• SEA teaches English to migrants and international students, and also organises extracurricular activities so they can get the full Aussie experience. (Supplied)
Mick Edwards and Sam Milton set out to give migrants the real Aussie experience while teaching them English in their Manly classrooms.
SBS Small Business Secrets
21 Oct 2016 - 3:52 PM  UPDATED 3 Aug - 12:08 PM

Learning a foreign language can be a daunting or exciting prospect (depending on who you ask)-  even more so if you plan on doing it in a foreign country.

So when husband and wife team Mick Edwards and Samantha (Sam) Milton set out to create their own boutique English language school, they were clear about what they wanted:  a warm, friendly and personal feeling in the school - and proximity to the beach, so international students could get the whole Aussie experience.

They started their Sydney English Academy in Manly 15 years ago, having sensed a gap in the market for their smaller offering. By that point, they had several years of experience teaching at one of the bigger English colleges in the city.

"I mean big schools are great at delivering tuition - but sometimes they're so big that they can be a little bit impersonal," Sam explains.

"Where we are [in Manly] we're surrounded by two other schools, big schools as in multi, multi-million dollar companies," Mick adds. "And we've survived for 15 years by just having that niche market." 

Early Obstacles

But starting out involved a steep learning curve, and a number of setbacks.

"We weren't business people we were teachers," Mick says.

After finding a location in a former teddy bear shop in Manly, they realised their school would need accreditation in order to enrol students on student visas. "And that had a whole lot of requirements," Sam says. "So we started working on huge policy document which detailed everything from how many toilets you had to have, to your checks and balance over the home stay families you place students with." 

And then there was the issue of how to get students in the first place. Their first student, Tomoko, from Japan, saw their signage and walked in off the street. But to get a sustainable flow of students, they realised they'd need overseas agents to recommend them.

 But how to get agents to work with you, when you don't have a track record?

 "I remember one agent in Switzerland - we must have been in contact for three or four years, just sending emails saying 'I'm coming over, just seeing if you want to meet,'" says Mick.  "They'd say 'oh no, no we're fine with our schools.' And then just suddenly that changed and that agent said 'oh yea, we'll work with you' - and that makes a huge difference to your students numbers and such."

After years of carefully building their reputation, the Sydney English Academy now has 200 agents feeding them students from around the world - mostly Europe, Asia and Latin America. To date, they've taught over 6000 students, and this year is set to be their busiest yet, with 100 students expected over the summer.

But in this line of work, Sam and Mick are always vulnerable to the vagaries of international events. The 9/11 attacks in 2001 coincided with the early days of the business, and as airline passenger numbers dipped worldwide, so did the number of prospective students.

"We've [also] had SARS, bird flu, swine flu, [the global financial crisis].  You're constantly under threat of any international event and I guess that's one of the challenges, weathering those" says Sam. "We had a bank manager that said had we borrowed much more in early days we probably wouldn't have weathered those early ups and downs." 

The value of the dollar is another concern: times were a bit tough a few years ago during the peak of the mining boom. But with the dollar low again, student numbers are back up.

ELICOS exports

The ELICOS sector, which stands for 'English language intensive courses for overseas students,' has now become a major export industry in Australia. In 2014, students at schools like Sam and Mick's had an economic impact of 2 billion dollars, according to English Australia, the peak body representing the industry.

And as the sector has grown, so has the Sydney English Academy.

"Original year, we [had a turnover of] under $100,000, maybe $70,000, $80, 000. Whereas now that's increased ten-fold over the years," Mick says.

And after 15 years of growing their business, while also growing their family of two children - both born since starting their school - one of their biggest lessons has been figuring out how to work with each other.

"One of the keys for us was when we realised we had to have really clearly defined roles so we weren't treading on each other's toes. And Mick read in a book, rather than talking direct to each other, if you've got a comment or feedback or request, to actually email because that just diffuses [the tension], you haven't got that tone of voice. So we do that a lot," laughs Sam.

Mick agrees. "Well were still together! So that's a real achievement I think!"

Want to find out the secret to small business success? Tune into #BizSecretsSBS at Sundays 5pm on SBS, stream on SBS Demand, or follow us on FacebookTwitter or Instagram.

Related Reading
The next bug thing
Food security bodies say we'll all be crunching insects by 2020. That's not a bad thing according to entomologist and food scientist Skye Blackburn, who is cashing in on the idea early.