Ray and Laura Blakney thought they had a winner when they opened a language school in Mexico a few years ago but soon learned that in today’s digitally-connected universe, online language learning in Querétaro trumps traditional brick and mortar.
After several years in the Peace Corps in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Blakney, 37, moved to Querétaro, met his wife and married in 2008. Soon after, they decided to explore the possibility of opening a language school after researching the market and finding just one competitor.
“It was a large city with only one language school,” Blakney said. “With a growing population of expats and foreign companies, it made a lot of sense for us to open a business in Querétaro.”
Their business – Querétaro Language School – expanded quickly to two other locations but an outbreak of swine flu in Mexico in 2009 put a damper on their growth.
“My wife had the idea of offering classes via Skype,” he said, “ so we sold our brick and mortar business and launched Live Lingua, our current business. It was a natural fit for us because she has a degree in education and has taught school and my degree is in computer engineering, so it’s a perfect match for our skill sets.”
Blakney is a true citizen of the world. His parents met when his dad was with the Peace Corps in the Philippines.
“My dad is a blonde, blue-eyed Irish guy from America and my mom is a Filipina,” Blakney told us. “After the Peace Corps we made a brief stop in the U.S. before moving to Istanbul, Turkey, where my dad was a missionary for the United Church of Christ.”
Blakney, who is fluent in Turkish, grew up in Istanbul but left to return to the Boston area for his last two years of high school before enrolling at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He received his bachelor’s degree in 2002. He took a year break, though, between his junior and senior years to gain entrepreneurial experience with a start-up company in Silicon Valley.
His first job out of college was with Andersen Consulting for a few years before getting a job with Sherwin Williams – the paint company headquartered in Cleveland – as an IT team leader.
“I decided that I wanted to work overseas, rather than sitting in an office cube all day,” he said. “But the Catch-22 was you needed overseas work experience before they would hire you. That’s when I decided to follow in my father’s footsteps and join the Peace Corps. That’s how I got to Mexico and met my wife.”
Live Lingua began as a Spanish-only online language learning school but within six months the business took off and an additional 10 languages were added.
“We discovered that one hour of our new online school made more income than 12 hours and seven days a week at the Querétaro Language School,” Blakney said. “It was an easy decision.”
Their online school now offers the 11 most widely spoken languages, taught by native teachers who live in many different countries throughout the world.
“One way we pass savings on to our customers is using native speakers who are not living in their home country,” he said. “For example, one of our French instructors lives in Guatemala so gets paid a lot less than someone living in Paris, but a lot more than the average salary in Guatemala.”
Live Lingua offers a free trial for those interested in learning a new language online and also pairs students with instructors based upon input from students. Most online schools just offer instructor directories for students to choose from.
Although the majority of students are individuals, Live Lingua also serves some corporate clients like Coca-Cola, McDonalds and even U.S. government agencies.
Blakney started the business as a sole proprietorship but now operates the company as a Boston-based S-Corporation.
“Even though we live in Querétaro, we decided to base the business in the U.S. primarily for trust reasons,” Blakney said. “We felt that a U.S. business address had more credibility worldwide given the scams and other issues that come with operating an online business. We also pay just U.S taxes because all payments go to the U.S.”
The Blakneys think Querétaro is the perfect place to live and run a business. Laura Blakney, also 37, and her family have lived in Querétaro for some time, which provides them with a solid social base.
“Querétaro is a very livable city of nearly 2 million people,” Blakney said. “We’ve lived here since we were married and really love it.”
They purchased a 400-year-old home just a few blocks from the main plaza in the center of the city that is classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, which means they can change the interior of the home but not the exterior.
“We have a view of an aqueduct and an old hacienda that sits on a 2,000-year-old Otomi pyramid,” Blakney said. “We renovated the inside and now have about 1,500 sq. ft. with three bedrooms, an office and one-and-a-half baths. We bought the home from a guy who liked us so we paid just US$45,000. We’ve put about US$60,000 more into the house and estimate that it is worth about US$250,000 now.”
Querétaro has become a major manufacturing center in Mexico and has attracted large international companies like Bombardier, Samsun, Ford and others, creating a large expat community.
“Expats are somewhat divided here between those who choose to live in Querétaro and those who are transferred here by their companies,” he said. “The expats who choose Querétaro learn the language and integrate into the community. Transferees most often live in expat communities and socialize with each other.”
One of the benefits of the growing international community is the richness of the restaurant scene in Querétaro. Japanese, Korean and other Asian restaurants provide additional dining choices for locals and expats.
The presence of large international manufacturers also has raised wages in Querétaro, making it one of the wealthiest and safest cities in Mexico.
“The average salary here is around US$34,000 a year compared with about US$12,000 for all of Mexico,” Blakney said, “which helps make it a safer city than most. In fact Querétaro and Mérida are consistently rated the two safest cities in the country.”
The cost of living in Querétaro remains relatively low even with the city’s rapidly growing industrial sector. Blakney said expats could live on about 50 percent less than what they would spend in the U.S., depending, of course, on the type of lifestyle they would want to live. He believes an income of US$2,000 to US$3,000 would provide a very comfortable lifestyle in Querétaro.
One of the expenses expats can reduce is vehicle expense. Blakney and his wife do not own an automobile but use Uber to get around town for business and to see family. When they travel, they often take one of Mexico’s excellent Primera Plus buses directly to Mexico City’s international airport, rather than use the nearby Querétaro Intercontinental Airport.
Cost of living is on top of Blakney’s list of things he loves about living in Querétaro. They are able to live on about 10 – 20 percent of what they earn and still live very comfortably, which includes having a maid, a dog walker, an historic home downtown and plenty left over for entertainment and other discretionary spending.
His “best things about Querétaro” list also includes the proximity of his wife’s family and the city’s benign year-round climate.
“It’s nice to choose when you see snow,” he said. “We see it only when we choose to travel to places that have snow. The rest of the time we are here in Querétaro where it is about 85 F year-round, never too hot or too cold.”