They say that travelling broadens the mind but, in 40 year-old Deirdre Bounds’ case, it was more of a revelation. It wasn’t a lack of ambition, as she has that in spades, but the need of a catalyst. i-to-i came about in 1994 after she realised that there was a distinct lack of TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Languages) training, but plenty of demand of courses. These days, 10,000 people train as TEFL tutors each year, whilst 4,000 volunteers work and travel abroad.
Before Bounds started the company, the only way to get a TEFL qualification was to pay a £1000 for a month-long course with the Royal Society of Arts. When she lived and worked in Asia and Europe, she says: “I met many people whose first language wasn’t English and who had no teaching qualifications. The thirst for the English language abroad was overwhelming, anybody who could speak English was in demand.”
Her approach to running the business has been unusual in part. From the start, she took advice from successful business people including her previous boss, a Greek businesswoman who owned the largest and most successful English language Institute in the Peloponese area. “I invited her for coffee and asked her what was the secret of her success? ” and “I always sought advice from anybody who would listen. I was always asking as I knew very little”.
Once she’d borrowed a £1000 from her parents and bought a computer with some of it, Bounds ran a competition at the design Department of Leeds University. “I offered “2nd year design students a whopping £100 prize for a good brand image for i-to-i.”
With help from the Business Link Enterprise scheme, she put together a business plan with a basic cash flow forecast and marketing plan but commented: “even I had no idea how successful the business would be.” She says that a business plan is very important for business sustainability, but it must be flexible due to ever changing markets. Being flexible and completely up-to-date are some of the ways of countering any changes – be they harmful or not.
Another thing that Bounds uses on a regular basis is TEC, which is a development forum for chief executives that gives advice on key issues such as working on the business (not just in it), and the work-life balance. She says this helps her a lot to leave work at work, and spend more time with her family.
It hasn’t been all plain sailing though. She “would have taken more HR advice and also better legal and accounting and advice regardless of the cost. I cut corners here and paid heavily.” Finding and keeping the right staff has been difficult, and Bounds wishes she had done it differently. IT is also cited as a potential problem in both the financial and practical senses.
Bounds isn’t standing still, but taking the business further even more. The plan is to expand into corporate travel placements in the next 12 months, and there is already interest with HSBC taking up volunteering in Sri Lanka.
She has some parting words of advice too for budding entrepreneurs: “If you truly believe in an idea and have the determination to follow it through, you’re on the right track. Get good advice, listen to, but don’t necessarily act on the ‘nay-sayers’ advice.”