+61 3 5282 8313

InnovaBuzz Episode #49 – Miriam Plieninger: Babbel

Miriam Plieninger: Babbel

Miriam Plieninger: Babbel

In this episode, my guest is Miriam Plieninger the Director of Didactics at Babbel. Babbel is a language learning app that offers 14 languages via in-app learning on mobile devices and computers.  In the interview we talked about language learning using new technology and the rapid growth that Babbel has and is experiencing and the challenges that brings. Listen to the podcast to find out the details.

Listen to the Podcast

If you know just a bit of a foreign language it really can change your life. @MiPlie Click To Tweet

Show Highlights

Some of the highlights of this episode include:

  • Babbel’s founders couldn’t find a Spanish learning app when they needed one, so they created a business!
  • Engaging with users remains critical for learning apps, that rely on technology to deliver the learning.
  • Babbel focus on learning outcomes, by providing an experience in-app that can easily translate into practical applicates, such as ordering a coffee in another country in a different language.
  • Babbel use “hack days” to encourage employees to develop new ideas and put them into action.
It's important that people apply what they learn and what we do has a positive impact on their lives. @MiPlie Click To Tweet

The Buzz – Our Innovation Round

Here are Miriam’s answers to the questions of our Innovation round. Watch the interview to get the full scoop.

  • #1 thing to be more innovative – Listen to what’s happening around you; learn about peoples frustrations, and what gets them excited. Solve real problems.
  • Best thing for new ideas – New ideas are easy for us, but implementation is important and people cooperating across disciplines helps achieve that.
  • Favourite tool for innovation – We use JIRA quite a bit, but people are critical to effective use of tools, so knowledge sharing and bringing people together is at the core.
  • Keep project / client on track – Clarity of scope and deliverables and people’s roles.
  • Differentiate – Put customer needs at the centre of everything you do.

To Be a Leader

Have a constant dialogue with your customers and deliver what they need.

Reach Out

You can reach out and thank Miriam on Twitter @Miplie

Suggested Guest

Miriam suggested I interview Pablo Villalba one of the founders of 8Fit and also Redbooth on a future InnovaBuzz podcast.  So, Pablo, keep an eye on your inbox, for an invitation from me to the InnovaBuzz podcast, courtesy of Miriam Plieninger.

Links

Full Transcript

Click to Read…

Intro:

Hi, I’m Jürgen Strauss from Innovabiz. Welcome to Episode No 49 of the InnovaBuzz Podcast – designed to help smart businesses with an interest in innovation become even more innovative.

In this episode, my guest is Miriam Plieninger the Director of Didactics at Babbel. Babbel is a language learning app that offers 14 languages via in-app learning on mobile devices and computers.  In the interview we talked about language learning using new technology and the rapid growth that Babbel has and is experiencing and the challenges that brings.

The Babbel story is a really inspirational one and to find out more, as well as how Miriam started as the only person editing language content to managing a team of 130 within only 6 years, let’s fly into the Hive and get the Buzz from Miriam Plieninger.

Interview

Jürgen:
Hi, I’m Jurgen Strauss from Innovabiz and I’m honored to have here with me today all the way from Berlin in Germany, Miriam Plieninger, from Babbel, Director of Didactics. Welcome Miriam, it’s a privilege to have you here.

Miriam:
Thank you so much. It’s a privilege for me as well.

Jürgen:
For our audience, Babbel is a language learning service that offers 14 languages right now that you can learn through their app. Holger Seim from Blinkist suggested that we get you on this podcast so a big hello to Holger.

Miriam:
Hello from me as well. I know him quite well.

Jürgen:
Now I understand Babbel is made up of a team of over 450 people from all parts of the world. You have offices in Berlin and in New York at this stage. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Miriam:
Yeah. When I started at Babbel in 2009, it was actually a team of 10. For my interview, I was in kind of a shared flat. It was still a bit grubby garage style and now we’ve grown to a 450 people business with my team the Didactics team comprising 130 people across the internal and freelance team across our different language sets and the 14 learning languages. We’ve had quite a growth.

