In my last article (back in June 2018, before my unplanned but much-needed break of 6 months from ELT NEWS for the first time in 9 years), we explored the causes and the symptoms of once successful FLS whose volume of sales decreases gradually. In this article, we are going to pick up the thread to discuss the phenomenon of FLS that never manage to attract a healthy market share in order to stay in business. This article sets out to examine in a very brief manner the causes and the symptoms of this phenomenon, review some of the consequences and finally suggest ways how to prevent this from happening.
The causes: There was no engine…. Or perhaps there was no pilot ….
Cars and planes are described in terms of engines and mechanical characteristics. Schools are described in terms of the educational principles they espouse and the methodology they apply. Therefore, the reason behind starting a new FLS needs to be one founded on solid academic and financial grounds. In 21st century Greece where FLS galore, the reason to start a new FLS should not be the fact that one cannot find a job as a teacher, does not like being an employee or feels that one is too good a teacher to be serving under others.
EFL teachers who turn FLS owners need to be prepared to start seeing themselves as businesspeople. This means that their happy, ‘’just teaching’’ days are over. There is no doubt that running one’s own school gives one much more educational freedom and perhaps allows one’s creativity to thrive. Still, now EFL teachers have to think as managers, financial planners and leaders of teams. This is an altogether different job description and one for which we must be prepared emotionally and educationally. For those who expect that a school of their own means less work, a simple chat with any long-time school owner will convince them of the opposite. To make matters worse, being an excellent teacher does not guarantee that one is equally talented as a business person (Ρεγκούκος 2012, σελ.36).
Having mentioned what should not constitute the reason for starting a new FLS, it is time to focus on what does give us solid ground to do so. The first reason is that this new school introduces an innovative educational philosophy that is reflected in its teaching methodology, which fully embraces 21st century teaching values and methods, along with a new understanding of what constitutes learning in the 21st century. Despite the fact that many brows have already been raised this notion makes sense. If FLS started because innovative, experienced and well-educated ELT professionals identified a gap in the market, we would not be having so many FLS competing over the same trite and easily copied marketing gimmicks (i.e. prices), nor would we have so much ‘’copycat’’ marketing. It is apparent, I believe, that such a school cannot start in a hurry. Careful planning, so that the optics of the school, match its actual characteristics which the public will experience is of great significance. Finally, this new bright school with its unique educational identity, cannot be (hurriedly) built on the ashes of another one whose reputation might have not been the best and for whose ‘’sins’’ the new FLS is going to pay. Let us bear in mind that rebranding to avert the negative effects of a ruined reputation is much more challenging and expensive than actual branding.
Symptoms and Consequences: ‘’Initially it was a bumpy ride so we ended up landing in Timisoara not Thessaloniki!’’
FLS, much like all businesses, should aim to generate profit for their owners not just to produce fluent speakers of English. When a FLS makes a ‘’rocky’’ start, it fails to attract the market share initially planned. This has two equally grave consequences. Firstly, it is clear that the new FLS has failed to penetrate the market and position itself as a contender. Sadly, when this does not happen from the start, the odds of the new FLS threatening its competitors’ market share are not high. Secondly, since its volume of sales is smaller, the new FLS will have less ‘’representatives’’ spreading its reputation by word of mouth, but this can be reverted if identified early enough. Unfortunately, many young entrepreneurs find it too painful to invest in some diagnostics to identify the actual causes of this dismal situation. Instead, they make the deadly mistake of ‘’copycat’’ marketing, forgetting that this not an ‘’one-size-fits-all’’ market and the marketing strategies of the competition are most likely to be totally inappropriate for their own school. The outcome of all this is that the FLS will not manage to generate enough cash to cover its costs, which means that it cannot invest in its own growth. This leads the school to a totally different place than its original destination, thus increasing the dissonance between what was advertised and the reality of the FLS. Many FLS which started with great educational principles and practices, have sadly ended up compromising in order to ‘’please the clientele’’. Far from flexible this attitude seems to derail the school from its original plan. Having lost its unique characteristics and not being able to enter the market with the thud, the FLS starts shrinking until it is forced to close down.
Steps to avoid not taking off: You can’t push an aeroplane until it takes off!
Marketing and management have undergone many changes since the last decades of the 20th century. It may once have been possible to start an FLS overnight and make a fortune out of it but nowadays, any rushed or emotionally ridden decision is likely to end up in failure. Aspiring ELT professionals who aim to start their own school should consider these three areas: their own readiness, the location of the new FLS and finally their financial & marketing planning.
The manager’s readiness
Before starting any new business ELT professionals need to study so as to retrain in management, marketing. This stage will help them understand the principles of management and educational leadership. It is equally important for these professionals to take care of their own professional networking and join associations which will help them understand the field of Greek EFL from another standpoint this time. Even if the new entrepreneur has joined a franchise, this does not mean that less financial and marketing knowledge is required.
Location! Location! Location!
For Kotler ‘’place’’ is one of the main 4Ps of marketing (the other three being product or service, price and promotion) (Πετράκης 2008, p.322). Location is central to many decisions. Firstly, prior to any business venture one needs to invest in serious external market research to examine whether there is need for another FLS in this area. Secondly, the location of the school will determine its target market, who its competitors are and the type of services offered. Finally, location also affects pricing. Regarding the competition, when entering an existing market, we need to bear in mind that our rhetoric and our digital and commercial presence need to be respectful of those who pre-existed. Smugness does not sell in our day and age. Instead, modest promising and generous delivery work miracles. The competition and their faults are not the reason we are starting a new school. Our media presence needs to zero in on the new, innovative teaching we promise to introduce.
Planning! Planning! Planning!
In the 4Ps of marketing, perhaps we need to add ‘’Planning’’ as everything revolves around simple maths and careful organization. Cash flow planning starts with the functional, day to day expenses of the school. For example, high rent may secure a great location as long as paying this rent can be sustained over time. If not, this is going to cause serious problems. Usually, new FLS owners set much higher targets and believe that it will take their FLS much less time to take off. As pointed out by Churchill et al (1983) there are five stages to make any start-up a big business (existence, survival, break-out, take-off, big Company). Therefore, we need to bear in mind that we have to save some of our capital to support this FLS while it is taking off. This means that careful, planned hiring is needed along with smart budgeting. In our digital age, attention to graphic design and media presence, technology and functionality are of primary importance while other areas (for example, a lavish street party) can be kept for later, once the school starts generating profit.
Businesses may be planned around numbers but when it comes to starting a new school it is all about how we feel as we pour our dreams and hopes into them. Business failure is not just bankruptcy; it is neither lack of capitals nor inability to pass on the new message of that school. The worst part of failure is having to put those beautiful dreams to sleep. School owners call their schools their children. Following this analogy I will close by saying:“Do not have children unless you are fully prepared to understand and support them”
Πετράκης, Π.,(2008). Η Επιχειρηματικότητα. Αθήνα: Εκδόσεις: Π.Ε.Πετράκη
Ρεγκούκος, Γ.Π.,(2012). Επιχειρηματικότητα σε κρίση:οι παθογένειες της Ελληνικής Επιχείρησης & πώς να τις θεραπεύσετε. Αθήνα: Εκδόσεις Αθ. Σταμούλη.
Lewis, Virginia L. and Churchill, Neil C.,(1983).The Five Stages of Small Business Growth. Harvard Business Review [online]. Accessed on 9.1.2019 Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1504517