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How Avi Millman built a non-profit marketplace where people on lockdown can improve their foreign language skills
7 min read

How Avi Millman built a non-profit marketplace where people on lockdown can improve their foreign language skills

Lockdown Language Exchange
How Avi Millman built a non-profit marketplace where people on lockdown can improve their foreign language skills

Hey! What are you working on and what led you to building with no code? Have you got any previous experience of building sites/apps?

Lockdown Language Exchange is a nonprofit marketplace where people on lockdown can improve their foreign language skills via conversational practice with a native speaker. Everyone who lists on the site and makes money from it has been adversely affected in their work by the COVID-19 crisis, and is using the platform as an alternate source of income during these uncertain times. We don't take any fees on transactions, so all the money goes directly into the pockets of those who need it. The added benefit is that both parties also get some much needed social engagement as well. In terms of my story, I'm an American expat living in London with my wife. We had decided that we would move back to the US later this year, and I had recently left my job doing sales and partnerships at InVision with plans to travel around Europe when the crisis hit. As I saw what was happening with business closures, it became really clear that we'd have a massive employment crisis on our hands with all of those out of work due to the restrictions being put in place around the world. Conversational language practice was something that people out of work could monetize immediately, so I decided to build a marketplace where those who want to practice speaking and are stuck at home, can pay those who need some income to practice speaking with them. While I am a former founder of couple software-enabled businesses (strayboots.com), my reasons for starting Lockdown Language Exchange and the time constraints under which its relevant are quite different. When I had the idea in late March it was clear that to have any help whatsoever, I would need to act with urgency and speed. Thus, I looked into how I could leverage existing platforms to deliver an MVP of the site without having to reinvent the wheel and build marketplace software from scratch. The question became whether it could deliver a compelling enough user experience this way. After assessing a few options and tinkering around for a week or so to get a prototype up and share it with a few folks, I was convinced enough to commit.

What platforms and tools have you used to build Lockdown Language Exchange? How long did it take to build?

As a marketplace, we're relying on Sharetribe's off-the-shelf solution to power most of the functionality of the site. They provide a pretty powerful set of tools, including a no-code content management system for non-technical people to create a marketplace around just about any sort of concept where third-party vendors can sell products or services. You change the copy and images and tweak some of the settings, such as fields in profiles, to your specific needs. Sharetribe integrates with payment providers, enable social media logins, and can be connected into Google Analytics and email software as well. It took me about a week to wrangle the software to the point where I felt confident it could deliver a "good enough" user experience. I did have to upgrade to their Pro option and buy a Custom Landing Page, which gave me far more digital real-estate to articulate the value-proposition to new users landing on the site. In terms of payments, Sharetribe integrates pretty seamlessly with PayPal and Stripe. We chose to go with PayPal given it's global reach in nearly 200 countries, whereas Stripe has 32 countries currently supported. Sharetribe enables you to set this up via PayPal Business (or Stripe) in just a few clicks and no code. Similarly, we were able to enable Facebook and Google logins to ensure a much improved account-creation flow. You do have to do some setup, but Sharetribe provides excellent step-by-step instructions for getting things hooked up. It just requires attention to detail. I similarly integrated Google Analytics via their instructions, so we can track user behavior on the site. Given that we are introducing strangers online for 1:1 video chats, there's a fair amount of liability baked into our concept, so I was adamant that I'd need to set up a business entity before allowing any users on, even for testing. This is generally a good idea. I used RocketLawyer to incorporate a nonprofit business in Delaware (they also serve as the registrar if you're based elsewhere). We expedited the filing process for a fee, given the urgency of the situation. I chose to file for my EIN directly with the IRS, which took 10 minutes on their website and saved $60 that RocketLawyer would charge. We then drafted very necessary legal docs (Privacy Policy, Terms of Use, and a Cookie Policy) via WebsitePolicies. They have a great free tool for also building a custom Cookie Consent pop-up, which we needed for GDPR compliance. I had looked at TermsFeed for this, but Website Policies were better equipped for language around 3rd Party vendors for a marketplace concept. We found and registered our URL via Google Domains, as we knew we'd be relying on G-Suite and Gmail, so having that all in one place was quite easy. I designed a "placeholder" logo using Canva's free logo design tool, to get us going until we can afford to have a professional logo designer spend time on it. One drawback of Sharetribe's platform (or any off-the-shelf) solution are certain constraints, in there's particularly the ability to add "in-line" messages to the users guiding them through certain onboarding flows. We are leveraging a lot of view-only Google Docs to help around this including one for FAQs and another for "Guidelines for Creating a Great Listing" that goes via email out to people who want to list on the site. In fact, we gather info from people who want to post on the site via a Google Form in order to ensure that everyone listing meets our criteria for having been financially impacted by the crisis. I got all of this done on my own in a total of about two weeks, with copy reviews and click throughs by my wife and friends. We'll be sending emails out to users via SendFox/Mailchimp starting this week, and I've started leveraging Zapier to connect Google Forms and Gmail, to auto-send email once prospective vendors fill out our Google Form. Automating these repetitive workflows can save a lot of time for a tiny team.

