First of all, how are you and your Family doing in these COVID-19 Times?
Michael Shangkuan: I am doing well, thank you. I am based in Germany, which is one of the countries where the lockdown was easiest to deal with. My family in the United States is also doing fine.
Tell us about you, your Career, how you founded Lingoda
Michael Shangkuan: One of the questions I get asked most often is: what is a Chinese-American from California doing running a German company?
I am an EdTech CEO with Fortune 500 experience. My journey began in the ’90s in the United States. I graduated from Yale and started my career in investment banking at Goldman Sachs. After earning my MBA at Harvard, I transitioned to brand management at Procter & Gamble.
Both were valuable work experiences, and they helped me evolve into the next stage of my career. I wanted to move into an industry that had a more substantial impact on people’s lives. My parents placed a huge emphasis on my education, and I am always grateful for that. I decided to devote my life to education, as my contribution to improving the lives of others.
I assumed the role of Head of Marketing and later CEO and Director of Terra Education, a B-corp offering life-changing service-learning summer programs to teens in Africa, South America, and Asia, which I had the pleasure to lead for six years.
In 2017 I took on the challenge of moving to Europe and switching to an EdTech business model to lead Lingoda, the number one trusted language school and its vision of shaping the future of language learning.
Leading the Lingoda team is a unique experience: it is an international and diverse company, with over 100 people, who come from over 30 different countries and speak over 40 different languages. I could not find an environment more in line with my values: I’ve travelled to 100 countries, lived in 8 countries across 4 continents, and I speak 6 languages. What better way to combine my personal passion with innovation. The personal and professional growth that I experience in Lingoda every day is extremely satisfying and enriches my role as an international leader.
How does Lingoda innovate?
Michael Shangkuan: Language learning is a big market. It is the second-largest vertical in the Education sector, which has traditionally been one of the slowest to innovate.
At Lingoda, we offer online, live language classes available 24/7 in English, Business English, German, Spanish, and French with over 1,000 qualified, native-speaking teachers.
We are a bona fide language school, just online. We disrupted the language learning market by bringing online the business model of traditional language schools and providing an excellent learning experience with maximum flexibility at an affordable cost.
We are proud to say that there is no other language school that offers 450,000 classes per year and has changed the lives of over 50,000 people worldwide. Our audience mainly consists of busy professionals who need to become fluent in a language to achieve meaningful personal and professional goals.
How the Coronavirus Pandemic affects your Business and how are you coping?
Michael Shangkuan: The Covid-19 crisis has led us to face profound social transformations: the education sector has been one of the most affected.
With regards to language learning, Covid-19 accelerated crossing the chasm of online language learning from early adoption to the mainstream. Since the crisis has started, we have seen over 4 months the adoption of video chat technology, which we had initially predicted to happen over 4 years.
We can thus say that the impact on our business was significant. For example, we have seen an increase of 70% in the number of our students from December 2019 to July 2020. Many people have, in fact, used the past few months to invest in themselves and brush up or learn a new language.
Did you have to make Difficult Choices, and what are the Lessons Learned?
Michael Shangkuan: We are fortunate to be able to say that we did not have to make difficult choices to protect our business.
On the contrary, in the first six months of 2020, we hired more than 30 team members to continue to offer an excellent level of service to our students.
How do you deal with Stress and Anxiety? How do you project yourself and Lingoda in the Future?
Michael Shangkuan: Something that has always helped me to focus on my goals, without allowing room for stress, is building a habit. I am talking about my professional life, but also my personal life: I have a past as a natural bodybuilder and to achieve the goals I set myself I trained regularly five times a week, woke up every morning to do cardio, and ate healthy meals six times a day, seven days a week. I did this for seven years. I set my goal to compete in the International Natural Olympia, the biggest natural competition worldwide and did it.
This is also the core belief on which learning with Lingoda is based. We are fully transparent; we will never tell you that you will speak German in a few weeks. To learn a language takes effort, dedication and long term commitment. It’s tough, but Lingoda is designed to support you every step of the way. Establishing a habit that becomes part of your everyday life is the only way to achieve your goals systematically and to feel a sense of accomplishment.
Who are your Competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the Game?
Michael Shangkuan: Lingoda is creating a new space in the online language learning market since most online language learning solutions have either no teacher (like apps) or match students with private tutors without qualifications (like marketplaces).
However, our main competitors are offline language schools. Qualified, native-speaking teachers, a structured learning plan and classmates – these are all the elements that Lingoda combines with the benefits of an online environment that offers a superior convenience.
Constant innovation and accurate listening to students’ needs is what allows us to stay in the game: they guide us in every decision we make.
Your Final Thoughts
Michael Shangkuan: Early indications suggest that the transition to online services in the education industry initiated by the Covid-19 crisis is likely to be permanent. This has only strengthened our commitment to changing our students’ lives thanks to language learning.