Iteration is key and you need to iterate fast. So when there’s a big idea, you just need to start somewhere and make improvements as you go along. But passion is the underlying difference. And a strong desire to continue learning.
Thomas Holl is the co-founder and president of Babbel, a market-leading language learning app. Since December 2014 he leads the company’s North American expansion. Before that he was Babbel’s CTO, where he lead the development and the operation of the platform.
Thomas co-founded his first company in the music software space where he created the first MP3 DJ tool while studying computer science at the University of Marburg and at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). Subsequent to its sale to Native Instruments GmbH, he further developed and optimized the product into “Traktor” – the leading DJ software that has revolutionized the industry*. With his experience, he supported Accenture GmbH as a technical consultant for three years before he co-founded Babbel in Berlin in 2007.
*Thomas is a patent holder: http://www.google.com/patents/US20100011941
Where did the idea for Babbel come from?
I had co-founded my first company in the music software space back when digital meant taking something that was formerly analog and rethinking it. I created the first MP3 DJ tool while studying computer science at the University of Marburg and at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). I didn’t wake up one day thinking, how can we kill music on vinyl. We just wanted to give people who wanted to learn or explore a different way the means to. Subsequent to its sale to Native Instruments GmbH, I further developed and optimized the product into “Traktor” – the leading DJ software that has revolutionized the industry. So the patent that we ended up getting opened the world of DJing up to everyone. Things like automatic recognition and matching of tempo, phase and pieces of music increased creativity.
So when we co-founded Babbel in Berlin in 2007, we just wanted to develop something better than the status quo. We wanted to do something we were passionate about, rather than try to disrupt industries for disruption sake. My cofounder wanted to learn Spanish but didn’t really find anything online that was that good so he built his own vocabulary trainer. He was using it and learning so we all decided to try it and we all loved it. So we said, why not focus on building a fun and easy language learning product. We weren’t trying to reinventing learning. Apps can’t do that, nor can they replace classrooms or books. Instead, we wanted to build a good learning app that made use of proven language learning methodology and adapt the reception to modern mobile technology. This alone has a massive impact and is improving two essential points: How can learners integrate the courses into their everyday lives and how can they stay motivated. Being able to learn wherever you are and on-the-go for example is a huge step forward.
Also, the use of game mechanics for maximum motivation is key for learning success. Babbel customers stay with us much longer than 12 months on average which is a big step ahead, compared to CD-ROMs or audio cds.
That idea grew into Babbel, the language learning app. Babbel is now growing fast and witnessing strong international demand, with up to 100,000 app downloads daily.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
There’s no typical day in a fast growing company. My role has changed so much over the past 7 years. I spent a lot of time and sweat developing the product, working on the content and building up a team as managing director. Most recently I was the CTO where I lead development and operation of the platform. I’m now the president since December 2014. I lead the company’s North American expansion which began in January, 2015. The only common theme is that I like to work in weekly cycles. So I set weekly goals every Monday morning which really helps me on a daily basis to figure out if I’m still on the right track. Checking where you are will allow you to be more realistic about how long things take and where you need to focus your time.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Iteration is key and you need to iterate fast. So when there’s a big idea, you just need to start somewhere and make improvements as you go along. But passion is the underlying difference. And a strong desire to continue learning. Ideas are cheap, everyone has one but hard work and consistency is harder to find. The greatest enemy of tomorrow’s success is today’s success so you need to have a desire to learn and try different things.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
The trend of the self-directed learner is something that’s really heating up and I’m excited about that. Privatized learning used to only be available to a few because of the cost. Mobile technology has already revolutionized learning and is a door opener for everybody who has so far been frustrated in this field: We clearly see that self directed learning as opposed to educational or business motivated learning as a mass market.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I like to be involved in the company at all levels as I’ve held many positions and done different things. I continue learning wherever as learning is lifelong pursuit. That’s one of the reasons I moved my family from Berlin to New York when we opened the New York office in January 2015. I wanted part of the company’s DNA here in the U.S. We do weekly meetings where each department talks about whatever they are doing and we also hold daily stand-up meetings where employees share what they are working on that day. Babbel is a learning company inside out, so we always encourage that. We encourage listening, we encourage exploration and all ideas are welcome. So even though we have passed the 300-employee mark, you still get that feeling of a small startup.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
I worked at a place where my main job was typing in orders that came from different retailers. It was quite monotonous and robotic but I learned that it’s important to get things right.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
I would have made decisions much faster rather than dwelling on them. More action and less pontification would have worked really well. It pays off to be brutally honest with yourself (which is easier in hindsight). But it is the capacity to develop and improve your skills that gets you ahead so those mistakes were probably also necessary for personal growth.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
If you believe in an idea, you have to keep on trying and keep on learning. Each setback is just there for you to try another approach until you get it right. I’ve definitely learned many lessons along the way as the product is built in-house at Babbel and language-learning content is produced by a diverse team of education experts, authors and language teachers. This enables our team to really focus on the development of our product and continually adapt it to the needs of our global users based on user feedback.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
Once you grow and the model is working, hire people who are better than you. And hire people who are different than you. An environment is certainly not limited to a company’s physical location. Babbel has now grown from 6 people to 300 people from 28 different countries. Fostering a unique and creative work environment and challenging team members to continue to explore and learn while implementing their findings goes a long way.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Launching products that didn’t take off. But what I learned was that it’s better to focus on the things that work and make them better. It’s never a good idea to become stuck in your ways. That leads to no learning and no growth. Businesses, industries, technology – everything is continually changing – so enable yourself and your business to evolve with it. Always challenge yourself, technology and business model.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Wireless electricity is something I think we are all still waiting for. As we acquire and depend on more devices that need to be charged, this will become ever so important. Whoever can build that business will surely be one to watch. That will disrupt numerous industries, from extension cords to new charging stations to building and housing design and more.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I recently bought chocolates and flowers for my wife. Flowers can get expensive in New York but it was definitely worth it.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
I use Trello because it keeps track and helps me stay organized, Google Apps because of the versatility and AWS because of democratizing and simplifying cloud deployments. And Zendesk. Our customer support runs on it and it helps keep our customer support lean and efficient. We have a 91% customer support satisfaction rating.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Blue Ocean Strategy, by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne because it helps you think about how to become 10x better than your competition for your customers.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
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