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I've just released the 100th episode of English Learning for Curious Minds.
It’s on Leonardo Da Vinci, the person after whom Leonardo English is named, and perhaps the most relentlessly curious mind in history.
Whether you’re new to Leonardo English, or if you are a loyal listener who has been there since the start, here’s the story of how it started, what’s happened this year, and a little look at what’s coming in the future.
Phase 1: Taking the plunge
In August 2019 I quit my last job, as a consultant for Jaguar Land Rover.
I’d been working remotely, but having to go to London (from Malta) every couple of weeks, which is far less glamorous than it might sound.
I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do next, but I knew it needed to be more exciting and worthwhile than finding new ways to get people into expensive cars.
I wanted to do something that helped others, and was in a space that I knew and understood.
I’d always been interested in, and good at learning languages: I’d breezed through various different languages at school, and studied French, Italian, and Mandarin at university.
I taught as an English teacher in China, I am married to an Italian, and live in a country where people flock to to learn English.
So working on helping people learn English was interesting, relevant, and an area I knew very well.
But there are a million different ways to help people learn English. What could I actually do?
Phase 2: More interesting podcasts
I listened to a lot of podcasts in English (my native language). If you're a podcast listener, you will know that they are an amazing way of learning.
When learning languages I had always thought that there was something missing when you are at a level between ‘intermediate’ and ‘native’.
I had trouble understanding podcasts/tv/radio for native speakers, but I didn't want to listen to boring listening exercises aimed at language learners. There weren't many options out there for me.
I wondered whether a similar problem existed for people learning English…
I asked a lot of my non-native friends, I looked around in forums, I posted in Facebook groups.
There are lots of podcasts for English learners, but most of them talk about grammar or vocabulary, or are filled with small talk. If I were learning English, these wouldn’t be very interesting to me...
What if there was something that allowed people to improve their English while also learning something new? I would have loved this, so I figured that there might be more people like me in the world.
Phase 3: Getting started
I decided to build a little website (the website you're reading this article on), record some episodes, and put them out there for the world to see.
I made a checklist of everything that I thought would be useful from a language learner’s point of view:
- Spoken at a reasonable speed, not too fast, not too slow
- Transcript for me to follow along
- Difficult words explained for me
- A subject that is actually interesting
I started researching, got writing, borrowed a friend’s microphone, and recorded my first 5 episodes. They were only available on the website.
They were on Black Holes, How Internet Cookies Work, The Most Successful Advertising Campaigns of All Time, What is a Bond? And How Did The Russian Oligarchs Get So Rich?
The first ones really weren’t very good.
The sound quality wasn’t great (who knew that getting good sound on a podcast is hard?), the structure of the episodes could be a lot better, and you couldn’t download the transcript.
I published them nevertheless, wondering how I was going to cope as thousands of people flooded in from all over the world to listen and learn with my sparkly new product.
I posted in Facebook groups, subreddits, and on language learning forums, waiting for the crowds to roll in.
But not much happened.
There were a handful of listeners, but certainly not anywhere near the numbers of people I had hoped for.
Takeaway: Getting good sound quality is hard.
Phase 4: A baby is born
A week later something very exciting happened, but that was completely unconnected to Leonardo English.
My son was born.
This wasn’t a surprise, and part of the reason to rush to try to get something out before this was to give myself a personal deadline, as I always wanted to take some time off when he arrived.
For those of you with children, you’ll probably laugh at my naivety for thinking that I could continue to keep working after the birth (‘while he sleeps’).
Having a young child is exhausting, and especially as a new parent with no idea about how to look after a small human being, any developments with Leonardo English were put on pause while I tried to figure out how to be a parent for the first time
Takeaway: Starting a business at the same time as having a child isn’t easy.
Phase 5: Going on Spotify, Apple Podcasts & the podcast apps
Fast forward a month, and having started to get into the rhythm of how to be a parent, I was able to pick things up again.
I had hesitated to put the episodes on the podcast apps because I thought that wasn’t a viable way to create a long-lasting business.
If everyone can listen to everything on a podcast app, why would anyone ever pay for it?
