Business Overview

As more and more non-English speakers arrive in English-speaking countries, there is a growing need to help these new arrivals learn how to speak English to increase their chance to work or attend school. An ESL school meets this need by providing adult and children with instruction on how to speak, read, and write English. These types of schools are sometimes known as English Language Schools. ESL stands for English as a Second Language.

Who is this business right for?

A person who is passionate about education and loves languages makes a great ESL instructor, but a successful owner of an ESL school needs to also possess the skillset required to run a business. In addition, an owner needs to have the desire to work with individuals from a wide range of cultural and sociological backgrounds. Due to the nature of the business, most schools are open until late at night seven days a week, as this allows students to work or attend school during the day. Therefore, being able to keep a flexible schedule is a must.

What happens during a typical day at an ESL School?

At the typical ESL school, the office staff arrives a few hours before the first class to prepare for the day. The first class at many ESL schools begins in the late afternoon, and many schools don't open until after lunch. After handling administrative work, like bookkeeping and marketing, the office staff usually spends the rest of the day dealing with the concerns of students and parents. Instructors typically arrive an hour before their first class to plan and attend a short meeting. After teaching classes, instructors usually write reports and meet with students or their parents. The owner needs to ensure everything runs smoothly.

What is the target market?

Most students who enroll in ESL schools in the US are out of school and working. Students are more likely to be male than female, and they typically have at least some experience with learning English in the past.

How does an ESL School make money?

An ESL school makes money by charging students for classes. Some schools charge students for each lesson they attend and students at other schools pay for a set time period. Most ESL schools have multiple pricing tiers based on the number of students in a class, the level of instruction, or the time when the students attend classes.

What is the growth potential for an ESL School?

An ESL school can start with a single owner who is also the instructor. Many small, independent schools start off this way. As a school builds up its student base, the owner can hire more instructors and staff members. In an English-speaking country with lots of new immigrants, ESL schools have a great growth potential.

ESL schools which are able to enroll foreign students directly are very popular these days. Unfortunately, it takes up to two years to become qualified as one of these "I-20" schools, and a school must be certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) in the US.

Getting Started

What are some skills and experiences that will help you build a successful ESL School?

Many successful ESL school owners have experience teaching English to non-native student. Many owners have taught abroad or worked at private English language schools in their home country and have a clear understanding of the business. Quite often owners of ESL schools have a certificate or degree in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). Owners should be capable of recognizing good teaching when you see it and have the ability to help instructors improve their teaching. Due to the high level of marketing and sales involved in this business, ideally an owner has experience running a company.

What are the costs involved in opening an ESL School?

In the beginning, you can offer classes out of your own home, out of a public place like a library, park, or coffee shop, or even visit students in their own homes. However, once you have accummulated enough students to actually open a school, you will need to have enough money set aside to cover certain expenses.

One of the highest costs is the rent. The amount you must pay depends on your market. In the case of an ESL school, most schools are located in large metro areas because that is where the potential students live. These are the same places where rent can be higher than normal.

Labor is also a large cost. Instructors are usually paid based on the number of hours they teach each week. This allows schools to more easily control the cost for instructors. Instructors are usually paid between $25 to $50 per hour.

Office staff typically receive a lower wage than teachers, but still earn above minimum wage. Most of the office staff involved with sales earn the bulk of their salary through commissions.

Another large expense is purchasing the curriculum and extracurricular activities like games, toys, and teaching materials. Supplies costs will vary according to the number of students you have enrolled at each course level.

What are the steps to start an ESL School?

Once you're ready to start your ESL School, follow these steps to ensure that your business is legally compliant and avoid wasting time and money as your business grows:

  1. Plan your business. A clear plan is essential for success as an entrepreneur. A few important topics to consider are your initial costs, your target market, and how long it will take you to break even.
  2. Form a legal entity. Establishing a legal business entity prevents you from being personally liable if your ESL School is sued.
  3. Register for taxes. You will need to register for a variety of state and federal taxes before you can open for business.
  4. Open a business bank account. A dedicated checking account for your ESL School keeps your finances organized and makes your business appear more professional to your customers.
  5. Set up business accounting. Recording your various expenses and sources of income is critical to understanding the financial performance of your business. Keeping accurate and detailed accounts also greatly simplifies your annual tax filing.
  6. Obtain necessary permits and licenses. Failure to acquire necessary permits and licenses can result in hefty fines, or even cause your business to be shut down.
  7. Get business insurance. Insurance is highly recommended for all business owners. If you hire employees, workers compensation insurance may be a legal requirement in your state.
  8. Define your brand. Your brand is what your company stands for, as well as how your business is perceived by the public. A strong brand will help your business stand out from competitors.
  9. Establish a web presence. A business website allows customers to learn more about your company and the products or services you offer. You can also use social media to attract new clients or customers.

