How’s that Language School Going?

by David Will

Some time ago I wrote an article entitled, “So you want to open a Language School?”  (I.H. Journal, Issue 29, Autumn 2010) and this article is best read in conjunction with that one. There’s been so much interest and correspondence from you all (much appreciated) that I’ve decided to write a follow up, based on that correspondence.

‘Will my project be economical in the short-term?’ is one regularly asked question, sometimes by people who have educational loans to pay off, or other forms of debt to service. The short answer to this is ‘not usually’. You may get lucky and strike a seam of gold, but most schools and colleges take time to build up a reputation and a client base to the point where they are viable, and it’s not a good idea to hope it will service existing debt in the short term. I never ran a college that was profitable in its first year of operation, and breaking even in the second year was the best I managed to do. I don’t think this is untypical, although if you are dealing with the local market you may grow more quickly.

Just how quickly the school becomes viable depends on many factors, and the best way of assessing these is by developing a business plan. It’s vital before you start and there are endless templates available on the Internet. It helps you to plan which courses you are going to sell, how to run them, price them (see below) and promote them. You get to assess yourself for strengths and weaknesses, to understand your markets more clearly and to identify the steps you need to take along the way, including a promotion plan. Having made all these plans and assumptions the work will help you to translate the information into financial projections; a profit and loss plan and a cash flow forecast. These in turn will tell you (assuming all your plans and assumptions come to fruition, and do remember that these often change) when you can expect to show a profit. Above all the plan will give you focus. It will help you clear your thinking and prioritize where you target your resources, both financial and human (usually your time and energy!).

Returning briefly to the issue of pricing, this is something you can do with confidence once your plan is almost complete. There are two main ways to go about this; price to cover your costs (which you’ll have established in your Business Plan), or price to set yourself in the market. If you take the latter route there’s a good chance you’ll cover your costs in any case, unless you are going for the bargain basement end of the market (which remains perfectly valid) in which case your margins and precise costs/student become of greater importance. Setting yourself in the market is about providing value for money. You can do this charging 10 euros per hour or 100. It depends on what you offer during that hour and whether students feel it was worth their hard earned cash compared to what others have. Decide precisely what package you are offering and then take a look at the competitors you feel are closest to you in terms of what they deliver. Then decide what you are going to charge. Will you charge a little more, setting yourself apart from them by delivering (and promoting) something extra and special that competitors don’t? Or will you charge a little less than they do, attracting students by your value-for-money approach while still providing a solid service?

One discussion that comes up frequently relates to the issue of ‘physical evidence’. Unlike a product – say a shirt, or a hamburger, which you can hold and assess for value – a school delivers a ‘service’, something that is often less tangible. Teachers will be familiar with disillusioned students who are unable to see the progress they are making, and when running a school it is vital that students get a strong sense of their own progress, and in addition that they feel confident in your school to guide them. Much of what we do automatically serves to address the first issue; taking students through the chapters of a course, whether published or home grown, which regularly shows students what they have achieved is the best example. Ongoing assessments such as tests and exams reinforce the sense of achievement  – the more so if they are external exams. As to confidence building, students like to know their teachers are qualified, so framed qualifications on the wall of each classroom are useful, together with any accreditations, industry memberships or achievements that the school might wish to display. Students need to see a serious, well-kept building and an organized administration, which responds promptly and effectively to their needs. Technology plays a part in credibility; rather illogically it is sometimes a convincing aspect of a school’s appearance. I’m not for a moment suggesting setting up a computer room in order to attract students; that’s the tail wagging the dog. But if you do have a computer room for self-access, pronunciation and the many other areas where language learning is enhanced, then make sure you promote it, and that potential students who come to your school are shown how accessible it is and easy to work. Additionally, make sure your website is current and that all aspects of it function properly.

People sometimes ask me if I think they have sufficient credentials to start a language school. What are the ‘right’ qualifications and experience for starting a school up? The truth is there’s no correct response here and the answer lies largely in an individual’s character and stage of life (to illustrate the latter using the screaming obvious, if you have just given birth to triplets you may want to wait a year or two!). Qualifications can help, particularly if you are going to be directly involved in the academic side in which case they are indispensible. A course in administration can be useful, and marketing/promotion courses will never go astray. Relevant experience in each of these areas, particularly the latter, is often even better. But no matter how many qualifications or years of experience you have on your C.V. there is no guarantee that the college will work, and success is just as likely to happen for someone with focus, drive and energy who has an astute view of what the market is doing and how effectively it is being serviced. Innovation and energy go a long way indeed, and in many cases more than make up for lack of qualifications (the academic side apart). In the end it is hunger and drive that tend to underpin success. In some ways the very asking of this question is an indication of how ready, or not, a person is to take the project on. I should point out that deciding not to go ahead is equally valid if you don’t feel you are ready. What matters is that you see the issues clearly before making the decision, and that you make it for the right reasons.

Related to this is the discussion about partners. This can be a good way to split the workload and perhaps share the financial investment, but it is like a marriage; all joy and euphoria as you plunge in but slow and painful to extricate yourself from if it doesn’t work out. So don’t do it lightly, and a partner you know already is obviously an advantage. Consider your skills sets. If you are two teachers then it will be useful to bounce ideas about curriculum and methodology off each other. However, when you come to consider setting up the administration of the school you may find that you have the same gaps in your knowledge. These gaps can be plugged with employees, for example, but a partner with a completely different skills set from you can be a great asset to you both, saving you an expensive wage early on. It may also give you the extra confidence you need to proceed.

Deciding to go ahead is a frightening moment, but it can be an exhilarating one. If you’ve done the groundwork, and prepared your business plan thoroughly, if you can see where your market and your finance are, and the thought of what you can achieve sends a tremor of excitement up your spine then don’t hold back. Take that leap!

Author’s Bio: David Will was the Owner/Director of International House Queensland in Cairns and Brisbane for 18 years, and of IH Jinan and IH 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.