woman entrepreneur; photo by Jessica Keener Photography

Interview by Women Expats Entrepeneurs Empowered

I recently joined a group in Germany called “Women Expats Entrepreneurs Empowered” or WE^3. They invited me for an interview to share my journey as an entrepreneur. The interview focused mainly on my work as a language teacher and editor, but of course I had to talk about my dance career as well! I have copied it below with permission.

From a young age Rachel aspired to travel the world. She had a love of the English language and decided to become an English language teacher, which has enabled the lifestyle she dreamed of. Her business is online, set up so she can work from anywhere, making her location independent and giving her extreme flexibility.

What is your background?

I grew up in New York, playing instruments and singing. My father was a physicist and when I was 10 years old he took a sabbatical to work at CERN (Geneva). We were based on the French side of the border in a tiny village and I went to a French school for a year. It was not an easy experience for me, since I had no friends there and when we went back to New York I had to re-establish new friendships. However, the experience influenced my later decisions: I continued to study French upon my return and when I was 17, I did a junior year abroad in France with a Rotary International Exchange Program. While there, I connected with an American lady who was musical. She and her husband were in a Hungarian folk dance troupe, which I ended up joining – my first time doing any dancing, although I would go on to dance ballroom, lindy hop, salsa, blues dancing and other styles as an adult.

What is your work history?

I conceived the idea of becoming an English teacher early in life as it would enable me to live in different places and see the world while supporting myself. I majored in Curriculum & Instruction for middle grades (adolescents) and then got a Cambridge Certification for teaching English to adults (CELTA). My first job directly out of university was working in an English language school in Rabat, the capital city of Morocco. It was a completely different culture! While I never mastered much Arabic, there is a big French-speaking population. My French got me through in most situations.

While there, I was also recruited to teach English with a French distance-learning agency in a controlled environment (like a call center, using their phones and computers). Eventually, I pitched to them that I’d like to continue to work for them from my home in the US. They were reluctant but agreed. They were not very good at paying me on time and from that I learned it is not good to have all my income dependent on one source. I am quite risk averse and I started looking for other additional income streams. I started working for a Russian language agency, teaching English to Russian students online. I also became really involved in the kizomba dance scene and started training to be an instructor.

How did you start out in business?

I never planned on being an entrepreneur, but bad experiences depending on others for my money encouraged me to set out on my own. I have two separate businesses: English language teaching (and document revision) and dance instruction.

Teaching English Online:

In 2012, I began to build my own tutoring business, Tailored English Online, while at the same time being employed by language agencies on a part-time basis. I made my own website with a video introducing myself. I actively solicited references from current and past students and included these on my website. My students referred other students and my client base grew. When I was sure of the strength of my own business, I went out on my own, completely leaving the agency work by 2014.

Since then, I have kept things going mostly by word of mouth. When I need new students, I ask my current students to refer prospective students and reward them with a free lesson for every contact of theirs who signs up. This has been effective.

I see myself in a role similar to a local shopkeeper that people know and trust. I have taught members within families and their friends: a young professional, her boss’s daughter, the daughter’s best friend, the friend’s younger brother, the brother’s friend, the friend’s older brother and father, the father’s new wife… I prefer the community and personal connection. It helps that most of the time a student will be with me for at least a couple of years.

I have not done a lot of online marketing, other than creating a few videos and posting them on YouTube. I do not enjoy marketing, which had a lot to do with my second business returning to more of a hobby status.

My Dance Instruction:

In 2011, I won the national Moroccan Salsa Contest. I was awarded a trip to a Latin Dance festival where I met a kizomba instructor. He invited me to come to train and teach with him in the UK for 12 months. We ended up teaching kizomba and salsa all over Europe. I was fortunate to have his mentorship, but I became frustrated in my role as an assistant. I wanted to be more active as an instructor, especially since my teaching degree gave me an awareness of instructional design. After a year based in the UK, I ended this partnership and returned to the US.

