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The English teaching market is massive and growing. For a lot of people from the US, UK or commonwealth countries, it’s a great way to travel while young and experience more of the world. Online teaching is growing at an even more explosive rate—14.2% per year in Asia, 13.8% per year in Latin America. (Ambient Insight: 2011-2016 World Wide English Language Learning Market Overview)

Why teach English online?

Teaching online has a few advantages over traditional classroom teaching. It’s flexible, it’s efficient and it’s also becoming the first place aspiring students look.

Working online tends to be flexible

If you’re teaching online, you can teach from anywhere. This means you don’t have to worry about visas. You don’t have to travel if you don’t want to. Or you could move to someplace really inexpensive in Eastern Europe or SE Asia and teach students from first world countries at a salary much higher than you would earn locally. It’s fantastic work for a Digital Nomad who wants to save more money.

There are several ways of teaching languages online that fairly closely mirror the experience of teaching at a university or in a cram school. Those are pretty inflexible, but there are also a lot of options that give you more scheduling flexibility. TutorABC is kind of a middle of the road option that will give you some training materials and guidance, but expects you to get a TEFL certificate and to be available during certain times that have high student demand. At the top of the flexibility spectrum, Italki and Verbling offer the teacher full freedom to chose the hours they are available.

Efficiency—there’s no commute better than no commute

It should go without saying that if you teach online you have the best commute in the world.

online english teacher's commute

More and more students are moving online

The major reason why online English learning is growing at roughly 14% per year for in Asia and Latin America is that the students are moving online. Children are generally augmenting traditional schooling with some educational apps and other products, but many, many adults are moving to online classes. One of the starkest examples is in Japan.

A couple of years ago, the Japanese “eikaiwa” or English conversation class market went through yet another shock as has become common over the past few decades. The market as a whole is growing, but not at anything like the rate that it was during the 80s. This time however, the largest online school RareJob, came out a huge winner. Founded in 2007 in the Philippines, RareJob had about 70,000 students in October of 2012 and grew to over 200,000 by early 2014. At the same time, more and more Japanese students have been joining online learning platforms such as Italki.

Teaching offline is still huge. It still offers pretty all the benefits I got from doing it a decade ago. But online teaching is growing quickly, which means there are special opportunities for people who jump in now.

Who can teach English online?

The requirements vary from job to job, of course. But you should be able to find some sort of English teaching job online if you:

  • Are a Native English speaker
  • Have a reliable internet connection suitable for video chat
  • Are over 16 years old
  • Have at least a willingness to learn how to teach effectively
  • Can take payment online (Paypal, etc)
  • Enjoy talking with people

You can get better teaching work if you meet any of the criteria below:

  • Have experience teaching
  • Are physically attractive, friendly and/or competent looking
  • Know how to market your services
  • Have a teaching certification or degree
  • Know a language spoken by a lot of English learners (Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, etc)
  • Have a very flexible schedule

Basically, most people who are reading this article can teach online. About half the platforms I’ve seen want teachers with some experience. Requirements for specific degrees are rare outside of the online classrooms affiliated with brick and mortar institutions, and requirements for teaching certificates are pretty rare as well. I don’t know of any online platforms that require teachers to be bilingual, but it’s definitely an asset. I’ve see quite a few taking advantage of their foreign language skills to connect with students and teach them more effectively, especially beginners who just can’t understand that much English yet.

The downsides of teaching online

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a few things that aren’t ideal about teaching a foreign language over video chat. It’s a huge, global opportunity but there are some areas where it falls short compared to actually being in a classroom environment.

Your improvement as a teacher is up to you

In general, you can’t expect to get much help or training from your schools. It’s somewhat questionable whether an in person school will really give you that much training. When I was running an English school in Taiwan, I had an extensive training system that involved trainees watch dozens of classes, take notes and slowly ease into teaching 5 minute segments, 15 minute segments, full classes and then one week substitutions before being given a class of their own to take over for a full semester. I gave them feedback and made sure they mastered each skill they needed along the way. Many brick and mortar schools don’t put so much into training, but some do. You can be almost certain an online school won’t.

Even if you’re a traditional language school that doesn’t offer much training, you can still probably find some opportunity to watch a more experienced teacher teach the same material you teach. You could also probably ask them questions at lunch or between classes.

Less certainty

Any language school can go out of business or shut down. But things are moving quickly in the online world. What’s an incredible opportunity now might be gone in a few years. One individual site might suddenly lose 70% of their site traffic due to an update in Google’s search ranking algorithms and have to start firing teachers. A school might suddenly pivot from using teachers for one on one classes to hosting their own pre-recorded classes. You really have to be willing to tolerate a bit more uncertainty if you’re working online. Fortunately, you’ll likely have multiple platforms you’re teaching on and maybe other income streams as well.

The entire world is competing with you

The entire world is competing with you online
Crowd, by James Cridland

Remember that school I mentioned in the section about more students moving online? The biggest online English school in Japan? Well, RareJob Inc is based in the Philippines. Their teachers make about $2 per hour. If you’re in any country where English is the native language, you probably don’t want to teach for $2 per hour. But that’s what you’re competing against. Everybody is on the internet.

There are other teachers such as Gabby Wallace who have built huge personal brands and teach large numbers of students directly. Next in line are people with niche brands who teach groups on their own sites. Even tutoring one on one on a large platform can turn out well.  Chad Hansen has earned over $100k tutoring individual students on Verbling. But remember, if you <i>can’t</i> differentiate yourself, the wage floor is very low in an online market.

Platforms for online language teaching

Using someone else’s platform is the easiest way to get started. If you’re on your own, you’ve got to figure out how to find students. You’ll need your own website, marketing channel and more. In exchange for a (usually) modest cut of what students pay, you get placement on a high traffic site, there’s usually a decent pipeline of paying students, and the platform handles payment processing for you. Unless you already have a following, this is a great trade.

