How International Teaching Led me to be a Startup Founder
Teaching internationally isn’t just a “nice thing” to do for a year: it can fundamentally change who you are and what you inevitably do in the future. I’m going to tell you my story – not for the sake of telling you, but as an example to see how taking the first step to teach internationally could lead you down a path that you had never imagined.
I left the United States in 2013 to work as a Physics instructor in Cartagena, Colombia at a bilingual school. The sea, the heat, and the salsa music immediately caught my attention: I liked this place. My work life also afforded me a bit more time than I was accustomed to in the U.S. The first thing that may catch your attention if you move abroad to teach is the gift of time. Yes, the hectic life of the US, with all its conveniences, is full of busy-ness, but not necessarily productiveness. So I made it my mission to use the time to be productive: I wrote and recorded an album with local musicians. In the following three years after I arrived to Colombia, I played shows at local bars and restaurants and joined other groups during the process, all while I taught during the day. Eventually my band, La Vaina, won the battle of the bands for the coast of Colombia in 2017. Listen on Spotify below:
“Time, not money, is your biggest asset in life. You need time to invest in relationships (with yourself and your family) or to chase your passion. “Think again” if you are still trading off time for money. – Manoj Arora
Was I making a million bucks a year? No, of course not. However, as I will explain in a bit, time is more than just something that’s “nice to have” – it can be used to take you to places you never thought possible.
After five years at the school on a work visa, I was eligible to apply for residency in Colombia. Many other countries also share this policy (do your research if you like where you’re abroad!). At the same time, I was also looking for a career change. After a recommendation from a friend (thanks Hans!), I decided to quit my current job and work independently as a local SAT prep instructor and do whatever else I could to get by after I received the residency status. It was a nerve racking time: I wouldn’t have a stable income! No more school-provided health insurance! But what about rent? Was I going to starve!?
These are the thoughts in a lot of people’s heads before they start working independently – nothing new. It may also appear on first impression that this is an even bigger risk because of the fact that I was living abroad; however, it’s actually quite the opposite in my opinion (depending on where you live).
After I began working independently, I explored a world of new work opportunities. With the privilege of having a different native language that happens to be in high demand in the area, I leveraged my ability to speak English in a few ways:
1) I began working with a university from my hometown to recruit Colombian students.
2) I began to teach English to the tourism industry in Cartagena. My company worked with the Hyatt, Cartagena Convention Center, and a few other small hotels.
Being a native English speaker in a foreign country affords you with a great opportunity to support yourself: there will always be work for you to do. And, since you are a native speaker, companies and individuals are willing to pay you more for your work.
While teaching service employees at the various hotels and restaurants, my business partner and I determined that there was a need for a software that allowed the teachers to customize their language course content and let their students practice speaking that content with voice recognition feedback.
Before you know it, my partner and I were interviewing developers to begin building our app. Within months we had a usable MVP (minimum viable product) and were testing it with the staff at the Hyatt and Convention center. During this time I began working closely with our lead developer and started to mess around with the code-base. A few lines here, a style or two there, but nothing serious. I quickly realized that we needed someone full-time working on this, and that the best person to be working on it was none other than myself. A part-time developer just wouldn’t cut it for what we needed. With a small portion of my time spent on SAT Classes and some English classes, I had the time (and the resources) to begin the arduous process of learning to code.
Time is all you need
For the following year, most of my time outside of work was committed to learning to code. Sure, I taught on the side a bit to pay the bills, but the rest of my time was spent learning. That was the amazing part of it all. By compressing the time I spent earning money, the rest of the time I could focus on building an asset: my business and technical skills. This is nearly impossible to do in the United States with today’s cost of living. Within a year I was independently coding our application. Within two years, I had rebuilt the codebase for a new iteration completely from scratch. I was coding!
Today, I’m working with my college roommate, an experienced sales rep with years of experience at tech companies. Together we’re building Speakable, a customizable language learning platform that brings speaking to classrooms. He’s joined the team and now lives between Colombia and Mexico, and has learned some of the lessons that I have learned while living and working abroad with me:
1. Leverage your time to pursue your passions, hobbies, skills or interests. I have never thought I’d like to code, but through following my nose to things I liked and enjoyed, and by leveraging my available time, I ended up with what will be my career path. Whether my startup succeeds or not doesn’t matter – I have a new, valuable skill that I don’t think I would have EVER developed had I not tried teaching abroad.
2. Leverage your native language. My status as a native English speaker helped secure me financially when I began working for myself. Whether that be through college recruitment or just teaching English around town, there’s always somewhere you’ll be needed.
3. (If you’re from the USA or Europe) Leverage the exchange rate or cost of living. Living in a foreign country and earning your native currency is an exorbitant privilege that I don’t see lasting for decades to come. Use this privilege to buy yourself TIME while you pursue what you must do. With inflation on the rise in the western world, you can help alleviate that pain by spending it in a weaker currency.
Speakable is currently in beta, and we’re working with a small group of teachers across the globe to help improve it. If you’re interested in trying it out, please see our homepage below. We currently have users in the USA, Mexico, Colombia, UK, Germany, and Japan. We hope to add more soon!