First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID19 times?
Benjamin Levy: I am doing well, thank you. My family, the Gymglish team and I haven’t suffered too much from the Covid-19 pandemic so far (knock on wood). We have learned to live in confinement for two months (as did half of the world’s population!) and we are thrilled to see each other again at the office, while practicing social distancing.
Tell us about you, your career and how you founded Gymglish
Benjamin Levy: My name is Benjamin Levy, I am 43 years old, I have two children and I am one of the co-founders at Gymglish. Launching this company is first and foremost a story about friendship. I met Antoine Brenner back in college and in 1999, we created our first software company. After raising capital, selling our business and settling a lawsuit (our buyers neglected the small matter of paying for their acquisition!), we took an 18-month break during which we both traveled the world.
Antoine chose Guatemala to learn Spanish. There, he created tailor-made software that sent him personalized conjugation tests by email, followed by immediate corrections. The Gymglish prototype was born. At the end of 2003, we met up again and officially launched Gymglish in February 2004.
How does Gymglish innovate?
Benjamin Levy: Gymglish creates online language courses, and has been helping more than 5 million users learn a new language since 2004. Our value proposition is to provide a solution to online education’s main challenges: huge drop-out rates and lack of motivation over time. To foster participation, we created a cocktail of concise, personalized (we use adaptive learning to tailor each lesson to the level of the learner) and fun content, featuring fun stories and memorable characters. This is how learning becomes fun and painless.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected business and how are you coping?
Benjamin Levy: Confinement measures due to the sanitary crisis have highlighted the value of online services in many areas of daily life, including distance learning. Very early on in the pandemic, Gymglish offered the general public free access to all of our online courses throughout the confinement period – an action of solidarity that allowed many individuals to make good use of the lockdown and improve their language skills. As a matter of fact, we noticed a 200-300% growth in sign-ups for B2C customers since mid-March.
Gymglish has also been very active with its educational partners, language schools and universities. Temporarily shutting down their establishments encouraged them to further explore the benefits of online courses, including Gymglish. During confinement, the traditional conflict between “online” and “offline” learning diminished, and e-learning contributed to maintaining continuity in training.
Unlike many companies, our business model was not negatively impacted by the crisis, and actually turned out to be beneficial for our B2C clients. However, our B2B customer base was severely affected by confinement and the economic uncertainty it brought, often leading them to postpone or freeze any ongoing training decisions.
Did you have to make difficult choices? What are the lessons learned?
Benjamin Levy: Our company grew independently, without the help of investors. For 14 years, we self-financed our business, a very important principle that enabled us to maintain a healthy and flexible work life balance, and limit our number of employees, creating strong ties between us. In 2018, in an increasingly competitive market, we shifted into second gear, and welcomed outside investors by raising 3 million euros. This decision has enabled us to accelerate our growth, to expand beyond 50 employees and keep innovating, but not at the cost of our values: employee shareholding, a pleasant work environment and a reasonable headcount!
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Gymglish in the future?
Benjamin Levy: In 2004, I made a pact with Antoine: at Gymglish, work-life balance must be as enjoyable as possible. I couldn’t envision the company growing any differently! We have many projects up our sleeve in order to offer an even more contextual, fun and innovative learning method. We hope to see through them with great enthusiasm of course, but above all we hope to do it at the right pace. We are thrilled to grow, but not at any price, and we’ll gladly give up some business goals, should they threaten our original pact: to have fun on a daily basis.
Your final thoughts
Benjamin Levy: For many, creating a business is an expression of freedom. We’ve tried to avoid following the traditional ways to start a business we often hear about in the press, and those that seem inevitable: fundraising, expanding fast beyond your means. There are countless ways to set up a business, so why not choose the method which suits the lifestyle we aspire to, and determine our business strategy later on, in light of those personal goals – not the other way around!