by Elena Voronina, Co-Founder at Russianlanguage.services
I would like to share our startup story and give some helpful tips on how to start online business from scratch. We had to overcome lots of difficulties before launching our startup business. So, hopefully you will find my tips worth considering.
Our story began 8 years ago, when the undeclared war in Eastern Ukraine had just started ruining people’s lives.
Back in 2014 both me and my husband worked as college teachers in Donetsk, the ‘capital’ of Donbass. We had 3 children and lived on the outskirts. By that time, we had just finished building our new house and were hoping to enjoy it for the rest of our lives. But the war with its shells flying over our heads intervened.
As I was on maternity leave at that time (our youngest boy was only 1.5 yo), I provided in-person lessons of English as a foreign language (I got Master’s Degree in Teaching English). That helped me maintain my language skills and earn some money too.
The first key point that changed our lives was a request about lessons via Skype I received one day. After a short discussion with my husband (who obviously had to keep our youngest on mute during my online sessions) we decided that could be a splendid opportunity to find new students. Like everything new, the online format seemed to be a bit scary. I remember my first lesson via webcam when I was writing new vocabulary on a magnetic whiteboard with a trembling hand. That was even worse than at my first class I did as a student-teacher back in 2002. Nevertheless, I acquired new super-useful skills for teaching at a distance. Moreover, online tutoring turned out to be more profitable and time-saving than face-to-face one! So, tip #1 – handle your fear.
Because of bombing we had issues with electricity and Internet connections which made my online work impossible. Besides, three houses on our street were damaged by mines. So, our family had to leave our unsafe house shaking from the bombing. My husband quitted his full-time job and we left Donetsk in our old car full of kids and some absolute necessities including my laptop. Our only hope was my online lessons via Skype. So, tip #2 – hope for the better.
Then we started wandering from one rented flat to another on Ukraine-governed territories. My older kids had to change 6 schools. It was not an easy thing to find a place to live, indeed! Because there were a lot of Donbass families looking for housing, however, not every landlord was happy to offer his flat to tenants with refugee status. There was even a note in some ‘For rent’ ads saying ‘Requests from refugees will not be considered’… It was my son’s Donetsk teacher who managed to rent an apartment in the central part of Ukraine and helped us to do so. She just bought a local newspaper and found a flat for us. And we immediately rushed to an unknown town to move to a flat we hadn’t even seen before, just because a person I hardly knew recommended it. So, tip #3 – trust people.
Well, we finally got a place to live. Moreover, we had a stable Internet connection and a reliable supply of electricity, so I had an opportunity to do online lessons! We also got some benefits paid to refugees to cover rental expenses. Besides, my husband received unemployment benefits. However, what helped us survive was the money I got for my lessons. I need to mention, by that time I also had some UK based students. I taught them Russian which is my native language. Our old friend hired me as a teacher of Russian for foreigners. Actually, I did a Modern Russian Language course at University. But I had to learn from the Internet how to teach it to English-speaking students. So, tip #4 – live and learn.
Did you know that it is habitual for Ukrainians to share problems? Our folks often talk about things which disturb them. But the same is not true for the English. Truly to say, I was not aware of that fact and sometimes told my students who were gradually becoming my real friends about my problems. At first they listened to me frozen in astonishment, then tried to murmur some words of support, and then… offered their help or gave a precious piece of advice. It was so awesome to get help from people you never met in person. And based overseas in addition. Only two of them visited me here in Ukraine some years later. Unbelievable experience – can you imagine that people you hardly know give you a helping hand?
One of the most striking examples of unexpected help was in 2017, when we were about to buy our own flat and lacked only $1.5K. I explained to one of my students that we desperately needed money and asked if he would like to buy a new large block of lessons. Can you imagine – he paid for a huge block of lessons in advance and we managed to buy the flat! When I saw his payment confirmation, I couldn’t help but cry… Wasn’t that a miracle? So, tip #5 – ask for help or advice.
Also, one of my students was so kind to help me post my ads on UK classifieds. I found out that Russian teachers in London charged 5 times more than I did in Ukraine. That sounded unbelievable! Besides, Skype tutoring turned out to be a niche area at that time. For some unknown reason I could not post an ad offering only Skype lessons, so I had to add translation services in the title. As I could really dump, I got not only lots of new students but also some clients interested in my translation job – from transcribing Russian phone conversations to translating websites. That was one more insight – if you start an online business from scratch, any skills you have and can use to help people will be requested. So, tip #6 – offer new services and look for new opportunities for growing your business.
My husband insisted on creating our own website to promote our services. It was very simple and cheap, and of course, didn’t rank high. So, classifieds and referrals were the main source of our clients. Soon I got more students from European countries. There were even some Russian language learners from the USA, but not too many of them due to the time difference. However, the majority of translation projects were from American clients. So, tip #7 – expand globally.
When we launched our first website, we focused on high-frequency keywords, and, of course, we couldn’t compete. Only several years later we learned – that was an incorrect marketing strategy for a newly-created website. We took our mistakes into consideration and launched this website to provide linguistic help. So, tip #8 – when you start an online business from scratch and create a website, focus on low-competitive keywords.
Lesson preparation took me even more than all online sessions taken together, so I spent almost 12 hours at the computer daily… It was really hard. Also, my family missed their mom. Furthermore, my husband was not happy to be engaged in childcare and housekeeping all day long. So he started hiring Russian teachers to simplify our life. They had to be University educated, have a degree in Russian language and speak English fluently. Thus, I gradually moved away from teaching to managing. So, tip #9 – delegate some work to other professionals.
7 years ago online lessons by video-conferencing were not as common as nowadays. That’s why we decided to offer a free trial lesson 30 min long, so that the student could talk to a real teacher prior to paying for a block of lessons. The tutor had to assess his or her level and discuss the learning goals in order to create a personalized study program. Learning materials were provided to our students for free. We also offered bulk discounts – the more hours you buy the less is the price per hour. Besides, we asked for video testimonials and Trustpilot reviews, exchanging them for free lessons. That worked! So, tip #10 – provide something for free and offer discounts. This advice, to my mind, would be especially helpful for those who want to start online business from scratch.
Receiving payments was a real pain. Did you know that Ukrainians are not allowed to get paid via PayPal? We can only send the funds. SWIFT transfer? Not too bad, but only if my customer is happy to pay into my Ukrainian bank account and meet a huge transaction fee in addition. But most clients just disappeared when informed that I was based in Ukraine… Unfortunately, my country’s trust score is not high at all. But
when asked I had to tell the truth about my location. Most people appreciated that. Below is just one of the emails I got (the email address is hidden for privacy reasons).
Those who were brave enough to pay into my Ukrainian account sent us funds via Skrill or Transferwise. We desperately need some payment gateway which could help us to somehow hide our location. Payoneer and Wayforpay are American services we still use on our website. So, tip #11 – use multiple payment methods that allow your customers to pay via your website.
Summing everything up, I can definitely say that the war helped us to start and grow our own online business from scratch. We used to work as college teachers from 8.00 to 17.00 and earned $350 per month together. Today our income is several times higher. We live in our own flat in a newly-built modern block in a small and clean resort town with a name which literally means ‘the town of peace’. Our 4th child was born here – the only daughter! Thank God! Actually, that is the tip #12 – be grateful for everything God gives you (or doesn’t give)!
If you were looking to start online business from scratch, we do hope that our experience and tips will help you in building it. Please share your thoughts in comments!