Elena Solomonova: I used to be a computer programmer, I loved my job, I was quite happy with what I was doing but the beginning of the 90s was the time of big, big changes in my country.
You may remember it was the period that was later called [Glasnost/ Perestroika], so it was the time when many people were forced to start doing completely new things. In my case a good friend learnt about language schools for international students, first in the UK and then in some other countries in Europe.
So he got this idea, started this business, and he invited me to be a part of the team. In a way I had a chance to be useful in this business because I had a good level of English which was not very common in those days, in Russia.
The PIE: And how did you make contacts with your first language school partners?
ES: So when [my friend] was travelling for his business seminars to Europe, he met some people who gave him the contacts, so the information came from him.
The PIE: Can you remember which schools they were?
ES: Yes I do remember, and all the details from my first trip. It was the Anglo-European school with Paul Francis as the Founder and Director of the school; he explained a lot about how the [agency business] operates, I was really grateful.
And my co-founders [of the first business] had much better experience and understanding in international business, they were also very helpful.
“I had a good level of English which was not very common in those days, in Russia”
The PIE: And what was the company called at the beginning?
ES: ‘MMS’. The name change happened later, in the middle of the 90s; my co-founders decided to switch to different businesses so for a couple of years I ran the company just by myself which was a big challenge for me.
A bit later, we started a cooperation with another agency and that agency had the name ‘Insight’ so when we merged two agencies we combined two names.
The PIE: So how has the business grown and developed over the years?
ES: We started the business when there naturally was a high level of interest in international communication. Traditionally in Russia we’ve always had high respect for education in general, so this… was a point of huge interest in Russia.
We had very limited financial abilities in those days but the interest was really huge. So through the years, apart from the periods of economic crisis that happened from time to time, we had a rather stable growth of demand of the Russian market.
In those 10 or 12 years, the number of students that were sent abroad increased by 10 times
I would say that from the middle of the 90s until the end of the 2000s, in those 10 or 12 years, the number of students that were sent abroad increased by 10 times.
The PIE: And were you as an agency able to negotiate better commissions as well with your school partners?
ES: It’s not always just about commission, now we have the opportunity to build relations on a different level, where we can design the projects together with our partners – including cooperation on promotion, on discussing and developing the problems and then bringing students to take part in the program itself.
I would say it’s a much more interesting level for me than pure ‘send student, get commission’.
The PIE: And how has the rest of the agency industry in Russia changed?
ES: I would say when we started in the beginning of the 90s we were absolutely the pioneers. For a few years we were just educating the market about this opportunity to travel abroad for language studies, about the opportunity to go to colleges and universities, and organise all the aspects of their travelling.
And in those days it was very different because it’s hard to imagine now, our only way to communicate was using fax, and international calls were extremely expensive, even travelling itself, comparing with the level of costs in Russia, travelling abroad was very expensive.
“Nowadays the Russian market is very mature, clients are much more demanding because they are knowledgeable”
Just to give you an example, on one trip I managed to bring two suitcases of university brochures back, and it was extremely valuable material.
The PIE: So you kept them in your office but people couldn’t take them away?
ES: Yes, yeah. I had catalogues of something like 50 UK universities, and it was of great value in my office.
The PIE: When did you start working with universities as well as language schools?
ES: We developed according to our customers’ needs. When our first customers after two or three years achieved a good level of English and maybe graduated from a high school, their request developed to the interest regarding A-level programs and university programs, and we had to find a way to help them.
In the beginning we worked with two schools in the UK and one in Germany. Now, the list of destinations where we place students today is over 20 countries.
The PIE: So what have been your newest countries that you have added most recently?
ES: This year, the new destination where we sent our students for language studies was the Philippines. Now we have contracts with I think three or four language schools in the Philippines and already have practical experience of placing students to those schools. For some clients I think that’s a good choice, at least all the clients that we directed there provided exclusively nice feedback.
Our key function I would say is to help the client to understand their needs properly and to find the product to perfectly feed their needs.
The PIE: So does that mean you have to be constantly evolving if you’re always trying to bring in new destinations or products?
ES: Yes surely, the geographic map of education changed through the years. We hardly could imagine in the middle of the 90s that so many countries will pose a huge competition for traditional education destinations, and nowadays there are more international students in China than the UK.
The PIE: What do you think the biggest business challenge has been that you’ve faced?
ES: I would say that through that period of economic crisis, you need to put in two or three times more effort in just to keep where you are, I think it’s always a challenge and that’s something you need to learn to cope with if you want to have a long business life.
In a way that’s good training, and if you find a way to go through difficult times then you will have a much better chance of success.
“In spite of the fact that the bank itself went bankrupt, they saved my business”
One crisis which was the biggest shock for me where the company’s bank account had financial difficulties and they just froze my bank account at the beginning of summer when the cash loan was the highest, that was maybe my biggest psychological shock.
I found a way to talk to the bank managers and also because we are dealing with juniors, so that’s a kind of social responsibility, so in spite of the fact that the bank itself went bankrupt, they saved my business.
The PIE: How has a typical client evolved over time?
ES: As I mentioned before at the beginning of 90s the very idea of travelling abroad was a kind of revolutionary idea to my country, when I went abroad for my first trip with my first group out of 15 students in that group we had only 1 person who had experience of travelling abroad including myself.
Nowadays naturally the Russian market is very mature, clients are much more demanding because they are knowledgeable, they have access to a lot of information, not just to the catalogues in my office.
On the other hand when the volume of information to go through to study is so huge, so many of them trust our experience.
Read more about Solomonova and her experiences over a long career as an education agent here.