Muhammad Ali taunting  Sonny Liston 1965

It’s on! How I am going to compete with Livemocha, busuu and Babbel

No, I haven’t lost my marbles! But at least now I got your attention, I think.

As you know, I have pursued a side project in German language learning since April 2008 called Deutsch Happen. On the basis of a more or less regular schedule I have produced different kinds of video lessons to test out teaching ideas and to support learners of German as a foreign language who might have no access to paid solutions.

For the past couple of months I have been experimenting with some strategies on how to grow my audience on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and the results are good enough to take this to the next step: I am building a MVP.

MVP is the abreviation of Minimum Viable Product and based on the lean startup philosophy by Eric Ries. He just published his book and is currently making the rounds to promote it. One of his best interviews I watched so far was at Leo Laporte’s Triangulation show, and I can only recommend to watch it if you’re thinking about how to built a product or service yourselves. Lean startup is a great way for independent teachers to evaluate their business as well as for “classic” startups and even established brands.

But back to my plan to take on language learning communities. In case you have followed me since the glory days in the Myngle and eduFire forums, you know that one of my key arguments for online teachers / tutors has always been that they should stop worrying of being copied. That’s because you cannot copy a person and that’s what makes the relationship between a teacher and a student much stronger than between a student and a brand.

Over the years on YouTube I learned that students come and watch my videos because I am in them in the first place. The fact that I have a certain methodology and they might actually learn something comes in second

This led to the conclusion that personal brands should work far better in language learning (or education in general) than “faceless” brands. The success of Khan Academy, Veritasium and MinutePhysics and of course Koichi’s TextFugu seem to prove that theory. And communities are the next closest model as they provide the social glue through the friends learners make on the platform.

Now, what I am trying to build with my MVP is a freemium product based on my personal brand I have built with Deutsch Happen. The new site is going to be a straight-forward vocabulary learning platform, based on the principles of mind mapping and the “Wikipedia effect”. The vocab will be interlinked, dragging the learner deeper and deeper into the language and there are going to be videos with me explaining the vocab, of course.

About 50% of the site is going to be free, supported by advertisement revenue. The other 50% will be behind a paywall, and I am going to charge a very competitive price.

This new concept itself is based on two findings. Firstly, I did a research amongst my Deutsch Happen users and asked them which way they prefer to learn with me. None of them chose live teaching.

Secondly, Salman Khan said “Teachers are not scalable, technology is.” Up to today, I delivered nearly 890.000 German lessons on Deutsch Happen which would have been impossible to do through live lessons.

Therefore, a self paced, immersive online platform based on video and text seems to make the most sense. On top of that I am going to create related courses, covering special topics in more detail and in order to raise the lifetime value of my customers.
I suppose most of them are going to buy my MVP once though there might be a chance that I am going to be able to sign them up a second and third time as the product is going to evolve over time. Like TextFugu, I will add more content on a regular basis, making it worthwhile to subscribe for a second year.

So over the coming months, I will keep you updated on the progress of my project and whether the assumptions I made in this post turn out to be true or the whole thing takes a different turn.
If it works out as I plan it, I am going to publish a blue print for teachers / tutors so that they can recreate it based on the subjects they would like to teach.

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  • Nathan Parcells

    Congratulations Kirsten this is very exciting news, I look forward to trying out the new site when it launches!

    • KirstenWinkler

      Thanks Nathan. Just a little side project to test some theories 😉

      • Anonymous

        A secret sauce that can help teachers win over students in competition with their much larger corporate brethern……Wow! Build slowly and grow while you are learning…Wow. Open source half your material…..Wow. Follow a well defined “pattern” or process right from the start….Wow. Turn your results over to other teachers….wow. I WILL be following this…..

        • KirstenWinkler

          Did I mention that for each student paying I will match one who cannot? :)

          Thanks for your support, Mike.

  • André Klein

    Hi Kirsten. Congratz for your new project! sounds exciting. just watched the triangulation episode you embedded. interesting stuff. if you listen very carefully, this goes way beyond business, though. take his definition of being an entrepreneur “doing something in a highly unstable environment” (might be quoted inaccurately): in this aspect all kids of today are the entrepreneurs of tomorrow. Once we get rid of all the buzz-words, there’s a completely new conception of work here which challenges the employer/employee model towards a more co-creative community engagement. Also, MVP, all nice and stuff – but what does it really mean than having an idea and going for it without being afraid of failure? Everyone can do it. I certainly wish you all the best for your DeutschHappen. We’re actually working on something somewhat similar for Hebrew learners, maybe you’ve seen it: – We built the whole thing within 24 hours – and keep building it as we go along.

