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Interview: Benny Lewis of FluentIn3Months

This guest post is by Kevin Muldoon of KevinMuldoon.com.

Recently, I interviewed Benny Lewis, the man behind the successful blog Fluent In 3 Months.

Over the last month or so I have been organising everything for my move to South America. Since reading The Motorcycle Diaries at University in my late teens I had thought about travelling South America and learning Spanish. I was all set to go four years ago when I was living in New Zealand, but decided to head back to the UK to save more money so that I didn’t have any financial difficulties. Weeks turned into months and months turned into years—until I finally took the plunge this year and made the decision to go.

While looking for help and advice about the quickest way to learn Spanish I came across the fantastic blog, Fluent In 3 Months. It’s run by self-titled “Irish Polyglot” Benny Lewis, who has managed to become fluent in around ten languages (and several dialects too) in just eight years. Don’t believe me? Check out this video.

Fluent In 3 Months is a fantastic example of how sharing a passion for a subject through your blog can be profitable. By regularly adding great content and taking the time to connect with readers every day he has managed to create a blog with over 100,000 monthly visitors in just two years.

The main source of his income comes from sales of his Language Hacking Guide. This multi-format guide is available in dozens of languages and includes a 32,000-word ebook, worksheets, and three hours of audio interviews with well-known language specialists.

Benny kindly took some time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for ProBlogger readers.

You travelled for a number of years before launching your own blog. What was the motivation behind launching Fluent In 3 Months?

How I finally learned how to get along with ParisiansFor the first six years of non-stop travel, I had been moving to new countries and challenged myself to learn their languages quickly. It was fun, but I noticed that I got a lot further when I was more public in announcing my project to as many people as possible, for some accountability.

So when I decided to speak fluent Czech in three months, I registered the domain and started blogging about the journey! I had no intention to monetize on the site; it was just to document my mission and share my tips.

This is not, however, one of those ‚Äúonly my mother read it first‚Äù stories. I had definite intentions for the blog’s readership to grow as I knew that I was giving unique advice and stories that people would appreciate.

The blog grew quicker than I could have imagined so I went on to document other missions, changing every few months and constantly giving all the advice I could for others who wanted to learn languages quickly and travel easier.

Your blog launched with a consistent flow of high quality articles right from the start. Did you find it difficult to update your blog with such regularity when travelling?

Although I have technically been “on the road” for over eight years, it’s actually been a string of two- to three-month stays where I rent an apartment with Internet. So travel only slows me down for the couple of days that I transition between places.

Ever since the blog started I’ve remained pretty consistent in updating very regularly, with the exception of two separate months when my financial situation was in tatters (credit card debt) and I had to focus on my previous job as a freelance translator, accepting overtime work to compensate.

Since I started earning full-time from the blog a year ago, there have always been about two in-depth posts (two to five thousand words) per week without fail.

Is it better to travel to villages for language/cultural immersion?

How much research and planning did you do before launching Fluent In 3 Months?

None. Came up with the summer project idea and the blog name one morning, registered the domain name, bought the ticket and started blogging all just one week before moving to Prague.

Even though it was my first time ever blogging, I had been reading other (travel) blogs for many years and already had a popular multilingual Youtube channel, so I had a vague idea of what would work for promotion and keeping readers’ interest.

Had you always envisioned using the blog as a platform to sell a digital product or had you considered monetizing the blog in other ways?

I had no experience in online monetization—my previous understanding was that it involved covering your website with irrelevant and noisy advertising, which as a long-term online reader I always find irritating. So I never ran a single advertisement on my site, in order to maintain the kind of user experience I myself appreciate.

With this in mind, I simply accepted that I’d never make money from the site. I had a donation button, but in the first year of its use I managed to get 50 Euros, total, and most of that was from just one enthusiastic reader. Not enough to do anything more than cover hosting costs!

Then when I was in Thailand I met some interesting people like Chris Guillebeau, Adam Baker, Sean Ogle, Cody McKibben, and more. They gave me some encouragement that with my traffic I could market a product specifically outlining how I learn languages, and advice about how to approach doing it.

