A business case

TLDR: The long and random argument I make to myself about why I’m going to start putting energy and resources into promoting something that could be stamped finished.


Time to make a decision

I’ve been thinking about my EFL worksheet generator. The thing is this: it does what I want, now. Almost exactly how I want it to.

I could declare it finished. That’s a crazy idea to me.

And yet, is it amazing if I’m the only one who knows it’s amazing? What’s more, ever since I decided to move the thing to the internet, as opposed to making the desktop interface better, I’m paying hosting costs. Not a ton of money, but much more than I would pay for a website like ESL Library.

Should I move it back offline?

I’m asking myself these questions because I’ve realized that this will never be a completely finished project. I’m taking a Udemy full-stack bootcamp, because there are ways the interface could be more amazing.

But, as I started looking into how to promote a web page, and even paying money to experiment with AdWords, I realized I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted to do. Am I the kind of person who gets excited about making and then promoting something? It doesn’t feel like who I am: I’ve never really felt comfortable saying “look at me!”

At the same time, it’s clear that “if you build it, they will come” is not a great strategy to follow.

So, I have to pick a future for the project.

The case against monetization

There are three big arguments against pursuing monetization. First, is the fact that I’m not really opposed to monetizing the website, it’s the fact that I’m opposed to investing a lot of energy promoting it. It’s just that I don’t think I can have one without the other. (Well, I could try and promote it without monetizing it, but then I’d be increasing my workload for… I’m not sure what for. Ego?)

The second argument against the whole thing is that I’m not sure it fits into my sense of who I am. I like the idea of being a “maker.” It’s a cool title and one I feel like I can give myself. There’s something existentially satisfying about having an idea and turning it into a reality.

Marketing, on the other hand, doesn’t feel like who I am. Or, I’ve never looked up to people who are great at promotion. The title “promoter,” to my ears, doesn’t sound quite the same as the title “maker.”

The last argument is time. I want to learn Latin. I want to work on other projects. Some of them are already pretty fleshed out as ideas. And, the worksheet generator is threatening to turn into a project that will take over my existence. Some of the things I considered doing as part of promoting it include:

  • Continuing to prioritize making free EFL materials.
  • Starting a blog focused on EFL teachers in Germany, to promote the site.
  • Making online tools to automatically generate materials from a text. (Copy-and-paste text from a company’s website to get a gapfill exercise prepared.)
  • Making a YouTube channel

The thing is, any of those could become a time-suck. Trying to do a combination of those and perhaps also paying for promotion… Well, it would require me to make a lot more money off the site to make it worthwhile.

The argument for monetization

On the other hand, as things stand now, the site doesn’t ‘feel’ finished, because nobody uses it. If someone told me he was proud of the site he’d made, but he was the only one who used it, I don’t know if I’d be as impressed with that person as I am with myself right now.

What’s more, a lot of the things I want to make are web-based. If they all incur costs, is there a point if I don’t know how to attract users? Why work hard to make the next site, if it’s just going to be a tool that I use on my own?

And, further, I could use the money. Not in the Elon Musk the-rest-of-my-career-is-a-working-retirement kind of way, but in the more modest what-will-I-do-if-I’m-ever-too-sick-to-work-for-more-than-a-week kind of way. A passive income would go a long way towards stability.

That brings me to the last argument for monetization (and the stress of promotion): I don’t want to be a career coder. I love making stuff, but I don’t think I could bear the frustration of coding just for the joy of coding well. The fun, to me, is in turning a dream of my own into a reality. I’m getting better at all this (though, by no means good), but I wouldn’t want to wind up in a spot where I have to go look for a job as a novice coder in my 40s, in Germany.

That means that, if I’m going to keep doing this, I’m going to be responsible for building entire projects, from start to finish. And, well, by that standard, the website isn’t finished. If I want to make an app to use in the classroom, or the fantasy pilgrimage website, all of these things will only work if I can both make, and sell them.

The business case

Here’s the last bit of reasoning: What would it mean for the website to be worth my while? By which I mean money. How much money means “this is why I do all this extra work?”

