How Teaching Myself English As A Kid Inspired Me To Build An Online Language Platform
Hello! Thanks for having me. My name is Imran Rautan, I am the founder and CEO of Litvill Lessons Association. I am currently also a PhD student because we can never stop learning.
Litvill Lessons is an online English learning platform with the intention of changing the way school-going kids learn English. It is a non-profit company, because it is not the typical “invest and earn” business, it is more like a mission for me. We have cutting-edge e-modules and introduced bold, unique methods to make English learning not only fun but more effective than anything else available right now in India.
Of course, this kind of approach implies a good amount of risk; at first glance, people might not understand how our approach is better than the traditional ones. When we set up the company, we chose this bumpy road, because we are more interested in results than quick cash. Our aspiration is to revolutionize English learning and to go beyond, by building the characters of our students so that they can become leaders in the 21st century. New challenges call for new methods.
We have built our unique system with some cutting-edge features, like online classes conducted by European English mentors, and tutors raised in-house. Putting the proverb “The best way to learn is to teach” into practice, learners who pass a level can give online classes on levels below them. Many are surprised to find out that the senior students, our tutors, are paid for their classes.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
The story of my business starts with my own upbringing. I grew up in a kind of slum in Jaipur, where only a few lucky children go to secondary school, as most of them go straight to work. I did stone polishing after classes from the tender age of 8, but I still managed to finish secondary school.
There was not much for me, I didn't have good grades, as I had no time to study besides my work. My family was poor to pay university fees, though it was always my dream. I also wanted a better life; trendy jeans, fancy sunglasses, and a long coat.
After school, I went to work at a small hotel. There I realized that most of the rich people who have sunglasses and long coats speak English. I thought, “If I speak English I can be like them.” So, I started to learn English by myself, using English newspapers left behind by the guests. All the hotel guests were my tutors.
One day a lady (Dolores Csabai) from Europe arrived at the hotel, and I asked her to explain some English phrases, as usual, that was on my plate for the day. She was impressed by my learning method and enthusiasm. I asked her if she could help me to learn English. I was lucky, the lady was an expert in learning theories, so, out of curiosity, she agreed. I did 80% of the learning by myself and 20% of the time she guided me online.
In less than 6 months I was able to easily communicate with the hotel guests. Seeing my hard work and progress, my mentor offered financial support to go to university. I attended the university from morning to afternoon, then I did my full-time job until midnight, for three years, including Saturdays and Sundays. It was quite challenging, but still, I was one of the best students at the University of Jaipur. My appetite for learning grew, and I also finished my master's degree. In 2022 I even got a scholarship from a university to do PhD studies.
"By that time I realized that big cars, sunglasses, and long coats are meaningless."
"What makes you really happy is to do something good for others, as my mentor did for me. There might be millions of Indian kids like me, who have potential, but no opportunity to study."
At that time I already had several students, giving them online English classes. However, I was not happy with the quality of the available English books and online materials. Funny enough, I found even the British newspapers better than the textbooks, as their content was more realistic and hands-on. I was not happy with the outdated teaching methods, either. Blindly mugging up grammar does not support speaking and understanding English.
The covid pandemic just started, so I got more and more requests to teach English online. I had to re-think my method and content, as I wanted the best for my students. When I mentioned it to Dolores, she got enthusiastic. I just learned from her that she had been the author of a popular English-learning online series in Europe. Though she had good materials, she insisted that I need one especially for Indian kids. Different cultures need different approaches, she said.
The first online materials we created were custom-made for my students. Creating the online lessons was quite time-consuming, we spent months making only a couple. It was natural to utilize them and make them available to a wider audience.
We hired a programmer and set up the platform. Later we realized that we need an organization to manage both the platform and students. We founded a non-profit organization called Litvill Lessons Association in 2022.
I believe if I could make it so far, others can also make it with the help of Litvill Lessons.
How did you build the first version of your product?
We wanted to replicate my story while making it a bit more economical since we cannot have a dedicated western teacher for each student. So we came up with a 60-30-10 formula. It has two important components: self-learning, and online practicing with teachers and fellow learners. Self-learning is quite a new concept in India, but we have to adopt it. It is proven that online self-learning is more effective than traditional lecture-based classes.