Jürgen:
Rapid growth as well. When did you start?

Miriam:
The company actually started in 2007. We went to market in 2008 and I joined [the company] in 2009. In 2007, one of our founders was looking for a Spanish app on the web and actually didn’t find anything. A Spanish learning app, so they saw that there was a big opportunity to grasp and they took it and that made us the number one language learning app on the web really and of course on the mobile devices as well.
Jürgen:
Yeah, okay. You speak quite a lot of languages yourself I noticed. You have four languages that you learned pre-Babbel is that right?

Miriam:
Yeah, [in] pre-Babbel, I learned English and French and Latin and Norwegian. When I started up at Babbel, of course, everyone was doing everything and I was doing all the editing and all the project management for all the different languages we had on our plate. At the beginning, it was 5, 5 times 5 learning languages and then we steadily grew the language test so in the first few years I learned many languages through editing and producing language content for Babbel which is still quite a treat when I go abroad and can order my coffee in the learning language or the language of the country.

Jürgen:
Yeah. That’s good. What’s your background and when you were a young child, what did you want to do when you grew up?

Miriam:
When I was a young child I was really a bookworm so I spent a lot of time at the library, carried home a basket of books every week. Read a lot, always loved languages but of course the online tech learning industry back then wasn’t really there or at least not in my life. At university when I was studying media studies and English, intercultural European communications, one of my teachers asked in the seminar if there was someone who speaks English and understands how to use the Internet and I said that’s me so I started producing what was then called e-learning for a university company. From then, yeah, that became my career path and I’ve been working in educational media since then for different publishers always around languages or inter-culture. In 2009, I joined Babbel and I’m running the Didactics team which has grown a lot. People-wise, language-wise, device-wise, platform-wise, that’s kind of my story. The Didactics team what we do is we produce the language content for the app and we also shaped the methodology of language learning with Babbel.

Jürgen:
Can you tell us a little bit about the methodology because I think there’s a fascinating story there from what I was reading. First of all with the technology what’s available today how learning of languages, but learning of everything, in particular languages is actually changing and the opportunities that mobile devices provide that but also I think your model is very unique.

Miriam:
Yeah so of course through mobile devices you can learn wherever and whenever which is great. Switch platforms and stop when you need to stop learning, start again when you want to start again. Start on the web, finish on the mobile and vice-versa. That’s of course a great achievement and brings language learning really into people’s everyday lives, right, and makes language learning available to people who wouldn’t have time or money to learn languages otherwise.

Right now the Tech industry is of course changing a lot through what data can do, what computer linguistics can do and of course we’re looking heavily into this. We are true believers of the human part of learning. We have this big team of experts of  language learning experts, of teachers, of native speakers of all this with lots of teaching experience themselves in digital ways and life classes also who create our content. We are in touch with our users through the customer service or a user research team a lot. We believe that this human part is so crucial to actually teach in a way that people can use what they learned in real life.

I believe that’s really what differentiates us from other language learning methodologies and apps that we really focus on making people conversational in their real lives outside the app and not just go into the in app usage right? Do people return, do people stick? That of course is important but more important to us is that people can really apply what they learn in real life and that what we do really has a positive impact on their lives and connects people.

Jürgen:
Where are most of you customers?

Miriam:
Well our customers are really across the world. Still a lot of Europe. We are growing heavily in the US where we opened up an office to support that growth. We’re also looking into the Latin Americas. It’s really across the world.

Jürgen:
That’s quite stunning growth really isn’t it? The unique thing about a language learning platform is there’s demand in every country.

Miriam:
Yeah. Of course there’s a different kind of story and different kinds of motivations in different countries. Look into Europe where via a quick plane or train journey you can be in another country within one hour versus the US where it would take a long while to get someplace else to cross the border and where many people don’t have a passport even, but where you have very big communities of different language speakers, right? Language learning motivation really differs across different markets we’re in and that something we’re working on to understand better.

Jürgen:
Yeah, that’s right. Are there any plans to expand Asian languages because then you bring up other challenges in terms of the writing and the characters.

