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The first "virtual" Internet Cafe

Not long after the first physical Internet cafe served its first cup of coffee, Dave Sperling began running a virtual cafe for ESL students and teachers around the world — a very successful cafe it turns out

Here’s a story that could have run in several sections of your Bangkok Post. It could have been an Outlook personality profile with a Thai connection. Or the business section might have run it as an Internet success story often overlooked by the media. Then again, it could have been a "backpacker-makes-good" Horizons feature.

At its core, however, this is an education story. Besides I got it and I’m going to tell it.


Computer phobia

I met Dave Sperling at last month’s annual Thailand TESOL International Conference which was held this year in Chiang Mai. Dave is no stranger to international conferences and, as usual, he attracted a full house of English teachers.

It seems everybody in the profession knows Dave Sperling, creator of the Internet’s best known and commercially successful English language learning site, "Dave’s ESL Cafe" <>.

Dave is the first to admit that his on-line success is an unlikely one. When he returned to his native California ten years ago after a long stint teaching English in Japan and Thailand, a computer was the last thing on his mind. He had a wife and infant son to support.

Besides, he says, "I was computer phobic, I hated computers. I took a class in high school in 1977 when computers were difficult. The only people who used computers were mathematicians and geeks and I was into English and history and art. So yuck. I stayed away, totally."

Wanting to stay in English language teaching, but with no formal training in the field, Dave entered the university to pursue an MA in applied linguistics. His advisor quickly made it clear that Dave’s computer-free days were about to end. "You have got to use a computer," he said. "There’s no way you can get away without having one."

"I almost fell out of my chair!"

"So," Dave recalls, "I went ahead and bought my first computer. At that time, the Internet was just becoming popular in the United States. My computer came with America On-Line and a modem. So, from the first day, I was connected. That’s how I got hooked."

It happened "right away," recalls Dave. "I remember wondering ‘What is this Internet’? I signed up for AOL and suddenly I was connected and I was able to send e-mail."

His first message went to Chiang Mai where he had taught the previous two years. "I had an e-mail address of my friend in Thailand and that first day we were actually communicating — like what I call a ‘volleyball game’ — a volley of communication. We kept sending e-mail messages back and forth and I almost fell off my chair."

"Let’s do it"

MA in hand, Dave began teaching ESL in a California university in 1995. It was not what he expected.

"My class was very burned out," he recalls, "and they were really sick of being in the programme. They were upper intermediate students and they had been in ESL for several months, some of them close to a year, and it was just another writing class. I thought, I just did my Masters. I spent two years at school to deal with students who are like this?"

Not one to accept defeat easily, Dave hit on, what was for that time, a novel solution. "I said OK. Who wants to learn the Internet? I explained what it was, brought them to a lab, showed them – Yeah, let’s do it."

"So," Dave says, "I began teaching them basic skills: keyboard skills, how to use a mouse, how to use a PC, how to get on-line. I got them e-mail accounts and then we started to teach ourselves how to create web pages. The first web page that we put together was published in December of 1995. It was a page of my students’ photos and writings about one another and it was a big success."

"There was a response that we didn’t expect," Dave explains. "When we published the web page, we just put it on-line. We knew, of course, that the Internet could reach people around the world, but we didn’t think it would really happen. So we put it up and then, almost like magic, people began to come and view this web page."

Best of all, Dave’s students began to receive e-mail messages from around the world. "The class was transformed," Dave says. "In September, I was lucky to get the students into the class on time. They were not motivated at all. By the end of the class, the students were coming to the class early. They were asking me questions about grammar and spelling because they wanted to be correct in their e-mail – to be able to communicate with the keypals that they were beginning to make."

It started with graffiti

Buoyed by the success of the student web pages, Dave used his six-week (unpaid) term break to start publishing on the web in earnest. Interestingly, his first venture was a virtual graffiti wall, inspired by some creative graffiti he had seen in a university restroom. "My target was EFL-ESL students," Dave explains, "and I had graffiti from all over the world."

He received more than graffiti. "I started getting questions from students around the world. – Japan, Korea, Europe, Thailand. … Suddenly I was becoming a virtual teacher."

Initially, he answered student queries by e-mail, but this, he says, had an obvious limitation. "No one (else) was able to benefit."

His solution was to become one of the core features of Dave’s ESL Cafe. "I created the question page where I would publish the answer. That way the whole world could actually benefit," he says.

