Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in training and education but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Sophie Pham, Founder of Sophie Language, located in Toronto, ON, Canada.
What's your business, and who are your customers?
Sophie Language is a boutique tutoring company based in Toronto specializing in teaching Chinese and Vietnamese both online and in-person. Our customers come from many different walks of life - some have a cultural connection to Chinese or Vietnamese, others do not. I have seen a proportionally large number of customers coming from Chinese or Vietnamese families but not being able to speak the languages of their parents or grandparents. Being born in Canada, many of these people want to learn more about their cultures and languages or perhaps want their children to be able to talk to their grandparents (who often cannot understand English).
Tell us about yourself
I am the founder and lead teacher of Sophie Language Programs Inc., a Mandarin and Vietnamese tutoring company in Toronto, Canada. I have a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics and a Master's degree in Teaching Chinese as a Second Language and have been teaching different programs and different languages (Mandarin, Vietnamese and English) for more than ten years in private schools and universities in China and Canada. Let me tell you a little about how I started my business and where the idea for Sophie Language came from.
Before immigrating to Canada in 2016, I lived in Vietnam and then in China, where I completed my studies and taught for a number of years. Given my credentials and teaching experience, I thought I would quickly be able to find a teaching position in Canada; however, without teaching experience in Canada, the search proved to be much more difficult than I originally anticipated. I ended up getting an array of part-time jobs and volunteer positions in various schools across Toronto in order to gain this experience and also to understand more about Canadian culture - especially about the nuanced learning styles of children in the Canadian education system. After that, I continued teaching Chinese in different private schools and tutored Chinese and Vietnamese for about two years.
Over time, my teaching style started to evolve, and I started to gain some popularity in Toronto. Many families sought me out to teach their children, but my schedule got so full that I started to turn people away. At a certain point, I concluded that instead of refusing new clients, I could hire more teachers who I could train to teach using my curriculum and teaching style. As a result, the Sophie Language brand was started in September 2019.
A big motivation for me to keep going is my love of teaching languages. Having a culturally mixed family myself, I feel privileged to help other people explore new languages and cultures in a meaningful way.
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
Sophie Language is not a big company; however, we have helped more than 100 students improve their Chinese and Vietnamese language skills over the past couple of years, and I am incredibly proud of how well our team teaches our students. My company has been slowly growing every year and started with a $0 investment. I consider growing my business to where it is today from no upfront investment to be my biggest accomplishment as a business owner.
What's one of the hardest things that come with being a business owner?
There are three observations I can share about being a business owner.
First, if you are a good teacher, then students will leave your program quickly because they can achieve their learning objectives in a short time. I am happy when my students can learn to speak fluently or, at least, gain confidence in their language ability. With this in mind, I am not really concerned about retaining students; for me, it is the love of teaching that motivates me. I'm confident this same idea can be applied to other businesses as well.
Second, Canada just went through a very difficult two years because of the pandemic. In September 2020, four months after Sophie Language was founded, COVID spread throughout Canada, and we had to stop tutoring for a short time. It was really difficult. Many people lost their jobs and were not able to afford lessons anymore. Parents who were able to afford lessons were unsure whether online lessons would work for them or their children. I had to engage them a lot to continue the lessons. Luckily, our clients trusted us and tried virtual lessons for a short time to see how effective learning online could be. I had to adapt our programs, teaching style, and teaching materials. Luckily, many of our clients have stayed with us through the pandemic. Even though we lost about 25% of our client base throughout the pandemic, I am still proud of my team and how hard we have all worked to keep Sophie Language going. Being able to adapt and stay optimistic can be difficult but is incredibly important for a business owner and can be a significant challenge.
Third, finding the rhythm and timing of your industry can be difficult. At Sophie Language, for example, we don't really have many young learners in the summer break as many families go on vacation. So, in the summer, we focus more on adult learners.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
- You must be brave to open a new business. If you really want to run a business, just do it.
- Try not to invest too much in the beginning. I suggest trying out your idea on a smaller scale first to see if it can work as a larger business. For example, I had to tutor Chinese and Vietnamese independently for about two years before I opened Sophie Language. I think one of the main reasons my business has been successful so far is because I already had a substantial client base before starting my company.
- Treat your employees as yourself and your clients as your family members. In my case, for a tutoring company, I always treat all teachers in my team as I would want them to treat me. If I have a cake to eat, I will make sure they also have half of that cake. I also care for all of our students and always try to think about how we can teach them better each day.
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
Be yourself and be confident in the decisions you make for your business. If someone doesn't like your products, that is not a bad thing; you may just not be the right fit for the time being.
Where can people find you and your business?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solo or small business entrepreneur that you'd like to share, then please answer these interview questions. We'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
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