Five Questions: ESL Cafe Founder Dave Sperling

Dave Sperling. You might not think you know the name, but you do. At least the former of the two when it’s famously attached to ESL Cafe.

Launched in 1995, staked out its share of the web as a bare bones site for finding teaching jobs abroad and discussing the life lived there. A decade and a half has passed, the site is still pretty much bare bones, but 25,000 people stop in everyday for a look at what Dave’s done. And that is create the world’s largest resource for teaching jobs and one of the most populated forums on the planet.

What Sperling has done is admirable all the more when one considers the amount of peaceful human traffic that has passed from one country to the next through his servers.

And business is good. A rough count of the ads posted on the International, China and Korea job boards stood at around 800 at the time of printing, with advertisers paying as much as $75 a month to post on the site. There is nothing bare bones about that at all.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Sperling received his degree in psychology in 1983 before taking a job working with the mentally handicapped right out of school. It was after a patient smacked him in the side of the head with a chair that he decided his degree was better put to use as a courier for a travel agency. When asked about the abrupt change Sperling quipped, I didn’t make much money, but it was a great experience – kind of like teaching right?

Eventually he did go into teaching ESL. Both at home in L.A. and in Japan.

He later married, fathering two children, a son now twenty and a daughter fifteen. The 50-year-old Sperling started ESLCafe alone and remains its sole employee to this day. Fortunately, much of the site runs itself, giving him a chance to pursue his love of travel and photography, as well as affording him time to chauffeur his daughter around and give quality time to his dog.

We gave him 5 Questions~

When you started ESL Cafe, did you imagine that it would become one of the most popular sites in the world? Were there any ‘lucky breaks’ along the way that propelled the site into the spotlight? Any high traffic days that stick out over the years?

I had no idea. It really just started as a hobby in 1995, when a professor encouraged me to learn HTML so I could create graphical web pages (thank you Dr. Levine!). My first web page was created together with my ESL writing students at California State University, Northridge and I was hooked. Afterwards, I began creating interactive web pages for ESL/EFL students and teachers, and the rest is history.

I can’t really think of any lucky breaks. I just remember a lot of hard work, sleepless nights, and presentations and workshops around the world to help promote using the Internet in the classroom. Dave’s ESL Cafe actually took off pretty fast in 1996, but the hardest thing was getting my “infrastructure” in place, you know, the hardware and software to handle the increasing traffic.

A lot of high days stick out because the traffic kept steadily increasing, especially in the first few years. This was actually a very difficult time for me, because it meant that I had to move everything onto a new server and pay a lot of money in excessive bandwidth fees.

The ESL Cafe Forums have been a place where people can both praise their host countries as well as vent their frustrations. Having read thousands of posts over the years, would you gauge people’s overall experience teaching abroad as positive or negative? What are some of the most common gripes?

I do think that most people have a positive experience teaching abroad, but forums often attract people who complain or rather vent about the problems with their working conditions and the difficulties of living in their host countries. I do think that this is a good thing, because it helps both the poster and the forum readers to get all perspectives on what it is like to teach abroad.

The most common gripes are about bad working conditions at particular schools – difficult boss, problems with co-workers, late or no payment, etc.

Enjoying his Triumph on Mullholland Drive’s notorious ‘snake.’

What were some of the more meaningful forum topics you remember?

Believe it or not, I don’t often spend much time reading my forums! Topics that have moved me personally have been experiences during such natural disasters as the 2004 Tsunami, the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, and the recent floods in Thailand. I am often moved by the compassion, concern and encouragement from other teachers on the forums.

One would assume that, over time, a country that imports native speaking English teachers would have enough English speaking citizens to teach itself English in the classroom. Is this a trend you see happening? Or is the trend for native speaking jobs increasing?

That should be the case, but it doesn’t seem to be at all. Most countries still do not have a good enough English educational system, and therefore need native English speaking teachers. I have, in fact, seen an increasing need for teachers to work abroad. That said, I was recently in Israel and was blown away with how well the young people spoke English and how comfortable they were using it. And this is in a place where most of the English teachers are from Israel.

Teaching English in Japan in 1985

How much time do you put into the site on a typical week? Has the time spent maintaining it increased or diminished over the years? Is this something you see yourself doing far into the future?

Well, a typical day for me is as follows: I’m up around 6 a.m. and usually get online to check me email and do a quick check of the website to make sure that everything is working well.

After I take my daughter to school, I spend the rest of the morning answering email messages, posting jobs ads, and “approving” new members to my forums. This is interspersed with breaks to walk my dog, or do an hour workout at my local gym. I do less work in the early afternoons, but get back online around the end of the day and work until 5 p.m.

The time maintaining Dave’s ESL Cafe has definitely decreased for me, because I have finally got it down to a science and have a daily routine that I have been doing each and every day for several years.

As to what I will do in the future, that’s a good question! Five years ago, I wanted to retire at 50 and do other things with my life, but here I am, 50 years old, and still running Dave’s ESL Cafe. My perspective has changed and I’ve realized that I really love running my website and stopping would be like losing a very important part of who I am. Luckily, I can now get online just about everywhere in the world, so I am able to travel and still work no matter where I am. I often take trips to Europe and Asia and it’s easy for me to maintain Dave’s ESL Cafe just as well as when I am home in Los Angeles. Last July, I was running the website in Luang Prabang, Laos. Can you imagine that? Wow! So the future will be more traveling the globe to places that I’ve always dreamed to visit and enjoying my life.~



Interview Bio Questions (Web Only)

Q: What were you doing back home before you came to Asia? Job? etc.

Answer: I graduated from Pepperdine University with a degree in psychology in 1983 and worked with the mentally handicapped, as well as at a small psychiatric hospital in Los Angeles. One day a severely disturbed patient threw a chair that hit me on the side of my head and I decided to find another job! I then worked as a courier for a corporate travel agency, which was actually a really cool job because it got me out of the office and I was physically active all day. I didn’t make much money, but it was a great experience (kind of like teaching, right?!!).

Q:How big is your staff?

Answer: Just me, though I do have people that I subcontract to help me with things such as web design and programming.

Q: What do you like to do in your free time?

Answer: Travel, photography, motorcycling, long distance running, cooking, chauffeuring my daughter around, and hanging out with my dog!

Family has consumed much of my time since beginning Dave’s ESL Cafe in 1995. Back then my 20 year old son was 4 years old and my 15 year old daughter wasn’t even born. Wow, I’ve been doing this for a long time! I now have more free time to do things that I enjoy doing, so I’ve resurrected my love of photography, music, and physical fitness (I am proud to tell you that I completed a half-marathon this year and hope to run a full one next year).

Q: What are the percentages of listings from particular countries?

Answer: The most amount of ads come from South Korea and China (I have separate job boards for those two countries), but I get ads from every continent. Sometimes I’m blown away, in fact, at the diversity of ads on my International Job Board. I’m now looking at the first 10 ads and I see jobs in Indonesia, Myanmar, Japan, Russia, Mexico, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Italy. Amazing!

Q: What country has the most forum postings?

Answer: South Korea, for sure, but there are several hundred thousand postings from all over the world.

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A special thank you to Kelsey L. Smith who has done several fantastic portraits for the Five Questions series. She can be contacted at [email protected] 

Bobby McGill
Bobby is the founder of Haps Korea.

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