There are many, many different platforms for teaching a language online, and it’s not possible to cover all of them. Instead, I’ll list four of the largest options—TutorABC, Italki, Verbling and Udemy.

TutorABC

TutorABC is based in Taiwan and focuses on EFL for Chinese speakers. They have their own system and they have a pretty strong pipeline of students. Unlike most online schools, they provide some training! Since they promote a conversational approach to learning, you don’t need to know that much about grammar, phonics or other features of English. As long as you’re patient, and enthusiastic you can probably get by fine.

On the downside, the pay isn’t that great. It’s only $8 per hour base plus some amount that depends on student reviews. According to reviews on Glassdoor, after bonuses, it’s about $10 per hour. They also insist that teachers are available for at least some of their times with the highest student demand (i.e. their evenings and weekends).

Recap

  • Bachelor’s degree or ESL teaching experience required
  • Teachers must have some availability during peak hours
  • Training provided
  • Conversational methods expected
  • Pays ~$10/hour

Italki

Italki is based in Hong Kong. It’s a massive platform that currently has over 1.5M language students learning over 100 different languages. There are a lot of free features—language learners can message each other, do language exchanges, write journal entries in the languages they’re learning and correct the journals others are writing in their native language.

There are two types of paid Italki tutors. There are “professional” teachers, who have to go through an application process. In general, they have to have some experience actually teaching classes in their language, but the process isn’t entirely transparent. The second type is “informal” teachers. As far as I can tell there isn’t really much of any lower bar for conversation teachers as long as they speak the language fluently.

Teachers can choose their own prices on iTalki. Professional teachers tend to charge more than conversation teachers, but there’s a huge range for both. Professional teachers who are native English speakers tend to be in the $15-20 per hour range with a few making as much as $45 per hour for specialized test preparation or business courses. Native English-speaking informal teachers are centered around $13-$17 per hour. Italki takes 15%.

After lessons are scheduled on the platform, students exchange Skype information and do their classes over video chat. Since Italki has a Chinese ICP license, they’re not blocked in China. They also support Alipay in addition to Paypal, so they’re Chinese students and teachers are very well represented.

Recap

  • Massive platform for 100+ languages
  • Teachers set their own prices
  • Italki takes 15%
  • Teachers are divided into “Professional” and “Informal” categories
  • Lessons are arranged via chat and taught on Skype
  • Well supported in China

Verbling

Verbling is a tech start-up based in San Francisco. Like Italki, it’s a platform for learners and teachers of many different languages. I would say it’s got a huge technology lead over the competition. Disclosure here: I was one of the two engineers employed on their small team up until the end of this summer, so I am definitely a bit biased! I’ll let the ongoing roll-out of new features speak for itself.

Verbling has a free “Community” chat feature I mentioned in an earlier guide on how to learn a language for under $500. It also has one on one tutoring and a newer, “Tandem” option for students to take lesson with a partner at a discounted price. European languages are particularly well represented on the platform, but unfortunately Verbling is blocked by the Chinese firewall. This doesn’t mean there aren’t any Chinese students or teachers, but it means that only the small fraction who have a VPN or other way around the firewall can use the site from within China.

Unlike iTalki, Verbling doesn’t separate teachers into professional and informal categories. There’s a high bar for all of them. Without a degree, certification or impressive experience there’s a good chance of your application being rejected. The upside of this is that Verbling doesn’t feel as much like a race to the bottom as some other platforms do. I’ve actually noticed some teachers listed both on Verbling and on iTalki with different rates! In general, I think an English teacher can charge about $20-25 per hour on Verbling. As with iTalki, there’s quite a bit of variation and a lot of it comes down to how good a teacher’s ratings, reviews and welcome videos are.

Recap

  • Large platform for many languages
  • Teachers set their own prices
  • Verbling takes 15%
  • Teacher applications must pass a high bar
  • Lessons are launched from the platform via Google Hangouts
  • Blocked in China
  • Rapidly improving platform

Udemy

Udemy is a completely different kind of beast from TutorABC, Italki, or Verbling. Rather than teach one on one lessons, instructors record videos and upload them to Udemy to be watched by however many students purchase the course. Then students can interact with the teacher via forums integrated into each video lesson on the platform.

Like the online tutoring options, Udemy instructors live and die by the ratings their students give them. Unlike the others, Udemy has huge winners. It also has a lot of courses that teachers spent weeks creating that generate little to no earnings. Udemy is also continually growing and changing, so anything specific I write about earnings splits will likely soon go out of date. That said, they take about 50%, but there are some circumstances when instructors can make a higher share.

One of Udemy’s major advantages and disadvantages is its formidable email marketing of discounts. If you allow Udemy to discount your courses, you can get massive distribution. On the other hand, it’s very likely they’ll discount your $397 English course to $19 for a weekend to make sales. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something to be aware of when you’re planning, creating and pricing your course.

In general, I suggest Udemy for people who have some free time and who aren’t in a big hurry to earn more. It offers an opportunity for 95% passive income if you make a great course, but it’s high risk. Some instructors have earned over a million dollars from their courses. Many, many more have failed to earn enough for it to have been worth their while. It’s absolutely a viable way to go, but it requires some strategy and you probably won’t do very well until you have multiple courses up. In this way, it’s somewhat similar to writing ebooks for the kindle store.

Recap

  • Large platform for subjects languages
  • English-language site
  • Instructors create, and upload video courses
  • Students watch videos and can ask teachers questions in forums
  • Instructors set their own prices but Udemy often runs promotions
  • Possible to achieve huge success
  • Mostly passive income is possible
  • Most sales go to a small number of instructors

More on platforms

Every platform mentioned above has some common characteristics:

  • All of them are a great help to those who don’t know how to market.
  • All of them have technology that most language teachers wouldn’t know build or set up.
  • All of them have policies that either hamper or forbid teachers from taking their students off the platform.

