I am Ray Blakney, the CEO, and Co-founder of the Live Lingua online language school that offers a novel and truly immersive method of learning a new language. I wanted to share the story of what inspired me to launch Live Lingua with the hopes of encouraging others to pursue their entrepreneurial aspirations.
The Adventurous Beginnings, All Inspired By a Single Quote
My entrepreneurial journey truly began when I was inspired by a quote I heard in a commercial for the United States Navy when I was 26 years old: “If they were to write a book about your life, would anybody want to read it?” — Unknown.
At the time, I was making almost six figures a year working as a software engineer, but this quote caused me to take a long look at my current life situation and where it was possibly headed. Hearing this quote made me think to myself, would a book about my life really be interesting enough for anyone to read?
I found myself in the middle of a quarter-life crisis, thinking about what it would be like to sit and write code for other companies for the next forty years — I knew this wasn’t the kind of lifestyle I wanted to have and that something needed to change, and fast! Less than a week after having this burst of clarity, I decided to apply to volunteer for the US Peace Corps.
I was accepted and within three months, I had left my lucrative software engineering position, sold my condo and many of the items I owned and was on a flight to the south of Mexico to help the indigenous communities that lived there.
My First Business & First Pandemic Experience
While volunteering in Mexico, I ended up meeting my wife. Once my two-year tenure with the US Peace Corps was up, she and I decided to join forces and launch a company together. Our first entrepreneurial endeavor was a brick-and-mortar Spanish language immersion school that we launched in 2008 with only $2000 in our bank accounts. Luckily, the school was a huge success from its very first day and hit the maximum capacity of students within just a few weeks. It was a very exciting time for us!
However, this all came to an abrupt halt in March of 2009 when we were faced with a massive crisis that was completely out of our control: the Mexican swine flu pandemic. This crisis caused Mexico to close its borders, which was a huge problem for us because most of our students were from other countries and had to cancel their tutoring sessions.
My wife and I were very worried, as we did not have enough money saved up to keep the school operating for very long without any additional revenue. This meant one thing: it was absolutely critical to pivot our business model to adapt to the difficult times.
The Digital Transformation
While brainstorming how we could weather the swine flu pandemic, my wife came up with a brilliant idea: why not reach out to all of our current pupils to see if they would be open to doing their tutoring sessions via Skype video chat? We did just that, and our students were very interested in the idea. This made me wonder, would anyone else other than our current students be interested in signing up for online tutoring sessions?
I thought that it didn’t hurt to test out the idea, so I created a very basic website that provided an overview of the classes we offered, a pricing page, and a contact form that allowed visitors to email us. It only cost $59.99 to set up this website, which covered the cost of the domain and one year of hosting (website costs were much cheaper 12+ years ago!), and I located a free website template through a quick Internet search. The first version of our website was pretty bad, but it did the trick!
Within 30 days of launching this new website, a visitor signed up for an online tutoring session. Right after their free trial class, the student ended up purchasing 50 more hours of online tutoring sessions! Then the number of our online students kept on growing to the point where my wife (the teacher) could not handle teaching all of them on her own, so we needed to hire more teachers to help us — this all happened within 60 days of launching our website.
The Next Chapter
Our brick-and-mortar language immersion school was once again full of students after the Mexican swine flu pandemic ended, but we were surprised to discover that our online classes kept on getting bigger and bigger — in just six months, the Skype sessions were even bringing in more revenue than our physical school! On top of this, the website only required a few hours of upkeep a week.
We spent time analyzing the financials for both our online tutoring business and the brick-and-mortar school and concluded that we needed to sell the physical school and devote all of our attention and focus to the online business. We did just that and changed the name of our online school to “Live Lingua” in 2012. And we are so happy to say that Live Lingua has been growing every single year since we first launched it!
Now, Live Lingua is a top online language school that connects students who want to learn Spanish, French, Chinese, German, Russian, and more with their own hand-selected, certified tutor for online teaching sessions via video chat. Live Lingua sets itself apart from other online language schools by truly immersing students in the language they are learning and by educating them on the history and culture behind the language.
Live Lingua also has a full-time academic team of tutors with over 50 years of language teaching expertise, who help pupils with questions they may have about the language they are mastering.
Looking to the Future
One of Live Lingua’s biggest achievements was being named one of the best small businesses in the US (E360 award) by Entrepreneur Magazine in 2015. Also, out of the world’s top five language schools, Live Lingua is the only one that didn’t use funding from wealthy venture capitalists.
Live Lingua was launched as a family business and we are so happy that it is still a flourishing boutique language school, even while the industry is being filled with bigger companies that were funded by wealthy investors who only want to make money and don’t truly care that they provide high-quality education.
Looking to the future, we plan to add a lot of new teaching materials to our website, such as videos and handouts, to help students further immerse themselves in the language learning experience. We will ensure that we do this without upping our prices so that we can make it as affordable as possible for anyone to learn the language they’ve always wanted to learn.