Published: May 30, 2023 | By: Lucas Weaver
Before the COVID pandemic fully erupted in 2020, I was almost two years into running my own in-person English school in Rotterdam called “Weaver English”. At the time I had three part-time teachers and had just expanded to a total of four classes.
I was happy and optimistic.
My business model was fairly straightforward from the beginning: offer a better learning experience by keeping group sizes smaller and providing nicer and more comfortable classrooms.
I charged higher prices than my competitors, but students were happy to pay for a higher quality service. I was positioned at the premium end of the language school market, and that was exactly where I wanted to be.
I wasn’t making any profit at the time. Between the competitive costs of Google Ads, the cost of the space, and the high wages of the teachers, I was breaking even. However, I was breaking even while expanding.
We were adding courses, students were happy, they were leaving 5-star Google Maps reviews, and the longer my website was around, the better I would eventually do in SEO rankings, which would lower my student acquisition costs.
My plan was to stop at those 4 classes but continue to grow until each class was full every term and lower the customer acquisition costs over time as the brand grew and I could rely less and less on expensive Google Ads.
Then COVID happened…
Before COVID I think the only times I had ever used Zoom was for sales calls for software tools I was considering purchasing. But when the first lockdown hit the Netherlands, we still had four weeks of in-person courses left to finish that people had already paid for.
Rapidly, I and all the other language schools in the world had to figure out how to offer language courses online effectively.
I was fortunate that all of my students were incredibly understanding. We had retirement-age students using videoconferencing tools for the first time, which was a challenge for both sides, but they were eager to try and adapt. (Looking back this is something nice about that early time in the pandemic, the “coming-together-ness” of everyone in a tough situation.)
After those courses were finished, though, I had to reassess the course offerings going forward. Would we teach the same content, same time windows, the same course sizes, and the same prices?
These were all questions I would have to answer in less than two weeks.
Other local language schools had basically kept everything exactly the same, including the prices. But that didn’t feel right to me. It didn’t seem common sense to me that someone would get just as much value from an online course as they would an in-person one.
I decided to lower the prices of the courses reflecting the new online learning model, and I also told the teachers that I would have to pay them less.
The teachers were fine with it. It seemed to make sense to them as well since now they wouldn’t have to spend any time commuting and could teach from wherever they wanted. (One teacher quickly relocated to Spain, seemingly taking full advantage of the new situation.)
Surprisingly to me at the time, students were very eager to sign up for the cheaper online offering. I guess I underestimated the fact that all the competition was also offering the same type of online English courses, but all the local competitors were still charging higher prices.
But with the reduced prices, my profit margin was also lower, and it wasn’t high, to begin with.
So while I was still successfully offering English courses and getting people to pay for them, I wasn’t making much money, and it was taking way too much of my time to manage it all.
The ROI for me personally just wasn’t there.
To make matters more complicated, the hourly rate for teachers started to reset, even going above pre-pandemic levels.
Eventually, due to normal life events, the three teachers I had before the pandemic had all moved on to other jobs/countries/opportunities.
I still had interested students, so I needed to find some new teachers. I was still working a full-time job at this point, so teaching them myself wasn’t an option.
After posting a job opening for remote English teachers on LinkedIn, I started interviewing potential candidates.
The candidates were great and very experienced, but their rates were so much higher than what I was used to. As an example, I had never paid a teacher more than €40/hour. But the first two teachers I interviewed wanted €55 and €50 per hour.
I interviewed a few more teachers and their rates were similar. I was a bit shocked and wondered what I could do. I didn’t want to charge students €75 per hour for English lessons.
Even the teachers who only had around 5 years of experience and lived in places with lower costs of living still wanted €25/hour or more.
The choice seemed to be between either offering students teachers with little experience for a total rate for them of around €45/hour or proven teachers with loads of experience for around €65-€75/hour.
One thing was clear to me though: I wasn’t going back to being an in-person language school. The world had gone online, and it seemed to me that was where the future was. As nice as the Netherlands was, I didn’t want my future tied to one specific place.
I wanted to be able to travel the world and still be able to provide value to students and provide an income for myself. With all of my hard-earned programming skills and my background in digital marketing, it seemed that I of all people was poised to be able to succeed in this online economy.
As the saying goes about making lemonade from life’s provided lemons, I decided to commit 100% to making the Weaver School a fully online business.
At that point, I thought I had a genius idea. Instead of setting the rate that teachers would earn, I would let the teachers set their own rates and then let students choose which rate worked for their budget.
This was basically me changing into a platform, a marketplace for language students to find online language teachers. But the competition in this space was immense, and the teachers on my platform turned out to be too expensive.
I knew this because even though hundreds of people would visit the site, and a few per day would create an account, very few would ever sign up for lessons. I understood why.
When you looked at the other platforms I was competing with, some had VC funding up to $25 million dollars and had teachers charging as low as $5/hour.
I had always positioned my school as “Premium” where you would get the best teachers on the market. But as it turned out, most students didn’t want “the best” teachers. They wanted the best teacher they could reasonably afford.
That was a big miscalculation from me.
