How I made the decision to become independent
When embarking on the voyage of discovery otherwise known as becoming an Online English Teacher to Adults, we can often wonder how on Earth it could be remotely lucrative. It can often seem as though we are scraping by, earning what seems to be a pittance. The teaching world instructs us to either be employed by a language school teaching children, or to register with an online platform. Granted, these are valid recommendations; ones which I would support. The latter, however, comes with the sinking feeling of seeing your hard-earned funds generated from rock-bottom ‘competitively-priced’ lessons vanish into oblivion in the form of platform commission. This punch in the guts may be unavoidable, at least during the ‘novice period’.
One thing ‘the teaching world’ prepares us for is teaching. It doesn’t prepare us for running a business. How are the two connected? Are you a teacher, or a business-owner?
In 2016, I left my HR role in the UK to travel full-time. I’ve lived in countries such as Japan, Mexico, Belarus (more on that coming up!), and Colombia. Somewhat unintentionally, I decided to continue with this lifestyle once my finances were depleted. After completing a 120-hour TEFL course with The TEFL Org in 2017, and applying to numerous platforms including Preply, I made the decision to settle on Italki, largely as a result of lower commission per lesson.
This way of life continued until early-2020, when, you guessed it, Covid-19 struck. I had been stranded in Sweden whilst visiting a friend when the entirety of Europe closed its borders, leaving me with no choice but to leave most of my belongings in Belgrade, Serbia and throw a dart at a map of countries which permitted entry. It landed on Belarus, specifically, the capital city of Minsk.
Rather than being swallowed by the world of pandemic-panic, banana bread production lines, home haircuts, and endless ‘Zoom parties’, I decided to escape this looming whale seemingly devouring others around me like a shoal of fish. I made the decision to take advantage of the situation. I was selfish. Students were working from home. They were not commuting. I increased my prices. I increased my availability. Jackpot, right?
Wrong. I still had the issue of Italki’s commission. Over some gorgeous Oladushki (small Russian-style pancakes), made lovingly by my Belarusian babushka, Eleanora, I had an epiphany. I was going to capitalise on the pandemic and set up my own website!
How I did it
I’m no developer. I have no experience in web design. However, by using platforms such as Wix, WordPress, or Squarespace (which I used), web design doesn’t necessarily need to be as complex as the Countdown conundrum. If I can do it, anyone can!
Building a website from scratch with no experience does take a certain degree of research and patience. You’ll burn the candle at both ends. You’ll make mistakes. For me, Squarespace seemed to be the best option. If you have experience with a platform such as WordPress (it’s more complex and would definitely be suitable for someone with at least some coding experience), use that. If like me, a complete beginner to the world of web design, Squarespace or Wix are great options.
Going independent via my website allowed me to increase my income due to minimal fees (use a payment platform like Stripe instead of Paypal – they charge less and the app is easy to use). Additionally, my website allowed me to incorporate functions that were not available on Italki, such as long-term discount packages, discount codes, gift certificates and more.
Agile Methodology is widespread in the IT sphere; it’s utilised by companies to manage the way in which a project is delivered via continuous releases and communication. Developing a website isn’t simply a case of completing it and “Bob’s your uncle!” – the process continues. I have been fortunate enough that the majority of my students work in IT. They provided me with useful feedback around improvements and potential, beneficial features. As any developer or product designer will tell you, listen to your users and act on feedback.
How to attract new students… or not, as the case may be
“My ears are burning”. I can hear you asking the question, “but how do you generate new student requests?”. Let’s look at where my base of students come from.
Word of Mouth/Referrals – When learning how reputation works, we understand how feedback, both positive and negative, can spread like wildfire. Existing students have colleagues, friends, partners, and family members, many of whom may be in the same boat as them. For example, an existing student passed on my details to her friend, who passed them on to her husband, who then passed them on to his mother! You could even consider passing on your details to a student’s boss, if you know there is a widespread need for improved English in a business environment. As a useful tip, set up a discount code on your website, for example ‘REFER20 – get 20% off your next package purchase when you refer a friend’! Be creative.
Instagram/YouTube/LinkedIn/other social media – An online presence is essential if you want to generate interest from potential new students. Yes, I have not yet been able to bring myself to venture into the daunting world of TikTok, but I do have a presence on YouTube and Instagram, and have only recently set up LinkedIn. On Instagram, I provide tri-weekly posts consisting of job interview guidance, business English, and useful idioms, all of which keep me present in existing students’ minds, as well as making me visible to possible new ones. I’ve even had students come directly from my travel videos on YouTube!