Select your state below for an in-depth guide on completing each of these steps in your home state.

Where can I find a business mentor?

One of the greatest resources an entrepreneur can have is quality mentorship. As you start planning your business, connect with a free business resource near you to get the help you need.

Having a support network in place to turn to during tough times is a major factor of success for new business owners.

Recommended: offers video courses and a supportive online community of like-minded entrepreneurs. Try one month membership for for free.

What are some insider tips for jump starting an ESL School?

Schools must start small and build slowly. Over expansion can easily force a school to close. Schools should not offer extremely low-cost, long-term classes as a way to attract students. This marketing technique can easily find schools filling their classrooms, but losing money in the end. Schools shouldn't make guarantees about academic improvements or minimum test scores. Most importantly, schools need to do all they can to keep students happy. One unhappy student can ruin a class and cause other students not to sign up for additional classes.

Growing Your Business

How to promote & market an ESL School

It is a good idea to market an ESL school to potential students in their native languages. Schools should create brochures advertising your school in the languages of a few of the most popular groups of immigrants in your area. Then make contact with organizations which serve these communities, such as churches, social clubs, and associations.

Recommended: Get started with local advertising for your business with a $300 credit from Yelp.

How to keep customers coming back

Offering potential students free trial lessons to give them a taste of your school is pretty standard. It is also important to keep the quality of education high enough to prevent students from feeling like they are wasting their time and money. Instructors should focus their classes on presenting useful skills in a fun and interesting way.

How and when to build a team

Build your team depending upon your needs. Ideally, your teachers should be able to focus one hundred percent on preparing and delivering classes, while other staff members handle advertising the school and registering new students. In addition, it is often necessary to hire staff members who are able to speak the native languages of your students.

Legal Considerations

State & Local Business Licensing Requirements

Certain state permits and licenses may be needed to operate an ESL school. Learn more about licensing requirements in your state by visiting SBA’s reference to state licenses and permits.

Most businesses are required to collect sales tax on the goods or services they provide. To learn more about how sales tax will affect your business, check out our informative guide, Sales Tax for Small Businesses.

For information about local licenses and permits:

Certificate of Occupancy

Businesses operating out of a physical location typically require a Certificate of Occupancy (CO).  A CO confirms that all building codes, zoning laws and government regulations have been met.

  • If you plan to lease a ESL school:
    • It is generally the landlord’s responsibility to obtain a CO.
    • Before leasing, confirm that your landlord has or can obtain a valid CO that is applicable to a ESL school business.
    • After a major renovation, a new CO often needs to be issued. If your place of business will be renovated before opening, it is recommended to include language in your lease agreement stating that lease payments will not commence until a valid CO is issued.
  • If you plan to purchase or build a ESL school:
    • You will be responsible for obtaining a valid CO from a local government authority.
    • Review all building codes and zoning requirements for your business’ location to ensure your ESL school business will be in compliance and able to obtain a CO.

Services Contract

An English language school should require clients to sign a services agreement before starting a new project.  This agreement should clarify client expectations and minimize risk of legal disputes by setting out payment terms and conditions, service level expectations, and intellectual property ownership.

Reduce Personal Liability

Structuring your business as a limited liability company (LLC) ensures your personal assets are protected in the event your business is sued.

What is an LLC?

Form an LLC in 5 easy steps

Earning Potential

How much can you charge customers?

According to Thumbtack, students pay an average of $40 an hour for ESL instruction. That rate can vary based on location of the school and other factors like the number of students in a class or the level of instruction.

What are the ongoing expenses for an ESL School?

Rent and labor are two of the biggest ongoing expenses. Smaller monthly expenses include utilities and maintenance costs.

How much profit can an ESL School make?

Experts predict revenues for educational services will grow 2.4% over the next five years. An English language school which keeps a tight control of its expenses can expect to see a good return.

How can you make your business more profitable?

ESL schools can easily add new classes and events to increase their bottom line. English schools can supplement their income by selling a variety of educational tools like dictionaries, CDs, language-learning games, and other literary and digital learning materials. 

Next Steps

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