But then I was convinced by a Colombian friend that it was at least worth a shot, and so on December 5th, after devouring all of the search results of ‘how to launch a podcast on Apple Podcasts’, the first five episodes were ready to be released to the world.
I designed the cover, I prepared all of the materials, and I was ready to push the button.
Here we go…
On December 5th it launched on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and dozens of other podcast apps. There were exactly 100 downloads of English Learning for Curious Minds on the first day. Not all of these were my friends and family, but a load were.
The first few weeks were slow. Downloads went up a bit. One day it was listened to 240 times from Taiwan.
But this was no rocket ship. On December 26th there were only 29 downloads of the podcast.
Was this even going to go anywhere?
Takeaway: Unless you’re selling Christmas cards, 5th December probably isn’t a great launch date.
Phase 6: First paying member
The original business model was simple. You could listen for free, but if you wanted the transcript and key vocabulary, you needed to pay to become a member.
I set a promotional ‘starter’ price of €9/month, which would be valid until January 31st, then it would go up to €14/month.
But December was almost over, and there were no paying members. Zilch. Nada.
I convinced myself that it was just a question of time, but the clock was certainly ticking.
I woke up on the morning of December 30th and checked my email.
Something amazing had happened overnight.
The first person had decided to join Leonardo English.
A complete stranger, from somewhere on the Internet had seen enough value in what I was doing to take their hard-earned money and decide to use it on a membership to Leonardo English.
The website was still a bit of a mess, and I don’t know whether I would have become a member back then. But there was a lot of potential, and even having one person who decided to pay to become a member was such an amazing feeling.
Branko, if you are reading this, thank you.
And Branko, our first paying member from December 30th, is still a member of Leonardo English to this day.
Takeaway: you will never forget the first customer from your business.
Phase 7: Downloads starting to take off
From the lows of 29 people on December 26th, the daily download numbers started to grow and grow.
On January 28th it crossed 500 downloads in a day, and on February 19th there were 2,618 downloads of my humble little podcast.
At the same time, the number of members grew, with people joining from Russia, Venezuela, Myanmar, Turkey, Brazil…
With some initial traction and validation, I needed to improve this product that people had paid their hard-earned money for.
Phase 8: Building a better product
My background was in marketing, so trying to focus on getting more people to be aware of Leonardo English had been my focus.
But if you don’t have a great product, you can have the greatest marketing team in the world and you’ll still not get very far.
So I needed to work on improving the actual product, focussing on making more reasons to become a member.
- Subtitles. As far as I’m aware, English Learning for Curious Minds is the only podcast that has this. Listening to it on a phone also means they become ‘interactive’, as you can tap on a word and your browser will provide the definition
- Downloadable transcripts. Creating downloadable content meant that people could use the episodes ‘offline’, and they could also become more of a resource.
The feedback was pretty good, and both of these are now features that can be accessed by becoming a Learner member.
Still, membership growth was slow.
What could I do to improve the product and make it a ‘no brainer’ decision to become a member?
What could I do to remove the barriers to becoming a member?
Phase 9: Testing out weekly memberships
I thought that weekly memberships might be a good idea. €5 a week isn’t much, and €5 isn’t much to ask someone to test it out.
Note, I didn’t ever want to do free trials because
a) free trials often take lots of administration / customer service, and I was a team of ‘1’.
b) free trials are great if it’s a product that someone needs to use to see the value. With Leonardo English you can listen to podcasts before starting (to know if it’s your level or not) and there are some free transcripts. People know what they are getting before they join, so I couldn't see the value that a free trial would have.
So I tested out this weekly membership.
Initially it was great.
Signups jumped up, but I saw that weekly members would end up canceling, or changing their membership for the monthly ones.
The feedback was that people didn’t like having to pay every week, and that they felt bad if a week had gone by and they hadn’t managed to use their membership.
With retrospect, this might sound obvious, but I thought it was worth a try.
After a few weeks I closed the weekly membership, and several weekly members actually decided to go for our annual membership (which is about 75% cheaper).