Obviously, there isn’t a maximum, but €500/month would mean I could quit one of my jobs and reduce the number of hours I have to work. That’s 50 people willing to pay €10/month for the service. Or, 71 people willing to pay a discounted price (if there’s a €10/month, €90/year kind of option).

Needless to say, I think those are great prices for what the site does (and for the amount of work I do making it work).

I haven’t been able to find out how many people teach English to adults in Germany, but I’m confident that there are at least 50 in Dresden. So, if I focus on the German market… the business case is compelling.

It’s compelling if I can learn how to communicate about what I do, and why it’s great.

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The power of iteration

When I decided that the worksheet generator was going to suffice for bespoke worksheets, I started making more worksheets that I planned to reuse. Initially, it was just because I was nervous talking about “business English.” Eventually, it was because I found that those worksheets provided a pleasant structure and were one more way to bring grammar back again and again.

Starting the project, I hoped to realize two goals. The first was to get one step more away from the situation where each week handouts from a different website are presented to the students, giving the impression that “Toby just prints stuff out from the Internet.” (Nobody ever said that, I just didn’t want to reach that point.)

The second was a time savings. The worksheets took some time to make, but offered more structure (usually, I plan on blocks of four to six lessons for a topic) and saved me the hassle of searching for a suitable handout before each lesson.

The unexpected benefit

The thing I didn’t expect, however, was the improvement in the worksheets. Typically, I’ll teach a block of worksheets and, in class, scribble a note on what wasn’t clear for the next time I use the worksheet. Because I’m checking these things to update dynamic-efl.com (someday I’ll do a post on my workflow there), I update the worksheets as I go.

Then, later, I remember a block of worksheets as ‘successful’ and get them out for another group. And I’m pleased at how much better they are, but, with a different group of students, find ways to improve them.

None of this should be surprising, but it’s the first time I’ve really been exposed to the power of this kind of iteration. I know there is only the one series of business worksheets on the New Spork City site (same link as above), but that’s because I want to move through some of the series with another group to make sure I’m happy with the current state of the worksheets.

What do I learn from this?

I think this is the harder question. I mean, I’m impressed by the whole thing. But, shouldn’t that translate to more than a blog post? Can I reference ‘the power of’ something without trying to make the most of that power?

Thinking about this, I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t do more things with an eye to re-using them. I have colleagues who have ‘files’ on each of their conversation topics. It would be an organizational hurdle for me (organization is not my strong suit), but it would make sense.

Do you have any other suggestions on where I could ‘harness the power of iteration?’

Can we translate from German?

There’s something I used to do in my classes. An early version of my vocabulary review was making up little strips of paper that had a sentence in German on it, using one of the words we’d covered in class.

The sentences were things like this (the underlined words are examples of the vocabulary):

  • The person on my left makes several questionable statements.
  • When I saw the person across from me today, I felt joy.

The result was not only that people got very good at vocabulary such as ‘on my left’ and ‘across from,’ but that it was often surprising (to me) which phrases were difficult for my students to translate.

(Fun aside: for other reasons, I’ve missed these activities and am working on adding them to the worksheet generator.)

Why translate from L1?

In spite of the fact that I was taught to do all English, all the time in the classroom, I realized that I wasn’t serving my students well. I began to understand students who said to me “I do fine in the lesson, but when I have to talk to a customer I draw a blank.”

My students were hitting walls when they hit a spot in a conversation where in spite of being able to say what they want to say in English, they are stuck at a fixed phrase. These are things like “in Anbetracht der Tatsache…” which translates to “considering the fact,” but, while we covered ‘to consider’ in class nobody thought to connect it to that particular phrase.

Maybe this whole thing is about how I failed my students.

The point I want to make, however, is not that I failed. It’s that translating from German gave them the skills to start working around these roadblocks. (And, in the example above, it was generally fun to accuse the person next to you of being questionable.)

How I do it now.

The question that became the title of this blog came in a lesson where we’d used an emailing worksheet I made (it will eventually be available with my other business worksheets) and had to translate a ‘typical’ business email from German into English.

