Alex Redfern is the co-founder of LanguaTalk a marketplace for online language tutoring.
Inspired by his travels through Canada, France, Spain and Sweden during his 20s, Alex came close to starting several businesses, including a subscription box for high quality teas. However, it was his exposure to foreign languages while with a Swedish girlfriend that finally gave him the opportunity to turn his long-held desire to be an entrepreneur into reality.
While working remotely has become a reality for most of us in the last 12 months, it’s nothing new for Alex. He’s been working from home for the last four years. We caught up with him to hear how it all began and what he’s learnt along the way.
What inspired you to set up your own business?
In 2016, I was working in digital marketing for an agency in London. It was a cool place to work, but the role was too repetitive. I’d always been attracted to entrepreneurship, not because I dreamt of making millions but because I felt that as an entrepreneur, I’d be able to challenge myself and have a bigger impact.
At that time, I had a Swedish girlfriend, so in my free time I was learning Swedish online with a tutor. I appreciated the convenience of being able to learn from home at times of the day that worked for me. On the other hand, the quality of tutoring varied a lot. It took me a while to find a talented tutor.
One day, the idea came to me: what if I could apply my marketing skills to bring students to my own website, whilst improving the student experience through more rigorous tutor recruitment than the competition?
How did you launch your business?
I began with Swedish as it is quite a niche language and I knew it would be cheaper to advertise on Google. I spoke to my Swedish tutor as well as a couple of others. As freelancers, they had big gaps in their timetables, so they were happy to give my site a try.
I couldn’t come up with any clever brand names and The Swedish Tutor was available, so I went with that.
I couldn’t code, so I built the site using a simple WordPress theme and third party booking software. Using Zapier, I integrated the booking system with email and automated SMS software. Sounds like I knew what I was doing, right? Hardly. The site was incredibly basic. I’m still surprised to this day that it was successful.
Whilst I couldn’t code, I did have one notable advantage: my agency job involved managing Google search ad campaigns, so I was able to set up efficient campaigns right off the bat.
The Swedish tutoring website was instantly profitable, so I then went through the same process for Spanish. I quit my job and in 2017, I launched Lingoci so that multiple languages could fit under one brand.
Since then, the number of students and tutors has grown steadily each year. In 2020, the website processed seven-figures in transactions. Despite this, it was still lacking the technology that would enable it to compete in the global tutoring marketplaces. So last year I started collaborating with Don Pottinger, a friend of mine who has the tech skills I lack. We’ve spent six months designing and building a new tutoring marketplace LanguaTalk.com – which we’ve just launched.
Why did we build this new site? Well, it allows tutors to set their own rate and build their reputation through gaining positive reviews. This will help them raise their income. It also gives students more choice and more information when choosing a tutor. And it’s more scalable, as we’ve automated a lot of the manual tasks required on the other site.
What were the main challenges you faced?
Until recently, I was a solo founder without a development team, competing with established tutoring platforms that are backed by venture capital firms. That’s been challenging. Also, until last year, I couldn’t find a suitable payments provider that would enable us to facilitate marketplace payments across the entire globe. With the new business I’ve launched with Don, we now have both the tech skills and the tools to scale.
I should add that as a solo founder, it was easy to take my foot of the pedal and not push myself to grow. Now that I’m part of a two-man team, I have the pressure I need.
How have you had to adapt the business during the Covid pandemic?
As the lessons organised through our website are all online, the business has actually grown during the pandemic. So, for me, adapting has meant recruiting lots more tutors and optimising the site to show in Google when people search for terms like Spanish lessons via Zoom, French tutoring on Zoom, etc.
What have you learnt?
I’ve learnt that there is so much opportunity out there for budding entrepreneurs. A common misconception amongst aspiring entrepreneurs is that they need a unique idea and that they don’t have the creativity to come up with one.
But most businesses aren’t unique. All you need to do is focus on the products you come across in your daily life, then ask yourself if you could learn the skills to compete – either by doing those same things differently or better. Note that I said learn the skills, not have the skills. Almost no one has all the required skills before they start a business. With the plethora of online learning options out there, you can learn pretty much learn anything if you put your mind to it.
What are your ambitions for the future?
I want to help many more tutors earn a decent living. Too many are currently reliant on platforms that are unfair and lack transparency. Through the new website, I’m confident we can provide thousands of tutors with a better alternative.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?
It’s easy to burn yourself out when you’re so motivated to grow your business. Treat yourself like an athlete. Take time to rest, recover, and work on self-improvement. If you care for yourself, you’ll be able to perform at a higher level in the long-run. And never stop learning. Over the years, podcasts and online communities have taught me a great deal about business.