First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Dan Berges: We are doing well, and so are our families. Thanks so much for asking. I hope the team at Startup.info and your families are all well and healthy as well. Vanessa (my co-founder) had COVID back in March but fully recovered. Some other friends in NYC and Spain have had it as well. They have all recovered, but two close friends in Madrid lost a family member to the virus in April. It hit the city really hard.
We moved all classes online very early on, and fortunately, there were no outbreaks at our schools. The entire Berges team has been working remotely since March, and although some people miss the office and the classroom, everyone has adapted well.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Berges.
Dan Berges: Vanessa and I met in Barcelona back in 2005, while studying at the conservatory. We both finished our degree at Berklee in Boston and moved to NYC after. While I was doing my master’s degree in teaching at Lehman, we opened a small Spanish language studio for adults in the Upper East Side. In a few months, we had around 20 ongoing students. At that point, we started developing our own teaching materials.
During my last semester at Lehman, I wrote a business plan and started working on the first version of The Graf Method for Spanish Language, Vol. 1. We finally opened in the summer of 2013 on 36th Street and 5th Ave in Manhattan, in a very charming, old space we still have. It was a tiny school, with only two classrooms, and a team of three people (Vanessa, rockstar teacher Verónica Castro, and myself). We worked very long hours during the first two years. I remember I finished the Level 2 textbook a week before the first Level 2 course started. During the next few months, we finished vols. 3, 4, and 5. Our textbooks have proven to be key to our success.
As our student base grew organically, we hired and trained more teachers and administrators. Today, Berges has 8 classrooms in its Manhattan campus and 7 classrooms in its downtown Chicago center and employs 25 people.
How does Berges innovate?
Dan Berges: Our curriculum is based on the grammar-translation method, which has been historically considered one of the most traditional ones. Using this type of curriculum in the internet era, in which most language methods are visual and promise skipping, “boring” grammar rules was an innovation in itself. The Graf Method emphasizes grammar and provides logical explanations for everything in the language that can be explained rationally, which is most of it. It arms the students with strong pattern-recognition tools, so they can create their own sentences very early on and don’t have constant “why is this like that” questions in their head. It also introduces conversational practice very early on, which improves the effectiveness of the classic grammar-translation approach by making it more dynamic and entertaining.
Another important innovation has been our heavy use of technology in our scheduling, training, course/lesson booking, and housekeeping systems. The public doesn’t see the nuts and bolts, but everything that can be automated has been automated at Berges. This makes running the schools very efficient and provides our employees with a solid framework that helps them reach their own creative potential, both in the classroom and in the office, while providing a very consistent experience to our students.
Lastly, in early 2019 we became the first language school in the US that offered fully interactive online classes, identical to our in-person ones. Before COVID, 95% of our students still preferred in-person learning, but the other 5% who either preferred to learn from home or could not come to one of our centers really enjoyed the remote experience, as evidenced by all the positive feedback we received.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Dan Berges: Our centers in NYC and Chicago have been closed since March. This has, of course, taken a toll on our revenue, but we have also been able to reduce some expenses related to the spaces (cleaning, maintenance, utilities, etc.). Fortunately, we already had our remote learning platform in place before the pandemic, so our transition was seamless, and we were able to successfully move our 1000+ students in two cities from in-person to online in just a few days.
So far, students have been very happy, and some teachers who had not taught online before 2020 were also impressed with how well it worked. We are very fortunate to have the ability to continue operating almost normally during these rough times.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Dan Berges: In May, we, like many others, considered the option of completely shutting down our brick-and-mortar services and becoming an online-only company. As NYC reopening happened, we understood things would eventually go back to normal, and most people will again prefer the in-person interaction that only a physical classroom can provide. We are glad we decided not to drastically change our business model. We learned that, in uncertain times, it’s often good to wait and gather more data before making consequential decisions.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Dan Berges: We use a mental model that more or less goes like this: 1. This situation is external, and it was impossible to predict. 2. Our duty towards the company is to make the best possible decisions, given the current circumstances, whatever they are. We need to be cool and analytical to be able to do this. 3. Decisions should always be based on data, even if there are missing pieces. Intuition is good, but data is better.
By following this model, we at least can be sure we have been methodical in our decision-making process, avoiding circular thinking, which would cause even more anxiety and stress.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Dan Berges: Our main competitors are Instituto Cervantes, Fluent City, and Idlewild Books, all of the amazing organizations. We are all different beasts, although we all compete in the Spanish language learning market. Instituto Cervantes is a non-profit organization founded by the Spanish government. As opposed to us, they do full immersion (meaning speaking only in Spanish from day one). Fluent City is a hip, NYC-based school, and they teach other languages besides Spanish. It looks like they are trying to transition to an online-only model. Lastly, Idlewild is a really cool travel bookstore with locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn that also teaches languages, including Spanish.
We are well-positioned in the market, and we are the most niche school in the adult Spanish language learning industry, as we don’t do anything else besides teaching Spanish to grown-ups. Additionally, all the processes we have in place have allowed us to assemble and train an amazing team of professionals who, we believe, has no rival. Lastly, all our systems’ efficiency lets us offer more course options than our competitors and keep the prices low.
Your final thoughts?
Dan Berges: These are difficult times for everybody. Startups and established companies alike should reassess their model to see if they need to make changes to adapt to the COVID and post-COVID economy. They should also keep in mind as well that changes triggered by pandemics have historically only been temporary. We’ll have to wait and see what happens in 2021. It may be wise, in some cases, to delay important decisions until more data exists. We’ll all eventually get through this, and I’m positive we’ll see amazing innovation in the new roaring twenties!
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