Entrepreneur: Rachel Smith

Biz: Rachel’s English

Tilt: Helping non-native speakers improve their spoken English and listening comprehension

Primary Channels: YouTube (5.3M), Facebook (2.5M) 

Other Channels: Website, podcast, Instagram (1M), Facebook (2.5M), newsletter 

Time to First Dollar: 13 months

Rev Streams: Courses, coaching, book (ebook), YouTube, Facebook

Our Favorite Actionable Advice

  • Pick the best format: As an accent coach, Rachel knew a text-based format would never work well for her audience. So, she turned to video and began a YouTube channel.
  • Pay attention to the audience: In her early days, particularly, Rachel used viewers’ comments as fodder for the topics of her next video. She says learning their stories and what is happening in their lives helped her help them and reminded her why she was doing it in the first place.
  • Learn and build: Understand that you are building a business. Some things you invest your time and energy in are not going to work out. And that’s OK. Don’t look at other people 10 years in and compare yourself to them. Perfectionists don’t last as content entrepreneurs. 

The Story of Rachel Smith

Rachel’s journey to content entrepreneurship came by way of opera.

In college, Rachel had a strong interest in applied mathematics and computer science. She wanted to be an actuary. Along the way, though, she developed a passion for singing. So, she went to graduate school to pursue a career in opera.

Rachel studied breath, voice, and all the components of opera, as well as Italian, French, and German. She discovered a love of languages and singing with a native accent. 

While studying abroad in Germany, she immersed herself in the culture with fellow language learners from around the world. Some of her classmates would ask her advice on pronunciation and “how to sound American.” 

One friend from Turkey asked about how to “sound like they do in the movies.” Rachel taught him the AA (/æ/) vowel sound, where the speaker places the tongue high in the back of his mouth. Rachel distinctly remembers him looking at her and saying, “Yeah, wow. You’re really good at this.” 

That’s how what would evolve into the content business Rachel’s English got started.

Making the music of language

“If you have done much language learning, so much of it is based on reading and writing. Then you get to the point where you can know the language but barely speak it or understand it,” Rachel explains.

She decided to fill that gap, making it her content tilt. Rachel does not see herself as an English teacher. She is an accent coach, so she knew her content wouldn’t work as a blog; it had to be videos.
In 2008, video hosting was more complex and costly than it is today. Costs prohibited her from creating her own video hosting site. After some research, she found YouTube.

Rachel uploaded her videos to the platform but initially had no desire to create a following or a channel. She embedded the YouTube videos on her website. In those videos, Rachel would observe how she made an English sound and teach others to do the same. Each video addressed a different pronunciation.

The YouTube audience found her first four videos, resulting in hundreds of views and a few comments. Rachel used that input to make the next video.

Creating a full-time business

Rachel returned from Germany and eventually moved to New York City to pursue her opera career and work odd jobs. She also continued producing more videos on speaking English.

In 2009, Rachel added one-on-one coaching to her services and earned her first revenue. Two years later, she went full time in her content business.

“I was not making enough revenue to make this a true full-time job. But here’s the thing. I had no kids, no relationship, no mortgage. And I had been a starving artist for a while, and I didn’t care. That lifestyle was great for me. It was no problem. I made enough. It was not going to be livable for long, but it worked for me at the time,” she explains.

Gaining from YouTube

YouTube’s investment in creators between 2011 and 2015 propelled Rachel’s business growth. She was accepted into its Next Up program, receiving a $5K equipment setup and Zoom sessions with industry experts. 

But it was the one-time Creator Accelerator program in 2014 that Rachel says was pivotal. Rachel’s English and 34 other content entrepreneurs were flown to Los Angeles three times over six months for in-person how-to classes and collaboration. 

“It was great because there were 35 other channels and creators at the same phase as me, and the idea exchange was invaluable,” she says. “Everyone was sharing ideas on best practices, lighting, editing, revenue streams, etc., without worrying that they were stealing each other’s audiences due to being in different verticals.”

A creator with a cartoon and art channel had an idea that appealed to Rachel –publishing a book. As she compiled the content she already had, Rachel realized it covered an entire curriculum. 

In 2015, Rachel published her book as a PDF download with audio and video clips. For the next few years, she consistently generated $7K to $8K per month from the product. Her customers came from her YouTube videos and her Facebook following. The PDF book still generates some income nine years later.

Adding a new revenue stream

In 2016, Rachel added subscription-based courses using Thinkific’s platform because it had the best options for adding audio and video to quizzes and other content.

Rachel also used students’ immediate feedback to produce more content that met their needs. Students also discovered new content and lessons, incentivizing them to continue their subscriptions.

Subscriptions initially cost $14 a month. Two years later, they rose to $27 a month. In 2021, she raised the fee to $37 a month. Each time she increased prices, she evaluated the content and value and notified her subscribers well in advance.

Doing what works for business and life

Rachel uses Facebook (2.5M) and Instagram (1M) to generate traffic to her site and many conversions to her product. YouTube remains her primary channel. While she earns some revenue from those channels, she says that income is inconsistent and often sporadic. One month she earn $42K from Facebook, and the next, it could be $800. 

Rachel also has evolved her one-on-one coaching to include a roster of teachers. 

In 2018, she dipped her toes into podcasting, planning to grow an audience and monetize it through sponsorships. She made 25 episodes but didn’t return to the medium after a maternity leave. But as a successful content entrepreneur, Rachel knew something had to give for her quality of life, and she landed on the podcast as a non-revenue generator. The episodes remain available, but she only uses them as a marketing tool.

Rachel also publishes a weekly newsletter for her students.

She recently hired a director of operations and someone to help segment her audience, bringing her team to 15 people.

Rachel’s plans for the future include creating packages of content to give beginners and intermediate students an entry point into her 15-year library of content. She also plans to develop courses for students who speak languages such as Spanish or Vietnamese.

Advice for content entrepreneurs

Rachel offers this advice for creators considering or working as entrepreneurs:

  • Hiring an assistant can be an intimidating task. Rachel was apprehensive about it because the person would have to know her voice and style to reply to emails and requests as well as understand the Rachel’s English brand. But once she took the plunge, she was glad she did. “I wouldn’t have been able to grow the business without hiring an assistant and then others to help run the business,” she says.
  • Being prepared to let go of an employee or contractor is a must for an entrepreneur with a team. Rachel’s first assistant worked well for a while, but then the fit just wasn’t right. You have to end the arrangement, or it will hurt your business.
  • Don’t build on rented land. Rachel built a huge following on YouTube, but that was never her intent. She used the platform as a hosting site for her videos. Over time, YouTube provided income, but it was never consistent. Rachel did not have to worry because her three top revenue streams were product-based on the website that she controlled. Rachel views social media revenue as “extra” and uses it for a bonus vacation or investing in something unique for the business. Do not count on social media revenue, or you are beholden to the platform, and this is not sustainable in the long run.

Learn from Rachel Smith and other content entrepreneurs with thriving content businesses at CEX 2024 in May. Get your ticket today.

About the author

Marc Maxhimer is the director of growth and partnerships at The Tilt. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and mathematics education and a master’s degree in educational administration.  He previously taught middle school for 16 years.  Marc lives in (and loves all things) Cleveland with his wife, two daughters, and dog.