TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER
BY DAVE MANGENE
…At the age of 32, I left the secure confines of gainful employment and all it entails, and set sail on my own. I knew I loved teaching and that I was good at it, but running my own business? I don’t think anybody can really know beforehand if they can succeed at running their own shop. I certainly didn’t. I had a hunch obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have tried. But to know for sure? Forget about it. Anybody who says they know for sure is a big fat liar.
I started slowly, picking up just enough clients to keep the wolves at bay. I knew word-of-mouth was going to be my modus operandi. Advertising seemed futile and expensive and where would I even start? If I could plug into the network of people I’d met over the years and get the word out that I had put out my shingle, the phone would have to start ringing, wouldn’t it?
It didn’t take long to figure out that my phone wasn’t going to ring without me doing anything to make it ring. I was going to need to pick up the phone myself and call people which, if you’ve ever done it, is a scary thing. I never believed in cold calling, especially in my business, so that wasn’t going to happen. Becoming someone’s private teacher, or coach, depends on trust and, if I was going to be able to help people, they would have to feel at ease making mistakes in front of me. It sounds simple but it’s hard to achieve. I had serious doubts about achieving that kind of trust in a cold call. I tried it over a period of time, after having done a sales course on cold calling, but I sold exactly nothing. Cold calling was out.
I needed referrals. Recommendations. Hook-ups. Somebody who told somebody who then told anybody that I was good and could help them. So I picked up the phone and reached out to people I knew. People who wanted to improve their English because they worked internationally, or knew someone else who worked internationally. It was a slow process. Not really tedious, just very slow burn. Make a call. Re-connect on the phone. Ask about their English needs. Meet for coffee. Present them with my solution to their problem and hope to close the deal.
It was hard, but I wasn’t half bad. I quickly realized that I did indeed enjoy the process of selling, which was something I’d never done before. Being a decent salesman was a necessary evil too because nobody was gonna give me any students. I was going to need to earn every single one of them.
And I did.
My little business grew. Eventually I landed a big fish in the form of an American biotech company with its European base in the Netherlands. I also hooked up with a major energy company here in Holland which kept me busy for several years. By the age of 36 I was a married man, a business owner, a home owner, and the father of two bustling baby boys. My life as a professional foreigner was going swimmingly. Of course, any life as an entrepreneur is filled with intermittent bits of anxiety and crippling “what-ifs”, especially for a guy like me, but things were going well. We paid our rent. We fed the kids. We went on vacation and put presents under the Christmas tree. It was, as the saying goes, the good life.
And then came 2008.
For reasons well beyond my capacity to understand, the bankers of Wall Street got a little ahead of themselves and the shit hit the fan. I will never comprehend how an entire global economy can just “crash”, but crash like a motherfucker it did. What does that even mean, crash? I had no idea. Clearly though, the financial markets were not healthy and honest, hard working people were losing their retirement funds. I was left trying to figure out how it was gonna get me too.
At first, my teaching business seemed to escape most of the devastation I was reading about every day. I still had my clients. I still had bookings several months into the future. So far, no panic.
Sure enough though, all hell started to break loose, one tiny, infintesimal drip at a time. Big international companies were feeling the heat. Shareholders were nervous. Costs were being cut. And, in the course of one utterly depressing month, the global financial crisis of 2008 finally reached my doorstep. Pretty much overnight, I lost my two biggest clients. Not because they were unhappy with my services. On the contrary. They were very happy with me. But, as everybody knows, when money gets tight, education and training are the first to go. My English courses were considered by management to be “non-essential investments”. It didn’t even matter if it was fair or unfair. It was just business, man. I had a few months left on the courses I was currently teaching but things were looking bleak.
No matter who you are, we all face an old-fashioned crisis at one time or another. If you live long enough, it’s going to happen. This was mine. Ours, actually. There were little mouths to feed and a mortgage to pay. As with any good crisis though, it’s not really the crisis itself but how you handle it. All philosophical bullshit aside, the best I could do was look inward and question the life I’d carved out as a professional foreigner, especially now that I was a small business owner with no safety net.
As I gazed into the proverbial navel, worried and afraid, I found myself at my own personal crossroads. This was it. I was 38, my livelihood was in jeopardy, my kids were still very young and compeletely dependant, my marriage was beginning to show signs of strain, and I couldn’t ignore any of that.
In my darker moments, when the Devil was clearly whispering into my ear, I figured the only way forward was to pull up my stakes, give up on my dream of living as a professional foreigner in a faraway country, and heading back “home”. My demons were in fact telling me to RUN! I thought I could go back to New Hampshire, maybe get a teaching job at my old high school. Maybe coach some high school basketball as I had been a successful basketball player myself. Maybe buy a humble abode on my old street, Coe Drive. I knew people back there in New England, people who cared for me and would most certainly want to help. I could convince my family in Holland that this was the moment to get real and to go back to where I came from. They would come with me and we would start anew with a steady and safe job, a steady and safe life, in a place that I knew, a place with less risk. We would go back to my home.
But we can never go home again. Can we?…