New ideas followed quickly. By the end of his break, Dave says he had eight or nine different sections up and running. What was missing was an overall concept to hold things together.

"I couldn’t just have the question page, the idea page – I needed a central page. So I thought, ‘OK, how about Dave’s ESL cafe’."

"‘Dave’ because, of course, I’m Dave. ‘ESL’ because at that time I taught ESL as a second language and ‘cafe’ because I love caf?s and I felt that a caf? was a meeting place for people all over the world.

One particular cafe’ – which Dave discovered on a trip to Africa when he was 21 – was his chief inspiration. "In Nairobi they have what I believe is called the Thorn Tree Cafe. When I was travelling – I was backpacking, making my way through Africa – I’d meet people and they’d say, when you get to Nairobi go to the bulletin board on this tree. They had this bulletin board that goes all the way round this tree and people posted messages and that was the meeting place – for me it felt like the meeting place for all of Africa.

"So when I created Dave’s ESL Cafe, the idea was to be able to create not just an on-line information source, but to be able to have some place where ESL students and teachers from around the world could meet one another, to communicate and learn."

The meeting place concept has become wildly successful, all the more so because Dave has added such interactive features as forums, chatrooms, and e-mail.

Going commercial

Dave’s ESL Cafe was up and running by January 1996, a mere five months after asking his class "Who wants to learn the Internet?" The site’s popularity was immediate and within months, Dave was in demand as a presenter at conferences. A book offer from Prenctice Hall soon followed and Dave’s first book was published in December of 1997. The following year he began travelling internationally teaching the Internet.

But, as Dave found out, success has its costs. In the beginning, he says, the biggest cost was time. "It just was insane. I would literally get up at 3:30 in the morning, work until like, 6:30, go off and teach. I was teaching all day – two jobs – and then I would come back and I would get back on-line again."

As traffic to and from the site increased, the costs took on a more alarming form. In 1997 he got an "ominous phone call" from his Internet service provider. "We’d really like to see you, Mr Sperling, because your traffic is getting ridiculous."

As a result, says Dave, "they started charging me extra – just bandwidth charges – hundreds of dollars a month. I think I had bills that ranged from $600 to $800 (baht 26,000 to 35,000) in excess bandwidth and, on a $2,000-a-month salary (baht 88,000), you have to pay rent and raise children, so I was forced into either closing down Dave’s ESL Cafe or really try to come up with ideas on how to get it working."

With encouragement from his wife and his brother-in-law, Dave sought ways to stay on-line. Advertising seemed the best option, Dave says, "so I went ahead and made an announcement ‘we now accept advertising’. Lo and behold, within my first two weeks I had my first couple of advertisements and that covered my bandwidth charge.

Advertising was basically a break-even proposition, however, and in 1999 when his Internet service provider required him to purchase his own dedicated server, he needed to find a more lucrative source of funds. In fact, just such a source had been on his site almost from the very beginning.

"I had been posting free job postings starting in April of ’96. I’d literally thousands of jobs in those years for free. But I was running it like a business. Schools would ask me to make changes in their postings, delete positions filled, change the e-mail, fax numbers, and formatting. I thought, wait a minute. This is nuts." Schools should pay for the opportunity his site offered them to find quality teachers.

Accepting payments meant that he had to learn the business side of things. "I had to get a merchant account which I had no clue about. I had to get a business account. I had to get a secure server."

By April of 1999 he had things figured out and gradually switched his job section from free to pay. The transition was successful, he says, but not without resistance. "Boy did I receive some hate mail," Dave remembers. "My skin had to get very thick for the first three or four months because of that hate mail from some of the schools. But now, nobody remembers when it was free."

Dave’s fee has remained a constant $75 (baht 3300) for a single job announcement which stays on the site one month. There are steep discounts for heavy advertisers. For example, a set of 24 ads goes for $990 (baht 43,000). When I last counted, Dave’s ESL Cafe had more than 300 listings, so it has clearly gone well beyond the break-even level.

It is also a full-time job. Dave no longer teaches and he has hired a full-time assistant. He also contracts out for work – accounting, web design, etc. — whenever necessary. With the Internet, this can be anywhere in the world, says Dave. "If I meet somebody in Chiang Mai who’s really good, I’d be happy to use them." Any takers?

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