There I started teaching kizomba on my own. I had an advantage in that many kizomba instructors were teaching only via demonstration of choreography, whereas I was able use the science of teaching to design lessons with more structure and explanation, for example building up from simpler movements to improve my students’ competency. I continued my own training so I could do both dance roles completely proficiently. This was absolutely necessary to being taken seriously in the male-dominated kizomba festival scene.

I built the business via collaborative efforts with local enthusiasts and dance event/festival coordinators. In the beginning I usually offered a profit-sharing model (you pay my plane ticket and organize the workshop; I will give you some predetermined percent of the workshop takings). I’d go to various dance communities in different locations and offer them introductory workshops to introduce people to the dance. I developed one of the first websites to draw attention to kizomba in the USA, Kizomba Community, where I provided informational resources and promoted the classes and events from all teachers and organizers in the USA, rather than only promoting myself. Again, I saw myself as contributing to the community.

Eventually, I started being invited to teach at events based on respect rather than self-promotion. People recommended me to others, because they recognized my professional skills in bringing my students to the next level in their dancing. I never liked to self-promote and I hoped that if people wanted someone who was professional, then they would find out about me. Nevertheless, I had a website, YouTube channel, an Instagram, and a Facebook profile that I posted content on regularly, keeping my audience updated on my travels, recent videos, and blog posts. I created a couple of instructional video series hoping to gain a passive income source, but unfortunately it has ended up mostly just bringing in enough to pay for the website hosting. Still, an organiser of an Australian dance event had purchased one of my video series, and on the strength of my instruction there I was invited to come teach at their festival. In advance of the tour I did the most self-promotion of my entire career, cold-contacting various people in Australia, New Zealand, and SE Asia to build up a 6-month dance tour visiting different communities.

After more than two years living almost constantly on the go, teaching across the US, Europe, and Australia, I came to realize that it was not the lifestyle for me. I decided to “retire” by moving to Stuttgart, where a local blues dancing club had invited me to come teach for them part time.

How long have you lived in Germany and what has been your experience?

I came to Germany in January 2017. I learned to speak German via podcasts, starting a year before I moved. After that I made sure to insist on speaking as much as possible with new acquaintances and friends in German.

Throughout my travels I had spent a bit of time in Germany, teaching at a few kizomba festivals and visiting for blues dancing as well. I felt so comfortable: people were not getting on my case for being too uptight, organised or wanting to plan things well in advance. Perhaps that was partly because three of my great-grandparents are German, and many of the German values were well-instilled in my family. This factored into my decision to move here.

As an entrepreneur in the fields of arts and education, managing risk is important for me and I decided to come to Germany for economic security. I was never comfortable in the US, knowing that if I got very sick or had an accident, I would have a very difficult time. The only solution there is to save as much money as possible and pay high insurance premiums. I wanted to go somewhere with better health care and insurance systems. In Western Europe there seemed nowhere better than Germany in terms of laws regarding foreign residents being self-employed and having a path toward permanent residency.

The history of my visa is a long, difficult story. I entered Germany on a Shengen visa, which expired before I ever managed to get a work visa. In the State of Baden-Wuerttemberg it is difficult to get permission to be self-employed unless you have a crazy amount of capital or are employed by companies or institutions. I fought for months to be allowed to work as a freelancer with individual clients, as I showed proof I had done profitably for years, but ultimately it proved impossible, at least until I gain permanent residency. The model is based on structure and security and unfortunately with self-employed people it is more complicated to demonstrate this to the officials’ satisfaction. In the end I took on a job as an employee in a Stuttgart company doing emailing, backend data entry, and social media work. Having proved I would gain a “minimum existence” through employment, I was granted permission to work as a freelancer for a maximum of 20 hours per week.

Due to the pandemic, I am currently on a temporary permit. I hope to get my third work visa soon, which will last for two more years. After that I will be eligible to apply for permanent residency (having completed 5 years with working visas), most likely in 2023. That status should give me the freedom to work as I choose.