The whole goal of the exercise (really, of all the emailing worksheets) is to try and identify as many of the phrases my students use often in their emails and to help them find English formulations for them.

Then, the next week (yesterday’s lesson, in this case), a student came in and asked “could we translate from German more? That was much harder than translating from English.”

And, I realized, I need to get more of that back in the lesson.

Some of my classes (more elementary classes) get worksheets that include translation from German as one of the ‘steps’ that vocabulary goes through. But, there’s a limit to how much work a group can get, so not everyone gets it.

When I get some time for coding again (I’m working hard to get there!) I want to make review translations one of the review options provided. I’d like to have the option of occasionally making that homework, or cutting the sentences up into strips to play the same game again.

Until then, I’m really glad in retrospect that I opted to use emails in German in my worksheets.

 

To charge for EFL resources?

So, as I’m trying to build up a paid EFL worksheet generator, you might not be surprised to hear that I’d like people to be okay with paying for resources from the internet. It’s logical.

But, as I’ve started cleaning up the things I’ve produced to use in my own classes, with an eye towards sharing them, I’ve realized that there isn’t a point in trying to charge money for them.

My thinking can be organized into three questions: why would a teacher pay money to access things that I’ve paid? Why would it make sense for me to charge money? And why would it make sense for me to give things away?

Why pay money?

I’m a teacher. And a paying customer of EFLlibrary.com and handoutsonline.com. And I happily pay for what they make, because I don’t want to make my own ‘boring’ worksheets. (Sorry, people of those websites.) That’s the word I use for worksheets that explain a grammar point and let you drill it with mind-numbing exercises.

Such things are often necessary, but they’re hardly enjoyable in class and I don’t like the idea of making them in ‘my own time.’ So, I’m glad they exist.

For me, the answer to this question is: I’m happy to pay for resources when they help me improve my lessons and free me up to use my energy in other ways (whether related to teaching or just additional free time). There is some level of cost-benefit analysis where I ask myself: how many hours are they saving me? Is x Euros per year a fair price to pay for such an assistance?

Why charge money?

Charging money seems to be the logical thing to do. I have invested time and energy in making something, so why shouldn’t you pay to use it? I’m a big fan of more of the internet costing money (argument in a nutshell: I’d rather work for you, than to maximize page views and ad revenue) and it follows that I would ask people to pay for what I’ve made.

Considering that my worksheet generator should, one day, cost money, why not include a library of static worksheets that are, basically, amazing in the price? I could add to my ‘unique selling proposition.’

Why give things away?

Here’s the thing, though… I don’t think there is a business in selling ‘static’ worksheets (defined as made once, for as many people as possible) on the Internet. The problem is twofold:

  1. One person has to pay for them, and then passes them around to friends, colleagues, posts them on her own website, whatever.
  2. Another word for ‘one-size-fits-all’ is ‘boring.’ It’s not for nothing that I called them boring worksheets above. But, if you want to make money you need to attract as many people as possible, and that means being as bland as possible. Bland is not a strength of mine.

I don’t like the idea of investing my time in hunting down online pirates. And, I don’t like the idea of not doing it, because then I’m basically punishing the people who do things the right way. Blah.

And, I don’t really want to try to be one-size-fits-all. That’s partly because I’m not the kind of person that everyone likes (ask people who know me). And, it’s partly because I know that I, personally, don’t like those resources.

There is a school of thought which suggests that the internet is big enough that there must be hundreds or thousands of people just like me, willing to pay for the privilege of downloading things that I make. And there’s probably something to that. However, I enjoy making stories and worksheets. And, I enjoy coding. However, I’m not big on promotion, and my recent experience with AdWords suggests that I can’t afford to advertise to all of my users over paid advertising.

The (to me) logical conclusion…

So, to me, it seems reasonable to offer the ‘static’ things I make for free. At some point, I might do the annoying thing of tacking a page on them pointing users to the paid service that I will, by then, hopefully provide. But, that feels like too much work.

