’s English Club, Deron’s DIY English. The names say it all. Bill has his own school, and that’s what he calls it. Bill is from Canada, and we know this because as soon as we walk in the classroom we see a map and a flag of Canada, next to a map of the world. Building a rapport with students and selling English as a cultural experience via your own background and personality can be a good idea, but it can also be limiting. What if Bill needs to go back to Canada for three months and needs cover from Bob, who’s from New Zealand? What if Bill wants to sell the school in the future? Can he find another Bill from Canada to replace him? A short, snappy name can carry any nationality and will be easier to use in marketing and advertising.

Location, location, location

A good location can help a school really take off, a bad one can sink it without trace, very quickly. Not only is the general area important, but the exact location within that area. What is right for your target market? If you are concentrating only on B2B and diplomatic outsourcing contracts, you will most likely not want to be in the suburbs. A downtown office with access to company HQs, embassies and the like would be essential. Conversely, if you are concentrating on the YL market, the suburbs is probably where you want to be, right next to elementary schools, preferably with a lot of expensive, foreign cars parked nearby. Local government offices are great sources of information on demographics, average income and rent. You should do your research carefully, not just open on a whim, and always, always go where the money is.

What is the visible local competition? Internet searches are great, but don’t overlook the local magazine, the phone book, and getting out and about looking around. Doubtless there will also be competition not immediately visible – the guy round the corner that teaches all the local kids free – get out and talk to people – where would you go if you wanted to study English? How would you look? How much would you pay?

The next step is to find a real estate agent who can take you round the premises available. Be sure to look at several and do not make a snap decision. Make sure you revisit your favourites at different times of day. How would a young mother and her children, or a young woman on her own, feel about walking to the premises alone at night? Can parents get easy access with push-chairs? Will singing and screaming children bother the neighbours?

When you get round to signing the lease, you should drive as hard a bargain as you can. Do not make a long-term commitment or agree to renewal fees. Try and get a month’s notice to quit. Be sure there is nothing that could hamper your ability to do business. Have a lawyer look at the lease before you sign and hand over the deposit.

All signed and sealed, you now have empty premises. They may need decorating, or even renovating. Do not scrimp. Your potential new students only get one first look at your new school, and it has to look good. Take all the advice you can about how to configure the school – a good teacher you may be, an interior designer you probably are not. Use your network and visit other schools. Speak to staff and owners – what works and what doesn’t? What mistakes did you make? What would you have done differently? There is also a good chance you know other teachers. Think about your dream team – salary concerns aside, what would the teachers you admire the most want to have in the schools where they worked?

Commitment to paying the deposits on and refurbishing premises can be very expensive and it requires a financial and time commitment. With no students signed up, this then puts you in the red until you can recruit enough to break even. This should be given careful thought. Conversely, local civic halls are often available to rent very cheaply, if not free, and this can be a good way to build your ‘school’ before you actually move it into one.

Next month: Sign them up!

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