Tell us more about your business

My English language tutorial business is called Tailored English Online. I began this business in 2013. All the work is conducted online via digital communication. My customers are varied, from teenagers in school, to graduate students and young professionals to CEO’s. I offer a very personalised approach depending on the person’s goals and priorities, rather than insisting on a set curriculum. I create a program that suits the individual and their situation.

When I first started out, I based my prices on what the agency was charging the language students I was tutoring. This automatically gave me a 30% pay rise when I became my own boss. Interestingly, when I was required to reduce my self-employed working hours here upon arrival in Germany, I took the opportunity to give myself a 20% pay increase. I probably wouldn’t have been brave enough to do this otherwise, but since I knew I had to scale back my teaching, I was in a good position to do so. Some customers couldn’t continue due to the price rise and others dropped their study hours. This now means I earn a professional wage, even though the market has been flooded with non-professional native English speakers looking to earn money easily by teaching English online.

I am busy now working on diversifying my business. I am working to increase my document editing work, a service I offer to a variety of clients, such as university students working on a Master’s or Doctoral thesis or scientists trying to get published in English-language journals. I do some work for German businesses who want to market to and serve the international community that we have in Stuttgart, e.g. editing promotional materials and instruction manuals. The opportunities for me to continue this line of work are good. I enjoy editing the documents. This is an option that is both location- and schedule-independent, which gives me maximum amount of flexibility.

Having started several businesses, is there anything that you wish you’d have done differently?

Nothing, really. Everything I have done has been a part of the learning process.

A key learning point for me was that I really don’t like having to overly market myself. It is not for everyone and it wasn’t the right path for me. I couldn’t have known that marketing myself did damage to my happiness and soul until I tried it. I have ended up building a successful business that has not required me to have to do a lot of active online marketing.

What advice would you give to other women starting their own business venture?

Be patient! It took me years to have a big enough base of English students so that I felt confident that it was a strong enough business to replenish itself.

Managing risk has been important for me. There are many things I waited to do until I felt I was really in the position to do it without it causing a lot of stress. I have never been in a position where I over-extended myself financially. I always had more than one income stream and a back-up plan.

Otherwise, just get good at what you’re doing. Get qualifications. Learn best practices from the best people.

How do you keep yourself motivated?

I am highly driven and self-motivated. I am also a perfectionist, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage, since I never feel like I’ve done enough. I do have a hard time saying “that’s enough work for today.” Honestly, to be successful I think you probably work more than you should, at least for a while.

What have been your proudest achievements?

I have a goal to set myself up to live permanently in Western Europe before I am 40. I have done everything I needed to do to make that happen. If for some reason Germany rejects my permanent residency application I still have long enough to redirect my approach elsewhere in Western Europe to meet that goal.

I have built up my own successful English teaching business that I can do from anywhere.

I became a well-regarded dance instructor, which is certainly not something I expected while I was studying. I am also very proud of the activism I have done for women and for consent culture within the dance community, through my teaching and blogging.

What are your future aspirations?

I want to further customise my life: gain even greater flexibility and be less schedule dependent. I’d like to do more work with people in a time-discontinuous way. I enjoy teaching and want to continue this as I get older, since I really love my work, but I visualise myself having total freedom to say “today is beautiful, I will go to the lake” or “today I feel depressed, I don’t think I will get out of bed.”

What is the next step for you on that journey?

On my “to-do list” is more networking and cold contacting direct with companies and universities in Germany to build up my document editing service. I am good at networking events, being very social; my social and professional networks have been fruitful. One of the German companies I am working with now is thanks to a lead from someone I know in the Stuttgart dance scene. When I meet people, I am comfortable in a conversation letting people know what I do. This leads to referrals.

What challenges do you foresee?

My own inertia is a challenge given my reluctance to do marketing. For the moment I have enough customers and make enough money. It is harder to be motivated when there is nothing wrong. However, I am mindful that it is important to advertise when you don’t need it because it takes time to generate business when you do need it. Typically, my clients stay with me for more than a year; however, sometimes their schedule will change and or their motivation drops…it is at these times I need to take on new clients.