The Model splits the time spent on English learning into 3 categories:
- 60%: Self-learning with the help of well-designed, cutting-edge e-modules, written by western experts
- 30%: English speaking environment provided by our senior students, who teach junior students. They are paid for the classes.
- 10%: International exposure in one-to-one online classes, with the help of European English teachers. We hired teachers from England, The United States, and some other European countries.
During the pilot stage, we realized that the Indian students are not independent enough, they need more guidance than their western counterparts. We added tests not only to each level but to each lesson so that the students can find out what they can skip and what to learn. We also introduced a unique feedback system: our advisors call the students on a weekly basis, checking their progress and asking them if they have any problems.
Later we also introduced a learning diary in the LMS, where students can track their progress and can see the next task.
How did you launch your business?
The platform has been funded by our personal savings and the fees from the students. As a principle, we want to keep it this way. Of course, it doesn't make entering the market an easy job.
We don’t have and won’t have celebrity endorsement, influencers' recommendations, no personal connections, and online presence at all. Thus, to get the early adopters, we had to embrace a very traditional marketing technique, finding the customers one by one, via word of mouth. It took almost six months to get 50 early adopters from different cities and towns.
We officially launched the product around a year ago with a live event. The participants were our existing students and they were encouraged to bring their classmates or friends with their parents. We discussed the shortcomings of Indian education with the parents, and ideas on how to overcome them. We played with the kids, moreover, we provided scholarships to our best English learners.
The lesson learned from the product launch was to bring the product to the market as soon as possible with the basic features. Do not wait until you make it perfect, because the early adopters will guide you on what the customers want and what kind of features they need.
Do not build the product without customer involvement, because you will end up building a product that nobody wants in the market. Valuable opinions and insights are of utmost importance to building what people actually want.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Most probably, the Founder’s story and our innovative methods have worked best for us to attract students. However, our formula also has deterred some students who are used to being dependent on the teachers for everything. Though we are losing some potential users, it is fine for us, because we want to attract those who have the ability to do self-learning with our guided e-modules.
We tried a referral campaign, it was “Register Friends for scholarship”.
The campaign was not as successful as we planned. It turned out that the students were not so motivated by the scholarship, possibly because it is not tangible for them.
Later we slightly tweaked the idea, instead of a scholarship we offered a sports watch to register friends, which worked better than the scholarship, but all in all, we had to realize that our audience is too small yet for referral programs.
On the other hand, we looked for committed learners from the beginning, who would stay with us for longer. Referral campaigns have the risk that they bring new users for reward, not for the benefit of our method.
We tried and tested the traditional ways to attract users, like online and physical events, word-of-mouth, referrals, and blog posts. Our greatest achievement is that most of our students are still with us, even after a year.
We think that retaining the existing learners is more important than getting new ones. Our regular Sunday webinars play a great role in it, where our best students come together and discuss topics and methods of English learning with our teachers.
We do not aim to scale up too much too soon; we just want to create a community of excellent learners and thinkers and let’s see how it goes and grows.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Currently, we have roughly 50 active, permanent students, around 10 teachers from Europe, two programmers, and one content writer, plus some temporary contributors occasionally. We also have between 100-200 registered, temporary students, who come and go, when they realize, we don’t do spoonfeeding, but require constructive collaboration.
Our focus is to provide the best quality English-speaking environment and make our students good at self-learning. The results are promising, as our students are improving faster than with any other methods, and on top of it, they have become independent learners and thinkers.
What our learners say:
I go to an English medium school and also attend English classes with private teachers. However, whatever I learned was useless because I could speak at all, neither at school nor at home. With Litvill lessons, I have plenty of opportunities to speak. I give tutor classes, they are only 20 minutes a day. We are awarded a small amount of money for the classes, so our own learning is cheaper. For the first time, I feel that \whatever I am doing is useful.
At Litvill Lessons we are the main players in our learning, not the teachers. Most of the learning is done by ourselves with the help of self-guided e-modules. I also have classes with European mentors, who are teachers. We call them mentors because they don’t really teach us.
We study English by learning about social issues: water crises, healthy lifestyle, environment, and money management and we discuss these topics with our European mentors. They want to know our opinions and thoughts about everything. Whatever we learn is useful now because we could use it by teaching the same topic that we learned to our junior students.