But while the simplest solution would be to find less expensive teachers and put them on the platform, I didn’t want to just be “another platform” with inexperienced teachers. Also, it didn’t seem smart to go up against Goliaths with $25 million in the bank by offering the exact same thing as them.
As I started to see the challenges stacking up, I still saw my current situation as having a lot of potential success.
There were still so many people looking for online language courses, and I knew how to offer a product on the learning side that students actually loved and benefited from.
More and more people who I respected kept asking the question “How do you differentiate from your competitors?”
As I mentioned before, I had previously tried to hang my hat on the experience of the teachers. But I realized this wasn’t enough.
I’m passionate about languages, and one of my fatal flaws, I really care what other people think of me. So two things were quite important to me:
The language courses I offered should be great
People were happy with their courses when they finished and told me how much they loved them
I already had quite a bit of experience with language learning. I learned Spanish when I first moved to Europe, and, to a lesser extent, learned Dutch to a decent point later.
But when I started learning Korean before moving to Seoul, I went into hard-core language learning mode, and as a result, many more things became clear to me about what made up effective online language learning.
I started watching the Huberman Lab podcast back when he had less than 50,000 subscribers. I was instantly hooked.
I started doing tons of research into the latest knowledge and techniques in adult education that capitalized on the emerging neuroscience behind adult learning.
There were so many proven techniques and protocols that I could use, not only for my language learning but also for my students.
At first, I tried to find a way to communicate to all of my teachers these new techniques and protocols, explaining how they should use them in their classes with students. But this just was too complex, and I didn’t have enough control over the learning experience of the students.
So, I made a decision. I would take the material and lesson plans from all of the courses that I had personally taught with great success, implement all of my neuroscience learnings, and then re-create new and improved versions of all those courses.
These courses would be 100% designed from the ground up for adult language learners based on all of the most proven science and information in neuroscience and education.
This allowed me to simplify and refine my core offering for the Weaver School: an online language school providing online language courses to reach fluency.
When you’re looking for online English classes, you can find different offerings with varying options and features.
But with the Weaver School, you’ll find one thing: courses that were designed for adults to reach fluency in the language they need.
Everything has been designed for you to follow step by step in the simplest way possible. All you have to do is watch the lessons, do the homework and quizzes, study your flashcards, and then do your speaking lessons, and you can be fluent.
It really is that simple.
Keep in mind, simple doesn’t mean easy. I wouldn’t consider it “easy” to do a 12-week course with hours of homework and study each week. But it is simple.
Follow your course, do the work, and enjoy the results.
Early on in this process, there were three experiences with students that were rewarding enough to make me realize I was on the right path.
A busy CEO
A struggling student
A time-crunched doctor
One of my first students in the new online model was a busy CEO who was spending more time working from home after the pandemic, but that didn’t mean he had more free time. With his own company, a family, and living in a rural area outside of a major city, an online English school was perfect for him.
He followed the course exactly as it was designed, did all of the homework, and his improvement was FAST.
By the end of the course, he was beaming with pride.
A mother approached me about her daughter who was struggling with her English class in school. She knew that I only taught adults, but she was desperate to get her daughter some help to keep her from falling behind.
I agreed, and I was happy I did. The online course structure was perfect for her daughter because her schedule was tight. She could go straight home after school and start her lesson just by opening up her laptop.
Her progress was also fast. She responded well to individual attention, and by getting to learn at her own pace, she was finally able to process the information in ways that made her feel like she actually understood the material.
She ended up with one of the highest English exam scores of any of the students in her class, and we’re now also teaching her sister.
The mom is thrilled.
A doctor in Europe wanted to work abroad in an English-speaking country, so he needed to pass the IELTS exam. His schedule was tight, so we came up with a hybrid course plan for private online English lessons that worked for him.
I ended up teaching him while traveling through the Philippines and Vietnam. After he finished his lessons, he passed his exam and can now make his preparations to move abroad.
Who knows how any of those stories would have been different if online language lessons weren’t available like they are today, but each experience made me happy to be doing what I am.
Now that I have this framework in place that students can benefit from, I want to bring more languages to the Weaver School that people can learn.
I’ve been traveling Asia now for the past 7 months at the time of writing this post. I’ve learned some Korean, Japanese, Mandarin, Thai, and Vietnamese. My passion for languages has only increased.
I believe the world will be a better place the more connected we are. That doesn’t only involve the whole world learning English. That means learning other languages as well.
If you want to have a rich experience traveling in Thailand, learning Thai will take your enjoyment to levels you can’t imagine until you try it. The level of connection you feel with a place and its people is so much more than you feel just speaking English.
With the same passionate and scientific approach that I took to creating the best online English classes possible, we’re working now to bring students online Thai courses, online Vietnamese courses, and more.
I want to continue connecting the world and doing my part to help bring people together. Hopefully, I can be of service to you in your journey of doing something similar.
Lucas Weaver founded The Weaver School in 2016. He's passionate about using the latest learnings in neuroscience and education to create the best language learning experience possible for our students, so they can quickly build effective language learning habits that will last for years. Lucas is a graduate of Texas A&M University and after 7 years of living in the Netherlands, he is currently traveling through Southeast Asia while learning their languages along the way.