How did it go, Gimara? Life as an entrepreneur

Gimara was founded in the end of the year 2015 when two teachers noticed that with right methods in online learning it is possible to achieve better learning results than in traditional classroom setting. We also wanted to spread our wings and reach out to a group of immigrants in Finland that can’t study Finnish on courses provided by the government. We believed, and strongly still believe, in good quality teaching and we share the same values that we did four years ago. In this article I want to reflect back on our trip, our mistakes and successes, what we’ve learnt and analyze why we didn’t break through as quickly as we thought we would.

When two teachers start a business, there’s simply hell of a lot to learn. Just finding all the right forms to fill, agreements to write and accounts to open is like finding a path in a pit black forest. There are endless words to be learnt related to laws and economics, applying money, marketing, business plan… the list could go on for pages. We did some courses, I made a degree in entrepreneurship and Marja did some short-term courses. We did our homework and we created excellent contracts and papers for the company. Finally we were able to launch, it was time to celebrate.

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Our playground was online. We knew already how and what to teach, but we needed to create a shop for our customers. So we founded our own online store with payments. Building a website is a piece of cake compared to actually transfering the money from customer to the company. Obviously this requires right partners and choosing one is a tricky task. You just can’t imagine all the right questions to be asked before you’ve tried one provider out. As an example we co-operated quite some time with an American app-company that has integrated multiple functions in one app: lesson booking, payments, salary calculation, student’s self control etc. The only thing was that their sales team was better than their other teams. As majority of our customers were in Finland and as we also knew that majority of transactions in Finland are made by online banking, not credit cards, we obviously wanted Finnish banks as a payment method. Either they fooled us or I wasn’t clear enough in asking – in the end it was not possible. Several weeks work down the drain. We changed to Finnish online payment provider with more practical approach but not as much technical. However in the end we found the right place to embed the right code to be able to actually transfer the money. First small payments made were a huge celebration for us: we did it! We built up an online store.

By this time we obviously already had an accountant. Entrepreneurs often start to do things that are not exactly their own field and waste time and opportunities by doing so (nobody mentions here what you HAVE TO do yourself when you don’t have any money). Accounting was definitely not our cup of tea. We wanted our accountant to be efficient, ready for our growth and we wanted to do it all online. To a certain extend our first accounting partner was fine, although they did send quite big bills quite too often for quite many small things they needed to teach us. It might not be the best idea to take an accounting company that have – again – an excellent sales team but still send financial statements on CDs that none of our last 5 years laptops can’t read without external CD-drive, just as an example of their work. Again most likely you don’t know how to ask the right questions of your accountant when signing the agreement. After signature, changing the company is not also so straight forward.

We created a language gym that is efficient and by far the best way to learn a language in a fun, interactive way. (Topic for whole different article.) We counted the prices first so that one teacher can live with the income of certain amount of customers – fortunately and unfortunately – this pricing was based on masses of students. Like in yoga class – you choose your level, your time to join the lesson and you are welcome to skip few lessons or join different group. Flexible, easy and the method really worked. Economical downside of this compared to yoga is that one yoga teacher can handle a quite big bunch of people in the class where as good quality language teacher wants to handle only a few. So more the students, more the lessons, less income but happier customers and better learning results. When amount of customers is constantly changing, you need to adjust the amount of lessons and also the level of the lessons to meet your customers’ needs. While pricing, we were thinking only ourselves and what monthly income we would like to make. Simple maybe, if you are a hairdresser and you are not even planning to grow your business. You do as much as you have energy. But if you wish to grow, this is not enough for pricing. Soon you will notice that you have 60 students and you don’t have money to buy bread.

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Gyms make agreements for one year and it is nearly impossible to get rid of the agreement. If you decide in the beginning of the year that you will lose weight by exercising 5 times per week, you will be married to your gym until December even you give up already in March. We didn’t want this. We wanted to respect our customers and let them choose whenever they wanted to hop on and hop off, always the same price for one month. Our only cost was our assumed salary (which we never paid for ourselves), some devices now and then, licences for this and that online service. However these running costs are like a top of an ice berg when it comes to payments that you have to make in order to work legally. VAT obviously is one of the biggest but also entrepreneur’s retirement scheme, health services for entrepreneur and employees, insurances and again the list could just go on and on. Some people say that VAT is like a flow through the company and it really can’t be counted but it makes our products one forth more expensive – how you can’t count that? There is a queue behind entrepreneur’s door and exactly the same services are always priced minimum double for entrepreneurs than they are for individuals. I watched several times the Duke of Sipoo and didn’t know whether to cry or laugh, I shared every feeling apart from not giving alcohol to anyone to clean my yard. I should have. These things you shouldn’t worry learning though, bills always find you but the benefits and tax redundancies you need to search for – we didn’t yet.

