Community Name: Deutsch Gym
Community Leader: Ronan McGuire
What is Deutsch Gym? An online language learning community (started with German, now doing English and Irish, as well)
On how he started Deutsch Gym
I never really thought I'd be running a community, to be honest. I used to work in marketing and then as a front-end developer. I've done a million side projects that haven't gone anywhere, but this is the first time that I'm able to live off entrepreneurship properly.
I always regretted not learning German properly, so when I moved back to Berlin in 2019 I went to four months of intensive lessons and progressed really well, but I found that I didn't get enough chances to speak German. The city's very international, so people just switch to English when they see you. I was learning loads, but I wasn't really becoming fluent. I didn't really want to go to meetups at pubs, I wanted to learn on my phone from my couch.
I'd already previously used Discord, so I set up just a really simple group, posted the link to a couple of Facebook groups I'm a member of, and then some people started joining. We started off with one person in February and now we have hundreds of members.
On building the Deutsch Gym product
It's really just a simple Discord group. At the start, I'd just write down ten questions, and few of us would chat for an hour. All the German learners were the same level - intermediate - I didn't take any beginners or advanced speakers. Some people use their real name, some don't. It was kind of weird and fun - just strangers talking to each other online in pretty bad German - but people kept coming back anyway. We started with people who were at the level where you can have basic conversations about everyday things, like going to the beach or your typical Sunday. We don't take beginners, because with our format you have to be able to talk for twenty minutes of the hour. So when a total beginner comes to us, I just send them some places to get lessons and then tell them to come back afterwards. The great thing is with the Standard European Framework people can self-select really easily, so I don't have to do that much work to screen people. Everyone knows what level they are and move up and down naturally, so I don't have to do much moderation.
Speaking sessions have been the best so far. I also tried reading sessions, taking turns reading paragraphs to improve our pronunciation, but it didn't really work that well. We had a couple of in-person meetups in Berlin and Frankfurt, but with the lockdowns the format of meeting online in small groups has worked really well.
I want to try more stuff in the future like getting an actor in for a session to do a live roleplay - the possibilities are endless.
On transitioning from free to paid
At the beginning it was totally free. Eventually I started charging 10 Euro a year and then I made it 10 Euro a month after a few days. Now, it's 12 Euro a month with discounts for quarterly and annual subscriptions, so if people want to join for longer then they get a better rate. I'll probably increase it in the future, but for now I'm okay with the price.
I've thought about making it so that you get three sessions for one price and then unlimited for a higher price, or changing the pricing if you want to be part of a smaller or larger group. There are loads of ways of doing it, but finding the right approach and not upsetting the dynamic in the community is hard. It's a bit fragile, you know, if there's a really good atmosphere in the community, you don't want to affect that negatively.
On the hardest part of running the community
Trying to scale it and keep that community atmosphere. I'm not sure if we want to have a lot of people in each group, so we'll probably hit a certain limit, maybe a few hundred people, and then bring in a new teacher/moderator for each group, but obviously that becomes expensive.
Moderation can be difficult - just making sure people are speaking the language and talking about the themes - but we don't have a huge number of members, so it's been very manageable until now. Down the line, I might need to worry about abuse, but I haven't come across it yet.
I do most of the moderation for the intermediate groups, but the moderation for the more advanced groups are done by native speakers. I'm starting to have native speakers moderate everything so that I can focus on growth and other processes for the community. We've had a couple of members do the moderation in exchange for membership, but in the future most of the moderators will be paid.
On growth experiments
It's mostly word-of-mouth. I tried Facebook ads and Reddit ads, but that didn't go well. It takes a lot of experimentation and it's pricey, but I'll definitely try it again. It actually made me appreciate organic growth. So, that's why I wrote a blog post and I want to write more like that.
On his longer term goals for the community
I want to have it running 24/7, so that if you're sitting anywhere in the world, you can log on and speak German with someone, whether you're in New York, Berlin, or Hong Kong. I also want to offer more structured lessons, like grammar lessons.
This week I launched it in Irish and in English as well. They're just trial sessions, but they went really well, so I'll be doing them again. There's a lot of demand for Irish sessions, because every Irish person learns Irish but they don't really use it. They need a bit of a push and good excuse to use it. We'll probably do some other small languages like Basque or Hebrew - the possibilities are endless.