    • KirstenWinkler

      The idea of lean startup / MVP that I want to follow is the process of testing, redefining, pivoting etc. – it is actually a mix of what I learned from online marketers like Ed Dale, Joel Comm etc plus the lean startup philosophy. It will take about 10% to 25% of my weekly working schedule and I hope to get results within the first month to decide if it is worthwhile to go on with it.

      It is really about testing out some ideas / theories I have and hopefully prove some of them right ;). When I make some money with it, even better. 

    • Anonymous

      24 hours? Nice job with your site- clean and easy to navigate! It looks like it will be easy to add to. Wish you luck!

  • Michael Schutzler

    Na Du, meine liebe Kirsten – was soll dann das?. Besser eigens Brot as fremder Braten? :-)  You are a force to be reckoned with – Congratulations! Of course, now that you said, “bring it on” we will sadly not be having any more fun interviews – unless of course you allow me to interview you for my blog. Was sagst Du dazu – ja? As we build the next generation of livemocha, we eagerly wait to see what you will do next in this exciting industry. Nous souhaitons pour votre succès!

    • KirstenWinkler

      That’s what we do during the 20% time here at WinklerMedia ;). Don’t worry, journalism will stay my main focus and you are not getting away that easily from doing an interview with me. And in the end, I am always open for M&A talks down the road ;).

  • Andreas Schroeter

    Congrats Kirsten on your decision! The online language learning space is still at its infancy and any new approaches will help find “the best way” to teach online. Livemocha, Babbel and Busuu are by now so large that they are not able to make major changes to their products without alienating some users. You have seen so many different products, ways of educating online and so forth so that your product should be best of all worlds!

    • KirstenWinkler

      Thanks Andreas. I don’t think that there is a “best way” of teaching online. My product is going to be my way of teaching and as Deutsch Happen attracted a significant group of loyal learners over the year this next step is to test / prove if a teacher can generate “real” revenue from it. Advertisement based revenue is OK but due to the fluctuations in the Google search algorithm and such not very reliable.

      In the end I hope to come up with a formula that can be adapted by other online teachers, building a new vertical market of small but lucrative niche products.

  • Ross Cranwell

    Congrats Kirsten! Follow your blog closely, and look forward to see the progress of this project :-)

    • KirstenWinkler

      Thanks, Ross :)

  • Jamie

    Awesome news Kirsten. You’ve got a hell of a lot of work ahead of you!

    • KirstenWinkler

      Thanks a lot for reminding me of that part ;).

  • George

    I find it interesting that we are on converging paths.  You by design and me by accident.  I am happy that you give words to my ramblings about the process.

    • KirstenWinkler

      That’s my German part. I always need to create a plan first ;).

  • Vikrama Dhiman

    Wow. This is super great news :)

    And, all the best. I’d be really interested to enroll myself too! A good teacher is more important than LIVE or non-LIVE. I would choose a great teacher + LIVE combo myself but I will also choose good teacher + non LIVE over a not so good teacher + LIVE combo.

    And, this looks like it will be intelligently prepared product as well! Looking forward, keep us posted and all the best!


    • KirstenWinkler

      You are welcome to do so and I am looking forward to your feedback :)

  • Mau Buchler

    Sounds like you’ve got all the right ideas 😉 Best of luck to ya!

    • KirstenWinkler

      Thanks Mau. And let’s find a day / time for an interview! :)

  • Anonymous

    I have a quick question for you. Since your site is somewhat lexically centered do you have any thoughts on how to organize all the lexical items you introduce? Are you using any specialized software in this regard?

    • KirstenWinkler

      No, it will be based on what I come up with :). Like TextFugu I am seeing this as a living organism to which I add new items along the way.

  • oliver

    Hi Kirsten,
    congrats, that sounds like giving the market another aspect.
    Coming across another, relatively new approach, they are called and approaching language and vocabulary learning from a gamification side.
    Keep us posted!

    • Anonymous


      Too bad but they don’t give you any hard information about the site before you sign in- not exactly very user friendly in my book. I personally don’t believe you should have to give someone your email number in order to study/understand exactly what a business is offering. Being free doesn’t justify being stingy with information in my book. Cheers!

      • Oliver

        agree, but don’t judge the letter by the envelop 😉
        Cheers, Oli