Which is why I’m happy to point you towards the Free EFL Resources I make.

My “special group”

I think every EFL teacher has a special group. I don’t mean the one that I love, because I can take all of my ideas to them and get good feedback (though I have that group, too). And I don’t mean the groups where I learn a lot (I have a bunch of them). And, I don’t mean my most frustrating group (that’s a rotating honor, to be honest).

The group

I mean the group that I’ve had for literally years without making a lot of progress. The group that makes me wonder if I’m as good at this teaching thing as I like to think I am.

They’re great people: it’s an evening group that gets together as much out of the joy of seeing each other as out of any real desire to learn English. In fact, half of them are retired and will probably only ever need English on the level of “one beer, please” and the other three only might need English.

They know their English isn’t great, but I think they’re satisfied with how things are.

It goes without saying that I am not satisfied.

So, as I wind up the worksheet generating software (weird idea, but it’s basically finished, though I’ll probably never stop poking at it) I think my next big focus will be on growing as a teacher and using this group as the obstacle course on which I train.

Of course, they get the New Spork City stories every week, and they read and translate them faithfully.

The challenge

I remember someone summarizing her teaching style as “give them what they need disguised as what they want.” And it’s a good philosophy. It’s what I’m trying with these guys.

So, here’s what they want: to come in in the evening, have a good time, enjoy the connection that they have to each other, and go home. They wilt when we obviously drill anything for more than five minutes and, to be honest, they’re quick to grasp something like a structure or vocabulary “for now” but will struggle to employ it even thirty minutes later.

Here’s what they need (I think): They do okay with individual words. Voabulary isn’t the problem. The problem is forming sentences reliably. And, what they need is to practice them in a simplified way until they click and to build up from there. However, if it’s too obviously practice, energy leaves the room.

What I’m trying

I intend to write more with time, and I’ll describe some activities in detail, but I’m trying hard to find activities that feel like a game or a conversation, but which emphasize repeating the same structures over and over again.

In addition, I printed out a game board from LinguaHouse (I think, I can’t find it again…) that focused on asking questions and let them discover that that was hard for them. Then, I made up a first worksheet using the characters from New Spork City going through the fundamentals of questions step-by-step. (Eventually, I expect it to be very similar to the “passive voice for processes” series of worksheets already available here.)

My goal is to follow the same recipe that worked so well with the absurd business resources: make some great worksheets that I can reuse (and share here) and mix them up with customized materials just for the class that are fun to do because they’re about the class participants.

With time, I hope to write up some of the activities that I thought of in order to disguise the drilling I do with them (and other groups), but that’s going to have to wait for another time.

I spent years getting into this situation. It’ll take me a while to get out. But I will.

I fixed my memory!

Yesterday evening I said to myself “I’m going to tackle adding crosswords as an available review activity for dynamic-efl.com.”

It was an activity that I’d been postponing since I got the whole thing web-based. To be honest, I don’t know why anymore. I just remember the feeling that it seemed like a lot of work and, hey, wordsearches were working, so why rush, right? But, whenever I listed everything that the website could do, I’d find myself tagging on “and I hope to add crosswords, soon, too.”

Which was ridiculous because they worked in the desktop version, so whatever I needed to get done to make them work on the web version was probably just a matter of a careful reading of the code.

So, yesterday I resolved to get them done, and I did. Easy as that.

I was almost surprised how easily it all worked. And, to be honest, it’s a bigger accomplishment than updating the memory activities, but who could pass up the opportunity to write a blog post titled “I updated my memory.”

 

crossword
Funnily, this one still includes multi-word vocabulary. I decided to exclude them from crossword activities in order to make things easier on the learners.

 

Inspired by that, I decided to tackle something else that’s been outstanding on my list: fixing the memory activities. The memory activities worked fine, of course, but there were two different activities: translation memory and, if a group had enough vocabulary with associated pictures, picture memory. It seemed most logical to make a single memory activity that would use pictures where they were available, and translations where they were not.