First impressions of Thailand

With no time to waste, as soon as I got to Germany I took six weeks off my work as a translator and focused on writing the Language Hacking Guide. One of my greatest talents in language learning, traveling, and many other things has been to ditch perfectionism and (as Seth Gothin always says) ship. No excuses, no time-wasting, no waiting until everything is “just right.” I applies this to creating the product too. Six weeks after I started writing I put the product on the site, and interest in it was tremendous!

I managed to cancel the debt that had been haunting me for years, and even build up a nest-egg. From this I could add more to the product, improve the look, add more content etc. (always a free update for those who already had it). Enthusiastic readers offered to translate it and the full version download now includes 23 native written translations.

I created another product about Why German is Easy, but only got a burst of sales from it initially. Basically in the entire last year I have been funding my travels and entire lifestyle from one product! Sales have been consistent for over 14 months now!

This has meant that I haven’t had to force myself to create new stuff just for the sake of making money, or spam my readers. I continue to focus on the content, and the site’s traffic grows naturally enough to ensure every day I make the sales I need!

In a recent complete redesign of the site, I even went as far as to take all visual banners to my product off! The whole site looks so much better now. It’s kind of hard at a glance to even see that I have anything to sell on the site, and despite that I’m still earning what I need!

I also offer Skype based consultation, but earnings don’t compare to sales of my product. Soon I’ll finally start developing my second product, which will be entirely video based.

Getting rid of your English accent when speaking a foreign language

You promote your newsletter “The Language Hacking League” using Aweber. How important has email marketing been in promoting your blog and promoting your hacking guide?

It’s been quite important—when I had a major update to the product I would increase the price, and give people a few days to get it at the old price. The vast majority of those sales were from the email list, and these have given me incredible boost to help me cover travel and other expenses, especially to allow me to go to conferences to spread my message more.

But I would only make those pitches once every few months. To make it worth their while I send very regular pure content (no pitches) to email subscribers. It’s almost as much work as the blog! I want to make sure people enjoy and open them. Even though I have a decent sized list, my open rates are still hovering around 65% so I must be doing something right!

I could get more people onboard with plugins that black out the screen and force an email signup form on you, but I think too many bloggers get greedy about the numbers and come across as too pushy—this is especially true for international readers who find American sales/closing tactics frustrating.

My email list has been important also in that I focus on it way more than RSS subscriber numbers. I realised very quickly that monitoring my Feedburner count was stressful because a) it jumps around too much and thus isn’t even accurate and b) it’s irrelevant for non-techie blogs.

The Many Benefits of Engaging People‚Äôs Curiosity in Your EmailsSo many of my readers have told me that I’m one of five or so blogs that they have bookmarked in Internet Explorer, so expecting them to subscribe by RSS is silly. So I decided a year ago to never log back into feedburner and don’t care what it says my subscriber numbers are. The RSS subscription logo is on my site for whoever wants it, but I focus on getting people subscribed by email—this is something all of my readers can understand.

In each email I link to recent blog posts, so they get updates and move back to the site from that!

I get a surge of sign-ups as I build up suspense about what my next language and destination will be, announcing it first in the email list, and my suggestions for that were so unique that Aweber themselves invited me to guest post on their blog about it.

Free Hug For All ProBlogger Readers!

What lessons have you learned from blogging over the last two years?

That focusing on the numbers rather than content is a terrible idea. Since I ditched checking my RSS subscriber numbers and only logging into Google Analytics every few weeks max (mostly only to follow up on incoming links), it’s been way more enjoyable! As long as you get positive comments directly on the site, by email or via social networking, then you know you are on the right track!

What I focus on is to make it more personal. For example, I’m one of the only bloggers who has a photo of himself in every post (apart from occasional guest posts on my site), and I share both tips and personal stories. I also answer almost every single comment directly.

This level of personalisation means that people really see who I am and that I’m not in this for the money, so they share my site passionately, knowing that I’ll treat new readers well.

Describe a typical day in the life of a travelling blogger.

I wrote a blog post about one such day in Colombia, with video to document it. It involved getting up early, working very efficiently and dancing salsa with cute girls.

Here in Istanbul I’m getting up late and being quite lazy. In Rio I worked most of the day from a penthouse apartment with a breathtaking panoramic view of the city and in India I had a hut with no hot water or kitchen where the power would go out several times a day. There is no typical for a travelling blogger!!

What’s would be your advice to someone who is learning another language for the first time?

