In conversation with Valerio Nicolia | Managing Director at inlingua Rome
Find out more about Valerio in this interview and what he believes are key elements to adapting a successful business in the changing times – to ensure it remains successful.
1. Valerio, you are an ‘inlingua baby’. This means you have taken over the business from your parents, or your family, is this correct?
Yes, not only me and my brother, but my other brothers as well. We are four. One of them is running the school of Latina, another one is running the school of Florence, and me and the other brother we are both running Rome, one in the city center – me – and the other one in a neighborhood area of Rome.
2. Did the 4 of you imagine this was the plan? Was it always your intention to take over the schools?
It’s a good question because if I think when I was a child, then yes, I always said I will be an inlingua Director one day. Of course, during your teenager period you change your idea and then at the end of my university studies I decided to give my father a chance and start working with inlingua Rome, just to see what would happen.
Also, because my father told me “why don’t you come to inlingua Rome. You can stay for one year just to check if you like it and if you like it stay, and if not, move on.”
3. How did you decide, or how was it decided, which brothers would run which schools?
That was easy. There’s a difference between, I think, 12 years between my brother and me and I went to the inlingua Rome City Center before him, so that was settled [smiles].
4. What is your background?
I studied economics. My specialization is management of service companies which is the same as this business. When I started my studies, I wasn’t completely sure about my future and what I would do, but of course I looked for something that was close to my family business.
5. Is your family very involved in the day-to-day business and running of the center(s)?
Yes, and we have many different family members involved in the business as well. If you think, Fernando’s wife, the mother of Christopher, works in the other school of Rome. My brothers’ wife is working in the Florence school with my brother of course, one of my cousins is running inlingua Avezzano, another one is running inlingua Frosinone. And so on.
6. What have you specifically changed in the model of your center(s) since taking over? Or what have you had to change?
I’m trying to focus on a huge change in the organization [of my school]. I’m trying to build a more structured school where each person has a specific target, a specific objective and he or she has to do work to work on it [the target]. It’s difficult in the Italian schools because in almost all of the Italian schools it’s a real family business where the owner is used to do almost everything. Trying to create a structured school is a new target for me.
That’s why I had in the past contact with other inlingua colleagues, that have bigger schools than mine – just to learn something new from them, like inlingua Frankfurt or Verona. I think they are very good, so I try to learn from them how to create a different business model.
7. How are the employees reacting to your changes?
They are embracing it because they know that this is the only way that can save us from the competition, and moreover, they can work on very specific areas. You see, I don’t say to the person who loves the didactic aspect to do marketing. I select a marketing person to do marketing and a teacher to do pedagogical things. I can definitely say all my staff are happy about these changes.
8. What is so special and unique about your center?
The special things? We have two. The first is our culture of hospitality, so we are always very welcoming to all people that are coming to our school. This culture is fantastic. A lot of our students always tell us that it is so nice to come here because you are always happy. It’s a huge compliment for us.The second thing for our school is that we are really innovative. We are always looking for something new – we are always innovating our materials, our processes, our software, our procedures, and so on.
9. What is the most challenging thing about running a language school, and/or running a business in the language training industry?
As within all service businesses, the most challenging thing is managing people. Each person has his own problems, points of view, desires, targets in life and you as a manager have to match individual targets with the company targets. This is the most difficult thing. Also because of a huge part of our quality is provided by teachers, so it’s provided by people. This formed a big part of my presentation at the inlingua Congress 2019 in Lugano.
10. What are the challenges about the industry or the business you are in?
People. And now also technology. The world is changing. You have to manage people and you have to be very very innovative and very fast – really quick in your decision making.There is also a lot of competition now. It’s a very competitive industry. Only around my school we can say, I don’t know, within 100 meters, we have four schools and then our school. So five schools in a very small area. And then there’s the technology in the industry, because you know, you have e-learning providers, moreover, you also have people using skype, webex, etc. from all over the world.
A few years ago, the only competitors we had were the schools based in Rome, or at most some school based in Milano trying to sell something in Rome. It was pretty impossible for a school based in Barcelona or Paris to sell courses based in Rome. Then there are other competitors like Duolingo., Babbel, etc. So, the market is changing very quickly and we have to be able to change with it as fast as possible.
11. What advantages would say that inlingua centers have being part of a wider network (as opposed to a school that is not a part of a wide network or brand)?
