Interview With Felix Wunderlich
Describe your product or service:
“Lingoda is one of the top online language schools in the world, offering live classes 24/7 with professional teachers. This means that Lingoda students can learn anytime and anywhere. Plus, our expertly designed courses mean students won’t sacrifice educational quality for convenience. In short, Lingoda offers the best of both worlds: flexibility and quality. We teach four languages: English, German, French and Spanish, as well as Business English in small group and one-on-one classes on Zoom. Our classes focus on human interaction and maximum conversation time. Led by native-level teachers, each group class has no more than five students, giving everyone plenty of opportunities to speak. This also allows them to receive individual attention and personalized feedback.”
Describe your company values and mission:
“Our mission is to build bridges around the world through language learning. By speaking someone’s language you learn about them, their culture and their ideas. Breaking down the language barrier bridges cultural differences, fosters a world of inclusion and is a first step in helping to address humanity’s challenges. For us, language knows no boundaries. We believe that there are no shortcuts for learning to speak another language. Like playing an instrument or training for a marathon, it takes time. We know that everybody can learn a new language: anyone who makes learning a habit will improve. And we aim to be there with those learners every step of the way.”
How are you funded? I.e. type of funding, number of funding rounds, total funding amount.
“In 2021 alone, Lingoda received €57 million [$56.04 million] in private equity funding.”
How big is your team? Tell us a little about them!
“Our diverse team includes over 200 international professionals from 30 countries speaking 40 languages. In 2021, Crunchbase listed Lingoda among the top three language learning companies globally. We have a score of 4.5 on Trustpilot and 75% of our reviews are rated as ‘excellent’ because we offer a high-quality and authentic learning experience that helps students achieve their learning goals and transform their lives.”
How did you come up with and validate your startup idea? Tell us the story!
“In the beginning, we probably had around ten ideas for possible startups. But language classes were the ones that just worked. My brother Fabian — who I founded Lingoda with — and I always wanted to think of an international idea. Language learning and traveling were always important to us. Initially, we started out with a website where we offered German classes via Skype. We even invested our own money into advertising our classes online. And in 2013, this idea eventually turned into Lingoda as our customer base continued to grow.”
How did you come up with your startup's name? Did you have other names you considered?
“I wish I had a more exciting story to tell here, but the truth is that our company’s name was picked by an IP lawyer in Germany. The initial idea was to name our company ‘Linguando,’ but we quickly dismissed it as we got quite a lot of feedback from people saying that it was too hard to pronounce and to spell. We were looking for something that was easy to remember and could be associated with languages. ‘Lingoda’ was uncomplicated to pronounce and much easier to remember — also trademarkable right away. Once we came up with the name ‘Lingoda,’ the decision was made in literally just a few seconds.”
Did you always want to start your own business? What made you want to become an entrepreneur?
"I always had a passion for languages and education. So I was sure that I wanted to work in the field in some capacity. But the entrepreneurial side to it only emerged after I had managed my ‘own P&L’ at a language study travel company. I found it rather difficult to go back to a more traditional routine and a regular employment contract after my experiences there. It became clear to me that I wanted to build businesses for the rest of my life. Especially once my specific business unit eventually became EBITDA positive.”
Did you encounter any roadblocks when launching your startup? If so, what were they and what did you do to solve them?
“When launching your own business or company, you are bound to hit roadblocks all the time. Probably even on a daily basis. Some of them are easier to balance and fix. And some of them are more comprehensive and therefore more challenging and demanding to straighten out. From finding an office to opening a bank account and hiring new employees — you will encounter many challenges and obstacles that you haven’t managed before. And there is no one solution or recipe to overcome them. But being resilient and persistent is the key to never giving up and eventually finding the solution that will fit.”
Who is your target market? How did you establish the right market for your startup?