As a consequence, one thing holds true regardless of whether you’re tutoring one on one, teaching classes to groups or creating educational content. Platforms are a better deal when you’re starting out than if you have a huge following. After you have more success, it makes more sense to build your own site like Gabby Wallace did.

Concluding advice

There are a ton of ways to teach English online and even this lengthy article could only cover the largest of them. If you’re looking for quick, simple advice then I’d choose based on your current situation.

If you’re living someplace cheap and don’t have much experience teaching, try Italki (as an informal teacher) and TutorABC.

If you have more teaching experience, apply to Italki (as a professional teacher) and Verbling.

If you have time (e.g. you teach English 20 hours a week in Korea), then try Udemy.

If you’re already very good at teaching online or building courses on platforms, then start building your own following.

If you want to teach but have no experience and no savings, then teach offline first.


I’ve noticed a bunch of you are looking for teachers or jobs in the comments.

Here’s a document for you to add yourself to instead 😀

As it has become more and more popular to live the Digital Nomad lifestyle, Chiang Mai has emerged as what’s likely the most popular destination. I went there for a couple of months and here are my notes.

The advantages of being a digital nomad in Chiang Mai

  • It’s cheap
  • Housing is easy
  • Getting a local SIM is convenient and inexpensive
  • Scooters
  • There’s a great community of nomads
  • The weather and air are nice (except during burning season)
  • It’s a generally high trust society

Work from paradise
continue reading…

Digital nomads are people whose means of making a living comes from the internet and isn’t connected to living in any particular location. They are the “new rich” Tim Ferriss wrote about in his book, The 4-Hour Workweek. There’s a spectrum of digital nomad work that ranges from “almost a normal job” to “working four hours a week from the beach while sipping coconut water”. I’ll go over some of the strategies I’ve seen below.

The rise of the digital nomad

Digital Nomad search trends

I first started hearing the term digital nomad in early 2013 amongst a few acquaintances in the tech scene in 2013. It’s only in 2015 that the movement has really been gaining steam. Many, many people who have read the The 4-Hour Workweek have since moved to cities such as Chiang Mai, Prague, Saigon or Cartagena and set about making the dream a reality. In fact, when I was in Chiang Mai a couple of months ago, it felt very much like everybody inspired by Tim Ferriss’s work had crowded into the city. The weekly Nomads and Coffee meetup organized by Johnny FD rapidly ballooned from a couple of dozen people to too many to fit in the coffee house!

The spectrum of digital nomad work

  • Almost a normal job
  • Setting your own schedule
  • Repeated income from previous work

Almost a normal job

The most conservative way to become a digital nomad is to just do the same work you were before but work remotely. Depending on your job you may or may not need to stay in a roughly compatible time zone as you were in. While you won’t exactly exactly have a 4HWW-style life, you can move someplace that’s much cheaper, save more, have new experiences, learn a foreign language and maybe even take advantage in the arbitrage of local economies to invest in yourself. Piano lessons are cheaper in Prague than in New York!

It can be hard to find a job that will hire remotely (and pay first world rates) but if that’s your goal, then a good place to start would be weworkremotely.com. Some famous companies that work mostly remotely are Automattic (the maker of WordPress, which powers this site) and Github. There are others, too.

An easier option is just work for your existing or previous employer remotely. A lot of people I know have been able to do that, including myself! After developing a good working relationship and proving your ability to generate meaningful business results, it’s usually not too hard to work out. In larger companies this can be difficult, but there’s often some leeway. For an American programmer, for example, health care costs are far higher in the US than they would be working remotely from a developed Asian country. This means it’s possible for the worker to retain the same level of income and benefits while saving money for the employer.

Setting your own schedule

The next level of freedom is to do some kind of work where you don’t have to work the same hours every week. It’s very likely you don’t need “full-time” employment to sustain yourself as a digital nomad. This is even true if you’re teaching English in Taiwan, China, Korea or elsewhere. If your employer makes you work 40 hours a week, it destroys some of the benefit of living in a cheaper country.

The solution is to start doing project-based freelance work. Ideal types of work for this kind of set-up are copywriting, blogging, design, translation and editing. Project-based gigs are also doable for software people, but quite a bit of work goes into finding high quality sources of work.

Repeated income from previous work

While it’s great to be able to set one’s own schedule, what really makes it possible to break into the ranks of the “New Rich” described in the 4-hour workweek is repeated income from previous work. This usually means either building your own marketing machine or building a product to plug into somebody else’s marketing machine.

Since it’s such an appealing prospect the rest of this article is devoted to how to decouple your earning powers from your working hours. The main options are:

  • Affiliate marketing
  • web publishing
  • writing ebooks
  • video publishing
  • creating courses
  • creating applications to sell
  • creating software as a service
  • selling physical products

Affiliate marketing

Affiliate marketing just means getting paid to help sell products or services others have created. Many creators use 3rd party services such as Clickbank or ShareASale to connect with affiliate marketers, but many others have created their own internal programs. If you trust the merchant to be running their program ethically, the payout is always better if you cut out the 3rd party service in the middle.

In order to sell someone else’s product, you need to have an audience to sell it to. This could be your personal blog. For example, if you click one of the links to 4-hour workweek in this post and buy it, Amazon will pay me a fraction of a dollar for helping them sell a copy (your price won’t be affected). Other common audiences are Twitter followers (very difficult), Facebook pages, or email lists (generally more effective). For obvious reasons, it helps you quite a bit if your audience knows, likes and trusts you at least on the topics you’re writing about. I wrote for nearly 10 years about language learning, language teaching and my personal experiences on this site and have a great deal of trust built up with my readers on these topics. It isn’t difficult at all to get people to try language learning products I recommend. Of course, the trust will only remain as long as I’m giving good suggestions!

