What I’ve learned from blogging for an entire decade
The good times for EFL teachers in Taiwan ended in 1999
Along with Japan, Hong Kong and Korea, Taiwan invested early and invested heavily in English education. By the mid 80s, foreign teachers were in such high demand that it was not uncommon for people fresh off the boat to be earning over $35USD/hour and without any prior teaching experience. Very, very few schools were foreign run and those that were had a big advantage.
Even into the late 90s, most competent foreign teachers who were bilingual or had a bilingual local partner could successfully start English teaching schools. It wasn’t like that in 2006.
Since Taiwan is a fantastic place to live and very open compared to other Asian countries, a relatively percentage of western English teachers decide to stay for the long-term and settle down in Taiwan. It’s far more common than in Japan or especially Korea. For most of these teachers, the best career option is to open a business that leverages their unique skills as a foreigner—generally either an English teaching school or a western-style restaurant or bar.
The number of foreign-run English schools (and restaurants) in Taiwan has exploded and the bar has been raised year after year for decades. At the same time, the number of Taiwanese children has been decreasing. Taiwan has one of the lowest birthrates in the world right now. The result of these two trends is that the market is brutal—the supply and quality of schools has been increasing while the demand has been falling. While it’s still easy in cities that foreigners don’t like to live in, the market was saturated in Taipei long ago.
Opening a school in 2006 in Taipei wasn’t quite as tough as now in 2016, but far, far more difficult than in 1996. Fortunately for me, I had a huge unfair advantage.
Starting without capital
As I wrote earlier in this series, I was a top-performing English teacher. I was earning over double what most foreign teachers did and I had a very loyal following of students, but (legally) opening a school takes some money. Finding a suitable local partner is also extremely difficult for most foreigners. This blog helped me avoid both of those problems.
I was getting about one serious contact per month from someone who had read my writing on this site and wanted to start a business with me. While some were basically looking for someone to do everything for them, I did meet one very agreeable couple who had been struggling for several months after buying a school with only a dozen or so students. But they seemed like their hearts were in the right place and they really cared about providing a quality education for their students. They had read quite a few of my articles on teaching and even better it turned out they knew my best friend Martin! It wasn’t clear what I could do for them that would make economic sense though, since I was earning over double what the average foreign teacher did and I lived out in Guishan, not Taipei.
In the end, they offered me something that was both a great deal and a bit crazy—for me to join their school, recruit students, use my teaching methods, write a curriculum and handle the entire academic side of a new program for them. I’d have no base salary, but take a set amount per student per hour that I taught personally and 30% equity in the business with no money down.
There was a great deal of risk for me. The first class I opened only had 5 students. It was a huge, huge drop in pay and a lot more work but it was a fantastic opportunity. About a year and a half later, our business had grown and we bought out our closest competitor, moved into a bigger location and I took on 50% stake (for which I did invest some of my own capital). Yes, I was working far more than a full-time job. I was basically doing a full-time teaching job, plus writing textbooks, exams and exercises, plus recording CDs, plus hiring, training and managing teachers. But there’s no way I’d have had my foot in the door to begin with if not for writing this blog.
Hiring is really easy if you’re #1 on a relevant Google search
For years, I’ve gotten regular emails from strangers asking me about where to teach English or how they can upgrade their skills and get a better English teaching job in Taiwan. While running the academic half of a school, that second group of emailers was fantastic!
Job boards and classifieds usually suck, but blog readers who applied often had an idea of who I was, what kind of academic program I wanted to run and what kind of environment they’d be stepping into. There was still a lot of noise, and I probably hurt my negotiating leverage by having blogged about how much other more established schools paid teachers such as myself but the candidate quality was just head and shoulders above what I found on Tealit and other classifieds.
Blogs can help recruit customers
In my case I don’t think I got a lot of customers through this blog. It’s written in English (for the most part) and my customers were Chinese readers. That said, it might have helped a little bit in terms of credibility and retention for those who were aware of it. As with my business partners, customers could tell that I genuinely cared about teaching as well as possible.
A learning advantage
Much of the learning advantage from blogging came before starting the school. By writing about what I was working on and what I had learned, I forced myself to clarify my thoughts. I also connected with others who cared about the same thing and many of them shared their knowledge in comments. I’m not sure I’d have picked up as much as I did about TEFL or language acquisition if not for all the ideas, book recommendations and other comments from readers.
In fact it worked so well for me that when I decided to leave English teaching and try to gain the skills to break into a tech career, I started another blog to document my attempts. Like this blog, that one was a great learning tool and was instrumental in my success breaking into Silicon Valley as a thirty-something.
For me, the single best part of blogging has been the way it lets me view myself from the outside. This doesn’t work for all kinds of blogs. Many people I know tend to avoid revealing much of themselves online… for very understandable reasons. It’s also very natural and to some degree unavoidable present a false front to the internet—a more professional self or an idealized version of oneself.
To the extent that I’ve been able to be open and authentic in my blogs, I’ve found them to be fantastic tools for understanding myself. If I write what I truly feel, there’s a record to examine later when I feel similar things in the future and I can compare the feelings I had when I wrote and the things that happened. If I write what I truly believe will happen, then I can look back and see what I was right about and what things I was blind to. It’s not easy to do, but it does lead to more self understanding and the ability to make better plans the next time. And that’s good for business.
In particular, I’ve found it invaluable to look back at posts about major life decisions I’ve made and look at the reasoning I had at the time. There are often important things I’ve forgotten. When I was starting a software company in San Francisco, I went back and re-read everything I’d written when starting the English school in Taipei.
Interestingly, while all the other benefits in this piece required a blog to be public, self understanding is arguably improved even more by writing a private blog since it’s easier to be open and authentic in private.