We are creating a community of excellent learners who can influence their environment, too. Our small community can make a huge difference in a wider society. We do not aim to make a profit from our learners; this is why we do not have any markup on our teachers' cost.
As Litvill is a non-profit organization, our resources are limited. We want to spend our resources on those who deserve it. We only want to give an opportunity to students who have the potential to grow. We select our learners who meet our criteria, and being rich or poor is not our criteria. Our aim is not to increase our revenue, but to raise excellent learners and thinkers.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Lessons I learnt
Being systematic, planning and following up are the most important things. Though I have an MBA, I didn’t learn much about the significance of data and sheets and statistics. Doing business can be fun, but filling up cells, creating charts, and analyzing figures is a must, even if I don’t like it.
Challenge we face/faced
One of the challenges we faced and still face is brand awareness. As we are a non-profit company, we have a very humble budget for marketing as we want to put the money into the platform and best quality English teachers from the UK, America, and so on so that the best quality of English learning environment can be provided to the students. Thus, we are trying to figure out ways to create brand awareness organically, which seems to be challenging.
Therefore, we are open to collaborating with other businesses in any possible way to strengthen each other’s efforts to achieve the desired goals.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We have our own learning management system, developed in-house, where our students, teachers, and advisors coordinate with each other.
The platform enables multiple writers and other contributors to collaborate. The students can see the content in two ways: either in a library or in a guided way by showing them the next step, next unit, test, or live class. They are free and encouraged to plan the date/time of their learning.
In the library, they can create new lessons by combining the units and can give a title to their lesson. In this example a learner created a lesson called KID:
In the guided version the learners see what to do: learn or book.
The online class booking also happens on the platform (Live Session).
We are currently using Zoom and Google meet, but trying to find or create a more convenient way to conduct our classes.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I still remember the time when I asked, ‘what is the use of reading books?’ I grew up not reading a single book. Nobody had books in my community. My mentor, Dolores, gave me fairy tales the first to read. She asked me what I had learnt from them. I replied: ‘You are wasting your time if you are not making others' lives better.’
I have read so many excellent books since then, about far more serious topics, that it is difficult to pick one. I like Yuval Noah Harari’s books and videos. I think they shaped my mindset the most about global challenges and education. Maybe this is the reason that I focus more on solving problems than making money in business.
The most influential person in my life is my ‘godmother’, Dolores Csabai, who raised me to become a better version of myself. She has played a key role in my small achievements. She has been the best business coach for me with her excellent creative and systematic way of thinking since the inception of the company. I could have not achieved what I have now without her. I am a product of her mentorship. Thanks, Doli!
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I am still learning about business, but one thing I have learnt from my short experience is that if you are in business you must be a good storyteller. People do not buy products or services; they buy the story behind a company.
Storytelling is the most powerful tool for persuasion as people love to hear good stories. Storytelling is just as important as being good with numbers.
Nowadays technologies can calculate numbers better, and faster with more accuracy but a computer can not tell a good story. Thus, be a good storyteller!
Work Hard, Super Hard!
One of the sayings of Elon Musk and quote it: “WORK LIKE HELL” and I agree with this saying. Simply, you have to work hard if you want your company to survive. There is no other secret.
Many people say I am just lucky to find Dolores and to find my students. They don’t see that I didn’t get anything on a silver plate, that how many times I looked for help in any form.
They don’t see that I had written over a thousand emails by the time I was answered once. You have to do a lot for your luck. You have to be persistent, and never give up.
Go out, look for connections, and talk to people. Make your social media profiles outstanding. Don’t wait for your luck. You might not get business every time but get new ideas and information.
For me, there has been only one thing that keeps me awake at night: how to accelerate the replication of my story through Litvill Lessons.
Most people don't even dare to dream, especially lower-class people. Their poor financial condition and lack of opportunities hold them back forever. However, I turned these challenges into my strengths and my inspiration. You can start a business with ideas, and if they are good, investors will find you.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are currently not hiring for any position, but we regularly have freelancers working for us. For a startup, it seems to be a better option, as we don’t have an HR department to handle our employees. This solution is also flexible for both parties.
However, we are open to collaboration with other educational companies and institutes in any possible way. Of course, we want to grow, but carefully and gradually. Our collaborators and freelancers can become our colleagues over time.
Please email: [email protected]
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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