My advice for the would-be affiliate marketer has two parts. First of all, find something you’re genuinely interested in, can write about and can give reasonably good advice about. Write about that on your blog and be absolutely as helpful as you possibly can to people. Collect email addresses. Review related products and don’t push them based on their affiliate commission structures. Try to be what Johnny calls an “Earnest Affiliate“, focusing on actually providing value to your readers. The more you do that, the more people will want to read your future pieces and the more they’ll share what you’ve already written with others.

The second piece of advice is to learn about how online marketing works. There are a ton of great resources. My personal favorite is Neil Patel. He writes at http://neilpatel.com/blog and has also written and compiled an impressive array of resources at Quicksprout. He offers very pricey personal coaching, but there’s more than enough free content on both those sites to become one of the top 10% of online marketers.

Web publishing

Web publishing is similar to affiliate marketing, but rather than spend a significant amount of time on marketing and selling-related activities, the primary focus is publishing content and building traffic. About 10 years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for people to make great earnings from Google Adsense. Believe it or not, it still happens. I saw it happen personally with a friend a couple of years ago, actually. He went from a few hundred dollars per month in Adsense, to a thousand to a few thousand, to twenty thousand and then to using higher-end advertising solutions such as Google’s DFP instead of Adsense. He went full-on digital nomad pretty quickly and as a result of all his travel I didn’t keep up with all the developments after that, but he definitely scaled up to five digits in monthly earnings without doing much with email, social media marketing or selling.

The secret? Get obscene amounts of traffic. Top out in Google search engine results for popular searches. Then do some optimizations around ad placement.

In order to be an effective ad publisher, you need to both pick one of the most popular niches on the internet—e.g. health, dating or career—and develop formidable SEO skills. This means, learning how to use google’s keyword tools to figure out what readers of your content are looking for, it means learning how to update your content to make it more useful and it means knowing what topics you have a reasonable shot at. Neil Patel (linked in the previous section) is also an excellent resource for this kind of information.

Writing ebooks

Writing ebooks is a surprisingly effective way to make good earnings. Ebooks can also be part of a larger marketing strategy, but here I’ll just cover the business of books themselves.

Amazon Kindle Store

If you have no audience and no distribution, then Amazon is a great way to get it. A 50 page book with the right title and cover in the right niche can bring in readers almost right away, especially if you can get a few positive reviews early on. Keeping your ranking is up to the quality of your work, of course.

It’s generally best to either write a bunch of books in the same general non-fiction category or to write a series or serial in a popular fiction category. Right now, the best selling categories are romance, suspense, survivalist prepper fiction, and sci-fi, swords & sorcery fantasy, vampire fiction and military fiction are also doing reasonably well.

If you price your book for $0.99 to $2.98 or more than $9.99, Amazon gives you a 30% commission. If you price between $2.99 and $9.99, then they pay 70%.

Selling ebooks through one’s own platform

If you do have an audience and you prefer not to have Amazon’s downward pricing pressure, then selling on your own is the way to go. You can do this with some kind of shopping cart system such as Member Mouse, by manually putting Paypal buttons on your site or by using a minimal system like Gumroad. I’ve used Paypal buttons before and I use Gumroad now (check out the guides link in my site navigation). I’m not really a fan of shopping carts. I find them clunky and annoying as a user.

Selling directly on your own site is also a great way to offer tiered products for which an email book is only one part. For example, you could sell your new cookbook with Korean recipes for $39, or the book plus videos for $99. For a great example, see Edmond Lau’s book, The Effective Engineer, which has tiers going all the way up to $699. Most authors I’ve spoken with have told me they’ve made the vast majority of their sales at the cheapest tier and still made more money from the most expensive one. It’s a great way to reach a level of income that sustains you without excluding the majority of people who just want the book.

I bought a mid-level tier and found it a great value as a software engineer in San Francisco. If I had been a software engineer working in Bangalore, the price tag might have just been too high to make sense, but the book only option still would have been a great value. If the lower tier didn’t exist, people with less money simply couldn’t get the product. If the higher tier didn’t exist, the author would miss out on a lot of revenue. Multiple tiers are a great way to get the best of both worlds.

Video publishing

Video publishing breaks down into the same general categories of “high traffic + ads” and “moderate traffic + sales” that text-based publishing does. In order to make it from ads alone on youtube you need hundreds of thousands or more likely millions of subscribers. If you’re doing product placements for something such as cosmetics, clothes, etc, you can make it much, much sooner. A lot of vine users went this route. Obviously it helps video if you’re young, attractive and/or famous.

The other massive source of people supporting themselves off of video is Twitch.tv. For those not familiar with it, Twitch is a where you can live-stream yourself playing (or even analyzing) video games. If you’re a top-level commentator of League of Legends, Starcraft 2 or other popular game you probably already have a Twitch account and paying monthly subscribers and don’t need to read this. If you’re not, but you are deeply obsessed with a particular video game or enjoy reviewing games, it’s probably worth trying live-streaming regularly for a few months and see if you can build a following. I wish that option had existed when I myself was a Starcraft-obsessed teenager!

Creating courses

If you have something to teach (and most of us do), a course is one of the very fastest ways to start earning an income online. In Chiangmai, I met quite a few people who had created courses on Udemy.com teaching everything from yoga to social skills to JavaScript.

