Steve lives in Vancouver, Canada, is 74 years old, and speaks over 15 languages. He’s the founder of Lingq, a language learning platform where people can learn a language through listening and reading content that they enjoy. Lingq is available for about 35 languages.
When Steve started with Lingq 15 years ago, he had a hard time getting traction with the business. For many years the business wasn’t profitable and he made every single mistake someone can make. In this interview, we’re going to take a look behind the scenes of Lingq. Some of the things that you will learn:
The story behind building Lingq
The challenges that come with building an online platform
The best way to sell your products online according to Steve
The big opportunity for Langpreneurs
Steve’s fascination for languages
Steve has always had a connection with language throughout his life. He grew up in Montreal and became very interested in learning French at a young age, thanks to one of his professors at school. He spent three years in France as a student, and later went on to work for the Canadian government, which sent him to Hong Kong to learn Chinese. He spent almost a decade in Japan, and later did business in Sweden, Germany and many other countries.
The immigrant who had his money stolen
At age 55 or so, Stevewas listening to a local Chinese radio station when he heard that there was a Chinese immigrant in Vancouver who had all his money stolen at the airport. Steve contacted the Chinese community and he learned that the individual in question was a programmer.
Steve was running his own lumber company at the time, and was selling sawmills. He decided to hire the Chinese man from the airport to help him develop the software for these machines. The new employee was struggling with English, and that’s why one of Steve programmers developed the beginnings of Lingq for him.
From a platform to learn English to multiple languages
Steve realized that there were a lot of highly skilled immigrants in Canada who needed something like Lingq, so he pitched Lingq to the Immigrant Service Organisation. They were not as interested as Steve hoped. That’s when he decided to turn Lingq into a multi-language platform. Developing Lingq has cost a lot of money and it took many years for the business to become profitable. Steve says:
‘’No business person in their right mind would have stayed with it as long as I have. It has been a long road in a small long dark tunnel.’’
Lingq is available for 35 languages including Cantonese!
The challenges of building a language platform
Steve says that it’s much more difficult to help people find you than you think. Steve has over 200,000 subscribers on YouTube but he still says;
‘’Nobody really knows I exist. The market is very competitive and outside of the community of language enthusiasts, people have never heard about me.’’
And then there is the challenge to not add too many functions: ‘’You can dream up all kinds of fancy functions. The reality is that the more functions you have, the more confusing it is. It’s very important to trim any unnecessary options or functions. You need to learn to resist requests from your users. The more functions, the more opportunity for glitches.’’ They’ve also had problems with technology, with databases, and they even had to build the platform all over again because they found out they were going in the wrong direction. Finding good developers who create quality code has also been a big challenge.
Steve’s son Mark Kaufmann is the person who runs the business. With five other full-time employees, they operate from Vancouver. And then they work with about seven part-timers who work remotely from various countries like Serbia, Ukraine, Bolivia, Korea, Romania and Portugal.
Lingq is all about reading and listening; how to sell that so that it sounds sexy?
Steve has to admit that this has, indeed, been a challenge.
”People are used to a certain way of learning from school. We have to explain to people why this way of learning works’’ – he says. The good thing is that people do read, so they only try to persuade certain people who do like to read and listen.
‘’We’re not going to appeal to everyone’’– he says.
Steve has been consistently uploading videos on his channel for over ten years
How important is your YouTube channel for your business?
Steve: Anybody who regularly watches me brainwash them on my YouTube channel understands the basic learning principles of Lingq. People who find Lingq through my channel are much more likely to convert into a buyer than somebody who comes across our ads on Facebook. YouTube videos are definitely a big part of our promotional activities.
How much can you do with 100,000 dollars when it comes to developing a platform?
Steve: ‘’Nothing! So many people say, nothing special, we can do it! – OK then, go and do it! There is no guarantee that you get it right the first time, there will be bugs; also browsers change all the time. Apple takes 30%, which is not very nice. Building a platform like this is really a major investment!’’
Why did you not give up after not being profitable for at least five years?
Steve was in a position where he could finance building Lingq through his lumber business. He says that if Lingq was a standalone business, it would be long gone.
‘’We simply want to do this thing! There’s never been any thought that we would give up!’’
The more we forced people to subscribe when they were hot, when they discovered it, the better we did. Making Lingq profitable was a gradual cumulative process of improving the design, making it faster, plus different approaches to pricing and promotion.
What strategy has worked best for you when it comes to promoting Lingq?
The market for language learning is humongous. The challenge is to make people aware of what you have, assuming you build a good product. Steve also says that there is enough space for everyone in the market, because the bulk of language learning takes place in schools and people start realizing that you don’t have to go to school to learn a language. ‘’There is a lot that people can do on their own. There is no need to jump on a bus and go to a school. Even if you go to a class, it’s your level of motivation that’s going to determine your success, not the school. Look at things that you can do to motivate people’.’ DuoLingo does a good job at motivating people. Even if the system doesn’t work very well, at least it gets people into the language. ‘’Create more attention around the fact that language learning is fun. Show them all the ways you can learn on your own, and show that they don’t have to go to a classroom.’’
‘’It’s a long road for most people who want to start a language business and getting motivated people is the key.’’
Jan and Steve at the Polyglot Gathering in Bratislava in 2017
The big opportunity for Langpreneurs:
”This Langpreneur thing is going to balloon. There will be a long term impact of this coronavirus and it will change how our socialites work. There’s going to be more demand for people who teach languages remotely.”
”The size of the online language learning market is humongous. Up until now, most people learn languages in a classroom. If even a portion of that moves to remote learning, the opportunities for you as a Langpreneur are huge!”