Life of Deirdre Bounds, Founder of i to i

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Being competitive was something Deirdre Bounds learnt
from an early age. The youngest of five children born to an
Irish immigrant family on Merseyside, she quickly discov-
ered that nothing came without a struggle. She says: ‘We
didn’t have much and to get anything in the house you really
had to figure your way through the household politics –
even to keep your portion of dinner from being whipped
from your plate when you weren’t looking.’
To begin with she had a hard time at school. She says: ‘I
always looked a bit scruffy and was a bit of an oddball, so at
primary school I was the one in the corner with no friends. It
was a pretty miserable existence.’
Indeed, Bounds was so unhappy that when she left
primary to go to senior school at the age of 11 she was deter-
mined things were going to be different. She says: ‘I remem-
ber deciding that I was going to succeed in everything I did,
and that the only person who could change things was me.’
She did well and in 1983 went to Leeds university to study
business studies and social science. She initially planned to

be a social worker but a placement at a boys’ home convinced
her otherwise. So when she graduated she got a job selling
advertising space instead.
Then she got a job with a company that made shoe-making
machines and was sent to factories around the world to
demonstrate the machine. She soon got the travel bug and
decided to give up her job. She took a four-week TEFL
(teaching English as a foreign language) course and headed
for Japan to work as an English teacher there. She ended up
staying away for several years, visiting China and Australia
and teaching English in Greece.
By the time she returned to the UK, Bound was 30 and still
without a clear plan of what to do with her life. So she
became a stand-up comedian, performing in Northern clubs.
She says: ‘I thought I can do anything I want to do and it
really doesn’t matter what people think of me, I don’t care.’
She also became a part-time youth worker and realised
that teaching English could be a useful tool for young people

taking a gap year before university. She started going into
inner city schools to teach TEFL courses.
It was when other people asked if they could take her
course that she had her big idea. Bounds decided to quit her
job and start up her own company from her bedsit offering
weekend TEFL courses, believing that a short course would
be more appealing than an expensive four-week course.
She borrowed £1,000 from her parents and put an advert
in a local Birmingham paper, thinking that people living
there might be more inclined than most to take her course.
She says: ‘I was driving out of Birmingham one day on a
really murky November evening and I thought people really
need to leave this city and go somewhere pleasant.’ She was
right. She got 150 enquiries from the advert. Her first course
was attended by 18 people and made her enough money to
buy a car.
Inspired by her success, Bounds started holding weekend
TEFL courses around the country. They went so well that
she soon had to hire a tutor to help her. She says: ‘There was
no plan or market research, everything I did was based
on gut feel because I had no business experience and nobody
to ask.’

Her unconventional approach did not go down well with
everyone, however. ‘I think we put quite a few noses out of
joint. Somebody at a travel event who ran traditional four-
week TEFL courses described us as “that bunch of upstarts
from Leeds.”’
Undaunted, when people who took her course asked if
she could help them find jobs abroad, once again she decided
to take up the challenge. She says: ‘I wondered if there was
any mileage in offering overseas schools some trained volun-
teer English teachers so my pupils could dip their toe in the
water and get two or three months’ experience.’
So she sent faxes to several schools overseas and within
days got a call from a Russian school that agreed to take
some of her teachers. Schools in India and Sri Lanka
followed, with each volunteer paying Bounds a fee for
organising their stay.
With the business growing fast Bounds moved the office
out of her bedsit into a couple of Portakabins at a local
college in return for providing some courses. She says: ‘I
was quite afraid to sign any contracts because I had no idea
how the business was going to go.’

But a chance conversation with someone who was advis-
ing her on office technology changed her views. She says:
‘He told me I had to break out of my frightened shell and
move forward.’ Inspired by his straight talking, Bounds
moved into an office suite and took on more staff. She also
started setting up volunteer conservation trips – with the
volunteers again paying a fee.
She admits it is an unusual set-up. She says: ‘A lot of
people pooh-poohed my ideas and said no one would pay to
work, but I wanted volunteering abroad to become an excit-
ing travel product and not a dowdy charitable excursion.’
By 1988 there was increasing interest in her volunteer
teaching projects from the United States. But people were
put off by the need to take a weekend TEFL course in the
UK first. So Bounds came up with the unlikely concept of

creating an online TEFL course which could be accessed
from anywhere in the world. She says: ‘When I told people
about it they just said, “Don’t be ridiculous, you must be
joking, nobody is ever going to buy it.”’
Undaunted, Bounds went ahead and launched her online
course in 1999. Once again, her instincts were spot on. Now
more than 7,000 people a year will take the online course,
making it the main profit earner for the company.
Not everything she had touched has turned to gold. Three
years ago, after being frustrated by her lack of Spanish while
visiting Honduras she decided to offer weekend Latin-
American Spanish courses in Leeds and London. She filled
some of the places on the courses but not enough to make it
worthwhile and so the idea was shelved.
But i to i now has 300 projects in 24 countries, where
people can pay to teach English, work on conservation
projects, work in orphanages or build homes. The company
has also just launched overland humanitarian tours in
Africa and Asia where people do volunteer work en route.
Bounds sold her business in 2007 to TUI Travel for £12m.
Since then she has set up an ethical children’s parties

Bounds gets most of her ideas from talking to strangers on
trains and planes. She says: ‘I am quite inquisitive and often
an idea emanates from someone I am talking to. I am quite a
fearful flier so generally as the aeroplane is taking off down
the runway I will turn to the person sitting next to me and
start a conversation. On an eight-hour flight you can tell if
someone wants to talk and you can get some great informa-
tion from people.’
When Bounds finds an idea she likes, she usually acts on
instinct. She says: ‘Now it might take me a week rather than a
couple of minutes. But once I decide on something I do it very
quickly, because if it is good it will get copied very quickly.’
One idea she has not yet had time to put into action is a
website selling health and fitness holidays. She already has

the website name,, and even briefly
launched the site a couple of Christmases ago. But within
three days she realised she did not have the time to commit
to making the project work and so pulled the plug on it.
She says: ‘I thought there needed to be one portal site for
yoga breaks and really good spas. It is still a great idea but I
shelved it because I can’t focus on too many things at once
otherwise nothing gets done effectively. All I am waiting for
is the headspace to do it properly. I am learning that I can’t
do everything.’
She admits that she is driven by the desire to turn ideas into
action: ‘I like to think up things and I like them to work.’
Now 45 and married with two children, Bounds thinks
the secret of her success is to always ask for help. ‘There is
always somebody else who will know more than I do.’

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