Udemy is great for getting traffic. Assuming you’re proficient with recording video or screencasts, you can get your first course built within a week or so and be earning something, perhaps $100 in your first month. This will get more difficult over time, but now it’s still pretty open. On the downside, Udemy isn’t a great way to earn a lot. They aggressively offer discounts on their courses and after a while their users, myself included, start to assume that for any given $500 course, there’s a discount coupon that will let me buy it for $10. And if not, then within a month or so, Udemy will probably have a site-wide promotion letting me get it that cheaply. That said, one of my acquaintances doing software courses who has already eclipsed six figure Udemy earnings this year.

Once you do have a following (built through Udemy or elsewhere), the way to charge market rate for your courses is to sell them yourself. Once again, shopping cart plugins are a way to do it, but I’d strongly recommend keeping it simple and using something like Gumroad. They’ve actually added some tools that make it possible to release portions of a course one week at a time with new emails to customers and they’ve been adding new features at a furious pace. I’m a happy user of Gumroad, but other than that have no financial incentive to keep singing their praises here. To the best of my knowledge they don’t even have their own affiliate program. (If I’m wrong please tell me in the comments!)

Creating applications to sell

Creating software applications is a lot of work. The rewards for successful applications are sometimes enormous, but due to the real possibility of putting months of effort into something that earns nothing, I don’t recommend it for a first product.

App platforms

Probably the most popular platform is Apple’s App Store. It’s still the most profitable store I know of, but competition is intense. Choose carefully and bring your A game if this is your plan.The same general advice would go for Android apps, with the one difference that you’re likely to have a harder time making sales of paid apps and that you can probably get better distribution of in app advertising.

Steam has become pretty indie-friendly, but a lot of people are making games and the competition is intense. Fortune favors the unique here. Kongregate.com and other flash game sites are amazingly still trucking along in 2015, but if you don’t already have flash development skills, 2015 is a bit late to be investing in them.

Probably the less risky option I see for people making apps on someone else’s platform would be to make a WordPress plugin for professional users. WordPress now powers 15% of all the sites on the web and an awful lot of those sites are serving some sort of business purpose.

Selling apps directly

You actually don’t need to sell an app through a platform. You can just write the code, put it behind some kind of paywall and then share a link to it. Like I did with Zhuyin King (a Mandarin phonics trainer) right now. I could have put the app on Apple’s Mac Store. But I didn’t have any idea how much interest there was for it. I didn’t want to pay $100 to join Apple’s developer program just for an experiment. Also, it’s a lot easier for me to send people updates this way. I just wrote a very very rough prototype of the software and threw it up on Gumroad for $1.25. A few people bought it and made suggestions. I improved the UI and raised the price to $1.75. New customers had to pay that much but people who already bought got the updates for free. Then I added more content and raised the price to $2.49 for new customers. This is great. It means I can sell software still under development, price it appropriately and then regularly improve it based on feedback. People who buy early on get a great deal, I have no obligation to continue development and yet if I choose to I can easily keep improving the product without having to wait for Apple, Google or someone else to say okay.

That said, from an economic perspective, most people who don’t already have huge followings are probably better off plugging into someone else’s platform.

Selling software as a service

Selling software as a service is the holy grail for many, regardless of whether they plan to write it themselves or hire others to write it for them. Once you have a product people are willing to pay a monthly or yearly fee to use, your income becomes very predictable and your life choices expand greatly. It actually doesn’t even have to be software. It could also be something like a podcast or a blog that you sell a subscription to, but those choices generally come with the obligation to keep making new content.

The types of software that can be sold as a service are almost unlimited, but here are a few ideas: BufferApp (schedules your social media postings), Baremetrics (Stripe analytics for your business), Bingo Card Creator (makes bingo cards for teachers). It’s important to note that only the last of these businesses was run as a single developer for long. SaSS is brutally tough to go alone. If that’s what you’re doing, I suggest aiming for the simplest thing you possibly can.

Drawing stickers for chat apps

Mature messenger platforms often have stores where users can buy stickers and/or cover art. The people who create the stickers get a cut of the sales revenue. The specifics vary, but in most cases, it’s around 20%-50% after the fees for mobile app stores, the chat app’s share and taxes have been taken out. I made a set of stickers for the LINE messenger which was of very modest quality but still continues to sell at a slow pace. Like Kindle books, YouTube videos or even content on a web page, there are increasing returns to be had by continuing to create on the same platform since those who find one item they like will often look at others from the same creator.

Selling physical products

Amazon FBA is huge right now. It’s a pretty wide-open opportunity for people with enough savings to get by to ramp up their sales and cover some risk (~$300) of not being able to sell a product.

The way it works is you sell the product and Amazon ships it. A very common way to sell physical products is to buy in bulk from a Chinese factory (via Alibaba), have the product shipped to Amazon and then sell the product on Amazon. I’m far from an expert, but what my friend in SF did was basically this:

  1. Find a product on Amazon with a relatively high sales ranking where the top listing had a rating of less than 4 stars.
  2. Read all the three and four star reviews
  3. Repeat for other products high up in the listing
  4. Identify one or two ways to improve the product based on the reviews
  5. Go on Alibaba and find a manufacturer to make the improved product for you
  6. Test the samples yourself and revise and necessary
  7. Sell it on Amazon
  8. Market it as if Amazon wasn’t even helping sell it
  9. Do anything and everything within the rules to get good reviews
  10. Profit!

For an example of an insanely successful Amazon product launch see this video from Zen Active Yoga.

Risky is the new safe

It’s amazing to me how much easier it is to build a business online now than it used to be. Even when I was running a brick and mortar English teaching school with a couple of partners in Taiwan 7 years ago, I sometimes thought about how great it would be to be doing something that scaled more easily and something that didn’t tie me down to 60+ hours of work per week year in and year out.

