I first came to Barcelona over 30 years ago to work as an English teacher. I would save as much as I could, go travelling for a few months, then come back to Barcelona and start again. After a few years I decided that it would be worth getting a higher teaching qualification and soon after that I found myself running my first school. I’m now responsible for a group of 18 companies based in six countries, which includes 12 International House language schools, as well as a web-based school called Net Languages.
Where did the original idea come from?
The idea for Net Languages came to me back in 1998, when the Internet was still in its infancy. We were very good at getting people into our language schools; it occurred to me that the Internet provided the perfect vehicle for us to deliver our services to our clients, wherever they happen to be.
How long did it take to get your business off the ground?
Net Languages took around four months to get up and running. Other schools I’ve started e.g. IH Belfast, IH Bogotá or IH Playa del Carmen in Mexico took a little longer as we also had to find suitable premises.
What do you wish you’d known when you started?
That you need to get a great team together fast. Otherwise you end up spending your time doing things that other people could do more effectively and not doing the things that you should be doing.
How easy was it get the financing for your business?
The bigger we grew, the easier it became to get funding. There was a time when our banks were falling over themselves to lend us money. The credit crunch put a brake on that, but finance hasn’t dried up altogether.
Did you find the paperwork diffícult?
Believe it or not, Spain is much less complicated than some countries (e.g. Colombia or Mexico). In any case, I’m all in favour of delegating as much of the paper work as I can.
Did you get help from any particular official organisations or associations (e.g. Chambers of Commerce)? If so, please describe:
When we started IH Belfast we had quite a lot of help from an organisation called Invest Northern Ireland. They even put up some money to help us get the company established and to start promoting Northern Ireland as a study destination. In Barcelona it’s more difficult. Most of the autonomous governments in the rest of Spain are very keen to support schools bringing foreign students over to learn Spanish, but the Catalan government isn’t going to do that for obvious, political reasons. On the other hand we do have a relatively good relationship with the Departament d’Educació and have worked with them on a number of projects designed to improve the standard of English teaching in local schools.
What is your business experience / background / qualifications?
I’ve been involved in language teaching management for over 25 years. I don’t have a formal business qualification but I have tried to make up for this by reading extensively, and of course experience is a great teacher.
What are the positive aspects about having a business here?
As Barcelona is such an attractive place to live, for people from all over the world, it’s relatively easy to find well qualified employees who share our enthusiasms and values. Barcelona is also an easy sell as a study destination to foreigners. And despite the amount of public money that’s been put into trying to improve the standard of state education, the demand for our English language classes is as strong as ever.
And the negative aspects?
Employment legislation in Spain is a bit of a nightmare and desperately needs a radical overhaul. That’s supposed to be on the cards, but I’ll believe it when I see it.
In our business there’s also an incredible amount of competencia desleal i.e. people running schools semi or even completely illegally. They undermine the market in so many ways but no-one seems to be interested in doing anything about it, so you just have to learn to live with them.
Are there any other useful contacts, tips or information you think would be useful to other foreign entrepreneurs in Barcelona? Please describe:
If you’re interested in developing your language skills, I could make a few recommendations…