With Lingotot, Angela Sterling has turned a lifelong love for languages into an impressive tutoring franchise
Growing up, few could’ve expected that Angela Sterling would one day become the proud founder and managing director of Lingotot, the language-teaching franchise. “I’m from the north of England and when I grew up in the 1980s it had zero social diversity,” she says. “It was very much white working class. No one went on holidays because no one had the money and we had no experience of other cultures or languages.” Fortunately, during secondary school she had the opportunity to study French. “And I fell in love with it because it was so exotic,” Sterling says. “I realised that it wasn’t just other people around the world that could speak different languages. I could do it too.” This revelation set her upon the path that would take her towards entrepreneurial success.
A second huge leap forward came when she worked as an au pair in Paris after turning 18. As a part of her job, Sterling had the privilege of joining the family’s son on his playdates, one of which would leave a lasting impression. “One of his friends lived in France, studied at an international school where they spoke English, his dad was German and his mum Polish: this boy spoke all four languages,” she says. Given how Sterling had grown up in an extremely homogenous culture, it’s easy to see how this four-year-old’s proficiency in different tongues impressed her. “It blew my mind,” she says. The experience was one of the reasons that made her decide to study to become a modern foreign languages teacher at University of Stirling.
A few years later, Sterling decided to open a business of her own when she returned to the UK after having spent two years developing the foreign language curriculum at a school in Dubai. “But I didn’t have a job to get back to because I knew on a personal level that we were going to have at least one more child,” she says. However, not one to sit idle for long, she decided to start teaching French to other children. Although this decision was not one Sterling made in the blink of an eye. “I did a lot of research, read books and became convinced that not only could I do it but I could help other people do it too, even if they didn’t speak the language themselves,” she says. This research would eventually lay the foundation of the method used at Lingotot.
Nevertheless, despite her teaching expertise, there were a few important skills that Sterling was desperately lacking. “I couldn’t run a business,” she says. Luckily, she almost stumbled upon a solution when it was time for her oldest daughter’s seven-week health check at a Sure Start children’s centre. “They were promoting this course that was literally called business for women,” she says. “And they had a crèche where I could leave the baby and learn how to run a business.” Not only did the course teach her the fundamental managerial skills required to realise her entrepreneurial ambitions but it also gave her the first customers as a result of people from the centre signing up for her classes.
Eager to expand her client base even more, Sterling confesses to have been slightly overzealous in her initial marketing efforts. “I was so naive,” she laughs. “I didn’t know how to write a press release and googled it, wrote one and sent it off.” The next day she was surprised when an actual reporter and a photographer from the local newspaper showed up to make a full-page spread about her business. That story was then picked up by BBC Radio 5 who subsequently showed up at her first ever session in 2010. “It just went mad,” she says. Needless to say, Lingotot proved to be an instant hit.
But even though she enjoyed the success, the massive demand for her services left Sterling slightly overwhelmed as the company grew. “It got to the point where I had two babies, a husband who worked away from home and I just started to fall to bits,” she says. Talking it over with her spouse, Sterling realised that it wasn’t enough to just employ more tutors. While she briefly considered licensing the business, she decided that franchising was a better option as it would enable her to retain more control. “I had developed something I felt passionately about, that I loved and didn’t want anyone to run a rubbish, watered-down version of it,” she says.
Having made the decision to try out franchising, she didn’t have to look far to find her first recruits. “My first two franchisees were tutors who worked for me,” Sterling says. The two women were more than happy to upgrade their status and within just three months Sterling knew that franchising was the way forward and decided to source more people to join the network. Since then the company has grown organically with many customers and tutors falling in love with the service and opting to become franchisees. In fact, she has only ever advertised on one website to boost her recruitment efforts. “And that was only because I thought I should have an advert,” she says. “But really, it was all word of mouth.”
One of the key reasons for the success is because Sterling provides all the support new members of the network could possibly need. “By the end of the day, if they want to discuss anything they can always give me a ring,” she says. From the get-go, each new franchisee is given access to the company’s extensive online training, enabling both them and their tutors to learn how to best teach little children new languages. Once franchisees have proven their chops by sending Lingotot a video of themselves teaching a class, they are welcome to take part in an intense weekend at the franchisor’s headquarters in Newcastle to learn how to run the business. Additionally, every member of the network is also given support throughout their journey with weekly webinars and advice. And it’s easy to see how well-knit the franchise has become as a result. “People laugh at me when I say this but we call ourselves the Lingotot family,” she says. “We are all really close, love the company and want the same thing.”
Given her dedication to supporting her franchisees, Sterling has unsurprisingly had no problems expanding the network beyond the borders of Britain. Having already set up company-owned operations in Dubai, she’s now contemplating expanding onto the European continent. “We got an interested lady in Dublin and hope to expand into the EU a little bit more,” she says. Unfortunately, Brexit has made her put some of these plans on hold. “No one knows what it’s going to mean so it’s a bit of a challenge at the moment,” she says.
Despite the challenges on the continent, Sterling is confident that Lingotot will continue to grow in Blighty. “At the moment we have 50 franchisees,” she says. However, while she’s expecting to recruit about 17 more franchisees in 2018 and even more in the years to come, these expansions won’t come at the expense of her network. “In the long term I just want everyone to be happy,” she says. “I do want to grow but not at the expense of the franchisees I’ve got. So if it starts to feel like it’s not working then we’ll pause the growth and consolidate a little bit.”
But whether Lingotot is breaking new ground in the UK or beyond, one thing is clear: Sterling is just getting started. “I love it too much,” she concludes. “Running your own business is like an addiction.”