In my opinion, of course the possibility to say to your customer “I’m part of a great network” is a commercial advantage.But the real advantage [of being part of a wider network] is the experience of the group and of being part of the group. What does it mean? It means that being in contact with our colleagues gives us two advantages. The first one is you can learn something new from others. In Italy we are doing best practice seminars in order to share our skills. This is, in my opinion, the most important advantage – sharing experience, the best practice of each one, to improve our schools. Thanks to sharing ideas with other schools, I decided to change the organization of my school.
The second advantage is that our colleagues represent also our competitors so we can see the trends and we can see the sentiments and feeling of the market by looking at our colleagues. So, we can understand the market. Let me give you an example. If I can see that 80% of my colleagues in Italy are (not) innovative, are young/old, are (not) present in the market, then I can imagine that my competitors may also look similar. So, the advantages are that you can see the market and you can learn from the market using your colleagues.
Until now we made three best practice seminars. One on the organization of the school. It was the first one, and in my opinion, the most interesting. The second best practice was on classroom and e-learning, so we taught our colleagues how to succeed using virtual classrooms and e-learning. The third best practice was how to deal with and manage business with the public schools and it was held by our colleague from Pesaro, Antonella, and she is also an inlingua baby, and she taught us how to deal with public schools. So, we are learning using our experiences.
12. What would say are the key qualities of being an entrepreneur?
A good entrepreneur, in my opinion, should be patient, capable to deeply listen to people, fair and innovative.So, for instance, as I already mentioned, we work very closely with people. You can’t manage people without listening to them. If you don’t take care of your people, you can’t run your business. About fair, you have to be fair because you don’t run your business for one day or one year, but you run your business, we hope, forever. If you are not a correct person, not a reliable person, you can’t work with people. Of course, you have to be patient, because if you are not patient you can’t do this job. It’s impossible. Everyday something happens that can ruin your day [laughs]. You have to be a very ‘zen’ person in order to run your business. Being innovative means you have to always change the way you work because if you think you can run your business in 2019 in the same way as your father ran it 30 years ago, I think you are doing something wrong. You have to change the way of the things that you are doing like new software, new ideas, new marketing strategies, and so on.
13. How do you keep up with trends in business, marketing, etc.?
I always have my own business book, at the least, just to improve the quality of my job. I also always look at business magazines and Google a lot to see what’s happening out there, particularly in the field of management. As a leader, you don’t have to be a technician, because my work is to lead people. But in order to lead people, you have to know where you want go. You have to know where technology is going. I study, in total, at least 1 hour a day. When I read a business book, I have to think if the management technique I have read will be good for my business or not. If so, I try to implement it in my business. Of course, I try to adapt everything I read for the Italian market, for the Italian people. You know, a lot of business books are written by Americans, and they have a completely different style.
14. What would you say is the most challenging thing about being an entrepreneur?
The most challenging thing is to kill your business. What does this mean? It means that when you succeed in something, you always do the same thing because you say ok, I’m succeeding, but the problem is that during your activity you have to find new ways to satisfy your customer. Otherwise someone else will find new ways to satisfy your customers. So, the biggest challenge is to kill your business, or to find something new. Find a new plan, or plan something new.
15. What advice would you give anyone considering opening a language center?
I can give people one advice: Start from People! We can’t have success without the right people. For instance, the main target that I have for this autumn is I am looking for at least two new people to hire (for the business side of things – I’m not talking about teachers here), and the advice is to find the right people, hire them, train them, give them targets and control the targets.And it’s difficult to find these people because so far I have not found the people who have what I’m looking for. I’m not looking for an engineer. I’m looking for a person who really wants to be involved in a business who can run his/her target on his/her own. For me a degree is not enough. Sometimes I prefer someone without a degree, but with a fire inside, or an entrepreneurial spirit, if you wish. Believe me, this is the most difficult thing for an entrepreneur to do. Find the right people. I can’t do everything on my own. The last 12 months I have hired 3 new people, and now I need another 2 people. I don’t hire people unless I find the right one. The long run makes the difference.
16. When working with a diverse team of staff and trainers from all over the world what would you say is important to remember (to do or not to do)?
So, the most important thing is respect them and they will respect you, your customer and your company.
17. How would you describe inlingua to someone?
inlingua is a group of entrepreneurs who deeply love what they do!