Jennifer Mackenzie, TEFL Org UK
Husband and wife team Jennifer MacKenzie and Joe Hallwood set up TEFL Org UK following an exciting spell as English teachers abroad themselves. We caught up with them about dealing with cultural differences and language barriers in their business ventures.
What does your company do?
We train people to become teachers of English to non-native speakers all over the world. We offer online, classroom and blended learning accredited courses and are the most accredited short course provider in the UK. We sell over 80% of our course online with no direct office contact.
When was your company launched, who by and why?
We were launched in 2008 by co-founders, and husband and wife team, Jennifer MacKenzie and Joe Hallwood. TEFL Org UK (TEFL Scotland at the time) came from a desire to offer people the life-changing experience Jennifer and Joe had enjoyed themselves when they took the leap as TEFL teachers in Greece in the 90s.
How long has the company been exporting?
Almost since day one; we had sales to Germany and Norway in our first few months of operation and then steady sales from Spain and France followed.
What do you currently export, and where to?
We export our online courses throughout the world and run weekend classroom courses in Spain. Plus, we run classroom courses in China and have developed a suite of courses specifically for Chinese English learners that is held behind the Chinese firewall and enables decent download speeds for students. This is very exciting for us, working with our Chinese partner and developing new products.
What motivated you to start selling overseas, and how long did it take?
As I said earlier, it did initially kind of ‘just happen’ but we were also encouraged by a workshop set up by HIE (Highlands and Islands Enterprise) and our account manager there, which highlighted the growth of English language across world and need for teachers to enable this. This pinpointed China as a market to aim for in internationalisation.
What is the easiest part of exporting?
I think we are at an advantage in many ways as we are largely an online business and ecommerce is our main route to market. This means that on the whole, we do not have to set up physical offices abroad. The internet has opened up the world to us from our offices in the North of Scotland!
And the most challenging part?
Probably dealing with cultural differences, the reliance on partners (in places like China) and also doing really meaningful market research.
Have language barriers, currency changes, etiquette and culture ever caused you any difficulties? How did you overcome them?
Language barriers in China have not been too bad as we have a trusted colleague that we had worked with in a previous company who now works for us out there. Though initially it was strange going into meetings and just smiling blankly at people as they spoke to us, waiting for James to translate. However, Joe, our international director has been learning Mandarin and people really appreciate this (though most of his learning does seem to be focused around ordering food!).
Cultural differences have been an issue, for example, in China it is rare for people to say no in meetings and this can lead to false assumptions on what has been agreed.
Did you get any support when you wanted to trade abroad? Who from, and was it helpful?
We had help initially from HIE (Highlands and Islands Enterprise) and SDI (Scottish Development International) in Scotland for our work in China and then SDI in Bejing were helpful in our initial year or two out there. We have also recently had help from Inverness Chamber of Commerce in our plans for internationalisation in the USA.
What advice would you give to someone just starting to explore overseas markets?
I think it would be to do as much market research as you can, visit the country, contact SDI, HIE, your local chamber – try and speak to people that have exported to the specific country you are interested in. Get advice from experts that are related to your industry if possible. Also make sure your core business is able to take the cost – time and money – that will inevitably come with starting to export.
Where next? What markets are you looking into and where do you see the company in 5 years’ time?
Next is the USA! We hope to launch our online courses there later this year. Five years’ time? The largest online TEFL course provider in the world – and not just the UK!
TEFL Org UK have been shortlisted for micro exporter of the year and e-commerce export of the year at the HSBC Scottish Export Awards 2017 in association with Scottish Enterprise. Book your tickets now and join us to celebrate international trade.