Ray Blakney of ‘LiveLingua.com’: “Audit all your business systems”

Audit all your business systems. If your company is just starting on its digital transformation journey, the first thing to do is an audit of all the business systems you have in place. This audit should be a written document with a clear description, including SOP’s if you have the time, of everything each of […]

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Audit all your business systems. If your company is just starting on its digital transformation journey, the first thing to do is an audit of all the business systems you have in place. This audit should be a written document with a clear description, including SOP’s if you have the time, of everything each of the parts of your business is doing. Once you have them all, you then need to rank them in order of importance for your business. In this context, ‘importance’ normally means the impact it has on your bottom line.

As part of our series about “How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ray Blakney.

Ray Blakney is the 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, Chinese, and more with their own hand-picked, certified, native-speaking tutor for online teaching sessions. Blakney is also the founder of PodcastHawk.com, a SaaS product that helps people get booked on podcasts.

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 share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ 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.

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.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Like many other location-independent business people, the most influential book I read was The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris. It opened up the world of ‘you don’t have to do everything’ to me and the idea of geo-arbitrage, in which I could hire people somewhere else in the world to help with tasks I was not doing well.

The reason the book resonated with me was that when I read it, I was working in my first business — a chain of brick-and-mortar language schools — and had gone three years with no vacations and with summers of working 90 days straight with no days off. I was burning out. This was the right book at the right time for me.

Oddly enough, I read this book again about two years ago (I have been at this for 13 years) and I actually did not like it as much.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

I will be honest… when we — my wife and I — started LiveLingua.com, our vision and purpose was to make enough money to put food on our table and pay our rent. For many people, having a vision for a company is a luxury when starting out. Especially if, like us, they are bootstrapping.

As time went on and the business grew much more than we expected it to, it was then that we started having a vision of what the business could be. We teach languages and we have seen how learning another language (and by doing so, learning another culture) can bring people and the world together. That became our vision and purpose.

Every decision we make we evaluate against this vision to see if it helps us get closer to achieving it. If it does, we implement it, and if it does not, we don’t.

Are you working on any new, exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

Yes! Just a few weeks ago, I launched a product called PodcastHawk.com. The backstory is simple: the podcast industry and listenership have been growing by leaps and bounds each year. Appearing as a guest on podcasts is taking the place of what appearing on radio shows used to be.

Unfortunately, I found through personal experience that there was no easy way to find podcasts to pitch and appear as a guest on. Searching on Google does not work and finding shows on iTunes to pitch was even more difficult. That was how the idea for PodcastHawk.com was born. We have created the world’s first high-level search engine that allows you to do a custom search on 1.25 million podcasts (with new shows added weekly).

Do you want to find podcasts about ‘mindset’ with at least 10 episodes that have an average of 4-star reviews or higher, and that have released a new episode in the last 30 days? Finding that on Google would take days or weeks. With PodcastHawk.com, we can find them for you in seconds.

Then in the current beta version, we give you their emails, websites, and social media information so you can send them a custom pitch right away. All in a few clicks. In the final version, we will even send the pitch emails to you. The vision of this SaaS product is to help great guests find podcasts that can share their message, but also help podcasters find fantastic guests.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Digital Transformation. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what exactly Digital Transformation means? On a practical level what does it look like to engage in a Digital Transformation?

Digital transformation is the process of utilizing new technologies in your business’s operations to allow even more customers to enjoy your products and services. Digital transformation is essential for businesses to survive and thrive in the current pandemic era. All kinds of companies can benefit from digitally transforming; food service businesses can use apps to allow consumers to order food, print magazines can digitize their publications, coaching businesses can meet with clients via video chat rather than in person, brick-and-mortar stores can launch new e-commerce websites to allow global consumers to purchase their products, etc.

My business, Live Lingua, stemmed from successful digital transformation. We started off as a brick-and-mortar language school, where students could experience true language immersion. In our physical school, language students from around the world had an opportunity to become totally immersed in the Spanish language for an extended period of time. However, we were forced to go through a digital transformation in 2009 due to the Mexican Swine Flu pandemic. Overnight, all flights to Mexico were closed for fear of a worldwide pandemic (what COVID-19 is now), so we had to innovate in order to support ourselves and our staff. It was then that we tried Skype Spanish lessons with our past students. It was so successful, that we decided to launch it as a separate service on its own page — LiveLingua.com. Due to that preparation, we were well-positioned for the 2020 pandemic and had our best year on record.

If you, too, want to digitally transform your own company and bring it to a new level of success, adopt the use of new technologies such as video chat services, apps, and social media. In addition, make sure that your website is fully interactive, engaging, and allows customers to purchase your goods and services online.

Which companies can most benefit from a Digital Transformation?

Any company that has not already undergone a digital transformation can benefit from it. There are very few industries, with some creativity, where this does not apply. A digital transformation in a business does not have to be as drastic as people imagine it to be; it can be done in increments over months and years so that the company can get used to the new environment bit by bit.

