Ray Blakney is the CEO and co-founder of Live Lingua, an online language learning platform. LiveLingua.com offers a unique and immersive approach to mastering a new language, as it pairs users who want to learn Spanish, French, German, Chinese, and more with their own hand-picked, certified, native-speaking tutor for online teaching sessions via Skype. In addition to the great teachers, each student is supported by a full-time academic team (with over 50 years of language teaching experience) to help with any learning-related questions, as well as their administrative team which helps students with any scheduling or technical issues they may face.
Ray and his wife launched LiveLingua.com in 2009 out of complete necessity, because the Mexican swine flu crisis dealt a major blow to their previous business (a brick-and-mortar language immersion school in Mexico). Within weeks of the swine flu outbreak, Mexico’s borders were closed (and most of their students came from outside of the country) and their students canceled. They had just started a few months ago and they did not have enough savings to keep operating for more than a few weeks. It was then that his wife had the idea of contacting their previous students to see if they wanted to have classes over Skype. It worked better than he expected. So he decided to launch a website and offer the classes to the public, just to see if anybody would sign up.
The swine flu ended in eight weeks. It did not end up being a global pandemic. So within a few weeks, their brick-and-mortar school was full again. But to their surprise, their online classes kept growing. Within six months it was generating more revenue than their brick-and-mortar school for just a few hours a week of work. At that point, they decided to sell their physical school (it took three years to sell) and focus on the online school. In 2012, they rebranded it as LiveLingua.com, and they have been growing at about 20% a year every year since then.
StarCentral Magazine recently caught up with Ray to discuss his journey to entrepreneurship and here’s what went down:
When did your entrepreneurial flair first reveal itself?
When I was 11 years old. But the catch here was that everybody noticed it but me. When I was a kid, I was the one who all my friends would go to during the bake sales to sell their goods. I would come up with creative marketing slogans and sell more than anybody else.
At that time, everybody said ‘Ray, one day you will own your own business’. However, honestly, that did not really interest me much at that age. I loved playing computer games, so I wanted to be a computer programmer and make computer games. So that is what I did; I went to college and studied to be a computer engineer. While I did not go into computer games (I learned in my college classes that they are much more fun to play than to make), I did work professionally as a computer programmer for Fortune 500 companies and Silicon Valley startups.
It was there that the business side of things got reintroduced to me. It did not happen overnight (it took a few years), but eventually, that spark I had as a child returned and I took the plunge into entrepreneurship in my late 20’s. Close to a decade and a half later, I love what I do and wish I had started earlier.
How did your life look like before being an entrepreneur?
While it seems normal to me, I have been told that my backstory is anything but. I was born in the Philippines to a Filipina mother and an American father (but my American father grew up in Rhodesia). At the age of one, we moved to Turkey, where I spent most of the next 15 years of my life. At 15, I got sent to a boarding school in the US (since the US school in Turkey did not have the last two years of high school). I completed high school and went to university in the US, where I graduated with a B.S. in Computer Engineering. After college, I spent about five years working in Silicon Valley and for Fortune 500 companies as a software engineer. When I turned 26, I had a quarter-life crisis where I saw myself sitting in a cubicle and writing code for the next 40 years. It was not the life I wanted to live. Within a few days of this epiphany, I had applied to join the US Peace Corps as a volunteer. Within three months, I had quit my almost-6-figure job, sold my condo and all my worldly possessions, and was on a plane to Mexico where I would help indigenous communities in the south of the country.
While in Mexico, I met my wife and after I completed my two years in the Peace Corps, we decided to try our hand at a business together. Our first business was a chain of language schools in Mexico, which we sold in 2012. As part of our language schools, we had online classes—which we started offering in 2009 to help our business survive during the Mexican Swine flu crisis—and we kept that portion of the business.
The online portion grew into what is today LiveLingua.com. We are one of the largest online language schools in the world, and the only one in the top five that has not received any venture funding.”
As an entrepreneur, what is it that motivates and drives you?
Money. Sorry if you were expecting a more introspective answer, but that is the truth. Most people are embarrassed to say this, but it is also not as superficial as it sounds at first.