What’s more, the translation-only memory tacked a ‘cheat sheet’ on at the end for the teacher, in case I forget how I translated a certain word (it happens to me, and I wrote the translations. I guess it happens to others, too). Why not do the same thing, but with pictures and translations. In case one of the pictures isn’t clear.

So, this evening, I fired up the IDE and I got it done. There were a few hiccoughs along the way, but it was done in less time than it took for the kids to watch a movie I didn’t like. So, hooray for that, right?

It’s nice to feel productive. In fact, so nice that I’m not even excited about now getting to work on preparing for classes next week.

“Did you bring the next story?”

Something really positive happened last Tuesday. A student was frustrated that I had forgotten to bring the reading assignment, and I had to pass a sheet of paper around so that students could write down their email addresses to get it sent to them.

That hasn’t happened before.

New Spork City

Did you know that I wrote a series of stories set in the fictional “New Spork City” (the stories are available here, or will be as they get revised and edited.) I’ve been handing out one story every week since classes re-started for me at the beginning of this month.

My goal with the stories were pretty simple:

  • I wanted students to have a positive English encounter. Sometimes I get too deep into the ‘English Workout’ metaphor and everything is just work, work, work. Some students already have ‘fun English’ built into their lives, but for those that don’t have a chance to relax with English, they needed something that wasn’t homework.
  • There is an advantage to having a cast of likable characters that we can eventually revisit. If I could get a few people who the groups seemed to like hearing about, we could use them in other contexts, the way you can use “Jack Sparrow” with people who all love the Pirates of the Carribean movies.
  • Obviously, I am in favor of people reading. If this is a stepping-stone to students reading ‘real’ English, I’m in favor of it. (Or even reading more in their native language. Reading is good for everyone.)
  • The more ‘good English’ my students are exposed to, the sooner they’ll (hopefully) develop an ‘ear’ for English. I want people to be able to hear their own mistakes, and if they only ever hear their classmates speaking, that will take longer.

So, I wrote up a collection of stories, setting some constraints for myself:

  • Each story was no longer than a single A4 page, on one side.
  • Each story describes an entire situation or interaction. They all end with “to be continued” but only because the drama is never over. So far, stories cover a father and daughter in a restaurant, a few first encouters, a family planning dinner. But they cover it all the way to the end (though, obviously, not is much depth, see the first bullet point).
  • The characters speak ‘native’ English… but a little better. That is to say, they say things like “lend a hand” and “help yourself” which needs to be explained (more on that in the next bullet point) but they always do it using good grammar. Nobody says “you got a minute?” They would all say “do you have a minute?” I get that it’s not ‘native’ English, but have a look at the point above about these being a stepping stone.
  • I want my students to, in the best case, read the story in one sitting without the assistance of a dictionary. To that end, I imagine them getting a lot out of context (they are all fairly universal situations, adults know what happens in these situations) and I provide footnotes for words or phrases where I imagine them stumbling. There is one group that I have in mind when I write them, and I think “if they can read this, things will be fine.”

The reception

I pass the stories out in six lesson. On the first day, I explained that they don’t have to read them, but that I’m going to pass out the eleven that are already written and we’ll talk about whether they were helpful or not afterwards. Since then, I’ve asked once or twice “are you reading these” as I pass them out, and the answers are generally positive.

People like to ask about the funny names (see me and my love of absurdity). The landlady in the story is named Mrs. Geldsack (German for ‘Moneybags,’ basically.) and they love that.

And, more than one person has said they look forward to knowing what happens next. “I don’t think they’re super exciting stories,” I tell them. “I’m not Dan Brown.”

“That’s because you know what will happen.” Was the answer from one student.

And then, on Tuesday this week, I didn’t print out the next story because, well, it’s not automatic for me, yet. And, I got to class, had a good lesson, and, in the end, a student asked: “do you have the next story?”

“I forgot to print it.” I said. “That’s my bad organization again.”

“I have to wait a week?” She seemed genuinely frustrated.

“You can give me your email address and I’ll mail them tonight or tomorrow.”

“Please.” And everyone signed up for the voluntary reading worksheet.

I’m satisfied.