3 Leadership Lessons From Babbel’s Co-Founder

Thomas Holl, managing director of the Babbel language learning company, offered insights at IFA Berlin that translate beyond the world of startups.

Author: Curt Wagner       

Thomas Holl, managing director of Babbel, speaks on the Next Stage at IFA Berlin at Messe Berlin. “Solve real problems for real people” was one of his messages that resonates beyond the world of startups. (Curt Wagner/Convene)

The Babbel language app has traveled far beyond its 2007 beginnings in Berlin, becoming one of the world’s top-selling online language learning platforms. But as, co-founder Thomas Holl told attendees at the recent IFA Berlin consumer electronics and home appliances trade show, the company’s success didn’t come without challenges, Holl, now a managing director of the company, aimed his talk at the entrepreneurs who gathered Sept. 6-10 at IFA Berlin at Messe Berlin in Germany, but his experience holds lessons for business event professionals. Here are three that I took away from his presentation.

Solve problems for real users. Holl identified this as the biggest takeaway from his talk. “Nothing else matters,” he said, more than designing for your users — or, in the case of planners, designing for attendees.

To illustrate his point, Holl talked about the emphasis on disruption. “If you focus on disruption, you focus on markets … [and] industries. Markets and industries don’t have problems — actual people do have problems,” he said. When Babbel started, online learning wasn’t popular and there weren’t a lot of technologies that were interactive enough for what the Babbel team wanted to do, he said. Instead of focusing on blowing up the market, “we built a product that I would like to use, that my mom would like to use.” With some satisfied early adopters and a little luck — the City University of New York used an early version of the product in an independent study of language learning tools and concluded that it worked — Babbel was able to move forward. Not long after, the company did disrupt the market.

Embrace your mistakes and learn from them. After successfully expanding from Germany into other European countries, the company set its sights on the U.S. So in 2014 Holl packed up his family and moved to New York City, where he opened an office and “made all of the mistakes that I possibly could,” he said. But he was happy for having made those mistakes, he added, because they led to him realizing Babbel had to treat the U.S. operation as another startup within the company, and “emancipate” it from the German headquarters. (For more about embracing failure, see what PCMA EduCon speaker Ryan Leak had to say about how failures are nothing to be ashamed of, but are opportunities to learn and grow.)

Give your teams autonomy. Holl credits the success of Babbel’s expansion into the U.S. market, now the company’s biggest, to the fact that he convinced leadership to let the U.S. operation run more independently than Babbel’s other regional operations. “I think the biggest impact I made was that I allowed that team to do their thing,” he said, Holl also turned the reins of the U.S. operation over to someone more qualified to lead it than he was, although “it’s very hard for the ego to acknowledge that there are a ton of people out there who can do your job way better than you can,” he said. Julie Hansen, now U.S. CEO and chief revenue officer, took the U.S. operation from being a “problem child” to being the fastest-growing, biggest, and most important market for Babbel, he said. Holl’s advice to leaders translates to the business events industry: When you hire the right people and trust them to do the work you hired them to do and solve the problems you hired them to solve, your company — and your employees — will thrive.

Curt Wagner is digital editor at Convene.

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