When I went back to the US in 2012, I met some people with great jobs. But I also met people who were really struggling and who had basically done the “safe thing” all along, getting good grades, getting a degree from a renowned school and then joining “safer” career tracks. I still think that path is reasonably safe for those at the very top. But when there’s a big shift in the market and people have to retrain and compete with much younger people for a different role, the “dangerous path” taken by authors, freelance marketers and various small entrepreneurs starts to look pretty safe by comparison.

Last week one of my projects at Hack Reactor was to write a server (using Node.js) to emulate the functionality of the Wayback Machine– that is to download and archive copies of various web sites.

An interesting coincidence is that my old friend John just wrote about it yesterday. He’s designed and written numerous beautiful blogs and, sadly, destroyed them and broken all of my links to them. He’s started combing the wayback machine to bring some of that content back… for me. Now I can tell you readers who email me about not being able to find his content to go check out the dev.gd graveyard. Some of his old posts on language (and other) learning are great!

In terms of phonics, what’s the difference between -sion, -tion and -ssion? Why is it that it’s possible for students first encountering the words “devotion” or “nation” to be 95% sure they end in -tion and not -ssion? Why is it even easier to know when to spell something with -sion?

Since my arrival in San Francisco last summer, I’ve become aware of the new “hacker schools” popping up around the city. Their stated purpose is to take smart, motivated people who may or may not have a strong technical background and turn them into world-class junior developers in a short time.

The Starter League

The first school of this type that I ever heard of was Code Academy in Chicago (renamed as The Starter League due to name confusion after the online school Codecademy launched). Their system was pretty unique– students spend 8 to 10 hours per day for 2 months, working in pairs as they learn a stunning amount of ruby, HTML/CSS/JS and Ruby on Rails. At the end of this time, they have an interview day in which they demo their projects to various tech companies, including some of the hottest local startups. The school has only been running since 2011, but results have been excellent and even DHH, the creator of Ruby on Rails, is a fan of the program.

SF Hacker Schools

With that kind of success, it wasn’t long before similar schools started popping up in the Bay Area. The demand for top notch developers is extreme here, but very few companies are willing to train and they take only a tiny fraction of their applicants. A program to quickly bring students up to speed in the technologies that local start-ups are using is the perfect solution. It’s an incredible learning experience for the students that opens doors, the companies can hire solid programmers to join their teams and schools can earn money from either or both of the former two groups. From what I understand, Dev Bootcamp‘s first class was hugely successful–Over 90 percent of the students landed jobs shortly after graduation (at nearly double the average US salary) and of those who didn’t one opened a similar school called App Academy that focused on iOS development and the other opened Hack Reactor, an even more intense school with a stronger focus on JavaScript and front-end technologies. There is also another school, which I know less about since it doesn’t accept men.

In contrast with computer science degrees at universities, these schools have less of a focus on CS theory and more of a focus on building things. Students write a lot of code, and they use newer languages and frameworks. Another feature is heavy use of cutting edge tools and various automated testing frameworks that are commonly used in bay area start-ups, but not so common yet at larger, more traditional companies. Most striking to me is the intense nature of the study. No college I’ve ever seen puts students through 8 class hours of computing classes per day.

The bay area hacker schools remind me more of high-end intense language schools! There are a number of 6 hour per day intense language learning programs in which students work in pairs or small groups, work hard, and acquire a great deal of vocabulary, speaking skills and reading skills in a short time. In my experience learning mathematics as a teenager and then later learning Japanese and Chinese in my 20s, working at something 4 hours a day isn’t just 4 times as good as 1 hour a day. It’s closer to 10 times as good.

All in all, I see a lot of positives of this type of education. So much so, that I’m considering the possibility of running a school of this type someday… possibly even in Taiwan again! Entrance is very competitive to the existing schools, so it took a lot of hustling, but I’ve gotten into Hack Reactor class. I’ll be in class from 9am to 8pm six days a week, starting tomorrow. If you’re interested in the full story, I’ve put it up on my programming blog.

I may or may not be able to continue posting phonics lessons in my Phonics Friday Youtube channel, but I’ll try!

Happy holidays, those of you reading from the US! I’ve just had my first Thanksgiving in years, and also my first experience with a weird holiday called Black Friday. I actually didn’t know what that was until last year when my Swedish co-worker told me about it, surprised I didn’t know the holidays of my own country. I guess that’s what I get for moving abroad for a decade! It must have existed when I left, but it was much smaller then and I’m sure my home state of Colorado was far from the epicenter of the tradition.

One more thing about language learning

Speaking of focus, I hope some of you have already started to benefit from the language learning experiences and strategies I shared in the last newsletter. Language learning was one of my biggest hobbies in my twenties and definitely a major focus. One thing I didn’t mention was how important it was to believe that I could learn a foreign language.

All through high school, I took French classes. Even though I passed them, I didn’t really acquire any useful skills. I couldn’t understand French movies, I couldn’t understand Le Petit Prince, I couldn’t understand French people, and for that matter I didn’t even know any French people. Had I gone to Taiwan directly from that experience, I wouldn’t have gotten very far with my Chinese. What made all the difference in the world for me, was one of my girlfriends in college. She was a good language learner who had already learned Spanish well, and the two of us took an intensive Japanese course together. We studied together every day, and I had a chance to see first hand the kinds of strategies she used. With the moral support and extra motivation from working on it together, I ended up being the most successful student in the class except for her, and then making numerous Japanese friends at school and eventually completing a whole B.A. in Japanese in only two years. That win under my belt was invaluable when I got to Taiwan. I had all kinds of frustrations trying to differentiate Chinese tones, learning traditional Chinese characters and even just getting people to talk to me in Chinese instead of just practicing English with me. But I also knew I was capable of learning a foreign language… because I’d done it before.

