Startup stories

Kris headshotKris Jagasia met his co-founder James Heywood whilst working in Dubai  for an Abu Dhabi Sovereign Wealth Fund. Kris, a Canadian national, works the business angle of the startup while James runs the education side of the business.

Welcome to the first of our two-part guest article for eltjam. About 8 months ago, me and my fellow co-founder decided to take the big leap and launch our own ELT start-up. We went live with TurksLearnEnglish.com  in May 2013, a site dedicated to conversation classes for Turkish speakers.

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Like most new ventures we began with lengthy and impassioned exchanges about inefficient user experiences, how technology could break down barriers, our general appetite for disruption, naive optimism and enthusiasm for bringing change. Conversations over beers produced A3 sheets covered in a multitude of diagrams, and eventually something that looked like our first product mock-ups. James (co-founder) had spent years teaching English as a second language in Turkey in a variety of settings; high-end private schools, everyday language institutes and private lessons. James was often struck with what he thought was an inefficient system. I was a recovering finance professional who may have read one too many Paul Graham articles and was looking for an entrepreneurial challenge.  Both located in Istanbul, we came together and built a product for the Turkish market.

First, some background on the Turkish ELT arena

English proficiency in Turkey is low but improving drastically. In 2007 Education First ran its inaugural English Proficiency Index, at which time Turkey ranked 43rd out of 55 countries (behind Syria, Saudi Arabia and Russia). In 2012, Turkey ranked 32nd. This jump illustrates the push for English fluency in Turkey both at a policy level and within households and companies. With Turkey’s continued emergence as a regional business, tourism and cultural hub – and the very real chance that Istanbul may be awarded the 2020 Olympics this September – the push continues to gain impetus.

From a general linguistic perspective, Turkish is a wildly different language to English. Turkish is agglutinative. For example, suffixes are added to a word stem to add person, tense, negation, etc. The English phrase He will not have to eat can be expressed in Turkish as a single word, with eat as the root. The order of words in a phrase is generally very different in Turkish and English. As such, Turkish native speakers are starting at a linguistically challenging position when learning English, compared to students whose mother tongue is a Romance language.

The quality of public English language schooling in Turkey varies significantly. All students take a minimum four years of English language classes beginning in the fourth grade. Yet, depending on the quality of the school being attended, the results are extremely divergent. Most Turks have taken English classes and possess grammar knowledge of English, yet spoken English remains a challenge.

Finally, the Turkish education system is test based. There are qualification tests for just about everything in Turkey. Many universities and Human Resource departments require a grade threshold on an internationally recognized exam such as IELTS or TOEFL. A good score on any recognized exam will always be positive on a candidate’s resume at almost any level, from entry-level positions to the executive leadership.

Turkey’s favourite pastime: learning English!

With these market dynamics (push towards English proficiency, significant linguistic challenges, inconsistent quality of public education, test based education / employment system) it’s no surprise that the private language institute industry in Turkey is extremely robust. There are literally hundreds of companies with multiple locations across the country offering everything from IELTS preparation to Business English and interview skill preparation.

The quality of language institutes in Turkey varies greatly. It’s a rather disorganized market. If you walk down Istiklal Caddesi (one of the main pedestrian drags in central Istanbul) on any day you may receive flyers for five or six different institutes. Almost every institute offers, well, everything. Teachers range from quality lifelong teaching professionals to very inexperienced ESL teachers on a GAP year, and everything between. Some are native speakers, some aren’t. Some teach full time, some don’t.

The outcomes for students attending private language institutes are naturally diverse. Classes are focused on grammar and may contain up to 20 pupils; there is little opportunity to speak. Most adults attend classes after work and in the larger cities of Turkey traffic is a nightmare. By the time students commute from work to the classroom to attend a three-hour grammar class, both motivation and energy can be shot. It’s unsurprising that many Turks drop out before completing their 6 to 12 week course.

If a student fails to complete the course, there is naturally a sense of embarrassment. Similar to many Middle Eastern and Asian cultures, Turks have a strong sense of “face”. After experiencing embarrassment (losing face) they may tend to avoid the situation rather than confront it. The loss of face that can happen when a student drops out of a course can be disastrous. The student is often too embarrassed to even discuss the situation with parents, spouse, co-workers and friends. Success in English might feel out of reach and the idea of attending another English course becomes unlikely.

Inefficient market? Is this really an opportunity?

You can now picture our nightly drawn-out conversations focused on improving a weak student / user experience. From my perspective I saw a large, growing, unconsolidated market with lots of undifferentiated competitors. James was an eyewitness to a student experience that wasn’t producing encouraging results. Our idea was simple: the goal of almost any adult student over the age of 25 was to be able to speak English effectively. We decided to build a product to address that need and that need alone.

Stay tuned for part 2 …

James and Kris are co-founders of TurksLearnEnglish, a site dedicated to getting Turkish speakers to build communication confidence. For any online educators out there, feel free to take a look at and use our online-self study videos in our İngilizce Dersleri library. You can get in touch with the founders through the contact form on our site or email info@turkslearnenglish.com.

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