When I was growing up we were middle class, but due to living overseas and my parent’s work paying for school, I was able to go to an expensive private school where everybody’s parents were richer than we were. We never lacked food or a roof over our head, but a kid’s mind does what a kid’s mind does.
That feeling has stuck with me my whole life, and even to this day where I have built numerous businesses, I still feel worried about not having money one day. So that is what motivates me to wake up every day. I work to have enough money so that I can support my family and me, in a simple but comfortable life for the rest of my life without having this dark cloud over my head.
When I reach that goal, my dream is to open up a social enterprise whose goal is to get others out of poverty and help them also reach that same place where they don’t worry about money ever again. So yes, money motivates me. Not wanting more so I can buy stuff, but rather not wanting to have to worry about it every day.
In one word, describe your life as an entrepreneur and explain why.
Regimented! One of the keys to my productivity is having a set schedule every workday. Every day starts with a good night’s sleep. I make sure to be asleep by 11:00 p.m. and wake up at 7:00 a.m. I have been doing it this way for so long that I don’t actually need an alarm. I am pretty wide awake until 5 minutes before 11:00 p.m. and I wake within 10 minutes of 7:00 a.m. every day.
To start the day, I go through my version of The Miracle Morning (by Hal Elrod). I have a 30-minute routine of brushing my teeth, washing my face, journaling, exercise, and meditation I do every weekday to wake up. I then have breakfast before starting work between 8:00 and 8:30 a.m. I spend one-hour answering emails while drinking my coffee.
At 9:30 a.m. I close all my emails and focus on getting two hours of deep work on the biggest task that needs to get done that day. Between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. I get in my workout (gym or swimming). After the workout, I get back and try to do one more hour of deep work. At 1:30 p.m. I have lunch until 2:00 p.m.
Between 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. I schedule any meetings, calls, or podcast interviews. If I have some time without meetings during that time, I try to get some more work done. Between 5:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. I answer any emails that came in for the day. If I finish the emails early, I allow myself to spend that time unwinding by playing computer games.
Family time is from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., which I spend with my wife and so. At 9:00 p.m. I am in bed reading until my bedtime at 11:00 p.m.
Some people think having this kind of regimented schedule is boring. For me, it is freeing, and I don’t have to waste time thinking about what I have to do every day. This is my weekday schedule. On the weekends, I just go with the flow to allow myself to unwind.
What were your top three motivations for starting your business?
My top three motivations are:
1) Swine flu. We started LiveLingua.com because we had a brick-and-mortar language school in Mexico that lost all its students in 2009 due to the Mexican swine flu crisis. We needed to find another way to make income, so we offered classes via Skype. Our prime motivation was survival.
2) Financial stability. As I mentioned in the previous question, worrying about money is a big driver for me. The idea of having multiple sources of income so that if one goes badly we have others is very attractive to me.
3) The adventure. Like most entrepreneurs, I have ‘shiny object syndrome’ so the idea of trying something that was very new (online language lessons were not as common in 2009 as they are now) was very exciting.
What would you say are the key elements for starting and running a successful business?
The key elements are:
1. Have a clear vision of what the purpose of the company is. The idea here is that you should be able to describe to your staff and envision in just 1–2 sentences what your company does. An example for us is ‘We are the top Spanish language school in the world. We combine live Spanish tutors with online material to help our students learn Spanish quickly. If it takes more than 1–2 lines, then your vision is not clear.
2. Have the ability to clearly share this vision with every member of the company. The first step is to make the vision clear to everybody. The next step is to make sure your team understands it. No matter who on the team is asked, they should give the same answer. If you ask your team and they all give different answers, then you have not done this step well.
3. Clearly share this vision with the customers Just like with your team, the vision should be clear to your customers. If you ask your customers what your company does, and they can’t give you an answer in 1–2 sentences, then you need to work on focusing the vision of the company and doing a better job in conveying that vision to your customers.
4. Keep the focus on the vision and not get distracted by the ‘shiny object’ syndrome. This one is key. Great companies keep their eye on the ball for the long term and don’t get distracted by the newest fads and trends. This is not to say that a great company does not evolve and take advantage of new technologies and opportunities. It just means that they only pick and choose the ones that help them move towards the vision, not the ones that distract them.
