Ray Blakney of LiveLingua.com: “Clearly share this vision with the customers”

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 […]

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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.”

As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ray Blakney, CEO and co-founder of LiveLingua.com, a renowned 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. An award-winning Filipino-American entrepreneur, speaker, and podcaster, Ray builds and helps others build 6- and 7-figure businesses on a bootstrap budget.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

“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.”

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

“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 2014, 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.

So, we started again. We spent the next two years building up our business again. It took three years to get back to where we were before and five years to pass seven figures. Did I ever consider giving up? Yes, absolutely. What helped me through that was my wife, who is also my business partner. Luckily, whenever one of us was at the point of burn out and wanted to quit, the other one was able to pull them back.”

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

“When I started our business, our first office was in Mexico (even though LiveLingua.com is registered in Boston). Thus, I was working with primarily native-Spanish speakers, and while I was communicative in Spanish, I was not fluent yet. Like anybody new to the business, I made a lot of mistakes in the job.

So I would constantly try to say ‘I am embarrassed’ in Spanish. Since I did not know the word for embarrassed at the time, I took a guess and said ‘embarassado’. Embarrassed, plus, -ado. Makes sense? When I said it the staff members would laugh.

I thought they were laughing because I was being humble, but that was not the case. Embarassado (correctly spelled ‘embarazado’, but it is pronounced the same) means pregnant. I was a male telling everybody I was pregnant. The staff was laughing at me, not with me! The big ‘takeaway’ from that experience is that you ARE going to mess up when you start anything new, whether it is a language or a business. You can either let it bring you down or laugh at it. After learning this, I blushed for a bit, but then went with the latter option.”

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

“In a world where every business, including online language schools, is growing for the sake of growth, we have had great success by focusing on staying personal and family-owned. When a student signs up with us, they work with one of our specialists to get paired with their ideal language tutor. We don’t make the students search through thousands of tutors for themselves. We do all the work for them.

When each student signs up, they get a personal welcome email from me with my direct email address so they can contact me directly with anything they need. A few weeks later, my wife and co-founder emails them as well to see how the classes are going. She runs the academic end of things and is on hand to help them make progress.

This approach has not only helped us in our business but has also helped us grow our group of friends. We have met with many of our students in person, either when they visit our area or when we visit theirs. I have also had the opportunity to connect with and get to know some celebrities and very well-known CEOs with this approach. It is not why we do it, but it has been a fun and unexpected benefit of being a more personal, family-owned business.”

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

“This one took me years to discover but has changed my life. Make sure you plan at least a 1-week ‘rest vacation’ every six months. Never skip it. A ‘rest vacation’ is one where you go to a place where you can entirely disconnect from work (nobody is allowed to call, and you should ideally have very limited internet/email access) and you focus on resting. This is not a vacation where you are exploring a new country or seeing tourist sites every day.

That can be different for everybody, but for us, it includes going for morning walks on the beach and reading fiction books 10–12 hours a day by a pool. If you do it right, you will notice that about 4–5 days in, you will feel re-energized. By day 6–7, you can’t wait to get back to work. Normally during the first 1–2 weeks after these vacations I not only make up for the lost time but also get more work done than the other five months between the rest vacations.”

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

“That one is easy: my wife. She has been not only my life-partner but also my business partner at LiveLingua.com for the last 12 years and counting. Without her, there would have been multiple times I would have wanted to give up and just get a job that paid me every month.

One incident that really stands out to me was when we were starting out. This is what led to the revelation of taking a rest vacation every six months as I mentioned in the last question. My idea of how to run a business was, sadly, from movies and what I heard on TV. I thought that to start a successful business, it was all about hustling for years until you finally get your big break, make lots of money, and can enjoy the rest of your life.

So, for the first three years, I never took a day off and I even worked most weekends. By the end of that time, I was burned out and did not want to work. My wife saw this, and without even telling me, she booked one week in an all-inclusive resort. I told her I did not want to go, but she had already paid.

The first night we got there, I slept for 14 hours. I did not even realize how stressed and tired I was. By the end of the week, I felt like a new person. Without this intervention, I don’t think I would have reached where I am today.”

