Small business owner Ron Fortin shares the story of how he created Homeschool Spanish Academy. Plus, his advice for aspiring entrepreneurs on the initial challenges of starting a business.
US Marine Corps veteran Ron Fortin moved to Antigua, Guatemala in 2010 for a job as the executive director of the Sheel Center. This nonprofit provides education, healthcare and development for impoverished children. However, another problem quickly ate away at him. He noticed that the local Spanish teaching market — hundreds of schools — were focusing on the tourist trade. This was creating inconsistent work for their many talented teachers, who often bounced from job to job seasonally. In turn, they felt unsure of their future and were barely able to scrape by.
Why not target a new market outside of the tourist trade, he thought. For instance, homeschoolers who lived in the United States, with access to computers and Skype, needed tutoring year-round. He realized this would allow Antigua’s teachers to work more consistently throughout the year. Furthermore, American students could gain valuable insight into a new culture and learn from native Spanish speakers.
With that premise in mind, he launched Homeschool Spanish Academy in 2011. At the time it was merely a vision, a belief that his idea “worked,” and a sneaking suspicion that customers might want to buy it. Today, it has more than 160 tutors, serves customers in over 30 countries, and features a curriculum that serves students from preschool to adulthood.
Q&A with Ron Fortin, Founder of Homeschool Spanish Academy
Hello Alice caught up with Ron about the risks he took, how he got his idea off the ground, found his first customers, and grew it into the successful enterprise it is today. Learn more about how he built his MVP, and how those takeaways can apply to your business, in our new milestone Validate Your Idea.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Were you already aware of the risks you thought your business might encounter when you started Homeschool Spanish Academy?
I already knew that the product would work — I tested it on myself, which I highly recommend (try out your own product and see if you would buy it!) — so I didn’t have any risks in that regard. A lot of them had to do with: Could I find enough people? Who could do the job that I needed done? Was the internet stable enough? Could I come up with the right infrastructure? Everything else I figured out along the way.
A lot of it was just feeling confident that you can take on anything that comes at you. As a marine, I had a lot of background where I’ve been put in really random situations, and I’ve been able to come out of that, so that made me less fearful.
What is an MVP? And what was your MVP?
A minimal viable product is your version one. You don’t want to spend too much time on it. The best thing about it is that you can get your product or service out there into the market, and get feedback so that you can iterate. It’s that iteration that allows you to perfect your product or service.
When Homeschool Spanish Academy first started, our MVP was just our teacher and Skype and a laptop. That was it. The proof of concept really was ‘can we connect with the customer and get them to learn Spanish?’ It didn’t have any scheduling features or an interface. It was basically a cold call. I said, ‘Hey, I offer this. Do you want it?’
How did you get early adopters?
We paid a freelancer to put together a list of 1,000 contacts related to homeschooling. For three months, I called each contact to get to know them, and to persuade them that they needed my MVP. There were lots of rejections. But then again, it was a minimum viable product. And after that, I knew who my customers were, and why they needed Homeschool Spanish Academy’s core service.
What advice would you give to an entrepreneur who’s not sure where to start?
Get started! Don’t wait for too long. You’re not going to get the perfect product or service from day one. What you want to do is get out there and fail as fast as you can.
What I want to share with entrepreneurs — especially in the veteran community — is that you know more than you think. We actually took a lot of what I learned from the structure of leadership from the military and incorporated it into HSA’s teams. We have what’s known as a team leader, and we have a “side leader,” something we came up with internally that’s similar to an Assistant Squad Leader. All that came from the military’s example of small unit leadership. If you can take one kernel and apply it to your business, I’m sure you can take more.