You may want to consider branching out to platforms which are popular in your target countries. VKontakte and Telegram are commonly used in countries such as Russia by individuals working in the IT sphere. Be wary of self-promotion.
One platform to avoid like the plague is Facebook. Many groups do not allow self-promotion, and the majority of potential students who contact you expect free lessons. This is due to the ‘desperation narrative’ perpetrated by many teachers.
Sounds like a lot of work, right? The truth is, you may not need to market yourself at all. Here’s why. The lightbulb moment of seeing yourself not as a teacher, but a business owner, wields you with a weapon formerly missing from your arsenal.
Growing your Business
‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your business grow’? Answer – by promoting customer loyalty, retention, and by building long-term relationships with your customers. Taking the time to go back to basics and consider the fundamentals of your teaching/business technique, is key.
Do you spend sufficient time in a trial lesson to, shockingly, get to know a student? Perhaps, you don’t want to refer to them as a student. Should a job interview instead be called ‘a meeting’ to eliminate the pressure and risk of patronisation? Similarly, you may prefer to call a lesson, a ‘call’. You’re speaking to an adult after all; one on your level. Is your choice of language distancing yourself from those you teach? Could this be the teaching revolution? Consider your terminology.
Individuals you have calls with appreciate empathy, connection, and rapport, continuously. Spend 5 minutes chatting informally at the start of each call, learn and remember things about them, chat on Instagram, like their photos. Become more than ‘just a teacher’. If this is your natural approach, bingo. Long-term student retention will just ‘happen’. Teaching adults online isn’t about generic and elaborate 10 lesson ‘courses’ which add no value to specific student needs; it’s not about short-term learning. Learning any language is a life-long endeavour. Focus on maintaining and building confidence in a sustainable manner, not unrealistic quick-fixes.
Understanding your own value and establishing your niche
Becoming independent is coupled with two key points of running a business – pricing, and identifying your niche.
The reality is, without a niche or relevant experience, you WILL most likely need to charge at the low-end when you first start out. From a prospective student’s point of view, you have no experience. Build up your experience, student base, and reputation. Regularly increase prices. Don’t be scared. You’re providing an invaluable service. Don’t fall into the pit of the aforementioned ‘desperation narrative’ by offering the all too common ‘free lessons’, which completely devalue what you offer. Your teaching business is exactly that. A business – not a charity.
Raising your prices to a point at which even you think, “OMG, I would never pay this!” will happen, particularly if you have students in countries with a weaker economy/currency and lower cost of living. The point to consider here is, what type of students are you attracting at $8USD per hour? Let me guess – tardy, uncommunicative, uncommitted individuals expecting biblical-esque miracles without any level of effort from themselves? Trust me, I’ve been there.
You can avoid this issue by simply increasing your prices and understanding the value you add. You’ll attract a more suitable or ‘decent’ student; one who will arrive on time, respond promptly, and most importantly, understand that a teacher isn’t capable of parting the Red Sea in one 45-minute session.
Your credibility as a business owner and justification around increasing your rates can be further boosted by focusing on a specialism or niche. As an ex-HRBP, I mainly devote my lesson time to Business English, Job Interview practice (including FAANG interviews for IT roles) and Academic writing. What’s in demand, that you can do blindfolded with your hands tied behind your back? Hey, Presto! There’s your niche – utilising it and your experience can avoid the ‘race to the bottom’.
The Paradigm Shift
The process of becoming an independent business-owner running a teaching business is only part of this step change. The crux is shifting your mindset. Read the first sentence of this paragraph again. You’re a small business owner, not a teacher. Digital Marketing knowledge, innovation, strategic thinking, and a cut-throat tenacity are required in order to succeed. Be confident in the value you offer, develop your niche, tap into your creative juices. Maintain and develop. Act on feedback.
Reaching your destination on this voyage of discovery is possible. I did. So can you!
David Ostrowski is a London-born Digital Nomad and full-time traveller, videographer, YouTuber, writer and amateur photographer who has been on the road for five years. Currently in the process of obtaining Polish-citizenship through descent, David plans to move to an EU country later in 2021, while pursuing his passion of supporting other prospective online business owners and travellers on the road to success!
Read his previous articles for The TEFL Org blog here and here.
David has written an eBook to support teachers in starting out on a platform like Italki, in addition to a more specialised business English option! Check out the links below! –