Michael Shangkuan

CEO of Lingoda

Mike Shangkuan is an EdTech entrepreneur, fitness fanatic, and polyglot, speaking six languages – English, German, Spanish, French, Chinese and Japanese. As a pioneer in language learning, he is the CEO of Lingoda GmbH, Europe’s leading online language school, where he is in charge of the company’s strategy and daily business. Previously, he held the position of CEO of Terra Education, a B-corp offering life-changing service learning summer programs to teens in Africa, South America, and Asia. Mike has lived in six countries across four continents. He is also a former natural bodybuilder and competed at several international competitions. He is a graduate of Yale University and he holds an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Where did the idea for Lingoda come from?

Lingoda is the number one trusted online language school. We offer private and small group online, live language classes around the clock in four languages – English, Business English, German, Spanish and French – with qualified, native-speaking teachers. Our aim is to empower even the busiest people to master a language regardless of fixed times and locations.

The idea for the company dates back to 2013, when two entrepreneurs from Cologne (a town in the west of Germany) combined their expertise in business consulting and educational management and realized that there was a gap inthe online language learning offerings at that time. On one side there were language apps, with which people could undertake a completely technology-enabled, asynchronous learning process. On the other side, there were tutor marketplaces, where people were connected with native speakers to practice their language skills.

There was no single solution that combined the high-quality teaching standards and in-class experience of offline schools with the convenience of a virtual environment. As a result, Fabian and Felix founded Lingoda, a business that would change the lives of tens of thousands of people worldwide (over 80,000 to date) by providing them access to an excellent learning experience with maximum flexibility at an affordable cost.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

Mornings are the most important time for me.
I wake up at 7am and go through my Miracle Morning routine (https://miraclemorning.com), which I got a recommendation from a close friend of mine. It’s based on a book by Hal Elrod, and I’ve adapted it to my own needs. I meditate through an app, envision a couple of things I really want to get done that day, and then go out for a walk or ride my bike over the historical part of Berlin to the office (Lingoda’s HQ is located in Berlin, Germany). I order coffee from one of the local Italian coffee shops in my neighborhood and take about ten minutes to enjoy the coffee and watch people go by. Then, I write, study a language, or read the newspaper or a book for thirty minutes to an hour. I then open up my work laptop or head into the office, ready to kick start my workday.

The first step I take at work is to write down the 1-2 things that I must get done that day. In other words, my highest priorities.

I reserve weekday mornings for thinking and getting through tasks (processing and making decisions, sending out emails, writing out important documentation and going through miscellaneous to-dos.)

In the late mornings and afternoons, I have meetings scheduled in 45-minute increments, reserving time for lunch, snacks, and working out.

During meetings, I shut off my Slack and email notifications and my cell phone to be fully present with my colleagues. I strongly believe multi-tasking is a myth.

I then use the last hour of the day to catch up on emails and plan my day for tomorrow.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I like to compare my thought process to the process of painting a picture or working on a piece of art. I work on it over a period of time and proceed in small steps.

Start with a blank canvas, give yourself free rein to your ideas about a designated topic or project. Give yourself time to reflect – sometimes, ideas need to sit and returned to and massaged. Sometimes you’ll need to start over or paint over parts of what you have. Then you can add the finishing touches.

What’s one trend that excites you?

As the leader of an EdTech company whose core business is based on video technology, I find it extremely exciting to see how live video can connect people in real-time regardless of where they are. I look forward to seeing how further innovations will continue to improve the quality of personal connections online.

At Lingoda, we believe that the live online classroom experience is not only as effective as the offline one but even better. Not just with the quality of learning, but also the emotional connection you can have with others — whether that’s with the teachers who accompany you in your learning process or your classroom peers.

The adoption of video technology for both personal and professional purposes (not least in the field of education) has seen an unprecedented increase since the outbreak of the pandemic almost two years ago. And these changes are set to stay. The last two years are just the beginning of a disruption in innovation in education.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

The habit of disconnecting during the day for a short amount of time helps me to refocus and be more productive.

I usually take a break during the day – typically during lunch – and go to the gym and work out.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Stop trying to be the good Chinese son my parents want me to be.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Learning a foreign language is about perseverance, not talent.

This concept is very dear to me considering my experience with language learning. I’m not only the CEO of a leading online language school, but I’m a polyglot myself. And while I’m a native speaker in two of the six languages I speak (English and Chinese), the other four I learned as a second language (Japanese, Spanish, French, and German).

Most Americans believe they don’t have an aptitude for learning a language. But it’s much more about attitude, not being afraid to make mistakes (look at kids, for example), and practicing a language with native speakers. It does take effort and time, like learning how to play tennis or the piano, but you feel a huge sense of accomplishment when you’ve advanced a level. And being fluent in a foreign language – it’s like being on top of the world.\

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I regularly go back and review my PVPs: Purpose, Values, Principles.
They are my daily guide, and on a tough day or week, they ground me. I would recommend everyone to review them periodically and ask themselves key questions such as ”Why are you doing this?”, ”Are they still relevant?”, ”Are you living up to them?”

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

A key strategy for me is “Search and Reapply.” Learn from others. Anything you want to try – it’s been tried before. Don’t start something from ground zero. When you are struggling on a project or looking for new ideas, ask your colleagues and/or go to the outside world for inspiration and to get a head start.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I would say hiring the wrong person for the job.
Knowing how to hire and attract the right talent at the right time is one of the most important jobs of an entrepreneur CEO. But it’s also a big challenge. It’s been said that 40% of hires don’t turn out to be good hires. And it’s an even bigger challenge in a hyper-growth company that is constantly evolving. Who may have been the right person two years ago may not be the right person today.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

The best $100 I recently invested in was hiring a stylist to go clothes shopping for me. I hate shopping, but I like looking great and curating my personal style.

My suggestion: outsource all things you dislike doing, within your means of course. This will give you much more time on things you like doing. For example, I dislike spending time cleaning, so I hired someone to do it for me. Same thing as doing taxes, or shopping. Of course, some things can’t be outsourced. For example, your personal health. There is no other way, you have to do the hard work. But it’s extremely rewarding, like learning a new language.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

At a company level, we adopted the project management tool Asana, through which we started to implement ticketing systems for our business services departments; BI, HR and Finance, as well as our in-house creative agency, to make the interaction with these teams smooth and effective on all sides.

This tool also helps me keep track of my key projects, plan my to-dos and monitor progress.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Linking back to my first response: the author who inspired my current morning routine, Hal Elrod and his book Miracle Morning.

What is your favorite quote?

“Be yourself and you will always be in fashion.”

I have it pinned to my computer because I need to constantly remind myself.
What’s important to me is that I develop a strong awareness of myself and have the courage to be my best self.

Key Learnings:

  • Go to the outside world when you are looking for inspiration or new ideas. ”Search and Reapply”, not everything has to be created from scratch. And when you bring your ideas to light, do it as if you were producing a work of art.
  • Regularly review your PVPs (Purpose, Values, Principles) and be sure to know how to hire and attract the right talents at the right time – this is one of the most important duties of an entrepreneur CEO.
  • Video technology has allowed people to connect in real time regardless of where they are and will continue to improve the quality of connections. Its adoption, in education as in so many other sectors, has increased significantly due to the Covid-19 outbreak. This is just the beginning of a disruption of innovation in education.
  • Learning a foreign language is about perseverance, not talent. Most Americans believe they don’t have an aptitude for learning a language. But it’s much more about attitude and practice. Make time for the things you like to do and outsource what you dislike. You’ll have more time to spend on things that enrich you on a personal level, like learning a new language.