Many people dream of an adventure overseas. Anja Spilker, founder and CEO of Zaloa Languages, thought she was going to Mexico for just six months in 2014. So far, she’s been there six years and counting. She built a language school in Cholula, not far from Mexico City, and she had about 500 students at its peak.
When COVID hit Mexico she closed the doors and decided to take her entire business online. In this interview, we´re going to talk about the pros and cons of running a language business online vs. offline.
In this interview you will learn:
What to look for in a new business partner.
How networking with like-minded people can free your mind.
The importance of honing in on your niche.
Why Anja took her business online.
Anja’s best tips for Langpreneurs.
When Anja moved to Mexico, she quickly decided that corporate life wasn’t for her. Somehow, she wanted to have more of an influence for good in people’s lives.
So, Anja started an online language business. It would be cool, she thought, to live and work from anywhere in the world. But, it turned out that Mexicans weren’t ready for an online language school. The people in her city wanted face-to-face lessons. So did the many multinational companies that were based in the area.
One thing led to another, and suddenly, Anja found herself running a physical language school. Not only that, but when the business-connected learners moved away, they stayed with Anja through her online business.
It all taught Anja a critical lesson:
“When you see an opportunity in the market, don ´t wait and take it”
Find a business partner who complements your skills
When you open a business in Mexico, you have to have at least two people involved. That’s how Anja came to learn the importance of finding the right business partner.
She thought about:
What do I need?
Who shares my values and aims for this business?
Do we like each other?
Can I work with her?
What skills does she bring to the company?
So Anja — a German with business and marketing skills — found a local Mexican lawyer who shared her values and matched her energy and passion for teaching. They make a great team because they bring complementary skills to the business.
Their school grew to more than 500 students with 50 hardworking staff.
However, even though Anja didn’t realise it, the workload was beginning to take its toll.
Change your location, change your state of mind
In 2019, almost on a whim, Anja decided to attend the Langpreneur Language Influencer Summit. She registered three days before the event, and it turned out to be a game-changer.
Meeting new people and hearing their stories and advice gave Anja the space to start thinking about the ideas fermenting in the back of her mind.
It was easier to gain a new perspective because she was away from the business. At last, she had clarity and time to focus on planning a scalable business.
When you have to make a decision, look for the pros and cons
Anja and her partner had to take stock of the advantages and disadvantages of her two business models to decide how to take the next step.
On the plus side, the physical school was great for teaching and selling on a personal level. There was very little competition, and it was easy to gain expert status in the local area.
However, the school had grown too quickly and was taking all Anja’s time and energy.
On the other hand, the online business was eminently scalable and didn’t require every waking hour. It didn’t allow for the same personal connection but did have the potential to help many more language learners.
In the end, the Covid 19 lockdown took the decision to close the school out of their hands.
Hone in on your niche
To have a successful business, you need to ask two essential questions:
Who do I serve?
What are my strengths?
The German language teaching market may be filled with tutors and businesses, but most of them focus on English – German. When Anja examined Zaloa’s strength, she realised that no-one was teaching Spanish – German.
“I realised I really got to their hearts when I spoke to those clients in Spanish. In the Latin-American market there are very few people who actually explain the German language… in Spanish.”
So, there was Zaloa’s niche: Latin American Spanish speakers who are beginning their German language journey.
It works very well for Zaloa.
By focusing on beginners, those students get used to the Zaloa teaching style and stick with it when their language skills advance.
Go where your audience is
Zaloa has a website, of course, but businesses should go where their audience likes to hang out. For Zaloa, that’s YouTube and Instagram.
Anja decided to focus on Instagram because that’s the social media platform Latin Americans love. In just four months she’s attracted over 4000 followers.
More importantly, Videos, Lives and Stories all encourage plenty of engagement. Anja speaks to her audience in their language and teaches German. It’s a great way to build a strong bond.
“It’s not about getting 1000 people who start something with you but who don’t end it… If you have a personal connection with people they stick to you.”
Pivot when you need to
At first, Anja started with online courses while her partner focused on keeping the rest of the business going so that they kept a steady income.
But when COVID hit they had to pivot as student after student lost their jobs.
Latin Americans tend not to have savings, and many couldn’t afford the expensive upfront course fees any more.
So the business pivoted into a membership model. Monthly payments spread the load and make it possible for people to keep studying.
Inside the membership, students have access to all levels of courses as well as guidelines, exercises, certificates, exams, and community.
On top of that basic level, you can add services as you wish. There are challenges; students can send audios to be corrected, or have a one-to-one class.
Anja does hope to do occasional offline events, to keep contact with people and have fun. But for her, online business is where it’s at.
When life throws you a bombshell look for the opportunity inside
As well as running Zaloa, Anja is also co-organiser of the Polyglot Conference. Sadly, the physical event was cancelled this year. But that presented the team with the opportunity to reach an even bigger audience.
Here’s what they decided to do.
Move the conference online for 2020
Make it more accessible by asking for a donation instead of a fixed price
Showcasing Cholula, Mexico so people will want to come and explore when it’s safe to travel again.
By seeing this as an opportunity, it allows them to connect with the polyglot audience and also remind them that it’s even more fun when you’re there in person.
Anja’s Tips for Langpreneurs
Trust life, trust the process.
Anja never dreamed she’d be a business owner and language teacher, but that’s where life took her, and she couldn’t be happier.
Follow your instincts.
How important is personal contact with your students to you? Online is not the same as one-to-one.
Find your own way.
Your journey will not be the same as other people’s.
Businesses will have seasons, winter, spring, summer, autumn.
You need the dark moments to think… and find new opportunities as well.
Accept that you’ll make mistakes — learn from them.
Anja’s made plenty of mistakes over the years, and she’s sure that she’ll make many more.
Connect with other Langpreneurs and learn from them. Conferences and events are great for that. Which one will you go to when the world opens up again?
“You can compare language business with language learning. What you need for language learning is the courage to start, the endurance, and the learning from mistakes.”