How have you gone about growing your user base? What has been most effective?

We have zero budget as a nonprofit with no revenue stream given our not taking transaction fees on the site. Thus we're relying almost entirely on word of mouth to generate user growth on both the supply and demand side. A few initial social media posts did a great job in generating initial supply and demand, given the relevance to the current situation. My network shared it out and we had dozens of people out of work start listing on the site. After some user interviews to ensure we were on the right track with some of the key UX details (length of language practice sessions, pricing, etc), we have started top of funnel activities as well. We are posting in relevant communities online (e.g. expats, language learning, etc) to share what we're doing. Because we're a nonprofit, we're given more leeway than hawking a for-profit site in these arenas. We've also started press outreach to increase traffic as well. This week, we are starting some content and social media campaigns which will need to be successful for us to get the reach we want.

Have you monetised it yet and if so, what is your revenue model?

We are deliberately not monetizing the platform at the moment, as we want all revenue generated to go to people out of work and in need. Most marketplaces either charge for membership or take a fee on transactions. Either of those could be appropriate long-term for us to help us become sustainable and not need to rely on donations. At this point in time, we're prepared to fund the project for several months without needing to do this and are hoping to find grants and donations to give us more runway, but will have to reassess as we go. If anyone reading this does want to donate to help us keep the site up, please go to https://www.lockdownlanguage.org/en/infos/about

What has been the hardest part of building, growing or monetising Lockdown Language Exchange?

Our biggest challenge has definitely been scaling demand to keep in line with our supply growth given that we have no marketing budget and revenue. Most nascent marketplace businesses (e.g. Airbnb, Etsy, etc) can used paid ads to drive initial demand until word of mouth starts to take hold. Once they understand their unit economics around what the average lifetime value of a customer is, they can continue to advertise knowing their ROI. At the same time, their long-term view allows them to implement strategies like Content Marketing and SEO so that they get organic unpaid traffic as well. These are long-term marketing strategies. None of the paid stuff or long-term stuff will work for what we're trying to accomplish, so we're relying entirely on free short-term channels (PR, Social Media, etc) and word of mouth, which is extremely challenging. We have a lot of experimenting going on.

Do you have any tips on building, growing or monetising a no code product/business?

Start by figuring out your "must-haves" and your "nice to haves" with a great deal of discipline and scrutiny. If you can get your "must-haves" via existing technology platforms, you can likely get to market faster and reduce your long-term overhead. You may even just be able to think about it as getting you far enough to prove your concept viability allowing you to generate or raise enough capital to build a coded custom solution you feel is necessary. So many platforms (Sharetribe, Shopify, Squarespace/Wix, Wordpress, etc) are now able to get you really far and are getting more robust and customizable every month, as they have huge engineering teams behind them. In our case, powering transactions was a must-have but calendar management and baked in video platforms were nice-to-haves (as were social media logins, which was a bonus). Given that, we're ok having our users coordinate schedules and pick a video platform via the messaging capabilities in the website. Had we had those as requirements, our current no-code solution would not have sufficed.

Where can we find out more about Lockdown Language Exchange and connect with you?

We have loads of people who are in need of income and eager to help you practice a language. To book a session with one of them, to learn more, or to donate to our cause, please visit https://www.lockdownlanguage.org/.

You can get in touch with me about anything at avi@lockdownlanguage.org

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