Seeing great career opportunities

Thinking you can do something isn’t always a guarantee, but thinking you can’t reduces your odds of success sharply. I saw one of the saddest comments on my blog this month. It was off on my article titled The Lowdown on Teaching English in Taiwan. This is what he said:

“I can tell you the current situation in Taiwan is not good at all for Teaching jobs. I have 5 years teaching experience here. I have all the qualifications and speak Chinese at a conversation level. The bottom line is you will never save money here. I have seen people flying here expecting jobs leaving with nothing. Those jobs mentioned in the article are a fable legend or they have changed because of the economic and student situation. Coming off the plane your first year you will be lucky to get a job. Never, never expect to make over 1000nt its never going to happen probably ever. If you are lucky enough to get a job it will probably be 8-14 hours a week at the most 600nt per hour. YOu might as well work at mcdonalds. This article is out of date, do not read on the internet about teaching here its not a good place to teach at all. Good luck the truth even if its hard to swallow”
-David

This commenter clearly felt frustrated by his 5 years of essentially working an entry-level job. None of his friends had ever worked at a school like mine or like those I’d worked at, and hadn’t ever had contact with that sort of English teaching environment. He didn’t believe it was possible to get that kind of job and figured that they had all been destroyed by changes in the market.

And that belief BLINDED him!

Since I’ve only been gone from Taiwan for 2 years and still have a ton of friends there, I knew things weren’t nearly that grim. In a cursory 2 minute search of a single classifieds board (Tealit.com), I found a job opening offering 900-1200NT/hr. Not only that, but it was Modawei, where I had worked before and written about on my blog! Literally all this guy would have had to do to find the opening was to take one look at the biggest English Teacher job board in Taiwan before sending me his depressing comment. He probably could have found the job just by googling what I read in the very blog he was on!

Of course I empathize with David. The better offers don’t stay open that long, but the truth is there are great opportunities showing up regularly, even on classified boards. (And sorry, that position I saw that day isn’t open anymore!) It’s hard to care. It’s hard to believe something you want is possible because that opens you up to rejection. I know from personal experience when I first got back to the US, the job hunt was driving me absolutely crazy. But the last thing you want to do is auto-disqualify yourself. If you believe the thing you want is only a myth, then you’ll be blind to the things you’d have to notice to make it your reality.

Of course the “apex teaching jobs” as I call them are all more work to find, harder to get into and take more training than the jobs anyone can get right off the plane. Other, bigger, opportunities such as opening your own school have even higher barriers to entry. But unless they’re recruiters for a school, people who are telling you about the better EFL careers are generally doing it out of a genuine desire to be helpful. I wanted to at least.

Why I started blogging about teaching way back when

When I first started my blog, in 2005, I’d just emerged from two years of work similar to David’s and I was thrilled to find so much better of an option for longer-term teachers! Not only that, but I hoped that as more foreigners got drawn to the better schools, they’d be building the skills to make those schools successful and gain market-share against the incumbent English schools in Taiwan. I also wanted to promote extensive reading. I’d read a ton research about its benefits for language learners and hadn’t seen a single schooling using it. It was just this side of heartbreaking to see so many Taiwanese parents spend so much money and so many kids to spend so much time for so little in terms of tangible benefits. I wanted to see the market change and for hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese kids to be learning better English as a result. I know it sounds a bit far fetched, but that was my dream when I started blogging.

And rigorous foreign-run schools like my old one have been proliferating all over northern Taiwan in the past few years… and nearly all of them have started incorporating extensive reading into their curriculums. When I was an employee at Modawei, my ideas didn’t get very far. I was a trainee, and they had a conservative culture. But I won over some of my old co-workers with my passion, my blogging and a steady stream of research papers and TEFL journals. After I left to go to the next school some of my old co-workers started becoming managers and started using extensive reading materials! After I was co-owner of a school, even more people started paying attention. I think it’s fair to say that my blog and my work changed the conversation for foreign English teachers in Taiwan, especially in Taipei. And yes, I did profit from my work. But that was hardly the main motivation. At no point did I earn what someone putting in a similar level of effort would have in the US… or in a lot of other fields. I only had a fraction of the impact I’d aimed for. But NONE of it would have happened if I’d just said, “Well I’m just a trainee and I can’t really prove my ideas about language teaching to management and the market can’t be changed anyway.”

If you’re really passionate about something, that intensity can take you a long way. Even if you’re not truly passionate about something, but you feel stuck and you really just want to make progress, you owe it to yourself to believe what you want is more than a “myth”.

A lot of people are happy to help

If you’re one of those readers still stuck at the 600NT/hr in Taiwan (or 100RBM/hr in China or 240,000yen/month in Japan) and you don’t know how to get something better, ask people! Unfortunately, I get a pretty crushing amount of email due to my blog and can’t help everyone, but there are many, many others who are more than willing to share advice. Your network of friends’ friends is probably the most trusted source, but even asking people on a forum, such as Forumosa or Dave’s ESL Cafe is easy and often pays off.

Probably the number one thing I was thankful for on Thanksgiving is all of kindness I’ve received from strangers over the years. Sometimes those strangers have even become good friends!

If I were to make a list of my very favorite things about living abroad, the opportunities for making lifelong friends would be very near the top. Katya Berry, a long-time expat herself, has published a piece I wrote about the topic. She coaches and mentors women who are living abroad or planning to move to a different country. She’s been living the experience herself since the age of 15 and has written a great deal about juggling responsibilities of career and family.

Katya Berry

Check out the piece here: http://www.katyabarry.com/four-reasons-why-living-abroad-is-great-for-making-lifelong-friends/

As both a language teacher and as a language student, I’ve been in to extensive reading for a long time. Back in 2004, when I first experienced the benefits for my students, there weren’t that many people talking about extensive reading online. I wrote about it on this blog and later used graded readers from Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press as a cornerstone of the curriculum I wrote for Pagewood.

