In 2007, I had a good degree but no job, lots of energy but no opportunities, and great friends but no contacts. I was 22 years old and my life already looked a little bleak.
Fortunately, I was offered a job as a teacher and, nine years later, I started my own educational company – TED-IELTS. It began slowly but eventually grew to the point that it was my sole job. Since late 2018, I have been working for myself… and it feels great!
In this blog post, I want to talk a little about how you should go about setting up your own online teaching business and discuss whether that is easier or harder in 2023.
Should you start an online teaching business?
Before we get into how to start your own teaching company, the important question is should you do it?
To be honest, the answer to that question is something you have to figure out yourself. It is a matter of personality more than anything. Maybe you are an amazing teacher… but that doesn’t mean you will succeed. Likewise, maybe you are a great businessperson… but that also means little if you can’t teach.
You need some combination of teaching skills and business skills, as well as the time, money, and energy to do it. Because, let’s face it, this is not going to be easy.
Sorry. I have to say it here: I don’t want anyone to read this whole thing and then realise only at the end that it was never a viable option for them.
I have teaching experience (15+ yrs) and education (MA, TEFL, CELTA, etc) and I also had a little business experience. Also, I once started and ran my own bookshop and I have run a literary journal and publishing company for more than a decade. These things helped convince me that I had a short, but there was something else to consider:
Do your research
Ok. So you are good at teaching, good at business, you have some money in your pocket, and you have the time and energy to give this a real shot.
Now, you need to figure out whether it is actually possible or not, and for that you need to do some research. I am a teacher primarily, so instead of explaining how to conduct market research and making various errors, I will instead point you to a better article. You could also – y’know – just Google it. Whatevs.
The important thing is that you research your field and come up with some data that you trust enough to inform your decisions. Most teachers want to make the world a better place through education… but all teachers need to eat and most of us have rent and bills to pay.
When you intend to work for another company, you can just find out their pay scale but when you are starting your own business you need to do much more. Firstly, you should go and find other teachers, then find out how much they charge. Can you charge the same? More? …Less?
What about costs? God, these things kill me. I’m hopeless at predicting the “little” expenses:
- Web hosting
- E-mail providers
- Social media services
The list goes on… and on… and on… Don’t forget to factor in unexpected emergencies, like hiring a tech person when your website suddenly goes offline for no apparent reason.
Some of this stuff might cost you $1.99 a month, but others cost much more. My Mailchimp bill is $92 per month. Add this all together and it really eats into your earnings.
There is a phrase in modern business: niche down. It means that you should concentrate on one particular area. You can expand later once you have established yourself, but in the beginning you need to pick a niche and focus on it.
Here, we are talking about English as a Second Language (ESL) and so you could niche down to Business English or Accent Training or exam preparation.
My niche was IELTS, but I niched down even more. I focused on IELTS writing because that was my speciality in my previous job.
Prepare for the worst
It may seem pessimistic, but in life you always need to plan for the worst. That’s why we have insurance, right?
When you start your own business, you need money to fall back on. Remember that it could be a disaster, no matter how well you planned. Your business could just haemorrhage money for six or twelve months.
Before you begin, figure out how much you expect to spend, how much you need to earn, and how much your living costs will be. Make sure that you can survive for about a year before your business takes off. This will prevent you from giving up part-way through the year.
Or, better yet, do what I did:
In 2016, I was working for an English university and making my own writing course for Chinese students. I was paid well and the job meant that I was constantly coming up with ideas for how to teach writing skills better. I decided to take some of my own materials and put them online for free. When they started to gain attention, I began making more and more… and two and a half years later I quit my job and dedicated myself to building the website full-time.
After you have done your research, you need to make those first steps into the world of self-employment. This is the frightening part, but if you have prepared well and set up a safety net, then you shouldn’t worry too much.
The first thing to do when you start a business nowadays is build a website. There are various Content Management Services (CMS) for this, and I am reliably informed that I am a dinosaur for using WordPress because Webflow is the new kid in town. Anyway, you can pick from:
- and many others
You should buy the domain, pick a web host, and get everything set up well before you anticipate making money. Most of your traffic is – eventually – going to come through Google, but that takes time and effort. You will need to learn about SEO, and let me save you some trouble. I really like Brian Dean’s stuff because it is simple and original, but for starting a business you might be better with Income School. These people will show you the right way to go.
After that, you can get set up with social media, which is another essential part of any modern business. I know, I know, Zuckerberg is a jerk and Elon Musk isn’t much better… but you need their platforms. You also need Pinterest and Instagram. If you can afford a social media manager, then great. Get one. If you can’t, you’re going to have to research this a little, too.
I use Twitter for reaching out to people. In 2022, I went from 1,000 followers to 100,000 and it happened with no promotions, no spamming, no randomly following and unfollowing… All I did was create original content every day. It eats up a little time, but builds your reputation hugely. Here’s an example of my content:
Thankfully, social media is faster and easier to set up than a website. Once they’re both up and running, link them together and start posting. Churn out as much high-quality content as possible in the beginning and you will be rewarded later.