We’d love to hear about your experiences helping others with Digital Transformation. In your experience, how has Digital Transformation helped improve operations, processes and customer experiences? We’d love to hear some stories if possible.

My experience with digital transformation has been primarily in the SMB area with companies that are either one-person businesses or enterprises with no more than five employees. A recent client of mine was a personal trainer who was looking to grow his business past the ‘trade money for time’ phase and start earning some more income from other venues. One of the main advantages he had was being Latino and speaking Spanish. I mention this because digital businesses are much farther behind in Latin America and, thus, there is much less competition.

I helped him move his business online by first creating a simple website. At that point, we were able to introduce a CRM (customer relationship management) system into his page, which helped streamline his follow-up and tracking of clients. Finally, we were able to use the data we got from the CRM system to help him identify a niche to move into online so he could start offering digital products and increasing his revenue.

I also worked with a small real estate company in a small city to get them online. Not only did this allow them to keep track of their inventory of properties better, but also it caused them to show up in Google search results in their city — where almost nobody had an online presence at the time — which in turn helped them grow their business 3x in 12 months.

Has integrating Digital Transformation been a challenging process for some companies? What are the challenges? How do you help resolve them?

The biggest challenge that most companies will face is buy-in from the team. This is because many people are comfortable doing things the way they have always done them and are resistant to change. The method I use to get over this is to start the digital transformation in small parts of the company with people or teams that are most receptive to the idea. If implemented properly in those teams, the results will be obvious to the rest of the company. It is then easier to get buy-in from parts of the business that were previously resistant to change. Using this method, you reach a point where even the people most resistant to digital transformation come around and request that it be implemented for them as well.

One caveat here is that even if you implement this perfectly, there will be some people who will not be willing or able to adapt. At that point, you need to sit down with them and have a hard conversation as to whether they will continue with the business or not.

Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are “Five Ways a Company Can Use Digital Transformation To Take It To The Next Level”? Please share a story or an example for each.

My five tips for successful digital transformation are:

1) Audit all your business systems.

If your company is just starting on its digital transformation journey, the first thing to do is an audit of all the business systems you have in place. This audit should be a written document with a clear description, including SOP’s if you have the time, of everything each of the parts of your business is doing. Once you have them all, you then need to rank them in order of importance for your business. In this context, ‘importance’ normally means the impact it has on your bottom line.

2) Start with low-hanging fruit.

Once you have the business systems documented, the key is then to identify which digital tool or software can be used in the systems. Many software systems have free trials, so I recommend trying the ones that sound the best for 1–2 weeks each to see if it is the right fit for the business system before committing. This may take a bit more work upfront, but it will save you tons of time and money down the line if you decide to switch later and have already invested a lot in the wrong system.

3) Bring in experts.

Depending on the business system, you may also want to consider bringing in an expert to help set up the system for your company. Don’t worry, this is not like the old days where you needed to pay millions to the big 5 consulting firms to set things up. You can usually find experts to help you do it for just a few hundred (or at most a few thousand) dollars on sites like Upwork.com. This early investment can also save you tons of money down the road. The beauty of this method is that if you like the person that helps you set it up, you always have somebody you can contact to help you modify the systems or fix bugs in the future. You won’t need to have a full-time expert in your company.

4) Don’t get caught up in analysis paralysis.

It is very easy to get caught up in the minutia of your own business systems and decide not to go through with a digital transformation because the software out there only does 99.9999% of what you need, and does not do the other 0.0001%. Just because you are going digital does not mean that there is no room at all for the old analog systems you had in place. A digital transformation is just meant to improve those older systems and make your business more efficient.

Also, paralysis can happen when looking for software. Don’t get caught up too much in the research phase. Spend most of your time in the trial phase as outlined in point 2. That way you can get past the sales pages of the software you are considering and evaluate them in a real-world setting in your business.

5) You are never done.

One key is that with a body transformation, you are never going to be done because you can never stop exercising and eating right. Comparatively, in your company’s digital transformation, you can never stop looking for ways to improve and streamline your business systems. The minute you do, you will fall behind your competitors and have to start again a few years down the road.

In your opinion, how can companies best create a “culture of innovation” in order to create new competitive advantages?

“Effective internal communication is vital for a culture of innovation, because it helps remote employees connect and work better as a team. One key way to help facilitate internal communication is by providing channels for staff to have non-work related conversations. This may be counter-intuitive, but by creating these channels (special forums, Slack channels, virtual pizza nights, etc.), we have found that people feel more comfortable around each other. That means they are not just co-workers but also friends who support each other. As a result, the work communication becomes much smoother across the company.”

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“My favorite quote is:

‘If they were to write a book about your life, would anybody want to read it?’ — Unknown

This was the quote that caused me to quit my almost-6-figure salary job as a software engineer and set off on that path that made me a location-independent entrepreneur. I pictured myself sitting in a cubicle writing code for the next 30 years and realized I did not want my life’s book to be about that.”

How can our readers further follow your work?

You can find me at LiveLingua.com, at my new venture, PodcastHawk.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!

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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