Small Business Survivors: NYC-based French school and culture center goes completely digital overnight

Marianne (l) and Léa Perret, founders of Coucou
Photos courtesy of Coucou

A New York City-based French school is continuing to thrive despite limitations brought on by COVID-19.

Coucou was created by cousins Marianne and Léa Perret in 2013. Léa had previously been teaching french at another school and in 2012 she found she was not happy with what she was doing. While on a vacation in California with Marianne, who was living in Berlin at the time, Léa told her about her new idea to start a French school that also served as a cultural institution.

Most places would teach languages and were very dry, it was just a language among ten other languages taught at the school and there was very little focus on culture,” said Léa. “I told Marianne I had this crazy idea to start a business that would be a cultural and language center for French in Brooklyn and she was like yeah I’m in. She moved to New York and that’s how we started. We were young and not afraid and we started our own business.”

For the pair, opening Coucou in Brooklyn made perfect sense.

It was a mix of practical reasons because we were both working there but also it made sense, it had the vibe we had in mind,” said Marianne. “It was young, culturally open — we wanted a nice space that felt homey, and we found a place in Williamsburg that had an outdoor space that was great for parties. It was practical for us but also made sense for the business.”

Since opening in 2013, Coucou grew organically over the years. They have since moved from their original Brooklyn location to a new one in Manhattan and opened new schools in Los Angeles and Minneapolis, and were able to hire more teachers and accommodate more students. 

A group class at CoucouPhoto courtesy of Coucou
A group class at CoucouPhoto courtesy of Coucou

The Perrets opted to write their own curriculum that was more in line with what people living in France would use in their day to day life, including slang. The pair say that this combined with the focus on French culture is what sets them apart from other language classes. 

“What’s helped is that on top of French classes, which is the core of our business, we always had a lot of parties — themed parties around French holidays and things like that — that were free and open to anyone who was interested in discovering the school and meeting fellow Francophiles,” said Léa. “Historically they have brought a lot of people through the doors. [Guests] would think, ‘Oh this is a cool space, it doesn’t look like a school, I could probably learn here.’ We hosted a lot of workshops in the beginning, like French knitting and theater in French….pushing those from the beginning and those little things brought on people with different interests.”

There was the crowd that was in it to learn French and the crowd that wanted to discover something new and learn something fun,” said Marianne. “It was a way to broaden but it really worked and grew into a strong community.”

Like many businesses in New York City, Coucou had to shut down its physical spaces. Prior to the shutdown, Léa and Marianne said that some of Coucou’s students had already started to back out of classes because of the news.

They began to start hosting some students online through Zoom, but didn’t believe that it could be sustainable in the longterm. However, in one fell swoop Zoom became a crucial part of Coucou’s business model.

A week before everything shut down, we started having some of the students on Zoom in class. We thought that this was not sustainable,” said Léa.

“We thought maybe we can carry on with this hybrid situation for a while,” agreed Marianne. “Then Zoom became our entire business overnight. We had never used it before, we had to completely train ourselves to use it.”

Coucou had to shift hundreds of students from over 100 in-person classes to virtual learning almost instantly, and managed to do so without interrupting any of the classes, while Léa was five months pregnant at the time. There was a fear that once students finished their class that they wouldn’t want to continue learning French online and continue the education. 

Photo courtesy of Coucou
A Zoom classPhoto courtesy of Coucou

“Our business is pretty year-round, we had a pretty steady income,” said Marianne. “There was this 2-week stretch where we had a fraction of registrations that we normally have. There was so much uncertainty but there was a possibility that it would be like that until the end of the pandemic.”

“We didn’t think that people would continue taking classes online. When the cycle is over, they will wait to reopen,” said Léa. “A lot of students asked for a refund or to transfer to a different class. We looked at finances and thought, with what we have we can reopen in September. In our minds, nobody is going to do this online.”

However, the Perrets were proven wrong. Once it became clear that the shutdown was going to last longer than a few weeks, registrations at Coucou started to boom. They found that people were in need of something to do while they were sheltering in place, and continuing their education or taking part in Coucou’s activities and events were just the ticket.

“I think it synced for everyone that home was going to lockdown. We saw people coming again. We basically have to reinvent our business — if people are going to come, we needed to provide,” said Léa. “We need to provide the best classes possible and keep providing them with what Coucou is about, this community feeling and socializing. That’s what was scary for us because we don’t just provide language classes, it was a lifestyle.”

Coucou has had to adapt while navigating the much more crowded digital space. With more competition, Léa and Marianne and the team at Coucou had to really set the business apart. They were able to adapt their study materials to be more approachable over Zoom — an idea that had been in the works but had fallen by the wayside as Coucou grew on its own.

Coucou has also been offering a number of free events, such as teaching French recipes on Instagram Live and Netflix and Chat nights, that are helping to engage the community. 

One of our biggest challenges was not only to change methods so people can learn French online, but to keep this social link with communities,” said Léa. “You feel from time to time that people found that they are more productive in COVID times. Not only we became more productive working at home, our teachers — most of them have jobs in the arts — really depended on us for income, so we created ways for them to have income during this time, like a lot of workshops that give additional work, keep servicing our community with non-language related stuff.”

Léa and Marianne give high praise to their team for stepping up during Léa’s pregnancy and keeping Coucou going during this time of uncertainty.

“I was bedridden for 4 months, so that was a very difficult time not being able to work as much as I wanted while surviving pandemic,” said Léa. “Our team of women was amazing, everyone stepped up. Because they were women, they understood my situation. Everyone was like we will work harder and step up.”

As the country continues to work through to the other side of the pandemic, Coucou has a number of virtual events lined up for those who are sheltering in place can enjoy, and are working on creating pre-recorded lessons. Léa and Marianne hope that they can eventually open new locations once it is safe to do so.

“Opening additional physical locations in other cities is on the table if and when that becomes an option. Otherwise, we can still keep growing the online offerings,” said Marianne. “Because people are taking classes from all over, our data shows where it would make sense to have another Coucou location.”

But for now, running classes and programming online has been going well for Coucou, so reopening their physical space in New York is not in the cards at the moment.

“It’s working so well now that we don’t have the incentive to risk anyone’s life. It is a perfectly suitable alternative at this point,” said Marianne. “We are in no rush because online classes are going really well. Even when we do reopen, online classes will remain an option for anyone who is not located near one of our physical locations.”

For more information about Coucou, visit coucoufrenchclasses.com.