Remember: It can take Google months to rank your content in the beginning, so don’t expect miracles.
Network and Collaborate
Everyone hates spammers, but you do need to be active on social media in order to get noticed. There is a fine line between helping someone and bugging them, but you will need to find it and tread it carefully. Make yourself a pillar of knowledge and virtue in your chosen niche. Soon, you will find your first customer, and after that you may be able to grow through word of mouth.
In the online teaching world, people can be a bit protective of their turf. It is, after all, a competitive field. I know that a link from my website to a competitor’s website will tell Google to rank them above me… so I have to ask myself is it the right thing to help them?
I feel that there is more worry about competition than there actually is competition. If you reach out and help other teachers, they may share with you. You can retweet each other, share each other’s Facebook posts, or link to each other’s websites. Recently, my internet connection was bad and so I referred a student to another teacher for online lessons. It seemed like the right thing to do, even though they are – in a sense – my direct competition.
Collaboration can be great. Guest posting or joint YouTube videos can really raise awareness, particularly for the newcomer. Experienced teachers are willing to do it because they are happy to get some easy content for their website or social media page.
Build Authority and Reputation
Nowadays, Google is getting very good and figuring out who you are and then attributing that to your posts on the internet. If you are an educated, talented, experienced person then you might find that your posts quickly rank on Google. My years of experience and my qualifications help me jump to the first page for certain topics.
To do this, you can take some online courses, write a good “about me” page for your website, link all your social media together, get yourself mentioned in the news or on a big website, or just keep churning out quality material. In the end, it all helps.
It also helps to get a personal reputation as I mentioned above. If you can survive a tough first year, you will have many people who are now familiar with your name. They might refer you to their friends or else keep coming back to use your services.
Prepare to Diversify your Income Streams
A teacher used to stand at the front of the class and teach his/her students by writing on a blackboard and barking questions. Now, we do all sorts of ridiculous things. At the end of each month, I pay my rent and bills with income from the following:
- writing correction service
- online lessons
- royalties on my books
- advertising revenue for 2 websites
- ad money from YouTube
I also do the occasional bit of freelance work, which may include writing lesson plans, editing books or essays, writing articles, or whatever else takes my interest.
This is common in various fields now. Even back home in Scotland, the local farmers use the word “diversify” because they can’t survive planting crops and raising livestock. They need to rent out cabins and make artisanal snacks.
Welcome to the 21st century, folks.
Keep at it… no matter how hard it gets
Teaching online is really difficult when you have your own company. A lot of people find out in the first three months that they just can’t do it, and they go back to teaching for DaDaABC and all those Chinese companies.
Not everyone has the mental strength to deal with the bad times. Last year, my income soared month after month until the summer and then it crashed to oblivion. I thought I was going to have to quit, but I managed to get through a bad month and then recover. My business was doing well until February of this year, when Covid-19 hit Asia and people cut back on education spending. Thankfully, I struggled through February and March, and then things improved a little in April and then again in May and June.
The thing is: if my business spiralled, I could survive several bad months as I make the changes needed to survive. I am careful to hold funds back to get through the dark days. I save, I invest, and I live a pretty minimalist life. But then, it also helps that I have no wife or kids.
Not everyone has this position, so they need even more strength. I don’t mean to put you off, but you need to know what you are getting into.
Constantly Improve Yourself and Always Learn
Finally, I’ll bring this to an obvious but important point. You cannot just say “I’m a good teacher” and leave it at that. I remember going to school in the 1990s and seeing really old teachers struggle because they could not teach without corporal punishment. They had learned how to teach in a different era but never adapted to the modern one.
Now, of course, the world moves so fast it’ll make your head spin. Did you learn how to use Skype to teach a class? Well, that’s out of date now. You need to know how to use Zoom. Could you screenshare? Well, now you need to have Miro.
Remaining successful as a teacher means being able to adapt to the new technologies that come along, and this is increasingly difficult. Honestly, I feel overwhelmed some of the time when I look at the things I need to know. In the last few months alone, I have started using:
- Google Hangouts
I know that not all of them are new, but they were new to me. Customers and colleagues required me to be proficient with them, so I had to learn. If I didn’t, I would soon be behind in my industry… and then there would be a new batch of programmes… and then I would be even further behind.
Playing catch-up is hard, so you need to be learning all the time. However, you cannot devote all your time to learning. You are, after all, a teacher.
I hope that no one has been put off by this article. My intention was simply to provide a completely honest and somewhat comprehensive overview of this. I am fully aware that this article may help many people become my direct competitors, so maybe I am being short-sighted! However, if I can bring even one more good teacher into the world then it all balances out.
If you have any critical feedback about this or anything else to share, stick it in the comment section down below. I will try to answer your posts and adapt this article over time.