The Importance of List Building for Online Teachers: Cara from Leo Listening

by | Mar 2, 2017 | Interviews, Online

This is a phenomenal interview with Cara from Leo Listening on moving from classroom to online teaching, the importance of specializing in a niche and building an email list for long-term business growth.  If you’re a student make sure and can check out her free e-guide here.

ESL Authority: Could you start by giving us, I guess, a brief introduction of who you are, a little bit about your site and business, and kind of how you got into all this.

Cara: Okay sure. As you said, my name is Cara. I’m from the UK. I’ve been in France since 2007. That’s how I actually first got into teaching English as a foreign language. I first had the idea to start teaching online back in 2012. After a couple of failed attempts, I finally kind of hit on what I wanted to really do. And then, last year, I created my site which is It focuses on how English learners who are comfortable reading, know a lot of vocab – that’s all fine, but who really struggle when it comes to understanding first and foremost, spoken English; listening to other natives really talk or watching films in TV series with dialogue. That’s what I’m trying to help them out with.

ESL Authority: I have a question about that. Do you have a test that you administer when a new student contacts you, just to make sure that they are at the level that you need them to be?

Cara: Yeah, that’s a good question. Well I actually have like a – it’s a service really. I have a test that people can buy, which is to test their listening. The idea is that they are confronted with some extracts of my speech. It’s actually genuine, fast, conversational English. They can take that for five euros, and then they get my feedback on that. I suppose if someone takes that and they really understand nothing, then I think I would say to them, “I think obviously, there’s some bigger issues going on than just your listening skills. It’s maybe that you’ve been learning English for six months and actually you don’t know…”

ESL Authority: Yeah, this is maybe not the best place to start…

Cara: I have deliberately tried work* a lot on the website copy, and I’ve deliberately tried to make it very clear, who I am appealing to. I kind of figure, although, from some emails I get, obviously, some people aren’t really kind of reading it properly. I’m trying to filter out people by the level of the site, by the level of the blog post, the written copy. The theory, they should be put off if they are really struggling, they are really not even intermediate level yet. I still get emails from people who probably aren’t the best*. That’s just part of…

ESL Authority: Yeah, yeah I mean that’s got to be encouraging nonetheless, that they still are looking for help…

Cara: Oh yeah, yeah. I think it’s great, but sometimes I’m like, “oh, that means nobody’s reading my website”, but I don’t think anybody is reading anybody’s website.

ESL Authority: Just got to – yeah, reaching out where they can.

Cara: You can’t get too hung up about that.

ESL Authority: Well actually, your website is as you know, one of the big things I want to talk about here because it’s really, really well done. Before that, I want to touch back base or touch back on your time in France, and kind of how the transition came from traditional classroom teaching to online, and then kind of any major differences that either you remember or you might want to point out for people looking to make a similar transition, because it’s as you know, like a night and day almost.

Cara: Yeah, no it’s important to address that because I actually have the idea, it’s kind of weird. I taught English for four years. It was my sort of full-time gig, and then after a couple of years, I was like well I think I do want to live in France long-term and this isn’t really bringing in enough money beyond paying my bills and allowing me to buy food for myself. I thought well, maybe I should kind of – if I’m deciding that I’m living here permanently, maybe I should kind of do something to…yeah, so I decided to enroll in a Masters program which was actually in like international business with languages. That’s not really where my sort of heart is, but I thought well, let’s just try and do something sensible. It was a degree program with internships built into it. Generally, what happens is students get job offers at the end of these internships, or at least within a year, they are basically working within the field of their choice because they’ve had the work experience, as well as the degree. I thought right, let’s be sensible, let’s do something like that. I still had in the back of my mind that I would kind of go freelance with my teaching in some way, somewhere down the line, and that business experience would be helpful.

I found myself interning in this English school in Switzerland. I didn’t really kind of take to it that much, but they wanted to actually keep me on and they wanted to give me a lot of money because – I live about an hour from the Swiss border. There’s lots of people where I live, who actually work in Switzerland, so they commute to Switzerland, especially if they live close to the border because they can double or triple their salaries. People are earning crazy money, and especially now that the Swiss franc and the euro, they are at the same level. People are going home and having baths in like wads of cash.

ESL Authority: Ha, what a hard life!

