Ray Blakney is the CEO and co-founder of Live Lingua, a renowned online language learning platform. Live Lingua offers a unique and immersive approach to mastering a new language, as it pairs users who want to learn Spanish, French, German, Chinese, and more with their own hand-picked, certified, native-speaking tutor for online teaching sessions. Ray is also the CEO and founder of Podcast Hawk, a SaaS product that helps people get booked on podcasts. Podcast Hawk allows users to do a custom search on 1.25 million podcasts (with new shows added weekly) to find podcast shows to be a guest on. An award-winning Filipino-American entrepreneur, speaker, and podcaster, Ray builds and helps others build 6- and 7-figure businesses on a bootstrap budget using SEO.
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Table of Contents
Let’s learn a little about you and really get to experience what makes us tick – starting at our beginnings. Where did your story begin?
Ray Blakney: While it seems normal to me, I have been told that my backstory is anything but. I was born in the Philippines to a Filipina mother and an American father (but my American father grew up in Rhodesia). At the age of one, we moved to Turkey, where I spent most of the next 15 years of my life. At 15, I got sent to a boarding school in the US (since the US school in Turkey did not have the last two years of high school). I completed high school and went to university in the US, where I graduated with a B.S. in Computer Engineering. After college, I spent about five years working in Silicon Valley and for Fortune 500 companies as a software engineer. When I turned 26, I had a quarter-life crisis where I saw myself sitting in a cubicle and writing code for the next 40 years. It was not the life I wanted to live. Within a few days of this epiphany, I had applied to join the US Peace Corps as a volunteer. Within three months, I had quit my almost-6-figure job, sold my condo and all my worldly possessions, and was on a plane to Mexico where I would help indigenous communities in the south of the country.
While in Mexico, I met my wife and after I completed my two years in the Peace Corps, we decided to try our hand at a business together. Our first business was a chain of language schools in Mexico, which we sold in 2012. As part of our language schools, we had online classes — which we started offering in 2009 to help our business survive during the Mexican Swine flu crisis — and we kept that portion of the business.
The online portion grew into what is today LiveLingua.com. We are one of the largest online language schools in the world, and the only one in the top five that has not received any venture funding.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up?
Ray Blakney: The biggest challenge we faced with LiveLingua.com was in 2012, right after we had sold our brick-and-mortar business. LiveLingua.com was built on the back of SEO (search engine optimization). This means that the vast majority of our language students came from organic traffic and looking for us on Google.
In April 2014, Google did an update called Penguin. This massive update caused our website — and millions of others — to fall from the first page of Google into oblivion. Our source of customers dried up overnight. At that point, we had to decide whether to quit or to start again. We decided on the latter. We knew our business model worked and we just needed to get back in front of our audience.
So, we started again. We spent the next two years building up our business again. It took three years to get back to where we were before and five years to pass seven figures. Did I ever consider giving up? Yes, absolutely. What helped me through that was my wife, who is also my business partner. Luckily, whenever one of us was at the point of burnout and wanted to quit, the other one was able to pull them back.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons you learned from that?
Ray Blakney: When I started our business, our first office was in Mexico (even though LiveLingua.com is registered in Boston). Thus, I was working with primarily native-Spanish speakers, and while I was communicative in Spanish, I was not fluent yet. Like anybody new to the business, I made a lot of mistakes in the job.
So I would constantly try to say ‘I am embarrassed’ in Spanish. Since I did not know the word for embarrassed at the time, I took a guess and said ‘embarassado’. Embarrassed, plus, -ado. Makes sense? When I said it the staff members would laugh.
I thought they were laughing because I was being humble, but that was not the case. Embarassado (correctly spelled ‘embarazado’, but it is pronounced the same) means pregnant. I was a male telling everybody I was pregnant. The staff was laughing at me, not with me! The big ‘takeaway’ from that experience is that you ARE going to mess up when you start anything new, whether it is a language or a business. You can either let it bring you down or laugh at it. After learning this, I blushed for a bit, but then went with the latter option.
Resilience is critical in critical times like the ones we are going through now. How would you define resilience?
Ray Blakney: Resilience means staying motivated and continually progressing forward no matter what struggles arise. Resilience has helped my business and I survive and thrive during the past swine flu crisis and this current COVID-19 pandemic. During the Swine flu crisis, we had to find a way not only to pay our bills but also to pay our teachers so they could support their families. It was during this time that we had the idea to offer classes to our former students via Skype. That worked so well and had such a great response that we decided to launch a website to offer that service to the world in general.
Remember, this was back in 2009 and almost nobody was doing that. This idea eventually became LiveLingua.com. We are now one of the top online language schools in the world and are able to share language learning with thousands of students each year. We also had our best year yet in 2020!
In your opinion, what makes your company stand out from the competition?
Ray Blakney: In a world where every business, including online language schools, is growing for the sake of growth, we have had great success by focusing on staying personal and family-owned. When a student signs up with us, they work with one of our specialists to get paired with their ideal language tutor. We don’t make the students search through thousands of tutors for themselves. We do all the work for them.
When each student signs up, they get a personal welcome email from me with my direct email address so they can contact me directly with anything they need. A few weeks later, my wife and co-founder emails them as well to see how the classes are going. She runs the academic end of things and is on hand to help them make progress.
This approach has not only helped us in our business but has also helped us grow our group of friends. We have met with many of our students in person, either when they visit our area or when we visit theirs. I have also had the opportunity to connect with and get to know some celebrities and very well-known CEOs with this approach. It is not why we do it, but it has been a fun and unexpected benefit of being a more personal, family-owned business.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success?