Miriam:
That’s not something we’re looking into right now. We publish Russian as a language for the different alphabet, with the Cyrillic alphabet. But that’s about it for languages with different characters as for now. Of course in the future we’ll have lots of other languages that’s for sure.

Jürgen:
What are the unique challenges with the different alphabet?

Miriam:
Well on different devices of course you have different keyboards and people across the world have different sets of letters on their keyboards also. You need to look into the different data systems and different kinds of hardware on different kinds of mobile devices, look into the soft keyboards that mobile devices can provide. We have different solutions for mobile devices versus usage on the browsers on computers. We have a Latin mapping so you can use the Latin alphabet to get Cyrillic alphabet on the screen because we want to make language learning as easy as possible to our users. We don’t want them to reset the language settings on their computers, right? You want to keep the entry barrier.

Yeah, we want to teach early alphabet in an easy way and not get people bored. In traditional classroom settings, when you learn a language with a different alphabet, you often get a printout of the alphabet and get the task learned straight away. I actually did a quick summer course on Arabic a few years ago and I got a table of all the characters to learn within 2 days which of course I didn’t. Then I found it immensely difficult because it was expected that I knew the alphabet.

What we do with Russian is we teach the alphabet along the way. We don’t start up with all the letters, expect people to learn the letters and then go into vocab what we connect the alphabet learning with the vocab learning we’re preparing people for actual situational context they will encounter in real life so we always make learning relevant. Alphabet learning, grammar learning, vocab learning always connect it to real life.

Jürgen:
That’s a good model I really like that. I traveled a lot in Asia and it’s quite humbling when you go to somewhere like China, out of the major cities or Korea where I was quite a lot. Not only is it a foreign language but you’re illiterate as well. You can’t read anything which is quite humbling and the challenge of learning a little bit of the language to converse with people is one thing but then actually learning to read a few signs so that you can find your way around is actually another challenge altogether.

Miriam:
Yeah but it’s so good when you practice a situation like this in real life. That’s also for language which use the same alphabet you have in your native language that you’re suddenly so proud when you understand something or when you can have your first small dialogue and that’s really the moments we’re working towards that people are proud and confident to use the language in real life and use can mean understanding. Use can mean speak. Use can mean just listen and understand. Read and understand. Using any of the communicative skills really, that’s what we’re finding out.

Jürgen:
What’s your sales process in terms of building your subscribers?

Miriam:
Let me briefly think about that. We have a subscription model with a price range from $4.95 to $9.95 depending on how long the subscription would be, right? Many people use the longer subscription forms and we really keep most of our users for a long time. Right now we have over 1 million paying subscribers on the platform we’re very, very proud about, yeah.

Jürgen:
Is there just one subscription or is it per language module?

Miriam:
You usually buy all content for one language. Sometimes offering across every language but the usual model is that you buy a subscription monthly, 3 monthly, a longer subscription for one of the languages. You would have all content available. As a demo you will get the lesson one for free and can try out our product. The lesson one and the table of contents. You decide if you go into the subscription.

$4.95 is really a low entry price so we get people in and what’s really important is that we don’t have any ads. We are a pure premium product and I guess that also makes a big difference the product that sells with ad-free.

Jürgen:
Yeah, so it’s the scale of subscribers and also the retention of the subscribers that’s important to you.

Miriam:
Yeah, definitely, definitely. Keep people on keep people busy, keep people happy.

Jürgen:
Yeah, okay. What do you say is the biggest challenge in a business like this?

Miriam:
The biggest challenge for me has been keeping up with this immense growth. We’ve been growing so much throughout the last few years. Really from that 10-people company to 450 it’s been quite a way. As I said in the beginning, I did most of the editing myself. Now I’m managing this big team 130 people and the other departments of course also growing heavily. We need to define and re-define who does what, what the roles are, what ownership for different topics is, how we communicate quite frequently and adapt to the growth of the company. Add structure, take the structure away, that’s the business right now to keep up with the growth. That’s the biggest challenge right now from a business perspective.

Jürgen:
What kind of systems and processes have you put into place to manage that rapid growth?

