John MacPeek - Languages4Life
In the latest of our Entrepreneurs Explain series, the man behind Languages4Life language school, John MacPeek, tells us how he got his Barcelona business going.
1. Where did the original idea come from?
The original idea behind Languages4Life has been quite a few years in the making. It is to combine experience in teaching with technology to jump start the learning process. Oséas Andrade has much experience in this sector having taught many years in Barcelona after moving here in 2003. Previously he had founded his own Language School in Petrópolis Brazil, his hometown. He joined with John MacPeek, a Computer Science Engineer from Cornell University and native of New York State, to create a school with high quality teaching standards and the latest technology available to make the classes interactive and dynamic.
2. How long did it take to get your business off the ground?
The business plan took about four months to put together and polish. That was after John had studied a Director Development Program at IESE, a business school here in Barcelona. So we created Languages4Life in January 2011, at which point we began looking for a suitable place to house it. We wanted a very central location and a building with charm. Although it was not easy, we finally did find some beautiful office space in a Modernista building of the Eixample very close to the metro Passeig de Gràcia in February 2011. After that, a bit of remodelling, installing all the equipment and getting it all up and running took us another four months. We opened our doors and started giving classes in July 2011.
3. What are the key advantages or innovations you are bringing to the market?
Languages4Life is in the unique position of having an experienced entrepreneur in Language Schools as its Director of Studies, and a Computer Science Engineer as an Administrator. This combination of experience in the sector along with experience in technology represents Languages4Life’s differential advantage. We have paid very close attention to detail. Every classroom is equipped with an Apple computer on a high-speed network. The computers' display is not simply a projector on a screen but on an interactive, tactile whiteboard. The projectors are very close to the screens preventing shadows created by the teacher. Teachers use these resources in every class as a whiteboard with many additional features, such as never needing to erase or simply opening a new page. They can easily go back to previous pages or lessons on the whiteboard. You can project an e-book on the screen and allow teachers as well as students to interact with it, doing exercises or listening to audio/video clips. Teachers can instantly pull up examples or exercises from the Internet, to explain a concept or answer a very specific question on any topic. Languages4Life has full stereo audio in each classroom, and all audio content from the books is instantly available on the network with crisp sound quality.
This is just a start; at Languages4Life we are constantly investigating and looking for new ways to improve the learning process.
4. How easy was it to get the financing for your business?
We financed most of the project from personal savings, quite a risk in the economic situation we are under currently. Thanks to having put up our own capital first, we did manage to get a low-interest loan from our bank and the ICO (Instituto de Crédito Oficial) to cover our investment in technological equipment. Banks give you a lot more credibility and, in the end, credit if you put up your own savings first. I was actually surprised by the confidence the bank manager had in our project. He stopped by unannounced one afternoon while we were just getting it all together, at the end of May 2011. Once he saw what we had up and running, he had no doubts. It was just a question of getting together all the paperwork to apply for the loan.
5. Did you find the paperwork difficult?
The paperwork is certainly complex. To get an accurate idea of how much so, one piece of evidence says it all: Spain ranks 133 out of 183 countries in the World Bank’s June 2011 'Ease of Doing Business' Ranking under the category 'Starting a Business' (http://www.doingbusiness.org/rankings). Some of our worst experiences were at the Social Security offices. Our first experience there was unbelievable: it was impossible to declare ourselves as freelance workers (autónomos) during the first three weeks of January, because the whole system was out of service, in the whole country. Apparently, this happens every year according to civil servants. The response was, “Come back next week. The system may be back up then.” It is truly shameful in a country with over 20 percent unemployment that it should be so difficult for someone to take himself or herself off the dole. Again in September, when we needed to hire some teachers, the Social Security made the whole process difficult. Whenever you go into those offices they seem hell bent on sending you out to come back another day. Often they ask for documentation that is not required according to their own information on their web. Perhaps that way they make sure their jobs are necessary. Our advice is to hold firm, and simply let them know you are not leaving until you get your paperwork done.
6. Did you get help from any particular official organisations or associations (e.g. Chambers of Commerce)? If so, please describe
The flipside of the difficulty to starting a business in Spain is the incredible amount of free help available, principally through Barcelonactiva. I studied a program there to help me put together my business plan and find out about all the paperwork as well as available grants. Barcelonactiva is very well organized and they give optimal service. They also have all kinds of courses on developing your business, creating a web and other services. But still, we wonder if simplifying the process of opening a business in Spain in the first place would be more efficient.
7. What is your business experience / background / qualifications?
Oséas has studied Spanish Literature at the University of Barcelona. He has more than 10 years' teaching experience with English and Spanish in different countries, Brazil, Canada and Spain. He created a successful language school in his hometown Petrópolis in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which is still going strong with more than three hundred students.
John studied Computer Science Engineering at Cornell University in New York State. He has worked in large corporations such as IBM, Alcatel and Vodafone, before setting out to start on this entrepreneurial adventure.
8. What are the positive aspects about having a business here?
Living in Barcelona is a big advantage in itself in a personal and business dimension. Starting up and running your own business here makes you even more part of the city. You become one of the many advantages this city has to offer. Given the crisis that Spain is currently struggling through, Barcelona is one of the better places to live. It is a dynamic city that appreciates new offerings and change. People recognize that you are breaking out into something new and let you know that they like it, often by recommending you to their friends. Despite the crisis, there is still have a burgeoning tourist industry, not to mention the sunny weather, mild temperatures, and above all the Mediterranean Sea on our doorsteps.
9. And the negative aspects?
The red tape, already mentioned, although cumbersome is manageable with a certain amount of willpower. Starting any business requires a strong amount of willpower, to gain the confidence of clients, providers and banks. We must say, it is a lot of work to start gaining this confidence and create a reputation for being serious. But it is a virtuous circle, which gains momentum the more you put into it.
10. Are there any other useful contacts, tips or information you think would be useful to other foreign entrepreneurs in Barcelona? Please describe
Metropolitan organizes Guiri Business group networking events that are good for making contacts and starting discussions on their forum on LinkedIn. Metropolitan also has a Facebook page (something any business should also have) on which you can publish announcements of events. Again, do stop by Barcelonactiva and sign up for an orientation session, which they also offer in English. They you can take it from there. In the short and long term, Spanish and Catalan will be necessary here in Barcelona, so dive right in and start learning!