Cara: Yeah, I could have lived like that. I could have continued living in France, but like moving closer to Switzerland and then commuting, like just counting all of my money on the way home. I didn’t really want to work there. Then one day, I had this kind of epiphany, and I thought well, what if I were to go online and I could recruit Swiss students and I could undercut schools in Switzerland and then make money from my house. That was kind of like my evil plan initially, but it sort of planted like a seed. I thought okay, maybe I could figure out a way to work online, and then I started kind of looking into it. Then it kind of flopped, and then I thought well I’ll just go out and get a proper job for a while, so that’s what I did. I had a non-teaching job, so I had like a stable salary. I knew when I was working and everything, but then after a while, I was like no, this isn’t what I want to do. I want to go back to teaching and I want to work for myself. I quit my stable job, and then I got a part-time teaching job. This is bringing us up to kind of like September, October time, 2015. I had a part-time teaching job off-line, and I thought well I’ll use the time that I’m doing this job to try and figure out the online thing, and then kind of go off and do it full-time. If that makes sense, this sort of timeline.

That’s kind of what I did. Then I just told everyone I knew, that I was going to be teaching online. I didn’t really know what I was doing, like at all. Like I don’t even think I had googled “teach English online”. I don’t really know what I was thinking. I was very lucky to have – one of my friends has a very successful off-line teaching business, but she lives in another city to me. She had a student who had been trying to get lessons with her for three years, and it never worked out because they weren’t living in the same place. My friend went off and had a baby. It was just too complicated. She said, “Well I’ll send her to you, and maybe you guys can sort something out.” I asked her if she wanted to work online. She said, “Yeah, why not?”

ESL Authority: That was student number one?

Cara: That was student number one, yeah. You only need one to start and then that allows you to play around with it, and figure out what you’re going to do. I did that and then I got a second kind of practice student. The issue for me was I hadn’t been teaching full-time for several years. I had done a little bit on and off. I had even done some volunteering where I was teaching, but like it definitely wasn’t a full time gig at all. I kind of lost contact with a lot of people, but there were some that were still like – that I had taught before. Yeah, I emailed a bunch of people and then one of – a former student at another school that I was working for, he said, “Well why don’t you give me English lessons, and in exchange, I can do some graphic design stuff and help you with your website and things like that.” I was like yeah, it sounds really good. Let’s do that. That allowed me to get kind of two students to practice on to get going.

ESL Authority: Do you know the phrase “jump and a net will appear”?

Cara: No, but I see what you mean there.

ESL Authority: Yeah, it’s like that kind of thing where hesitation can really only get you – you don’t really fully embrace something and then you finally jump in, and it kind of tends to work out. At least, you hope it does. I have experienced that a few times. It’s really nice. I’m glad that worked out for you. That sounds awesome because your heart wasn’t in like the non-teaching job. You were able to come back to what you wanted to do the whole time.

Cara: Yeah, I mean it’s still like a process. It’s still not like obviously – not replaced my salary from my former non-teaching job. There’s things I can’t replace from that job, because I had all these like – we had like payments in kind. We had bonuses. We had all this like extra stuff. I mean that’s the choice that you make, isn’t it? When you would just like to go…

ESL Authority: Yeah, work for yourself and chase your dream, yeah.

Cara: The potential payoff is that you could one day be earning way more than your colleagues, more than your bosses. You could have much more impact than you ever could have, just in a…

ESL Authority: Yeah, there is no ceiling on anything, whether it’s your influence and your earnings. All that stuff is obviously…

Cara: Yeah, the number of people you can reach – I mean, it just doesn’t even compare to allow yourself to kind of think big. I was thinking very small in the beginning, but now I’m sort of thinking a bit bigger.

ESL Authority: Well, let’s get a little bit more into your website. It’s kind of cool to hear how it came about with your student doing a bit of the design. I am really curious about how you chose listening comprehension, and if you find like having a focus like that has helped you along or if I can go in my general English, what allowed* you to have more students or how you feel about being very specific with your teaching.