Miriam:
What’s really important to me is that we have very clear roles and ownership for different topics. That people know what they are doing. That people have the field in which they take their own decisions without management going into different directions, right, so that people have very clear roles and responsibilities. Ownership of different topics is quite clear. You need a good balance of planning and flexibility. What still worked just recently for example in content development quite traditional what is called project management planning doesn’t work today with a growing team and the growing department interfaces.

As a practical example right now for content development we combine traditional publishing project management with clear time tables. What to do when, who to do what with backlog of projects we got from Scrum.

Jürgen:
That’s a fascinating approach. What do you see as one of the most innovative things you do in the business today? There’s a lot of innovative things there obviously, but in terms of that rapid growth and managing things and then pushing the boundaries. What do you see as one of the big ticket items?

Miriam:
Of course our work is innovative from the start when we saw that there’s a gap in digital language learning and filled that gap with language learning online. Also making language learning bringing it to cloud based service so that you can really learn everywhere and anywhere. Of course that’s not all so we’re experimenting a lot how to bring language learning to the next level, trying out lots of things. An example is that we’re experimenting around bot conversations right now.

Jürgen:
Did you say bot conversations?

Miriam:
Yeah.

Jürgen:
Yeah, okay.

Miriam:
What’s also a great tool for innovation here is that we bring people from different departments together regularly for hack days, right? People come up with ideas. They find colleagues whom they can get on board and then they get one day of concepting, of hacking and of piece of running software in the evening to present to everyone. We got lots of great ideas from that.

Jürgen:
Okay, that sounds fascinating. That sounds like a lot of fun.

Miriam:
It is a lot of fun. Also involves some pizza.

Jürgen:
Pizza and beer. All right, this is fascinating and we’ll definitely have links in the show notes to Babbel and people can take advantage of the trial that you offer there. It’s certainly an interesting app and I encourage people to explore it some more. I think learning language is something that … There’s a lot of people in the English-speaking world that only speak English and it would be great to see a lot more people in English speaking world learned language but also right across the world because communication and understanding across cultures is something that we can all benefit from.

Miriam:
Exactly. We would love to get even more customers from the English speaking markets abroad. As you said it’s not so close to the English native speakers as it is for example for the Germans and for the French. It opens up so many possibilities in the world. Really opens up your world and you can connect people in really new ways as you know. Also if you know just a bit of a foreign language it really can change your life.

Jürgen:
Definitely, and I can vouch for that. Just making the effort to understand and say a few things in somebody else’s language when you’re visiting that country gets you so much respect and so much, what’s the right word, the communication is just so much different on a different level.

Miriam:
Exactly. It really opens doors and it’s good for connecting with people. It’s also good for yourself it makes you so confident and proud you can achieve conversations like this.

Jürgen:
Yeah, that’s right. Okay, well this has been fascinating Miriam. I think we should move on to our innovation round which is designed to help our audience who are primarily innovators and leaders in their field with some tips from your experience. I’ve got five questions I’m going to ask you and hopefully you’ll have some really good answers for us.

What’s the number one thing anyone needs to do to be more innovative?

Miriam:
Okay, so it’s really important to listen to what’s happening around you. What people are saying. What they get frustrated with. What they get excited about. Solve actual problems and yeah by listening you’ll have an ear for inspiration everywhere, right?

Jürgen:
Yeah, great advice. Solve real problems, I like that. What’s the best thing you’ve done to develop new ideas? You talked about the hackathon before.

Miriam:
During hackathons, yeah. We really don’t have a shortage of new ideas. We’re having so many people from different countries and from different fields of expertise under one roof in the company. Didactics, product engineering, customer service, marketing, everyone here. We never have a shortage of great ideas from our experts or from our customers but to actually develop those new ideas, the best thing is to really support people to join forces across these disciplines. Not to work in silo but join forces, work together and that way bring ideas to life. Especially important in growing business where everyone is sitting around one desk.

Jürgen:
Yeah, that’s great advice. Get people working together and also new ideas are only ideas until they actually come to reality.

Miriam:
Come to life.

Jürgen:
Come to life, yeah. What’s your favorite tool or system for improving your productivity and allowing it to be more innovative?

