Where are you from originally and what brought you to Spain?
I'm originally from the UK. It's a bit of a cliché but I came to Madrid for love! I had met a man on a beach in Abu Dhabi who had eventually got a job in Madrid. After five years going back and forth I finally decided to come and join him when I was 28.
What do you love about Spain and what do you loathe?
I love the sunshine, way of life, energy of the people. I hate the paperwork and the drivers!
What inspired you to start your own business?
LETS is group of companies focused on teacher training and language teaching. I moved to Madrid to see if my boyfriend and I had a future together and I had developed a love for teaching so I did a TEFL course and became an English teacher. After the course, I started teaching business English in companies and was then asked to become an in-house coordinator of a big program within a company. I loved it and enjoyed the training with the teachers. I also did some work back at my old TEFL school doing training, observations and read a lot.
Eventually, I decided to set up my own TEFL centre. We had small school in Tetuan which I loved and it was a big step to move out to our new school in Barrio Salamanca.
Photo: Natasha Mason Kennedy.
Tell us a bit about your business.
Cash flow is an issue with most businesses and the TEFL cycle tends to have massive months and tiny months with very little in between. I didn't want to offer English classes as I didn't want to compete with the academies and agencies that were employing my graduates. There was very little support for businesses then and networking nights were only just getting going. Luckily enough I found a mentor who helped with the financial side of the business (which I found very very hard and it is still not my favourite bit!). He eventually became a partner and we decided to set up a Spanish school about three years ago. He is the calm to my crazy and at time if feels like a have a work husband as well as one at home! Through the standards and quality we already had in place because of TtMadrid, we were able to secure the Instituto Cervantes Accreditation very quickly and have an exceptional reputation. We are known for being a very academic place to study so we tend to attract serious students who want to make quick progress.
The last few years have been busy and exciting ones. We have a big team now and it is a supportive and fun place to work as everyone is very committed and lovely to be around (although there is way too much chocolate). We set up a Virtual Spanish Academy after building and testing for two years. Many of our students wanted to carry on with Spanish classes when they returned to their home countries but wanted the same teachers and quality. A virtual platform (rather than on-line) means we can give really good quality classes and people can do them from anywhere in the world. We have students from France, Italy, America, the UK, China, Iran, Japan and many more.
Tell us a bit about LAEKids - it sounds like a very unique learning environment!
LAEKids is where we do family based learning. Being a mum and a guiri made me realise how difficult it is when you transition to a new country. We teach children (we have amazing young learner teachers who are also qualified infant teachers) who do really creative classes. We also do 'mum and me' classes in a soft play room so that mums can have classes whilst the child is entertained as well as learning.
We get lots of families who come in the summer and they have group and one-to-one classes. We work a lot with companies who have expats coming. The employee (more often than not the dad) has intensive classes to get him ready for work. The mum and children often have classes together or separately depending on their needs and we tend to work with the children throughout the school year to help with their transition. We work closely with the schools to support what the child is doing at school. We help the mum get settled by introducing her to various groups and networking groups if they want to start work here.
LAE Kids. Photo: Natasha Mason Kennedy.
Tell us about the networking group that you run, International Women in Business.
I help run a networking group for women called International Women in Business. We meet once a month to help each other and grow our businesses together (there is quite a lot of wine drinking as well). We recently started running workshops on marketing, finance etc which are free. I regularly mentor other women who are setting up their business as I know what a tough and lonely road it can be when you first start out. You put everything you have emotionally, physically and financially on the line and the roller coaster ride has many highs and lows.
Do you think it is harder for women to start businesses in Spain?
Honestly I think it depends on where you are in life. Starting a business requires a lot of focus, time and dedication. If you are a new mum, then juggling everything can be very tough. My husband, despite having a very busy job himself, has been a massive support and equally contributes in the house, childcare, etc. I think it is about being realistic about what you have the time to do, whilst keeping yourself sane. I don't think being a women makes it tougher, it makes it tougher because as women we are often expected to do more and be superwomen. Maybe I just didn't get my superhero cape delivery!
Natasha with her husband and son. Photo: Natasha Mason Kennedy.
What are your tips for people thinking about starting their own business?
Be passionate about what you do. You will be living it 24/7 so you really need to love what you do. Make sure you are realistic about what you can achieve in the initial years. Cash flow is a nightmare and the topic that most comes up with start ups. You will need to make sacrifices such as new clothes, holidays etc but it is worth it. You need to be a bit of a risk taker, if you are extremely risk adverse, then setting up a business might not be the right thing for you as it really is a roller coaster. Find a mentor who you can bounce ideas off. Sometimes you can't see the obvious choice as you are so involved, having a mentor can really help you make much more sensible decisions and help you evolve the business at the right time.
What were the hurdles of starting your own business in Spain?
I didn't speak Spanish which was obviously a big of a hurdle but it certainly gave me the incentive to learn! Cash flow is always a nightmare. Social security payments are really high here so taking on staff was a challenge in the early days as it was a bit commitment. Apart from that, Spain for me, has been a really good environment to set up the business.
What are your top tips for Spanish learners?
Get over the embarrassment. Whilst you may say some silly things, it doesn't mean people think you are stupid. Taking a risk with the language is the most effective way of making progress. It is a hard chip to change but once you have done it and see how much more you engage with Spaniards, you will feel great. Failing that, have a few vodkas, it makes me almost bilingual!!
What are your plans/hopes for the future?
I would eventually like to set up a Teacher Training University! BIG dream of the future, but definitely not impossible. I am really happy with how my work and personal life balance together so hope to keep that up. So I am happy with the present and what I have now.