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Elizabeth Mack on Bucking Trends and Turning New Customers into Long-Term Subscribers

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After seven years of studying French, Elizabeth Mack thought she was as good as fluent. It wasn’t until she traveled to France after graduation and tried to hold a conversation, however, that she realized how wrong she was. For years, Elizabeth felt cheated by the American education system, but now she’s taking matters into her own hands. 

 

We spoke with the founder of the Freestyle Language Center in Austin, TX to find out what sets her classes apart from her more traditional competitors, the power of independent thought and the joy of watching a community come together with a common aim.

 

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Name: Elizabeth Mack

 

Business: Freestyle Language Center

 

Started: November 2011

 

How did you create your awesome job? 

 

I’ve always been a linguaphile. I studied 18th-century French literature at college and lived in Holland for three years where I learned Dutch. My first experience of combining my love of languages with my job was when I worked in marketing for L’Oreal in NYC, but I eventually ended up teaching French at the University of Texas

 

I loved it, but I always felt confined by the curriculum and wanted to teach in a way that would actually be useful to students looking for fluency. Exams and stress aren’t how languages are learned — rather, it happens when you make learning fun and interesting.

 

I’ve always been an independent thinker, but when I started doing things differently in class I got in trouble with my department. Students started dropping out of classes taught by tenured professors with PhDs to come to mine instead, because they found them more interesting. 

 

In my second year of teaching, I started to realize that I could sell what I did, but I was too scared to make the leap into working for myself. I was a single mother with two young daughters and really needed the security of a full-time job.

 

I spent two additional years thinking about how I could do it. I knew I would be successful if I created a curriculum based around things that people could fall in love with, like food and culture. Most of all, I knew I needed to create a strong community of people who all really wanted to learn. 

In the summer of 2011, I teamed up with two partners to build a unique curriculum and launched Freestyle Language Center in the fall. 

 

Who was your very first customer? How did you find them? 

 

We announced our launch by emailing 200 personal contacts. We got four people to sign up for the first lesson, which I thought was great considering we hadn’t done any real marketing! But, my partners thought it was too small a number and asked me to buy them out. 

 

By January 2012, the student number was up to 22, which still wasn’t huge, but it was enough of a percentage increase to give me the confidence to quit my work at the university and make a go of it full-time. 

 

We now have 125 students!

 

When did you know your business was going to work? 

 

Leaving my job at the university was a tough decision, but I had to make it work. I knew things were working in 2013 when I heard that a student of mine, who had came to us as a complete beginner, had held an hour-long conversation in Spanish at one of our happy hours. 

 

When I started out, several professors didn’t believe I could make the business a success, but that one student's progress proved them all wrong.

 

What has been the biggest surprise so far after starting your own business?  

 

While it was always my goal to bring a community of learners together, I’ve been surprised at how many people come to us because they’re looking for a human connection. We see lots of people who’ve just moved to Austin and are scared and nervous, but are hoping to make friends. I'm touched that they come to us. 

 

 

EMack2.jpg How do you price your services? 

 

Our learners aren’t particularly sensitive to price because they see the value in the product. We’ve increased the fees a few times as the curriculum has grown and improved, but nobody has flinched. 

 

Our 8-week summer courses are under $400 if booked in advance and our 12-week spring and fall courses come in at $550. For this, our learners get two evening classes a week, with entry to all our events, Saturday cafe workshops and an online curriculum. 

 

All things taken into account, it costs less than $12 an hour to learn with us, which makes us about 80% cheaper than learning at college and 100% more effective. 

 

What does a typical day look like for you? 

 

My children are my #1 priority, so my day revolves around their school and after school commitments. I take care of sales and marketing in the daytime, then head to classes in the evenings. 

 

Though I don’t teach anymore because I have a great team of instructors, I like to be there to experience what’s going on. I guess I’m a control freak, but I have skin in the game and really need to make sure this business is operating to its full potential, so I like to be present at all times. 

 

This means my days can be 16 hours long with full weekends, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. 

 

If you could go back in time, what’s the one thing you would do differently when starting your business? 

 

I felt I needed some extra support last year, so I asked for advice from some Harvard business consultants. They told me to hire a director to take the weight off my shoulders, so I did, despite the fact it meant having to put more of my own cash into the business. 

 

As soon as I hired her, I knew the company wasn’t ready to be run by someone else. Freestyle needs a few more years of growth time that's guided by my own intuition before it’s ready to support another director.

 

What would you like to learn today from a network of other small business owners and self-employed professionals? 

 

I'd like to know if anyone has tried incentive schemes to get people to sign into longer subscriptions or increase their return rate. I’d like to get our learners to commit to us until they’re fluent, and I’m open to suggestions on how to incentivize longer signups!

 

Let's help Elizabeth out!


Have *you* successfully used incentives or perks to encourage your customers to stick with your business and commit to a subscription or series?

 

What tips can you share with Elizabeth that will help her turn her first-time customers into long-term subscribers?

 

Tell us more in the comments below! :-) 

1 Comment
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Level 7

Elizabeth Mack on Bucking Trends and Turning New Customers into Long-Term Subscribers

I am so inspired by this story! When Elizabeth said she quit her job at the university with only 22 students in her program, I was surprised and very intrigued to hear the rest. As I find in many of our amazing member stories, success is found when we overcome our fears.  Nicely done, Elizabeth!

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