Miriam:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah as I said, people, not really about tools it’s about people. Yeah, having clear initiative, ownership, having flexible resources. That way we can really innovate and work productively. Tool-wise I already talked about traditional publishing project management and backlogs. We use JIRA quite a bit. It is a quite powerful tool which can do many things. Of course a tool just comes to life with people so we use that to connect people and to create lots of clarity across departments, share knowledge.

Yeah, we even have internal communications knowledge management team of the company which I think is not what every company does. Knowledge sharing, bringing people together is really, really at the core of what we do.

Jürgen:
Yeah, I really like that. Everything is so consistent with the company and from what I can hear from your interview also there’s a very strong value around knowledge sharing and building knowledge obviously from the product itself from developing language knowledge and in through to managing that within the organization so I really like that.

Miriam:
To keep up with the growth, keep the growth sustainable of course we need to continue connecting people and sharing our knowledge.

Jürgen:
Okay. What’s the best way you know to keep a project on track?

Miriam:
You need quite an alignment on what you actually want to do between all the stakeholders and everyone involved. Alignment on scope and deliverables is really, really important. Everything around communication I talked about. Keep people in the loop who need to take decisions on the interface of a project, right? Have clear roles. Who does what. Do traditional project management which is really not a bad thing where it makes sense. Have deadlines and time schedules and things like that but detach from them where they stand in the way. I think that’s crucial.

Jürgen:
Okay, that’s great advice. Again, what comes through is how important people are to this whole thing which I think is something that we shouldn’t forget anywhere but in your business it’s really crucial.

Miriam:
Yeah.

Jürgen:
All right, what’s the number one thing anyone can do to differentiate themselves?

Miriam:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, they should think big and at the same time be very concise which is not easy.

Jürgen:
I like that. Think big but sleek in size.

Miriam:
Make sure the people are heard. Back up their convictions with data and facts and yeah I think most importantly as a company take in our case the learners, the users action needs really, really seriously. Don’t start from your subjective point of view but really put the customer user into the center and find out what they actually have problems with. What they actually need and differentiate yourself by bringing that into the center and  think big, be concise. That way you really change the way the world learns.

Jürgen:
Yeah, that’s good. I really like that. Although it is a little bit sad and you’re not the only one that’s given me this advice which is to listen to your customers and of course take them seriously. It’s a little bit sad that that’s a differentiator. I would have thought any good business should be doing that all the time but unfortunately that’s not the reality.

Miriam:
Yeah. That’s also a reason why many businesses fail right? Because they don’t solve problems.

Jürgen:
Exactly. All right, what do you see as the future for Babbel?

Miriam:
I see us continuing on that growth path. I see Didactics growing further supporting languages and learn its needs across the world. We are already active across the world but we are stronger in some countries than others so there’s still lots of market potential for us to crack. Also different learning motivations to crack. Also different learner types to go into. There’s quite a future ahead and of course with computational linguistics on the rise we need to reinvent ourselves again and again how we connect data from learning with human centered learning so keeping the human in the center.

Jürgen:
Yeah, okay. Are there any plans to go beyond language learning and into other subject matters?

Miriam:
No. We thought long and hard about this but there’s so much to do around language learning, we’ll stick to language learning.

Jürgen:
That’s right so that’s the think big and big in size.

Miriam:
Yeah.

Jürgen:
Okay, well this has been really fascinating interview, Miriam. What’s the number one piece of advice that you’d give to any business owner that wants to be a leader in their field?

Miriam:
I think that connects to many things I already said. Again, take your learners’ needs seriously. Talk to them. We have a big customer service in house. Have a constant dialogue with our users. Yeah, find out what they need and talk to them.

Jürgen:
That’s right and then focus on delivering what they need. That’s great, yeah. All right, well thank you for all that you’ve shared with us today. Where can people reach out and say thank you?

Miriam:
You can reach me on Twitter at miplie M-I-P-L-I-E. Maybe you can add.

Jürgen:
Yeah, we’ll have the links. We’ll add the links to the show notes. All right, and finally then who would you like me to interview on a future InnovaBuzz podcast and why?

