So You Want to Open a Language School? by David Will
One direction you can take, as you wend your way through the realm of language teaching, is to open your own school. The rewards are immense and varied, but the stresses are greater than anything you are likely to have encountered so far. In a brief article it isn’t possible to be comprehensive but there are certain areas where you must get it right in order for a project to fly. Four of these are finance, people, promotion and passion!
Let’s grasp the nettle at the start and sort out finance, for without a proper arrangement in place you have nothing to underpin your activities. Few in language education still think of profit as a dirty word, thank goodness! Unless you are lucky enough to be working for a publicly funded institution, or a religious one, how else are you going to fund the improvements to your school that you will want to make? How will you pay for your teachers’ professional development? So make sure you have a profit plan and a balance sheet drawn up before you start. The mere thought of how to construct such plans can send shivers up the spine of the uninitiated and end up with them being consigned to the bottom of the ‘to do list’, especially when there are far more interesting aspects of the business to be planned! But they are vital. They force you to think through the tough questions such as ‘do I have enough capital available or do I approach a bank?’ and ‘are my assumptions about profit going to cover my planned costs?’
This is where a good accountant comes in. Look for one running their own firm if possible. Their own experiences will be more closely related to yours. They are also more likely to be understanding about keeping start up costs to a minimum. They may even help you organise your plans for no more than a few hours of their (pricey!) time, on the understanding that they will do your annual accounting once you are up and running. And those annual costs can be kept down too. If you present your accountant with a plastic bag of cluttered receipts and ticket stubs each month you will, of course, be charged to sort it all out. There are very good accounting software packages such as MYOB on the market these days. It isn’t hard to learn how to operate these, or to pay a bookkeeper a few hours each week to do it for you. By presenting your accountant with a neatly kept memory stick of monthly accounts you will slash the bills! One other thing worth checking is your government’s business development packages. These often come in the form of a department or agency offering free advice, and sometimes start up grants or access to loans.
Without the right people you cannot go far, and we’ve discussed the value of a good accountant. A sympathetic bank manager, and an inexpensive lawyer (tall orders both, I grant you!) can be very useful. Most of all you will want to focus on employees. No matter how much of the managing, ‘DOSing’, teaching and administration you do yourself there will come a time, more quickly than you might think, when you will employ people. I’ve always thought that employing somebody who will work closely with you, and to whom you will entrust large areas of responsibility of your carefully nurtured baby, on the basis of an interview or two to be absurd. So this is when the trial period and performance review are important. So many contracts stipulate a trial period which is not then observed. Yet this is the only real opportunity to observe your new DOS/librarian/teacher in a working environment. Set up a good long period; three months if industrial relations legislation in your country allows it. To be fair to employees, and systematic yourself, it is good to give them some feedback halfway through the trial period. This allows them to adapt their work to your priorities and offers you an opportunity to encourage the mostly good aspects of their work. If, at the end of the period, they are not up to the level you want for your students then don’t kid yourself. Do what’s necessary. For the majority, once they are successfully employed find ways to encourage independence of thinking and initiative-taking. Show confidence in them and they will surprise you endlessly. Remember, whatever they do, they reflect on you!
Promotion is the next essential and it’s useful first to clear up the oft-confused terms of marketing and promotion. In brief the former means understanding what your markets want, and preparing your courses to suit their needs. Promotion is telling the market about them! The familiar observation that if your marketing is done right your promotion will take care of itself has a lot of truth to it, though it is not the whole story. To illustrate using the obvious if you are opening in L1 territory (teaching English in Vancouver, or Mandarin in China) then your markets are often thousands of miles away. Your full-time students will want intensive courses of 20-30 hours a week so there isn’t much point in preparing a three hour per week evening course for them. Incidentally there are also implications for your profit plan here. The time lag between your expenditure on promotion and any return is lengthy and you shouldn’t expect any resulting income for at least six months. On the other hand if you are opening to local markets you can hope for almost immediate response to promotional efforts.
Either way there is a wide range of promotional options available to any business, and establishing where you get most ‘bang for your buck’ is too often done through painful and expensive experience. To reduce your risks (which is what you are trying to do every step of the way) try to find out from the promotional outlets about their target markets and the extent of their reader/viewership. Ask what experience they have in promoting language schools. They know they have to deliver the goods in terms of getting students if they want repeat business from you, so ask them how they will go about this. Look at where other, successful language schools (your competitors) promote. Either way if you have produced the right kind of course, at the right price, your promotional work will enjoy better results.
You can also increase you credibility in the market place by joining an industry body, such as NEAS in Australia which is compulsory in most states, or ARELS in the UK which is not. In each case the advantages are twofold; by meeting their requirements you check yourself and maintain high standards of operation. You also attach your school to a recognized level of quality. Affiliations (such as with I.H.!) can be useful too, but remember to build the cost of membership into your profit plan.
The last thing I have space to mention is passion! It comes down to knowing yourself, something we spend a lifetime learning! No matter what advantages you have going for you, setting up a language school is hard work. Like any business you will suffer knocks along the way. There will be times when you think you are going bankrupt, and other times when employees berate you when you believe you are doing the right thing. You will be the one forced to make the hard decisions. If you don’t everyone will suffer but you’ll be the one who pays most! There will be times when you are unpopular, no matter how familiar and friendly an atmosphere you manage to set up (and it is to be hoped that it is as happy a place to work as you can make it).
The only real way to ride out all of this is if you believe in what you are doing. Your passion for what you do will take you forward, out of the dark valleys and into the sunshine again. It will infect those around you, energize and inspire them. It will make your school a fun place to work and socialize, and everybody who passes through its halls, students and staff alike, will leave a little better than they came in. If you can achieve that it will be no small thing. Running a language school can provide a nice living, but few who do it retire to the Bahamas aged forty! If you want to do that then take up real estate or invest in the stock market. It comes down to what you want to do. So be sure that you are living and breathing the project before you start. Be sure you can thrive on the edge and without the security of a steady job and a pension, at least at the beginning. Be sure you love your project! If you do then trust yourself and jump in with both feet!
Such a large subject cannot be covered comprehensively in a short article so I’ve focussed on a few important areas without which I don’t think you can (or should!) even start. People who are thinking of opening a school might like to ask me questions about the many things I haven’t covered here. Anybody who would like to write to me for a bit of free advice is most welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org
David Will was the Owner/Director of International House Queensland in Cairns and Brisbane for 18 years, and of I.H. Jinan and I.H. Qingdao in China. Before that he was an EFL teacher in Spain, at IH Huelva, Santander and Torrelavega, and in Scotland and Australia. These days he cycles and grows olives.