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

“A good company is one that provides the goods or services that they promised at the quality that is expected by the customer.

A great company is one that over-delivers on the goods or services that they promised at a quality that far exceeds the expectations of the customers.”

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

“To lead a company from Good to Great, one must:

  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. The 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 exactly 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 ‘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.”

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

“A business, in many ways, is just like a person. It also can fall ‘victim’ to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Once the business makes enough to support the staff and makes enough money for the business owner or shareholders, just making more money does not affect the ‘happiness’ of the business.

In order to push the business to the next level and not get complacent, there needs to be buy-in from top to bottom in of a greater purpose for why this business exists. This helps push the business and those in it to higher and higher levels. For the social impact angle of the business, I do recommend it if it does fit in with your purpose.

At LiveLingua.com we sponsor children around the world through Save the Children, as that fits into our purpose of bringing the world closer together through language and education. But I don’t believe a business should try to force the social impact angle unless it is part of their vision already. Many businesses that do it, just to do it, as part of their business come across as disingenuous.

If your business purpose does not easily lend to a social impact, but you still want to have a social impact, it may just be easier to donate to charities you believe in, and come up with mechanisms for your team to do the same.”

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

“Ask. If your business has been stagnant for any period of time, the easiest way to decide what to do next is simply to ask. You can start by asking your team if they have seen any opportunities for growth that you have not taken advantage of yet.

If that does not provide you with a direction, the next step is to ask your customers. Sending emails is a great start, but the ideal is finding your best customers and simply getting on a call with them. Ask them what they love, what they think could be better, and what they wish you could help them with (within your vision). That should give you a clear direction on where your best opportunity for growth lies.”

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

“The one thing we have done to survive the crisis in the past, and that we continue to do today, is run a very tight ship. Our costs have never gone above 70% of our income in a calendar year. We save a lot, even after re-investment and innovation.

If you have gotten your team onboard with the vision of the company and give them the room to grow, we have found that across the board everybody always steps up and does more than they are required to in their roles. This means, we never have a need to hire frivolously. This in turn allows us to save more. With these savings, we are actually able to outgrow our competitors during a crisis.

The best example of this is that during the COVID-19 crisis, we were able to take advantage of the low online advertising costs — because so many people cut their advertising budget — and we were able to pick up ad buys for pennies on the dollar and we grew close to 40% in 2020.”

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

“Discipline. Especially when companies are just starting or even a few years in, there is an air of excitement and that is enough for growth. However, that phase will end eventually, and the only way to keep growing is to have developed the discipline to come in and get the tasks done that will take you to your long-term vision for your company. Then repeat that every day for years.”

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use 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 copy 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.”

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

“Be accessible. One of the ways we have been able to build trust with our students and distinguish ourselves from our competitors is by making ourselves accessible. Every student at LiveLingua.com gets the direct email of everybody in the company when they sign up. That applies to everybody, from their teacher to the CEO (me). We have found that when we do this, the customers feel that we are there to support them in their language learning and they start to trust us.

We have seen a shift, across all markets, in that people want to buy from a brand where they feel they know who they are working with. Examples of this can be seen with people preferring their local coffee shops to Starbucks, or people preferring to buy food from their local farmer’s markets instead of the big-box chain stores. If you can create that kind of connection with your customers in your industry, you will earn both their trust and their loyalty.”

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

“We have found that the best way to wow our customers in the customer experience area comes down to two things. The first is to set the customer expectations at each step of the journey, so they know what to expect and when in the entire process. With this clearly conveyed to your customers, you avoid 80% of the friction in the process. Even if a certain step in your process takes a few days, you will find that most customers will not mind as long as you let them know beforehand and explain to them why.

The second step is to over-deliver on what is promised. This goes hand in hand with setting up expectations. If you are shipping a good and you set up the expectation that it will arrive in 3–5 days, you will probably not get any blow back. But then, if you do overnight shipping and they get it in 24 hours, you will get rave reviews. This entire thing can be planned. You knew, even before they were going to buy, that you were going to overnight the product but you tell them 3–5 days. This even gives you the protection that even if something delays the overnight delivery, and it arrives in 2–3 days, you are still over-delivering.