Takeaway: Unless you’re making something people consume every day, weekly memberships are probably a bad idea
Phase 10: Giving people more reasons to become members
By May 1st the podcast had 80,000 downloads. Yet not even 0.01% of those listeners had decided to become (paying) members.
What could I do to encourage this?
At the current trajectory, it wasn’t going to make sense.
I didn’t want to do adverts in the podcasts, because I think that’s just a bad user experience, and you then become beholden to the demands of advertisers. I didn’t want to go there if I could avoid it.
So, I needed to give people more of a reason to join Leonardo English.
The download numbers, and the emails I had been receiving, suggested that people were enjoying listening to the episodes, but not everyone needed or wanted the learning resources that came with them.
What if I created a membership where people could listen to ‘extra’ content?
Up until then I had been publishing two episodes a week, and releasing them both for free.
I stopped doing this, and now only one is available for free. Listening to both episodes requires a membership.
I decided to announce this, and give a small discount for anyone who became a member by the end of the week.
The launch day was a huge success, and members joined from all over the world.
Woop, I had cracked it.
Not so fast…
The next day fewer people joined, then the next day none at all.
Hmm, perhaps that wasn’t the answer after all.
Takeaway: You might get a jump in subscribers when you create a time-limited offer, but this isn’t a sustainable long-term strategy
Phase 11: Investing in content
I realised that the majority of listeners to the podcast, and members of Leonardo English were ‘self-learners’ - they were working on their English on their own, outside of a formal school setting.
I wanted to make our blog a ‘resource centre’ for members, potential members, and for anyone wanting to learn more about ‘how to learn’.
Out of the blue I got an email from a guy called Ramsay, who is an English teacher based in Brazil, and he offered to become a writer for Leonardo English.
If you’ve read much of the Leonardo English blog, you will be familiar with his work.
He is an excellent writer, very knowledgeable about language learning, both from the teacher point of view and from the language learner’s point of view, and he has written some fantastic guides and articles that now help over 5,000 people a month.
Many members of Leonardo English have told me that they have found the website because they saw an article on our blog, or that they were inspired by an article in our blog and decided to become a member after that.
Takeaway: Investing in content is a long game, but the benefits compound over time
Phase 12: Creating more of a community
From my conversations with our members, many of whom are working on their English out of curiosity, and are working on it on their own, I’ve figured that if I could create more of a community around Leonardo English then this would be a good thing for our members, and a good thing for Leonardo English.
A good thing for our members, because one of the toughest things about learning a language on your own is feeling isolated. If you have other people going on the same journey as you, that’s great from the point of view of motivation.
Plus we have members from 38 different countries, and it would be a great opportunity to meet other curious minds from countries you might not have ever had any contact with.
And it would be a good thing for me because I want to continue to learn from our members, and build Leonardo English into a product that they want, so the more feedback I have, the better job I can do.
So, I’ve done two things.
- Monthly member-only sessions. These are live sessions over Zoom where we get together and discuss an interesting topic. From a debate on the British Monarchy to a lecture on different accents in English, these have been great opportunities for people to practice their English, learn about something interesting, and have some fun.
- Member-only Community Forum. This is very new but there is now a forum on Leonardo English for members to ask questions, discuss topics, share ideas, and meet other people. It’s early days, but the feedback has been pretty good, and it will continue to be more and more helpful as more members join.
I’m really happy with how both of these have been going so far, and I’ll continue to add more live sessions as time goes on.
Takeaway: Community takes time and effort to build, but it’s worth it at the end
Phase 13: The future
And this takes us to Episode #100 of English Learning for Curious Minds, and the first year of Leonardo English.
It has been an amazing journey so far, and it is only the start.
Leonardo English is only going to get better.
To every member of Leonardo English, thank you. You make this possible, and without you, there would be no Leonardo English.
And if you’re a listener to the podcast or an occasional reader of the blog but you haven’t decided to take the plunge and become a member yet, then if you believe in a more interesting way to improve your English, you’d like to support the podcast, and what you’ve just read has resonated with you in any way, then I’ve love to welcome you as a member of Leonardo English.