All things considered, it was no great surprise when Cambridge UP reached out to me about work on an EFL reader. The shock was what they wanted. What they wanted for their graded reader was me.

Cheque from Cambridge University Press
They somehow found an old blog post I’d written. In it, I told how my ex-girlfriend from college had nudged me into taking an intensive Japanese course over a summer. In the past I had had no success with language learning, but she had already learned Spanish pretty fluently. During that summer, I was practically living in her apartment and I saw her using a much wider variety of language learning techniques than I’d ever considered.

I ended up with an A, the second highest grade in the course after her. I ended up going back to school, getting fluent enough in Japanese to largely understand TV and earning an entire BA in Japanese Language in only 2 years. After that, I ended up moving to Taiwan and learning Chinese. That was a long time ago, and I’ve since forgotten most the Japanese I knew and only maintained very occasional online contact with her. Still, I’m grateful. If you’re reading this, Diana, thank you! You changed the direction of my life and it’s been a lot more interesting as a result!

Sadly, Cambridge changed us into Australians and made us brother and sister in the retelling of my story. I don’t know if I’m at liberty to share the passage, but I got a good laugh out of hearing my own words leaping off the page at me with the diction of an Englishman! CUP offered me £100 and my name in the acknowledgments in exchange for using my story, so I figured why not?

I’ll definitely buy my grandmother a copy once I know which one it is. She loves that kind of thing.

In my last week or two in Beijing, one question I heard over and over was, “What will you miss the most?”

Most my Chinese friends seemed to think it would be the food or the attention of being a foreigner. Most my foreign friends figured it would be the “culture”, whatever that means after spending most my adult life in Taiwan and then Beijing.

I had the feeling that I wouldn’t miss anything really, except for some people. That’s natural I suppose, since I had already decided to leave. I was really looking forward to a better job market (for tech, at least), cleaner air, a healthier environment in general, and most of all a big opportunity for personal growth.

Now that it’s been a month, I have a different perspective. I really don’t miss the things that made me want to leave. But I do miss some other things.

A safety net

In all fairness, there is no real safety net in Beijing. There’s no public health insurance like there is in Taiwan and worse still, there’s the possibility of actually getting ripped off for being a foreigner, even at a hospital! Similarly, if you have any major sorts of problems, you just get kicked out of the country. One of my best friends was in China for grad school back during the SARS crisis and just got booted out… and he wasn’t even sick.

There is a different sort of safety net in China for a foreigner, though. That’s the EFL industry. Even without my background teaching, managing and then owning an EFL school in Taiwan, teaching always would have been an option. Unlike Taiwan, in Beijing the demand is so great that even the normally undesirable teachers can generally all get placed. In the US, there is no Taiwanese health insurance system and there’s no auto-job. It’s sink or swim.

Nightmarkets and Hutongs

Shilin Nightmarket
Okay, maybe I do miss some of the food. It’s not really the food, though. I’m living in Chinatown and I can get pretty much any Chinese food I want. What I miss is how I could get the food! There’s something about a Taiwanese nightmarket or a Beijing hutong that’s supremely full-filling in the way that going to a single restaurant for a whole meal isn’t. Even Chinatown doesn’t have that kind of environment, probably due to pesky enforcement of food safety laws. I suppose I could find some strip mall here in California, go to the food court and buy a drink at one store and an order of chicken at another and then ice cream at a 3rd… but it wouldn’t be the same at all.

Pragmatic Law Enforcement

In some ways living in China is freer than living in the US. With the exception of a trip to inner Mongolia, I’ve never once felt like I was in physical danger. The police do a pretty good job with the available resources to keep society in line. But day to day life is very laissez faire in China, especially compared to the US! If you want to drive home drunk and get in an accident, you’ll go to prison. But if you want to have dinner with your coworkers and drink beer as you walk back to the office or the subway, nobody cares! The US has the most extreme open container laws I’ve seen anywhere in my life! Huge amounts of effort and money are spent trying to keep anybody 20 years-old or younger from drinking. Ditto for smoking. I’m not a big smoker, but the zealousness with which anti-smoking rules have been enacted since I left a decade ago just shocks me. One would think that soft drinks and junk food placed everywhere kids spend their time are the larger health risk… not that there’s any kind of sin tax for junk food in Beijing! Eat! Drink! Be merry! Play majiang loudly at 2 in the morning! Just don’t organized against the government or hurt people and they’ll mostly leave you alone.

Friends

Having moved so many times, this is a constant. Of what I leave behind, it’s always my friends I miss the most. I wasn’t even there for two years, but I will definitely miss hanging out with Wilson, his roommates, Simon, his Dashilar crowd, Martina, all the people she introduced to me from her tour guiding job, including Paul who encouraged me to move to the bay area, and so many others… I’m going to miss my co-workers, too. I would say that both the bosses were awesome to hang with and talk to in different ways, and some how I ended up getting along with all the Singaporean interns so well that I made a trip to Singapore to visit them after leaving! One fun guy there, Jim, is from the bay area, so I’ll probably see him here in the future after he returns to continue his work of bringing the singularity near. There’s also a really cute girl I met in the elevator of my apartment building the day I was leaving to move across town and take my job at SmarTots. I miss her too.

Work

Sounds strange, huh? SmarTots really was a cool place to be. It was the first time I was directly able to use technology to help lots of kids instead just a single class at a time. As mentioned above, it was a great crowd of people and after the first couple of months I was able to contribute and learn quite a bit. It was also likely the closest peek into Chinese corporate life I’ll have in a long time.

On the whole

When all is said and done, I don’t really miss Beijing that much. I miss it a bit, but I’m really enjoying San Francisco!