Miriam:
There’s a Berlin based company called 8fit. It’s a fitness coaching app. Actually fitness, sports and language learning have quite some bits in common. Doesn’t look like it really from the outside, but it’s all about improving yourself and that’s quite challenging for many people. People would like to see themselves mastering sports, mastering languages.

Yeah, we need to lower the entry barrier and with our different kinds of expert knowledge take people by the hand, right? In 8fit I would recommend you to talk to Pablo Villalba one of the founders.  I think it will be a fascinating interview.

Jürgen:
Okay, Pablo, so we’ll come and look for you courtesy of Miriam and see if we can get you on the podcast. Just opened up their website and it looks quite fascinating. I’ll explore that some more. All right, Miriam, this has been really interesting and fascinating to learn about Babbel some more. I’ve seen the app for quite many years and I’ve played with it a little bit to learn about the company and to find out about that amazing growth has been really interesting.

I’m sure that the information you’ve shared will be really interesting to our audience as well so thanks very much for your time and I wish you all the best with Babbel and let’s keep in touch.

Miriam:
Yeah, let’s keep in touch. Thank you too. Have a wonderful day.

Jürgen:
Thank you, you too.

Miriam:
Bye, bye.

Jürgen:
Bye.

Wrap Up:

I hope you enjoyed meeting Miriam as much as I enjoyed this interview and learning about how Babbel manages such rapid growth.

All the show notes for this episode will be at innovabiz.com.au/babbel, that is B-A-B-B-E-L, all lowercase, all one word, innovabiz.com.au/babbel, for all of the links and everything we spoke about in this episode .

Miriam suggested I interview Pablo Villalba one of the founders of 8Fit and also Redbooth on a future InnovaBuzz podcast.  So, Pablo, keep an eye on your inbox, for an invitation from me to the InnovaBuzz podcast, courtesy of Miriam Plieninger.

Thank you for listening.  Pop over to iTunes or Stitcher or Pocket Casts and subscribe so you’ll never miss a future episode.  While you’re there, you might leave us a review, because reviews help us get found and your feedback helps us improve.  If there is anything you’d like us to cover, or questions you want answered on a future podcast, please send them to us.

Until next time, I’m Jürgen Strauss from Innovabiz.

Remember, if you don’t innovate, you stagnate, so think big, be adventurous and keep innovating!

Listen to the Podcast

Jürgen Strauss

Jürgen is the chief innovator and founder of Innovabiz who partner with innovative business coaches to transform your online presence into a business generation platform that delivers exceptional results. You can find Jürgen on Google+ as well as on Innovabiz' Twitter, Facebook and Google+ Pages.

Leave a Comment





Subscribe to the InnovaBuzz Podcast:

TRANSFORMATIONAL MARKETING MAP FOR BUSINESS COACHES

The Transformational Marketing Journey for Business Coaches guides you through a comprehensive 12 step process explaining each step in detail and showing you a systematic way to grow your coaching business.

Recent Buzz

Luria Petrucci - Live Streaming Pros

InnovaBuzz Episode #101 – Luria Petrucci, Live Streaming Pros

Luria Petrucci, Live Streaming Pros In this episode, I'm excited to welcome to the InnovaBuzz podcast Luria Petrucci of Live Streaming Pros. Luria has appeared on TV shows, hosted...
InnovaBuzz Episode 100

Episode #100 – A Milestone for InnovaBuzz Podcast

InnovaBuzz Podcast Episode 100 Yes, we’ve reached the magic 100 milestone! I want to begin by thanking you, my wonderful audience, who have been on...
Anthony Howard, Confidere Group

InnovaBuzz Episode #99 – Anthony Howard, The Confidere Group

Anthony Howard, The Confidere Group In this episode of the InnovaBuzz podcast, my guest is Anthony Howard, the founder of The Confidere Group, a mentor...
Remove Bad Reviews

Can Bad Reviews on Google be Removed?

How to remove bad reviews on Google –  so you’re devastated and heart-broken because someone has left a bad review on Google about your business....