Cara: Okay. Well that’s an interesting story, and I think it’s a really important point. I was starting out and I was charging a ridiculous price. I was charging €15 for 45 minutes of chat, because I thought that’s the only thing you can really do. I was kind of looking at like how many people would I need a week or months to make like X amount of money. I could feel myself panicking. I could almost feel tears welling up, because I was like this is not going to work. At that point, I knew there were sort of bigger platforms where I could kind of advertise myself a bit, just intuitively. It’s going to sound weird, like it was just a gut feeling that it wasn’t the right thing to do. And then, I think it was towards the end of November 2015, so I was kind of starting off but I wasn’t sure where it was going or if it would work out. I basically met my mentor, who is a lady called Janine Bray-Mueller and she has a website called Entrepreneurial Freelance Teachers. I ended up kind of paying to have a consultation with her. She told me basically that I needed to narrow down my focus, and the easiest way to do this would be to just simply pick my favorite student who I had worked with, and then interview them about what their biggest problem was. The idea is you take that problem solution set and you turn that into your niche.

For me, that was really mind blowing at the time. Now it’s just like business, online business 101, but at the time, it was really a profound kind of piece of information. I sort of didn’t really believe that, so I sort of half-heartedly decided to interview my online student, because she came to me saying, “Well, I just want to chat, practice my English and then like now and again, I’ll need someone just to help me understand some difficult sentences in the books I’m reading.” I was like well, that’s what we’ll do. Actually, when you get into interviewing someone in detail about their problems, and people love talking about that, it’s hard to get them to stop talking. You actually uncover like what they kind of really want. In my student’s case, it was to kind of understand without translating. This was things like – she goes to conferences a lot and she wasn’t bothered about understanding the conference talks because that was okay, but it was more like what do I do when I’m chatting to people in between the talks and I’m networking, and then after a while I can’t follow because I’m translating, and then I get lost.

It came out of like one person’s problem. The logic that Janine teaches is if one person can have the problem, then many people can have it. It’s not just focusing on one problem that you’re closing yourself off to only working with one person, you’re actually opening up what you’re doing. It sounds very counterintuitive, but it’s actually very logical. It’s very logical when it comes to designing your products and services, when it comes to creating content, when it comes to advertising what you do, when it comes to collaborating with others because it’s very clear what you’re doing.

ESL Authority: Yeah, exactly. You want to speak to people with that same problem and kind of tailor all the copy*and everything. It definitely makes sense. What a good exercise.

Cara: Yeah, it really was. It was really—and I was glad that I hadn’t rushed to do anything like jump onto a platform with kind of semi-generic promises. Because at first, I felt well maybe I can do something around French speakers. I know a lot of them are kind of—so many people are doing the kind of intermediate learners, helping them to get to advanced. In France, it’s like taking false* beginners and just getting them to speak a little bit. It’s like a big kind of—I thought I was going to do something like that, but I actually realized that doesn’t—I’m not as passionate about that, or not as into doing that. I was really lucky that—I don’t know if it was just like – again, it’s like I was feeling frustrated. Intuitively, I knew that it wasn’t going the right way. And then, it was one of those, like “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear” moments.

ESL Authority: Yeah, yeah exactly. Just the right place, right time coincidence type of thing.

Cara: Yeah, I don’t know. That was like reading one of her articles in a magazine called EFL Magazine, and then going on her website. This is how these things happen when you’re kind of online and looking at stuff. That was really, really cool. That’s how that came about.

ESL Authority: Okay. You started with – your first student was a referral, then you said you emailed a bunch of former students. How do you reach potential students now, or more importantly, how do they find you in order to request information or help?

Cara: Okay. Well like now it’s fairly different because obviously, I’ve got websites, so that gives people the help that they can go to. I was looking at some stats yesterday, and like overwhelmingly, people come through social media. By and large, Facebook where I’ve got a page and I’ve got a group. I think that could be either referrals from my own page or when people re-share my stuff. People are coming through Instagram as well, because I’m on Instagram. That’s it for social media, but that’s a big referrer. And then obviously, when people are on the site, they have the option to download my freebie and then they can join my email list. Obviously, when that happens, they’ve got a closer connection because I’m emailing them every week. Obviously, that’s a great way to reach people and to develop a relationship with them. And again, that’s kind of a non-negotiable if you want to teach online.

ESL Authority: Yeah, I think any business now, email lists are so important just for – familiar to your potential students and clients, and stuff like that. Just be able to share information when you want. It’s a huge asset.

