Thursday, January 24, 2013

Go it alone: Go freelance (co-authored with Mike Hogan)

(This article was originally published in the mELTing Pot and has been posted here with the very kind permission of IATEFL-Hungary).  

ELT teachers are often enticed by the idea of being their own boss or increasing their income by striking out on their own and going freelance or even starting their own small (or large) schools. There are many benefits to going freelance, but where there are possible rewards there are also risks. We may be very good at developing lesson plans and managing a classroom, but as soon as we move into a context of developing a service and managing ourselves as a business we are confronted with all sorts of issues, business issues, which have nothing to do with teaching that we need to be able to do well and do quickly.

Start with an idea and plan from there
Despite the allusion above, your business idea should be designed to fulfil a need, not just to fill your pockets. Decide which need it is you aim to fulfil when going freelance or starting a business. It could be, for example, the need for a type of teaching or training not currently offered in your area, or a higher quality than is available in your local market. It could be offering something completely new to an existing group of customers that don’t yet know they need it, or it could be for a target market which will form as a result of previous experience. Either way, you should start with fulfilling a need and reflecting on how to do that.

Creating a business plan will help. Even if you’re not starting a school but just starting out as a freelancer, you need to see yourself as a business, a one-person business, and prepare accordingly. Spend a day writing down the details of your idea, how you plan to sell it, how much you will charge for it, and so on. Your business plan will help you formulate these ideas, set realistic and attainable targets, and will have various sections which will also help you think about who your competitors are and what sort of budget for marketing or further training you’re going to work under. It will help you to see potential holes in what you’re planning or areas you might be neglecting (e.g. niche markets, saturated markets, professional development, etc.) and it will help you to think about what makes you different from the other companies and trainers who are offering the same thing.

A business plan shouldn’t have vague, sweeping demands such as: “I’d like to earn more money” or “I'd like to get more of my own clients so I can work less for language schools.” You need to have defined targets like: “I want to sign with three new clients by the end of this year.” Set yourself realistic achievable targets with regular milestones. Then, you can start to think about your strategy and how you’re going to achieve those targets.

Consider doing a SWOT analysis. You may already do this with your business English students, but why not make it a part of your own professional analysis? SWOT stands for your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and potential Threats. The GROW model, often used in coaching, is another useful one. It stands for Goal, Reality, Obstacles/Options, and Way (forward). Overall, a business plan can help you put a lot of your ideas down on paper, see them clearly and address them in a realistic way.

Finding your niche, or ELT brand
You may have gained work experience in other sectors before moving into language training. In a way you are already a specialist. Maybe you have some experience in the banking industry, or in the arts, or you are a trained lawyer. This is an amazing resource because you’re immediately differentiating yourself from the general English language training market. You can offer targeted training and, usually, charge more for it.

Perhaps you don’t have experience in other sectors, but you have achieved positive results in other language-rich areas such as test preparation, pronunciation or presentations. You can offer high-quality, skills-specific training in one-to-one or group environments. Whatever your specialized knowledge, it needs to be very prominent on your CV and online profile. Finding one’s “ELT brand” can take time. Try different options and enjoy that time of exploration.

In part two we will develop this idea further and look at what to do once you've found your ELT brand; the importance of online presence and how to build a reputation.