Starting an English language center

Before opening an English language center in Saigon, Paul Blake owned and published Columbia City Paper in South Carolina from 2005 to 2011.

Shortly after the publication closed, he relocated to Asia to continue in the media industry at an English-language newspaper while simultaneously teaching Business English to executives at Vincom Center.

In 2012, Paul realized teaching English was far more rewarding than journalism and moved to Seoul, Korea to earn his teaching credentials. In Korea, he taught secondary school students News & Debate at a private hagwon (academy) and participated in weekend English clubs. The following year Paul returned to Vietnam because he missed the Vietnamese culture, which he describes as a “family first” society.

In 2014, he established Blake Academy in District 9 with the simple idea of small class sizes and making English lessons affordable in rural areas. Oi speaks to Paul about his new business.

Is it easy to get rich in the English teaching industry in Vietnam? Why did you choose District 9 to open Blake Academy?

It is a huge money making industry and while much of the market is saturated downtown, there are huge business opportunities in the rural areas if one views education as a business opportunity. I don’t think of it as an industry; I think of it as a service. However, there is no easy way to make money. Teaching is a job that requires hard work, planning and dedication.

What is needed to start an English center?

A passion for sharing my culture and language with others. Also, all of the skills I’ve built up over a career in journalism, media and publishing.

Is opening an English center easier if you have white skin?

I know of so many centers out of homes serving huge class sizes with all Vietnamese staff. There are huge opportunities for English-speaking Vietnamese, especially in teaching young learners and beginners. A huge fallacy is that it is somehow easy for a white person to move 9,000 miles away from their family and adjust to an income at a fraction of their home country. I am unapologetic in being a native speaker of English because I work hard to be the best teacher I can be. I am currently taking Vietnamese lessons, but I am not taking Vietnamese lessons from a smug Brit, loud Canadian or a pasty Finnish man for obvious reasons. That said, the enormous amount of privileges and advantages a White man receives in the world, and does not deserve, is something most White men deny the existence of while benefiting from it.

How do you figure out the pricing for your courses?

I didn’t base it on anything other than trying to keep it under USD5 per hour, per student in group classes because I thought that’s what parents would be willing to pay in District 9. Business English lessons tend to be the more profitable area and keep me busy during the week.

How do you build trust with parents and students to get them to re-enroll?

Most of my new students are from referrals. I send parents the curriculum covered and teach in an open and observable space. I pay for a Vietnamese teacher to be present and they translate parents’ concerns and so far we have retained all students, and have added 15 in the past month. We limit each class size to ten students. This allows every student to have more attention and be corrected more than they can at a large McEnglish chain class of 40+ students.

Employee or employer?

I prefer working for myself. Most people want to be their own boss but don’t understand the time and effort involved in running their own business. They look at entrepreneurs as lucky people who just stumbled upon or inherited success, which often couldn’t be further from the truth.

How do you plan to compete with English centers like IlA, VUS and cleverlearn?

This is not a business to me, it is a service. If parents can find a native speaker with years of experience and at a fraction of the cost, it ends up being a simple choice. Often my students continue to learn at other centers and it is the collaborative versus competitive approach to education that benefits all students.

What has been the hardest part of getting Blake Academy running?

At the previous location, I had a nice cafe setup next to the school and it was a huge disappointment to have to move locations and close the cafe portion due to landlord greed. I now have the tutoring space at a new location a few blocks away, and added 15 new students since the move. I’m grateful and happy to have success with Blake Academy and the new space feels more like part of the community.

Has the government been involved at all?

We are a tutoring center versus a school that would be required to be registered with the government. We are a practice center and not a replacement for an accredited educational institution. We offer no degrees and no certifications. For example, one of my students is a high school English teacher in Thu Duc. As a teacher in the public school system, the Ministry of Education requires her to achieve a certain IELTS score for her to transfer to the high school in District 9. She spends half her month’s salary to practice for the IELTS test with our center, knowing that we can’t administer the official test. We have a huge responsibility in focusing on results. We would lose all credibility if we were like the hundreds of tutoring centers that pretend to be affiliated with Cambridge, administer tests, and essentially award fraudulent certifications.

What marketing have you done?

I have flyers in Vietnamese.

Do you have a Vietnamese partner?

No, I don’t believe in business partners.

How do you want to see your business grow in the next five years? Stay small or go big?

Parents keep asking me about weekday classes so I’ll be adding more classes. In June, I’ll have a second teacher who I know I can trust. Maybe one or two teachers will manage their own classes, but I have no aspirations to be a chain center. ILA and VUS both do an incredible job in selecting teachers, curriculum and maintaining a high standard. I feel busy enough trying to maintain and improve my own teaching methods.

 

* Interview by Christine Van

* Images by Neil Featherstone

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5 thoughts on “Starting an English language center”

  1. Hi,

    I have taught in Sapa, Saigon/HCMC, Bangkok and travelled extensively in five Continents.I share your thoughts teaching being sharing language.

    I am thinking of buying somewhere in the a South Saigon or the Mekong to set up a school.

    I would appreciate contact with someone who has done it

    Reply
  2. Hi Debbie! Unfortunately, I had some landlord issues and I am currently teaching at a university in China. However, I will contact you should we reopen next year. Thanks! Paul

    Reply

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