Next thing that makes us different from gyms is that many of our customers don’t just walk in and start exercising (fortunately these kind of customers existed as well). We are not there with our banderolls saying NEW GYM OPENING SOON even we did also learn our tricks with the search engine optimization (another yay and celebration). We have to find the customers and we need to be all over. Here we did again one of the biggest mistakes, we started to hide our jewels, our materials, our best videos, our tricks and as a result, no one found us and knew about us. And when they accidentally or by recommendation finally came to us, it took hours to get them to understand our studying system and they paid one month as they wanted to pass the exam. We listened our customers and we did endless range of different products and got lost. We just had too many products you could choose from and obviously most of our students ended up taking the cheapest. At the same time that we got few euros here and there, we were teaching like crazy in teaching factory and we were working the nights to track the customers.

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In order to succeed you need to have time or money, best if you have both. We didn’t have either, so we ended up buying some time with a loan. One of us quit the job, we took a small loan (that as a company we needed to beg on our knees where as the same amount I would get on my account by just saying that I’m a bit bored with my car) and thought that now we will do this. At the same time we started to dream about going international. All the time we thought that we have nothing to lose and you have to dream big to be able to succeed big. Finnish market was more like a pond, not a deep blue sea. Still I think we could manage to live with the money and make small, pretty business – but why to start it then in the first place? Why to think of how one teacher can handle bigger masses of students keeping the quality up, if we want to keep it nice and neat? We could just sell our services priced per hour for private students and make enough to buy that bread. But we didn’t want to be teachers for those who can afford private tutors and we didn’t want to keep our teaching methods secret. We wanted to be equal and we wanted to help as many as we could.

When my colleague, Marja, started to work full-time in Gimara, I made my biggest mistake: I was thinking that I don’t need to know everything and she will make it a success. Wrong. One person can start a business but making it bigger takes more than one. This was my other big problem: I am very good in convincing people and inspiring them onboard but little I had to offer. As we wanted to grow, we decided that all the money that came in, we invested it forward to our teachers’ salaries. We wanted to pay for those who were willing to try with us. It was a vicious circle. We had to have teachers and we had to start courses even with few students and even we knew that we can’t get the money back from customers. If we had 60 at a time in one language, fine. But we had 6 and even those all in different levels. And we had good teachers to whom we wanted to pay reasonable salary.

When we had few teachers onboard – English, Chinese, Russian and obviously Finnish – we decided to try entering the Pakistan market. We prepared it all again: joint agreements with a local company, advertisement, presentations in schools and universities, we made one trip to Pakistan to discuss with potential partners and we had interest for sure. One of the most memorable meetings I ever had was at the London Heathrow airport with Pakistani private school that wanted to have native, professional teachers and wanted to take their learning online. However we were not prepared well enough for partnering anyone. In the end we got few students, few successful payments and hundreds pictures of penises, people bleeding us to marry them or time vampires that pretended to be interested in learning but in the end didn’t turn out to be our customers. This is acceptable, we were just in the very beginning, but at some point we just ran out of money. Keeping the Finnish gym up to pay for other languages was not business. Luckily we had also few well paid courses that actually were making profit, we just had too many leaks in our boat to keep it on the surface.

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I started to hesitate. I was dead tired, having a demanding job as an education manager in Arffman, moving from one continent to another (which eventually made my life a lot easier) and three small kids to take care of. I took a step back, I was ready to give up and didn’t know where to go. I said that I’ve lost direction. I am a person with a big heart, I care about people and nothing boosts me more then inspiring someone to learn, whether a teacher or student. I am also a materialist, I like money. I like good life-style and good income. Gimara was only an extremely expensive hobby to me, hobby that ate all my free time and started to impact my sleeping (I always sleep well, like I don’t have conscience). I cried, I was a wreck. Marja still had strong faith even though she was the one that gave up on monthly income and gave all her time to Gimara. She was convinced we can still make it and she offered to buy my share of the company. It felt relieved but how to put a price on something that you’ve given all your heart and so much time and effort? Even if I would get the money I “invested” it wouldn’t be anywhere near the actual amount. I decided to sell. Then I cried two days and realized that nothing in past ten years had made me as sad as selling my share and giving up Gimara. I decided to stay.

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Marja took Gimara’s Finnish language gym to a beautiful end. We closed the online store in December and took down all the classes that time. We still have few courses going but otherwise we decided to just share it all for free. Our hundreds of materials, our passion for teaching Finnish and our knowledge of what we’ve learnt, our creativity, our problem solving, our digital skills. The dwell of people’s needs has no bottom but we are creating now something that doesn’t exist yet, so it just might be that some day we will make right connections and just maybe we are able to change something in language teaching, integration and in education field. Just maybe we some day are able to ensure good quality teaching for all, no matter what is their gender, social status, economical situation or their goegraphical existence. Give opportunities to build better future for them and their families.  I stopped saying that I am searching for direction as the direction is only something that we don’t know yet. We keep Gimara going, even if it would be one more expensive hobby.

I want to apologize and thank our great teachers, Sally, Weiman, Ksenia, Janne and Tania for not being there for you when we faced our difficulties. I was not strong enough that time and instead of being a leader, I wanted to be led and I failed. I want to thank Marja and Afnan for believing and not giving up. I have never met people like you two and I am now sure that we can find something together. I also want to thank all our customers, you matter a world to me. I will not give up.

You got to fight for your right to learn, even as an entrepreneur.

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