Ajarn.com's Phil Williams gives 'learning post' an insider's look at one of Thailand's top teaching websites
Story by MATT LEPPARD
The thought of meeting Phil Williams is a little unnerving. You don't really know what to expect. As the brains behind www.ajarn.com, Thailand's popular Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) website, �Bangkok Phil� could easily be the most tedious teacher in Thailand, a twitchy recluse whose only social contact is online with other recluses, or a washed-up expat, bleary-eyed from last night's beer-bar binge.
Phil Williams, the current brains behind Ajarn.com, shares his thoughts on where the site is heading during his visit to learning post.
He could, of course, be all of these at once, but in actual fact, he's none. Younger, at least in appearance and spirit, than his online biography would lead you to believe � and reassuringly unnerdy � Phil is self-effacing, witty and sharp.
He's the go-getting entrepreneur who transformed Ajarn.com from a hobby site into a profitable and growing venture, neatly side-stepping the dotcom crash. And not one to rest on his laurels, Phil is going places and he's taking Ajarn.com with him.
It wasn't always so. Ajarn.com was launched in January 1999 by another British expat teacher, Ian McNamara (see box). It received little attention at first, but, as one of the first online TEFL resources in Thailand, the site soon developed a loyal core following, including one Phil Williams.
With about 10 years of Thai life under his belt, including substantial teaching experience, Phil had become a big fan of the Stickman Bangkok website (www.stickmanbangkok.com), especially the teaching section, which he still regards as the definitive guide to teaching English in Thailand. It wasn't long before Phil contacted Stickman and was referred to Ajarn.com. Impressed with what he saw, Phil felt that the site could benefit from his own real-life tales, good and bad � and Ian agreed.
"I contacted Ian to write a �teacher�s tales� section for the site and share the experience and stories that I had about the business in Thailand," says Phil during a chat at the learning post offices.
"Ian liked the stuff, put it on the site, and we met for a drink and became very good friends. He ran the website very much as a hobby, spending hours on it � but it never made a great deal of money. It did, however, develop a brand name."
COMMERCE AND COWBOYS
It was this brand name that was passed on to Phil when Ian went to work in China in early 2003. Phil's approach to the site differed from Ian's. The self-confessed "wheeler-dealer" � whose CV includes running a mail-order record service while at school, being a partner in a catering firm and helping out with an antique business � quickly saw the commercial potential in Ajarn.com.
"I decided from the beginning that this was going to be a business and in the three years I�ve been at the helm, I�ve not only built on the foundations that Ian laid, I�ve turned it into quite a profitable site," says Phil.
However, Phil readily admits that transforming the site into more of a business than a hobby did and does have its pitfalls. For example, most of the advertising baht thrown at Ajarn.com comes from the TEFL training course providers that have proliferated over the past few years. This is not always a good thing.
"Thailand has become almost a hot-bed for unqualified teachers looking to obtain a teaching certificate," says Phil. "It's become a cut-throat and, dare I say it, slightly dirty business, where the established names are competing with the cowboys.
"I feel sorry for new arrivals who have to do their own research, because there are so many wrong turns to take in choosing the right course," says Phil, who acknowledges that sorting the good from the bad is one area where Ajarn.com scores a "could do better" on its report card.
Phil also takes pains to point out that he's not a natural-born teacher and, despite his extensive experience and success in the profession, education has always been something to fall back on rather than a calling. He does, of course, praise the dedication of those more committed to the job.
"I have nothing but admiration for those guys who leave for work at 6am and return in the dead of night. It can be really dispiriting."
Phil also points out that most people who visit Ajarn.com are those who are teaching, or looking to teach, in Thai public schools or EFL schools. These are not well-heeled "expat package" fat cats, but teachers living, in most cases, on what many would consider a subsistence salary, here because they love the country and the culture.
Such a lifestyle largely precludes the barhopping that many assume is a mainstay of expat existence. Most foreign teachers simply don't have the time or money, whether they have the inclination or not. To this end, the Ajarn.com discussion board serves as an online low-cost meeting place where members can get together online and share successes, sob stories and survival tips.
Any online community of expats in Thailand can easily degenerate into a celebration of the seamier side of Thai life. However, it's a testament to Ajarn.com's members and forum moderators that it remains, for the most part, on-message.
"Quite simply, I think that it's nice to know that you're not alone," says Phil when asked about the huge popularity of the board. "It's good to know that the problems that you have in the classroom are shared by other teachers."
CONTENT IS KING
Phil maintains that his approach to Ajarn.com is "if it's not broken, don't fix it". Design-wise, he's happy with the site remaining distinctly non-corporate. Content-wise, he's happy that he's been able to diversify the site while managing his own workload.
"I'm constantly trying to find new angles," says Phil. "These can range from teacher fashions to visa and work permit information, all written by people who actually do this stuff. I now have eight or nine Ajarn writers who do monthly columns, which has taken a lot of the pressure off me to keep the site fresh."
When pressed, Phil did reveal that he has some future plans for the site. The biggest of these is to revamp the listings section.
"For teachers, there will be the usual list of currently available positions with a search-by-province function, but in addition, they will be able to create and edit an online resume, post a photograph and access a weekly job alert newsletter," he says. "Schools will continue to have the option of being able to post free job vacancies, but we will also introduce a premium jobs page where they can display logos and put vacancies on the newsletter. Schools will also have access to the resume database."
Phil also wants the site to continue to cater to the newbie teacher. One of the biggest problems that self-starter expats face is finding housing. Most real estate services only cater to the wealthy, and this, says Phil, needs to change.
"Websites and real estate agents simply don't deal with properties in the 3,000-15,000-baht range," he says. "So a service is being launched at the end of the month, in partnership with Ajarn.com, called 'Mr Roomfinder'."
His ambitions don't stop there. Phil's other dream is to run a complete newbie service where he finds someone a job, meets them at the airport and takes them to their new apartment � found using the site, of course.
With all this going on, it comes as something of a surprise, then, to learn that Phil manages to squeeze in jobs like teacher recruitment for Middle Eastern countries and consulting on specialised corporate training, all of which amount to around 20 hours per week.
"The flexibility of these jobs certainly gives me more time to concentrate on Ajarn.com," says Phil. "After all, it wouldn't be the site it is if I had a straight teaching job."
THE EARLY YEARS
Ian McNamara has led something of an unconventional life. After university and a few years of bank work, he decided that the UK had little to offer him. So, with a TEFL certificate under his belt, Ian ended up working on an Israeli moshav (a cooperative village) for a year, followed by a stint teaching in Cairo. He then returned to the UK to decide what to do next. His decision? To ride a bicycle around the world.
"After eight months and about 15,000 kilometres of riding, I ended up in Bangkok with no money," Ian recalls. "So another choice: go home or teach English."
His first job was at the Rajamangala College's Borpitpimuk Mahamek Campus on Soi Suan Plu in Bangkok. It was while working here that Ian decided to build a website.
"The initial idea was just to put some web pages together to help get me a few private students," says Ian. "Then I got thinking. What if other people interested in TEFLing in Thailand found the site? So, after a few of months just spent writing, I ended up with a couple of hundred pages for wannabe TEFLers. The first version of the site was online in January 1999.
"Phil was one of the first teachers to show real interest in the site and he emailed me to ask if he could contribute. He had loads of experience, shared the same sense of humour and had a bagful of anecdotes. So he became the only real contributor. Then, when I got the offer of a job in China, I needed someone else to run the site. Phil passed the single-question interview � 'Do you fancy running the site while I'm away?' with flying colours."