Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Hard Cold Nuts & Bolts

by AJ

"If the nature of a remarkable business (person, etc.) is to be extreme in some attribute, it's inevitable that compromise can only diminish your chances of success.

Compromise is about sanding down the rough edges to gain buy-in from other constituents. Vanilla is a compromise ice cream flavor, while habanero pecan is not. The safe compromise for a kid's birthday party is the vanilla. But vanilla is boring. You can't build a fast-growing company around vanilla.

In almost every market, the boring slot is filled. The product designed to appeal to the largest possible audience already exists, and displacing it is awfully difficult. How can you market yourself as "more bland than the leading brand"? The real growth comes with products/services that annoy, offend, don't appeal, are too expensive, too heavy, too complicated, too simple,-- too something. (Of course their too too for some people, but just perfect for others.)

Bootstrapping entreprenuers often upend existing industries because the dominant players in an industry are the last places you'll find empowered mavericks.

If someone in your organization is charged with creating something remarkable, leave them alone! Don't use internal reviews and usability testing to figure out if the new service is as good as what you've got now. Instead, pick the right maverick and get out of the way."

-Seth Godin

I love Godin's statement. He's absolutely right... and his statements perfectly describe the state of language education in Asia and America.

In both areas, the boring slot is taken. Eveyone is doing the same things. Everyone draws from the same pool of textbooks. And everyone supplements those with pair and group work, plus a few games.

Here in SF, every school has a social calendar.. and they all have basically the same events. They all have essentially the same curriculum and approach.

Likewise, most ESL/EFL teachers Ive met follow the same basic approach (textbook plus supplemental pair/group work).

Im not much of a capitalist, but I love Tom Peters and Seth Godin because their ideas are applicable beyond the business world. Both recognize that "safe is risky". Its risky because there are already thousands of better established schools filling the Vanilla market. The "something for everyone" approach is a really bad business strategy. For an individual teacher, its also a very bad career strategy.

This is why Im worried about my recent risk-aversion. While I know it may keep me at my current job for a while, I also recognize that it is longterm career suicide...

I don't believe there is one "right way" to teach. I wouldnt want to replace the current traditional, boring, soulless system with an equally uniform copy of my own. Students are diverse. They each learn differently. Depending on their culture, personality, educational history, motivations, etc... they thrive in different educational environments. Teachers are the same... each has their own particular passions.. and extraordinary qualities.

What I DESPISE about traditional education is its crushing of these passions (in both teachers and students)... its relentless drive for standardization... for uniform blandness. But conformity isnt only boring... increasingly, its bad business.

"It is the nature of a remarkable business to be extreme in some attribute..."

Rather than copy other schools/teachers... why not embrace extreme passions. Why not accept that mediocrity does not inspire passion. You won't recruit passionately loyal students by trying to please everyone. In fact, as Kathy Sierra notes, passionate love is almost always accompanied by passionate hate. Do something remarkable and you will, most likely, create a cadre of fanatics. But you'll also create a cadre of folks who hate what you are doing. So what? Let them go elsewhere. There are plenty of schools and teachers out there.

I cant understand why people open a private English school only to copy every other school in their market. While they may do allright, they would do much better by being remarkable in some area. This is why Im so fond of Wisdom 21s approach. Its not for everyone, but its clearly different. They stand out. No one will confuse them with Nova or Berlitz.

This gives them a HUGE business advantage. While the vanilla companies must spend huge amounts of money on advertising, Wisdom 21 has managed to grow mostly from free publicity and passionate word of mouth. Im sure many students hate their methods... but lots LOVE them. The ones that love them become evangelists... energetically recruiting their friends. Such a school doesnt need high-pressure sales tactics... their students are their most powerful salespeople.

Here's another advantage: remarkable schools can charge more. If you are just as bland as the big schools, you've got little to compete on except price. Since you can't say "we are remarkably different and super cool", you're left with little choice but to charge less. And what does that get you except students who care only about price... bargain hunters who will gladly jump to another, cheaper school should one come along.

Think of Apple Computer. Some people hate them. But they've got a cadre of super loyal customers who gladly pay significantly MORE for their computers. What's more, these people are not easily enticed by competitors. Apple users have fan clubs, blogs, and self-created support groups.

On a tiny scale, Ive seen this in effect. I still have a core group of students from TU who continue to email me. They continue to ask English questions, tell me about their lives, etc. This never happened to me at previous teaching jobs. So what's the difference? The difference is that at TU I finally threw caution to the wind and tried to be remarkable. I ran with my passions. Sometimes I failed, sometimes had great success. But always I was trying to push the envelope. It was a good start, but I have much farther to go.

Why not embrace this mindset at the school level? Can you imagine a fan club for your school.... started and run by students (or alumni)? Isnt that the kind of passion we hope to generate in students? Can you imagine students remaining in contact with your school long after they leave it? Can you imagine them forming alumni groups? Can you imagine them energetically recruiting for and selling your school (with no prompting from you... no promotional gimicks)?

Ill end with my absolute favorite example of a remarkable business: Autotech of Athens, GA. These guys were my mechanics for 13 years. I have never seen a more loyal (fanatic!) group of customers in my life.

Autotech did not advertise. Their garage was hidden on a back road far from traffic. Their garage had no sign... you could drive by it and have no idea what it was. They charged MORE than other garages.. including the big chains like Pep Boys. Yet they had a long waiting list. They regularly turned away customers.

How did they do it? By being remarkable... doing things no other garage did. For one, they did not try to serve everyone. They fixed only Japanese cars. Second, they were remarkably honest. If your car required only a small repair, they often did it for FREE! They knew every one of their customers and greeted them by name. In fact, they not only rememebered my name, they remembered my job... and my ex-girlfriends (who Id referred to them)! There were little extras too... for example, they helped my ex-girlfriend find a reliable (and cheap) used car (from another customer). Whenever I bought a car, I brought it to them to check out.... they looked it over for free. And finally, they were damn good mechanics. When they fixed a problem, it stayed fixed.

Autotech created powerful loyalty. When I moved to South Carolina, I continued to drive back to Georgia to have them fix my car. When I did so, they told me they had customers in Florida and Alabama who did the same thing.

I have yet to encounter an English school with students this passionate and loyal.