Cara: Oh yeah, it’s so important. It’s been great as well because I email my list on a Friday when I publish my content, and it’s really pushed me to make sure there is something every week coming out. I’ve got something for them, because I know people are waiting for that email. It definitely pushes you to get organized on that front, so there is that. And then, something I’m trying to do more this year, is to collaborate and write guest posts, and work with other teachers to get in front of their audiences. That’s probably a better way than social media. It’s kind of casting a very wide net sometimes, and I think sometimes you’re better off going directly to places where your potential clients are likely to be anyway, which is with other teachers. But again, if you are both clear on what you’re doing, then it’s totally logical for one – the same student to go to one teacher, say for pronunciation, and then come to you for listening, grammar – whatever it is. In that sense, it…

ESL Authority: It makes sense, yeah. What kind of success have you seen with that, or are you just kind of getting into it, the guest posting and stuff?

Cara: Yeah, I’m getting into it. I did some podcast interviews last year, and I did one or two guest posts. Yeah, probably the biggest thing I did, was doing a webinar with another teacher. They can work really well actually. Yeah, there’s definitely different types of collab. I think there was definitely – I contributed to a round up post. I contributed to two of them. I think after one of them, there was a sale that came through.

ESL Authority: Awesome! Yeah.

Cara: That’s kind of crazy. I think it was due to that I’m not 100% sure, but…

ESL Authority: We’ll say it was.

Cara: Yeah, we’ll say it was.

ESL Authority: Yeah. The great thing about guest posting is that even if it falls flat, even if it’s the wrong audience, they take no value from it, at least you’re getting like a back link which will hopefully in turn, help your organic traffic with your SEO and stuff. I’m a firm believer in that.

Cara: …you know a blog post, like it has a life beyond to say, if you compare like a social media post which is going to disappear almost as soon as it’s posted, and then a blog post which is going to float around in the internet, in Google for like years, forever. Even if the day it’s published, it doesn’t sort of really do anything, later on down the line, somebody could find you through that. It just really takes time.

ESL Authority: Yeah, I definitely agree. Let’s go back to Facebook real quick. I know on your site, you had talked about using Facebook live, like a live video streaming for a film course. Did that ever come about, and how did it work out?

Cara: Yeah, I did it in the first two weeks of January. I didn’t get as many sign-ups as I was hoping, because I actually made it a paid thing.

ESL Authority: Did you do it to attract people or did you do it and teach the course during your live session? How was it set up?

Cara: Yeah, that was it. Well I mean because it was in the group I think – because it was my coach who persuaded me to do it. I’m working with her. She has some very innovative ideas about how you can teach online, other than the sort of traditional ways we might imagine. She was like, “Why don’t you just do something like this? If you do it in your group that already exists, maybe people in your group would be like “oh what’s this”.” In the end, it didn’t quite work like that. The people who signed up, I was sending them – I sent them basically, all the videos they had to watch, all the clips with some exercises to do. And then, I was emailing them the answers every day, plus jumping on Facebook live, just to…

ESL Authority: Okay. That’s a really great approach, kind of like a – I don’t even know, a multistep approach with both the live interaction and the email stuff. That’s good.

Cara: Now I need to figure out will I do it again in that format, because I’m not sure that the videos are that exploitable. Because I could wrap it up altogether, but watching back the videos, I get the impression that they are like too kind of choppy, because they are online. Even though here, we’re supposed to have like really super fast internet, you can see there is a lag. Because I was like, maybe I could turn that into an email course, and have the video kind of in there, and not live. I’m not quite sure how I’m going to be using it, but it was an interesting way to work. I think there is definitely potential for redoing something like that, because it’s nice because it gets people in the momentum. You have to do this on this day and then you can jump online.

ESL Authority: And then they expect something for the duration of the course and stuff like that or the duration of the plan. I think one more question here about your site and marketing, what tools do you use? I guess do you automate your emails with stuff like MailChimp or is there anything that you use that has made your business a lot easier to run, in terms of marketing and promotion?

Cara: Okay. For the site, well I suppose there is what keeps the site going anyway; there is the hosting. I’ve got a premium theme on the site to make it kind of look nice. And then, yes I’m using MailChimp. I’m using the paid version because I wanted to use automation, so that’s in place. I think that’s about it actually. I’m trying to think what I use on a recurring basis, but I think there’s just MailChimp.