“When it comes to European countries, many of our target customers are expats who want to learn the language of the new country they’re living in — US expats learning German to help them assimilate in Germany, for example. This target segment evolved pretty naturally over time. Lingoda offers a way for expats to learn a new language on their own schedule and from the comfort of their homes. I think that’s pretty attractive for people who are adjusting to life abroad. In the US, it’s a slightly different story. Our target customers tend to be English speakers looking to pick up Spanish, German, or French for a wider variety of reasons. Maybe they want to get in touch with their family roots, prepare for upcoming travel, or maybe they see language learning as a hobby. Whatever the market, we run frequent surveys to understand what drives our students and how to build a product that suits their needs.”
What's your primary marketing strategy?
“We use a mix of paid and organic marketing channels to reach prospective Lingoda students. In particular, we’ve had a lot of success working with influencers in the language space. Language learning influencers are great to work with, and their audiences are very engaged.”
How did you acquire your first 100 customers?
“In the early days, a lot of it was word-of-mouth. And as mentioned, my brother and I started a website where we offered German classes via Skype and invested our own money into advertising them. And that’s really how we acquired our first 100 customers.”
What are the key customer metrics / unit economics / KPIs you pay attention to to monitor the health of your business?
“Student satisfaction is one of the key metrics we use to monitor the health of Lingoda. We want to ensure that we continue to offer a high-quality experience even as we grow. That’s why we pay close attention to online ratings and meticulously collect feedback from our students through frequent internal surveys. Our student NPS score is something we track very closely, along with metrics related to how long students stay engaged with and get value from the product.”
What's your favorite startup book and podcast?
“One book that I would recommend specifically to founders is ‘SPIN Selling’ by Neal Rackham. It teaches you how to sell and, even more importantly, to listen to your customers' needs and to understand decision-making processes.
Another book is ‘The Pyramid Principle’ by Barbara Minto. I just find it absolutely essential to structure communication with all your different teams and to find a good way to communicate with each other via presentations. This book teaches you a great way of doing that.”
What is a song or artist that you listen to for motivation?
“I don’t think I have a go-to song or artist that I like to listen to for motivation. I usually work better not listening to music. Or perhaps Rammstein if the day calls for it.”
Is there a tool, app, or resource that you swear by to help run your startup?
“One tool that we use company-wide to communicate with each other is Slack. It’s just a fast and easy way to keep in contact with everyone and to quickly ask questions when, for example, you are looking for a document when you are about to go into a meeting. I find it especially important in a remote working environment (and most of our current employees are still working remotely in Summer 2022) to connect on a daily basis, to check in with each other, and to create a feeling of togetherness. Slack allows us to do that every day and very easily.”
What is something that surprised you about entrepreneurship?
“What I found out very quickly is that founding a startup is like riding a rollercoaster. You can go from one extreme to the other very quickly, and you can have the best but also some of the worst times within just days or sometimes even hours.”
How do you achieve work/life balance as a founder?
“Achieving work-life balance as a founder is something that I believe I have not entirely achieved yet. Work and family are my number one priority but many other things that I would like to do more often fall under the table.”
What is a strategy you use to stay productive and focused?
“What keeps me productive and focused is knowing the impact that our teachers have and the lives that we change through language learning. Our first customer for example learned German with Lingoda to surprise everyone (including her husband) at her wedding to deliver her nuptials in German. Another customer whose story I still think about is Mohammed’s, a Syrian refugee in Germany. We helped him take 92 hours of language classes in one single week to master German in less than three months.
Everyone at Lingoda is very purpose-driven — we always believe that we have a product and service at hand that can be really powerful and useful for everyone. Our mission is to build bridges around the world through language learning. And finding that purpose and feeling like you are making a difference is the best tool to stay productive and focused along the way.”
What was your first job and what did it teach you?
“This one is very easy to answer: my first proper job was as a manager in a language study travel company where we would organize tours abroad for high school students or graduates to learn a new language. These trips typically lasted around a couple of weeks in a new country and offered them the chance to fully immerse themselves in a new country and to learn the local language.”
More on Lingoda
Felix Wunderlich, founder of edtech startup Lingoda, shared valuable insights during our interview that will inspire and motivate aspiring entrepreneurs.