That is just one example and it can be applied to multiple areas in your business. This is not about tricking your customers. What you do is set the expectation to that of the worst-case scenario. In this example, it is a delay in shipping due to a blizzard snowstorm, for example. But you do better than the expectation you set 99% of the time.”

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

“I agree with the EisnerAmper survey in that there is definitely a risk when engaging in social media. But I don’t agree with the concern. By its nature, being in business is all about risk and if you are trying to avoid all tools that have some risks to them (like social media), you will never grow your business.

For social media in general, my recommendation is to use it to provide educational material and promotional material for your business. This educational material tends to get the best engagement and gets your reach up, so you can promote the sales material. This material also has a very low risk of causing any reputational damage.

Does this mean that people will never disagree with your posts or comments? Absolutely not. But as long as the posts by your business and the staff in your business clearly promote the company’s purpose and vision, you will find that the people who post negatively were probably not your ideal customers anyway. In addition, by posting the content you did, with the clear focus on vision, you will attract more people who are your ideal customers.”

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

“There are two big mistakes I see a large number of people make when they start their business:

1) They wait until their product or service is ‘perfect’ before letting any customer try it. This leads to a ton of waste, as the business generally spends tons of time and money on features that nobody is actually going to use in the future. I am a strong proponent of the Lean Startup Methodology. Create an MVP (minimum viable product) and launch it right away, even if it is awful. Get feedback from the users who tried the ‘awful’ product, and then iterate. Do this as quickly as possible. If you do this consistently within 1–2 years, you will have a product that your customers really want, without having wasted time and money developing things they did not want.

2) Shiny object syndrome. The great thing about starting a business these days is that you can find information about everything you need online. The worst thing about starting a business these days is that you can find information about everything you need online. It is very easy for a business in the startup phase to read a blog post or listen to a podcast in which the founder of a successful company talks about all the sales channels that they use and how they all generate sales. That leads to the temptation to try them all at the same time just like they do. What is being skipped is that to get to that point, the successful company started by trying only 1–2 things. When one worked they kept it, when it did not, they dropped it. Only after repeating that process for years do they now have multiple marketing streams.

This applies to every part of the business. When you are starting, you should be A/B testing everything. However, just stick to A/B testing — don’t make it A/B/C/… testing.”

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

“Creating a social enterprise to train people to create micro-businesses online. This is something my wife and I hope to try later in life (of course, we would be thrilled if anybody else actually beats us to it).

The idea is simple. There are millions of opportunities to make an income online. Many of those ideas, however, are small and may only make a few hundreds or just a few thousand dollars a month at most. Most people in developed countries would not work for 1–2 years to build a business that makes $200-$2000 US a month. But, in many developing countries, this can be the difference between poverty and financial freedom for you and your family.

The idea behind the social enterprise would be to create a system by which small-scale entrepreneurs in the developing world would be trained to take their business online in their own micro-niches. For example, an artisan in Kenya who sells only to tourists who visit the national park would learn to start selling online. Instead of getting in front of 100 people a month, he could reach millions. Even if his work only has a very small audience online, a small audience on a global scale could change his life.

Another example would be a secretary in the Philippines who is good at Excel. They may only make $300 US a month. However, by teaching them to go online and look for clients internationally, it would not be hard for them to make $600 a month, if not more. This would double their income. The enterprise would do the training and even help cover the costs of creating a website for those who complete the course as well as provide ongoing mentorship. In exchange, they would get a small share of the online business.

The long-term idea is that the organization would be self-sustaining. After helping thousands of people start successful online businesses and owning a small share in each, it would make enough to continue to support its work, without having to look for charitable donations and grants. It would be self-sustaining, and the more success the people who go through the program have, the more income it would have to help more people succeed and get out of poverty.”

How can our readers further follow you online?

“You can find me at LiveLingua.com and at the below social media channels:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/LiveLingua/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/LiveLingua/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/LiveLingua/

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/raymondblakney

Thank you!”

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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