5. Share progress towards the vision with both customers and staff so they can see what they are doing matters. This is about accountability. Many companies have a vision, but they forget about it shortly after creating it and never look at it again. By sharing regular progress with both the team and the customers, you are holding the company accountable to keeping to the vision.”
What are the three biggest challenges you have faced growing the business and how did you overcome them?
The biggest challenge we faced with LiveLingua.com was in 2012, right after we had sold our brick-and-mortar business. LiveLingua.com was built on the back of SEO (search engine optimization). This means that the vast majority of our language students came from organic traffic and looking for us on Google. In April 2012, Google did an update called Penguin. This massive update caused our website — and millions of others — to fall from the first page of Google into oblivion. Our source of customers dried up overnight. At that point, we had to decide whether to quit or to start again. We decided on the latter. We knew our business model worked and we just needed to get back in front of our audience.
The next challenge was hiring, especially when your business is at the point where it makes enough to support you and your family, but does not – or you think it does not – make enough to hire staff. I found that if you are willing to think globally, this is in most cases not true. You can find a great virtual assistant in the Philippines that can free up a lot of your busy time, which then allows you to grow your business more. That growth can then help you hire a customer support person who is an ex-pat living in Latin America. That frees you up some more and your business keeps growing since you can focus on the things only you can do. Before you know it, you are leading a team.
The final challenge was burnout. In the beginning, it is all exciting. You are putting in 80-hour weeks, getting new clients, and the adrenaline keeps you going. If you are young and just starting out, this can even keep you going for years. But eventually, you will hit a wall and burn out. I did this for three years–no vacation days and working day in and day out. Honestly, I did not feel burned out. But my wife saw it. Without telling me, she booked us for one week at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico and told our team to handle the business. I was very stressed about going away because I thought the business could not run without me. It was not until we arrived at the resort and I slept for 16 hours the first night did I realize how tired I was. Over the next week, I released tension I did not even know I had. When I got back, I found out we had one of the most profitable weeks we had ever had.
What form of marketing has worked well for your business throughout the years?
SEO. Search engine optimization. This is the art, or science, of getting your website to show up in Google for common search terms. I have bootstrapped multiple 6- and 7-figure online businesses using SEO as my starting point and then adding the paid avenues afterward using money generated from the business itself.
As you grew the business, what have been some of the most important leadership lessons you have learned?
There is one characteristic, above all others, that is needed to be a successful leader: discipline. It’s the ability to wake up every morning and do what you said you are going to do that day, and do that every day.
To be a successful leader, it is also crucial to have the ability to focus on the tasks at hand. It is so important to work on one thing until completion before starting something else. It does not matter how big or small. Don’t stop answering an email to check a text message. Don’t stop working on your report to just ‘hop on Facebook for one minute’ (which always ends up being 30 minutes). Don’t start a new business when your current one is starting to do well. Focus on completing one thing before moving on to the next.
What is the best advice you have ever been given?
My mentor told me to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Entrepreneurship is about constantly growing and learning, and for the most part that is uncomfortable. That advice has helped me survive previous pandemics that affected my business and this current one.
What advice would you give to a newbie Entrepreneur setting up their first business?
If you have a business idea, just throw up a website and promote it. Don’t worry about the page or the offer being perfect—just launch something. Then wait for the feedback to come in. Most of it will probably be bad, but don’t take it personally; just learn from it and improve. Do this day in and day out and within a year or two, you will have a growing business.
It is also so important to work on one thing until completion before starting something else. It does not matter how big or small. Don’t stop answering an email to check a text message. Don’t stop working on your report to just “hop on Facebook for one minute” (which always ends up being 30 minutes). Don’t start a new business when your current one is starting to do well. Focus on completing one thing before moving on to the next. Rinse, lather, and repeat.
One more thing–to increase conversion rates, make sure you A/B test faster than all your competitors. Constantly be testing and improving every step of your sales funnel. If you are online, you should constantly be testing new copies on your landing pages. Your emails should be constantly tested and tweaked to improve open and click-through rates. Your call center scripts should be tweaked constantly to see if you could raise the conversion by even a fraction of a percent. The faster you can test, the faster you will find the best results, and the faster your business will grow.