Letters from the Teacher – Conrad & Sarah

You know those people that you talk to, and within seconds they’ve completely turned around your outlook on life? And when you’re focusing on the negative, they tell their story, and you instantly attain to the positive? Meet Conrad Fowler and Sarah Powell, English teachers in a struggling community in Spain.

For most people, living on a yacht in the Caribbean is the good life. Work is out of sight and out of mind. Happiness abounds. For Conrad and Sarah, it was not enough. They’re the thinkers, the motivators, the determined people who push this world around on its axis, and are never revered by the media.

We caught up with the founders of Idiomas Illora to find out what makes them tick.

“We really enjoyed our time on the boat, however we were becoming more and more aware of the amount of ‘lost souls’ surrounding us as we became more entrenched in the cruising life,” said Conrad, Idiomas Illora co-founder.

“We have both always had serious cases of itchy feet- we have both travelled widely, working or otherwise- Sarah had spent the previous three years before meeting me with a backpack on her back traveling around the world. We felt though that we needed to teach ourselves the value of being based somewhere and establishing ‘roots’ together. So we sold the boat and found ourselves a house in a place where we felt we could become part of a community, with a culture that intrigued us, and access to interesting and easy places to escape.”

“Our primary concern was to provide for these ´lifestyle needs’ in selecting a place to base ourselves, so we did not formally research the market- we knew the market potential of Granada as a centre of education, and we were aware of the demand for language education in Spain- because of the competitiveness of the job market and the uphill struggle the education system is facing to catch up with the rest of Europe in this discipline.”

“After arriving here, however, we managed to test the market effectively in a very low risk way, using rooms provided by the town hall. Sarah also taught in Granada for the initial few months, as we needed to maintain an income while I was frantically trying to make our house livable after purchasing it in a semi-ruinous state. This was very beneficial for building an initial base of contacts and developing a ‘feel’ for the industry in Granada.”

“We are based in a small, very traditional and conservative town of 10,000 people about 30 minutes out of Granada, a city with a similar population than Wellington, in Andalucia, Spain. Granada is a centre for tourism, being built around the Alhambra Palaces, and education, with a large university of approx. 60,000 students.
Sarah and I have both had very broad experiences in our careers- Sarah in food manufacturing, purchasing, interpretation and myself mainly in tourism and as a Naval Officer. Of course our common denominator was that we had both been English teachers along the way.”

Sarah-Teaching

“Being welcomed into the community where we settled was an incredibly humbling and heartwarming experience. The help and support on a personal level was incredible. The Andalucian culture, in our experience, is very self secure- they have nothing to feel inferior about, as is the perception in so many cultures, and when they see you working really hard, or going without, which was the case for us when we arrived, they appreciate it and it goes a long way in building trust and integrity. When we started our classes in the back room of a bar, they would not accept any payment as they believed it was benefiting the community and saw we were passionate about what we did.
In terms of challenges there are certainly issues with the education system here- in rural areas such as our region. It is not at a level I would expect of a European country, and the labour laws mean teachers have very little requirement to perform- it is a job for life, even though there are thousands of young teachers unemployed but unable to break into the system- very sad. Protectiveness amongst teachers means education can suffer for the sake of them saving face.”

“In terms of our success, we have have only been operating a year and a half, and I think the growth we have experienced during that time could be called successful- our goals evolve so quickly however, that we are always driving towards the next ‘success’- I think we would be stunned if we had a crystal ball two years ago though. Things are certainly on track…

TeachingConrad-Sarah

“One of the reasons we moved here was to avoid debt and the risk it brings with it. Without this freedom we would have found the decisions much more difficult to make and not have had as much confidence to take the leaps we have. We bought our house for less than the average deposit in New Zealand, and set up our business with 12 €. Obviously we are expanding, and costs are increasing exponentially, but they are still relatively small. That coupled with a solid customer base already in place and increasingly diversified products allows us maintain a very low level of risk.”

“The demand for language education in Spain has brought with it some very poor quality providers, so our pricing strategy from the start has been to distance ourselves from these people as much as possible. One of the great things about marketing education is that it is easily quantifiable- in terms of exam success, so a difference in quality becomes apparent quickly. This price separation from any local ‘competition’ brought us in line with the more established academies in Granada. Although we live in an area extremely heavily hit by unemployment ( approx. 30%) people will invest in their education if they feel it will help their chances in the job market- these people give a large percentage of their income to us and it is crucial that we never take this for granted- we must repay the confidence they have placed in us with solid results. This provides great motivation to maintain a strong quality focus, and of course to maintain the pricing structure that it deserves.”

“We certainly feel there is a lot of opportunity where we are. We will continue to build on our main products and are looking to diversify further into language and cultural tourism. Not only is this a massive and very active market for us to join, but the benefits for the community would be great-both tangible and intangible. Long term, however, I can see us moving on to other projects. The experience of starting our business has been huge, and while we often say we would never do it again, I have a feeling once things are secure and steady, there may be a small bout of amnesia..”

“The state of the economy means we cannot afford to rest on our laurels, and maintaining the creativity to create and develop our ideas is crucial to our vision. It is logical that, the more difficult the climate, the more creative you have to be, and when better times arrive you will have established good habits and an even better product range.”

Do you think 2013 is a good year to be an entrepreneur?

We are starting up at the bottom of the European ‘crisis’. We have always told ourselves if we can make it in rural Andalucia in this period of time, we can make it anywhere! Things are always relative- we are building a successful business when there isn’t a lot of money around, which surely will stand us in very good stead as things improve- solid foundations and a hunger to build business – so from our perspective, YES! 2013 is a great time to be an entrepreneur!!!
What has been a huge help keeping us motivated when we have been fighting against the tide has been the creation of our ‘achievements book’- whenever we have a success no matter how small it gets written in our book, then we have something to celebrate whenever we want! Much better than being continually phased by the big picture. so now I can write in the book that I have completed my interview for New Zealand Entrepreneurs.

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