ESL Authority: You can do a lot with all that, even just the basic version of MailChimp is perfect for growing a list.

Cara: Oh yeah, definitely because you can link it up so that it delivers your opt in. It’s just tricky if you want to deliver, for example, if you want to do content upgrades; for like each post, you would send…

ESL Authority: Yeah, automation is definitely – if you want to go that route, it’s kind of crucial.

Cara: You have to pay for it, but there’s things that I thought I needed, and it turns out I didn’t. At one point, I was like everybody’s going on about LeadPages and how you need LeadPages, but in fact, I have a plugin that comes with my theme for making nice opt in forms, because the Mailchimp ones are quite ugly. I’ve just got nice opt in forms, and then with my MailChimp automation, I can hook that up to deliver content upgrades, or if I’m doing a webinar and I need a landing page, well I just make a page on my site. And then after the webinar is done, I’ve just been like hiding them. That’s been fine.

ESL Authority: Yeah. There’s so much out there, like that shiny object syndrome where like oh, LeadPages or all these like paid programs that people get paid to promote. They are not always necessary, so I’m with you on that.

Cara: Yeah, definitely I think there is a lot of – the problem is there is a lot of what I call “affiliate love”. Some people are getting some of these services for free because they promote them so heavily, that in fact, the affiliate income that comes back…

ESL Authority: Is worth it, yeah.

Cara: You just have to be very careful because when you get into that, you’re going to think that you need all these things, and you don’t really.

ESL Authority: Yeah, you usually don’t. Exactly. Alright, well then I guess, let’s switch into kind of the future of Leo Listening. I know you said you’re looking to get into I guess, more products and services and things in 2017. What else can you say about – what are your plans for the year?

Cara: Yeah, good question.

ESL Authority: If any, if anything is going to change.

Cara: I do have a lot of plans. It’s just like are they going to come together. I guess keep growing my email list, which makes a lot of sense. That’s kind of, again, it’s not non-negotiable, but maybe just finding what are some other ways to grow it, what are the best ways. Like I said, webinars have been really good for that. Even when I’ve just done a webinar on my own, it makes a big difference to the list growth, so there is that. And then, I’m going to be running a program again in March that I do with using dictation. It’s called “Dictate Your Listening Success”. I ran it last year with five people, so I’m going to run it again in March and just improve on it, and keep doing that because it’s working out. And then, I actually did like a kind of one-on-one version on that with a couple of students from the first version. Basically, the way it works is I send them dictations and then they send me the transcription on Whatsapp.

ESL Authority: That’s a really cool exercise to do the dictation. I like that.

Cara: Yeah, it’s frustrating for them sometimes, but it definitely trains your ears really well, and it works. It definitely starts – it’s a way to kind of see results more quickly than if you were just like listening to stuff and…

ESL Authority: Yeah, they can just repeat it and just try to get it down.

Cara: Yeah exactly. There is a one-on-one version of that like I’ve done, and that exists. I just need to get it on the website. Another plan with my podcast, is I would like to figure out what I could create around the podcast to kind of add value to it and start making some money from it, because it started out as just kind of an extra piece of content, which makes sense given that I am teaching people how to understand spoken English. Now, I’m kind of like how could I – I was thinking of maybe creating a community around it and something paid, where people would get more out of it, if you like. I post kind of exercises under each episode, kind of on the site, but I was like maybe there is a way of kind of taking that and adding more of them, adding explanations and kind of…yeah.

ESL Authority: What if you did something initially, like something exclusive to your podcast, like you did a mini lesson that people that listened to the podcast had access to. You can grow it that way, and then once you grow it, then you maybe could monetize a little bit. I don’t know how to monetize it. I don’t know what a good rate that would be.

Cara: No, I need to figure out exactly what I’m going to – I had a product idea to go with it. That’s like sort of germinating.

ESL Authority: I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts in 2016. They are great, so I think that if you can make it work for you and your audience, then monetize it on top of it, it’s great. It’s a lot of fun too.

Cara: Yeah definitely. I think there are ways to kind of figure something out like that.

ESL Authority: Yeah, yeah well it’s all about kind of testing to see what works. The first three or the first four or first five, might not be great at all, but you’ll learn kind of what works and what appeals to your listeners for sure.

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