Ray Blakney: There is one characteristic, above all others, that has been the most instrumental to my success: discipline. It’s the ability to wake up every morning and do what I said I was going to do that day and do that every day. This has really helped me stay on top of the tasks that I need to complete each day.
Another character trait that has helped me be successful is my ability to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. My mentor told me that entrepreneurship is about constantly growing and learning, and for the most part that is uncomfortable. That advice has helped me survive previous pandemics that affected my business and this current one.
A third character trait that has been instrumental to my success is my ability to focus on the tasks at hand. It is so important to work on one thing until completion before starting something else. It does not matter how big or small. Thus, I don’t stop answering an email to check a text message. I won’t stop working on a report to just ‘hop on Facebook for one minute’ (which always ends up being 30 minutes). I strive to focus on completing one thing before moving on to the next, as it helps me maximize productivity each day.
How important do you think it is for a leader to be mindful of his own brand?
Ray Blakney: A leader definitely needs to be mindful of their own personal brand, as they wouldn’t want it to directly conflict with their enterprise’s mission and values. This could cause the business to be seen as less credible in the eyes of its target customers. For example, if an entrepreneur’s business offers vegan products and promotes cruelty-free living, it would send a conflicting message to consumers if that person posts photos on their social media channels of them eating burgers or wearing leather. Business owners can strengthen their personal brand and status as an opinion leader in their industry by being a guest on podcasts and writing expert articles for popular publications.
How would you define “leadership”?
Ray Blakney: Leadership is the ability to properly manage a team and enhance the overall progression of an entire business or organization. To be an effective leader, you must:
1) Be prepared to eat multiple slices of humble pie. If you want your company to be successful, you need to hire good people to work in it. By definition, ‘good’ people mean they will, either from the start or eventually, be better at and more knowledgeable in what they do than you are. When that time comes, they may call you out on some of your plans and, in polite words, tell you that your idea is awful. The reflex is to become defensive and take the commentary personally, but don’t do that. You don’t have to accept everything they tell you, but to become a good leader you do need to listen to what they say and make sure you carefully consider it before making any decision.
2) Become comfortable not doing things yourself. This one was very hard for me. As an engineer by training, I was used to my days being about what I, personally, was able to do and create. That is what made me feel like I had accomplished something. As a leader, it is not about you doing everything. In fact, the fewer things you do yourself, and the more you entrust to your team, the better leader you will be. You and your company will actually accomplish more.
3) Make sure your team members know they come first. Let me clarify here. I don’t mean that a leader should make their team members feel like the boss at work. What I mean is that as a leader, you should make it clear that you put more importance on them as a person than the product or output of their work. If they are sick, or if they have a tragedy in the family, give them time off. This may require you, the leader, to pick up the slack. If they are behind on work due to no fault of their own—sometimes businesses get busy unexpectedly—try to figure out a way so they don’t have to spend every day for a month working 18 hours a day to get things done. Figure out a schedule in which they can go home and spend time with their friends and loved ones. Make your team members know they come first, and they will return it with long-term loyalty and great work.
4) Don’t try to be their best friend. As a father, I constantly see parallels between fatherhood and being a leader at work. One of the key things I have learned in both scenarios is that you are not there to be their best friend. Your responsibility is to support your team members and make them feel appreciated. Your job is to help guide them to grow both as individuals and within their skill set. You should do what you can to help them reach their own personal goals, but also make sure they know the rules and don’t break them or get into trouble. As a leader, your job is not that they like everything you do all the time. It is not about going out for drinks with them every night. It is more about making sure they reach their own long-term goals and help your business along the way.
5) Keep an eye out for leaders within. The final tip I wish I knew at the beginning was to look out for leaders within my team earlier on and nurturing them. When we are in a leadership position, we sometimes forget that we may not always be there, at least not in the same role we are now in. If we are in a larger company, we may be promoted or move to another department. If we are the owner of our own business, we may get to the point that we no longer want to run the day-to-day operations, or at least want help so we can pursue other projects. In both those cases, having another person who has been trained and is ready to take over for you is critical for not only your future plans but also for those of the company and the team moving forward.
What advice would you give to our younger readers that want to become entrepreneurs?
Ray Blakney: One of my best tips is to really pinpoint the vision of your business. You need to think about what problem your business is striving to fix with its products or services, and who your primary target market is. You must also maintain a steadfast, unwavering focus on the company vision. This is so pertinent, as it will ensure that you will exert all of your energy, time, and other resources toward achieving your business’s mission and vision. You won’t get sidetracked by other things that don’t really matter for your enterprise’s long-term goals.
Also, to promote your company’s website at the beginning of your business journey, my general recommendation is to start with paid ads if you can afford them. Google ads usually convert better than Facebook ads. This is a quick way to start getting noticed on day one. In the long term, however, SEO is the way to go. Any customer that arrives at your site due to SEO and organic search is pure profit and is the key for the long-term growth of any small business. These things don’t have to be separate; if you get people on your website with paid traffic and have great content on your site that they then discover and want to link to (a key in SEO), then you are on the right track. As a bonus, if you also get their email, your business is well on its way to success.
What’s your favorite “life lesson” quote and how has it affected your life?
Ray Blakney: My favorite quote is:
‘If they were to write a book about your life, would anybody want to read it?’ – Unknown
This quote inspired me to leave my almost-6-figure salary job as a software engineer and embark on the new journey of becoming a location-independent entrepreneur. Once I pictured myself writing code in a cubicle for the next 30 years, I knew I didn’t want that to be the summary of my life’s book.
Larry Yatch, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Ray Blakney for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Ray Blakney or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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