Many people will have learned a language in school and failed and believe it proves that they don’t have the right genes or whatever. The problem was that it was a totally unnatural way to learn something that is actually a means of communication. You can’t teach that in the same style as you would mathematics!

My advice is to speak from day one. Learn a few phrases, flick through a cheap book course and then just find a native and speak to them. Yes, what you have won’t be award winning stuff, but you will certainly be able to get by if you try hard enough. Through lots and lots of practice and exposure you will improve quickly.

Real use and not over-studying dusty books (or even pointlessly expensive new software or audio courses) is how people genuinely end up speaking a language. Use it or lose it!

As well as this, being public about your “mission” is important. Either blog about it, or start a thread on my site’s very active language learning forum for encouragement and to set solid end-goals.

Why I love Brazilians

What plans do you have for yourself and your blog over the next 12 months?

I really enjoyed my experience speaking at TBEX (both as a main speaker about language learning and as a panelist about branding and growing website traffic). I’ve applied to speak at larger events and hope that they will accept me, as I feel this is the next step to getting my message out to more people. I’d like to use my blog as a stepping stone to other media; my goal is to convince the entire world that language talent is irrelevant, and that anyone can become fluent in a second language.

Otherwise, every few months I will go to a new destination and learn a new language, and write about it in detail as always. The completely new story in the blog so frequently always brings in a fresh wave of new readers and new opportunities!

While I know where I’m going for the next few months, I don’t know where I’ll be next year at all. If you’d like to find out, just come on over and subscribe!
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A huge thank you to Benny for taking part in this interview. You can find out more about Benny, his views on language and his latest travels through his website at Fluent In 3 Months or via RSS, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Google+.

Kevin Muldoon is a webmaster and blogger who lives in Central Scotland. His current project is WordPress Mods; a blog which focuses on WordPress Themes, Plugins, Tutorials, News and Modifications.

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Comments

  1. Benny Lewis says:

    Thanks a lot for running this interview :) A few typos slipped through, but otherwise it turned out great! :D

    This is my second time mentioned on Problogger this year. My first was on the list of 40 bloggers to watch in 2011.

    For anyone curious, I explained more detail about my blogging strategies in my guest post on Think Traffic (explaining how a recent post of mine went viral enough to get over 300,000 views).

    Any other questions, let me know here! :)

    • Gregory C. says:

      Just wanted to add that I enjoyed this quote from the post:

      “That focusing on the numbers rather than content is a terrible idea.”

      People get too caught up in numbers in the beginning, and once you have the numbers, you become more concerned with conversions and optimization, so in reality, your beginning stages should be focused more on content and marketing effectively.

  2. Great interview Benny, your site has helped me also get more into learning other languages.

  3. Dan says:

    Benny, if I didn’t have an RSS reader, you’d be one of the 5 or so blogs I keep in my .. ahem… Chrome toolbar. Really enjoy following your adventures and the effort you put in to your updates is apparent. Cheers to your success!

  4. chris says:

    I can learn a lot from this post especially about keeping it personal and with personal pictures. It really does add a level of connection and transparency.

  5. Benny’s blog is fantastic, and your interview is very interesting! Thank you for showing us the work of this extraordinary blogger. I hope I can imitate him (in a few aspects at least).

    I speak three languages. When you know at least two languages, you can easier learn many other languages. However, learning a new language is a challenge. Each language has its rules… I love the English language exactly because it is so simple.

    If I’ll ever have enough time in my life, I’ll study Italian. I almost know this language, but I never had enough time to seriously study it and really learn the basics. Now, Benny gave me many bright ideas…

    • I’m currently learning Spanish – my first foreign language. I’ve only been in Colombia for 5 days so at the moment the task of mastering the language still seems a little daunting – but I have learned so much in 5 days been immersed here. Everyday I am building my vocabulary and I am starting to construct sentences etc.

      I can see how learning another language would be easier next time as I would know the steps for learning the language quickly :)

  6. Himanshu says:

    great interview. I have a dream to start a travel blog, this has inspired will even more.

  7. Steve says:

    awesome…….Benny Lewis Rocks…….Nice information too

  8. James Greg says:

    This interview has roused the adventurous spirit in me. I feel like traveling around the world too.

  9. I blog about pollinators but have a serious travel jones too. Thanks so much for this interview- I might not have discovered Benny’s fun blog until much later without it! :)