Learning by Doing at Babbel
Babbel is a learning company inside and out. We believe that anyone can pick up a second (or third or fourth) language, so our days are spent refining and adding to our courses to make them even more effective, motivating and communicative for you. And every day we ourselves figure out how to do that better.
Babbel will always be evolving into the best possible version of itself, and continuing to grow as we have requires the team to learn by doing. Since getting started in 2008, the platform has grown to over one million active subscribers. As the world’s first successful language learning app, we not only had to devise from scratch a sound methodology to teach languages via a mobile app, but also overcome the numerous technical, logistical and even cultural challenges that come with growing and scaling so quickly. Because there’s no established path to follow, many employees’ careers have similarly taken interesting and unexpected directions.
To find out what Babbelonians have learned on the job, I asked two employees who’ve been here a (relatively) long time to share some of their experiences. Katja, Head of Didactics, has turned her own passion for languages into a career – helping people all over the world learn them. She now supervises the team of over 100 internal language experts who conceptualize, produce and optimize all our course content and who work to improve the overall learning experience.
Ed leads the Content Marketing and Social Media Teams. Originally started in 2014 as a platform for video marketing activities, Ed has grown the Babbel Magazine into a key channel for spreading the word about Babbel and fueling international growth. The magazine features content in seven languages and is seen by millions of readers worldwide each month.
Both Katja and Ed started at Babbel with a degree of relevant experience at other e-learning startups, though their first responsibilities were very different from where they ended up:
Katja: Before Babbel I worked as a freelance teacher and tutor at a university and then at an online language learning startup using videos, where I did everything from editing to acting and organizing video shoots. But they did not take off like Babbel has.
I started in August 2010 as a Content Project Manager responsible for building out the language levels and producing more courses like the beginner’s courses for French, Italian, Spanish and even Swedish. I had no problem developing a curriculum for the romance languages, but Swedish was tough and some of the content had to be optimized later by actual experts. So my team is now optimizing my first version.
Ed: I’d worked as a teacher and mediocre translator for six years, and helped build a virtual classroom startup (which also never really took off).
In mid 2012 I began in search engine marketing (SEM) at Babbel after having initially applied as a translator. I think I was hired because I’m a native English speaker who’d worked a bit with the statistical analysis software SPSS and Microsoft Excel – things were different back then! Then we proceeded to go nuts and internationalize our marketing through SEM.
Learning what your job actually means
Many employees work in radically different capacities than what they had been hired to do. At most companies, this is simply the result of promotion and seniority; at Babbel, however, careers evolve in unexpected directions as they recognize growth opportunities or gain a better understanding of their own role within the larger organization.
Ed: No one at Babbel had ever held my current role – I’m not even certain there is a direct parallel at any other education company. I went from an SEM Trainee to SEM Manager, Senior SEM Manager, Senior Content Marketing Manager, before I became Head of Content Marketing… Now it looks terribly dated and doesn’t really work, but the little interactive Youtube videos we did back in 2012 were effective, unique, and were the justification for bringing in video editors, which paved the way for Babbel’s popular Youtube channel.
Katja: Eventually I had to learn to let go and delegate responsibilities. To take on new responsibilities you need to free up time and trust others to do a good job. The hardest part was giving up direct management of the French Team, the language I studied in university and speak as well as a native. Today I need to clarify the whole team’s direction and manage other managers which is totally new to me.
Ed: I’ve gone from a “doer” to a manager (who still pretends to be a doer), and I’m slowly understanding what a manager is supposed to do. I used to sit behind a computer and now I sit in front of it. The responsibilities are quite simply at the opposite end of the spectrum – now I’m responsible for people and big numbers in beautiful spreadsheets, whereas I used to be responsible for little numbers in ugly spreadsheets.
Setting learning goals
Everyone at Babbel regularly sets individualized goals for skills they want to improve and knowledge that would be helpful in their jobs. The Babbel Academy offers everything from language lessons to management training, and participating in external trainings and seminars is encouraged.
Katja: Even before we started the Babbel Academy trainings for Line Managers, Miriam, the Director of Didactics who built our department and created Babbel’s unique teaching methodology, organized management training. They were certainly a good foundation but this doesn’t mean that in real life you won’t fail – you just need to learn from it.
I encourage my team to attend and present at linguistics conferences, but also to share their knowledge about the industry and linguistics internally. I support cross-team initiatives to share knowledge with different departments like Marketing and New Business Initiatives. I believe we can always find inspiration from both inside and outside Babbel.
Ed: I’ve attended a fair few conferences, had management trainings, trainings in various software. We used to have “learning time” in which we were obliged to learn. In fact, the idea for the magazine came out of that! A rookie mistake I regret was my previous disregard for strong soft skills – or management skills – which contribute a great deal to the effectiveness of a team. Correcting this is a slow, laborious process, but ultimately worthwhile. I’ll get there one day.
Katja: There’s always more I wish I could do. I would love, for example, to have more time to try out different digital learning products myself, even though I’ve tried and tested the most popular ones for language learning.
On breaking stuff, even when it still works
Growing quickly means that even successful initiatives and processes need to be discarded if there’s room for improvement.
Katja: My impression is that from the very beginning the Didactics department was very well organized, which is of course essential for generating so much content in 14 different learning languages. On the other hand, maybe we were sometimes a bit too organized – it can be a problem within a growing company because you then need to break certain parts of what has been implemented in order to adapt to a changing environment. Flexibility is key in a very diverse company with different approaches and ways of communication. What I’ve personally learned are different ways of organizing work and adapting.
Ed: Marketing-wise at least, a startup is always in crisis, and if it’s not, something’s wrong. As soon as something works and is stable, we break it and make it better, or bigger, or faster, or all three. Hopefully all three.
This is the first in a series of posts about Babbel’s self-conception as a learning company. In the next post I’ll look at lessons we’ve learned from our users and how your input helps make the courses better. Do you have an interesting story about an experience with one of our courses? Feel free to get in touch in the comments below!