Why should I rent language learning software rather than own it?

Why should I rent language learning software rather than own it?

A question we get very often is why we charge monthly for our language learning service. Why not just give a one off ‘forever’ price like most other software, or indeed any other paper book?

I’ll attempt to answer this question, concluding that ‘renting’ one’s learning resources is better for the learner both educationally and financially.

Choice of textbooks

Some context

The inspiration for this blog post came from one particular user’s question, but we get comments about our pricing structure, business model, and available payment plans extremely often. One thing we make sure when we’re mindful of when creating our products is that most of our users aren’t like us. Not all speak English to a degree-level (many of our users speak English only as a second or third language); not all are technologically savvy (our heart sinks when a visitor signs up for LinguaLift with IE6, as we know what a terrible experience they’re going to have); and most importantly: not all have learned a language before. We know our product, and how to get around it inside out, but we need to be conscious that we must constantly be in the mindset of somebody quite different to ourselves when creating and testing.

Why is this relevant to the question? It is relevant as Philip and I are founders of a technology startup, and as such embrace the startup culture, support others startups, and back new trends where appropriate. Our business runs with the help of NetDNA, Recurly (although that might change unless they improve the way they handle downtimes), Desk, Olark, Postmark, MailChimp, Clicky, CrazyEgg, Mixpanel, and many more besides. What this means is that we are more used to new ways of thinking about how web services work than the average user. Every single one of these services we ‘rent.’ We pay every time we need to use their service, and will stop when we don’t. We did not buy a physical Olark boxed CD in a local bookstore—we pay them each month for their software as a service.

We therefore understand that by not offering our users a choice to buy a license our software outright, we are jumping on the SaaS bandwagon, and running contrary to how the majority of other software developers run their businesses, and certainly contrary to what many users expect. However, we have good reason to believe that offering LinguaLift on a subscription-only basis is better for our users...

The end is certain

Most products that you use for learning have a finite life. A personal tutor's quantifiable use expires at the end of the session. After the lesson, all you have is the knowledge you have learned, or written down, or the general skills acquired. The same is true for a university education. Once you’ve been to all the classes and lectures you need to go to, and have taken your final exams, it’s rare you hang around unless you do further study, in which case you don’t revisit earlier classes but would take different classes anyway. You don’t re-eat a cake you’ve already eaten (although it’d be nice if you could!) because you have already derived all of the benefit you can form it. Once you have learned the information from a learning resource, you should seldom have cause to come back to it again.

What about physical resources? A good dictionary is usually around 10-15 years before it gets out of date. My Oxford Hachette French dictionary is still just as useful now as it was five years ago, but it’ll need updating at some point this decade or it’ll become less useful if I require a reference tool which reflects recent changes to the language. Most textbooks are useful for around 6 months to 2 years, after that they just sit on a shelf. Occasionally they are useful as reference, but in general, you get most of what you can out of them the first time around, and use a different tool for reference. So, physical resources are in a special class of their own, that their value deteriorates after you have bought them: just like a car or a an already ripe bananna... I digress.

Ultimately, no learning resource is useful forever, and most are useful for a short period of time. We sometimes recommend products such as Pimsleur or TextFugu to those who want a no-frills basic introduction to the Japanese language, but I hope that those who do aren’t coming back after more than around 12 months: the level of the langauge is too low to be worthwhile after this length of study. To this end, the cost that you should use to compare to our online Japanese textbook and other comparable Japanese learning resources is the price divided by 12 months, not forever, or any other arbitrary number of years as that’s just not how long you’d want to use the resource for.

This point is also true more generally, that there is a strange mentality that ‘owning’ a house, and ‘owning’ a car are the best ways by which one can use these producs. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. There is certainly a psychological benefit to the feeling of ownership that a houseowner feels, but it can be a far more wise decision in economical terms to rent, and have the risk of value depreciation passed onto somebody else, and this is true for basically any product. Renting is fine—it doesn’t mean you’re losing out.

Too fond of textbooks Photo by estreya

Let’s talk about languages

Most people don't continue learning a language after they have started. I can't imagine the number of copies of Rosetta Stone bought that have not been used for more than a fleeting hour or two on Christmas day. Do you ever wonder why book shops tend to be replete with ‘introduction to’ books for languages, but you have to look a little harder for intermediate or advanced content? In the UK, there are only about a dozen shops that will stock the specialist books that I require for my advanced Japanese study, but just about every chain bookshop proudly sells a copy of Japanese for Dummies (which incidentally is possibly one of the worst textbooks available for a beginner of Japanese, not least because it uses exclusively rōmaji, and a non-standard one at that).

We don't want language learning to be an impulse buy never acted on. By charging monthly, or for a finite period like a year, we encourage our users to make the very best use of their subscription. We don't want you to sit on LinguaLift; we want you to learn a language. If it's not for you, we don't want you to pay. The human desire to want to get value for money means that if $29 has just gone out of your account, you want to make sure that you get the most use out of it. We go to an all-you-can-eat buffet in order to eat until we can absolutely eat no more, and we at LinguaLift do all we can to make sure that you can stuff your proverbial faces with Japanese.

What’s more, our approach tends to lead to users making very regular use of LinguaLift. It’s typical of a user who has paid for access for one year to binge on study for the first few days, and then come back every few weeks and binge a little more. Monthly users tend to be far more consistent in their approach. If you could login at any time in the next hundred years and study, then what’s the benefit of adopting a steady, and consistent approach? Little and often (or a lot and often if one has the time) is proven to be the most reliable way to learn a language, so we want to encourage this all we can.

Forever? Really?

At LinguaLift we are always honest to our users. Even when we answer a question in a way which is likely to annoy, we’ll still conduct ourselves honestly with integrity. Why don’t we have an iPhone app? It’s because we don’t have the resources to develop and support one. Will there be one soon? Probably not: we don’t think that learning on-the-go in this way is that productive anyway. It’s not nice to not tell a user what they want to hear, but we’d rather be up front with those who trust us with their education.

Forever is an incredible amount of time, and it is necessarily unobtainable (if you have even the most slight grasp of the history and predicted future of the universe, you’ll know that best estimates are that the Earth probably won’t be around after around 7.5 billion years). Not only is there simply no advantage in promising forever, as the product just won't be used, it’s also a promise that we could never keep. Who knows what LinguaLift will be in five years, ten years, or more? If nothing else, users will stop getting updates, and support, meaning that LinguaLift may be incompatible with new technology in years to come.

Microsoft has stopped supporting Microsoft XP, Apple doesn't update the majority of their iPod range's software, and I bet you've lost every 10, 15 or 50 year guarantee voucher you've ever owned. It's a false claim to promise something forever.

Audio learning Photo by estreya

It helps us too

Having to work hard to keep our users happy excites us.

So, doing it our way means that we're focusing on making our product even better for our current users, are encouraging our users to actually use their product, and not making them pay for something they will never use, and not making a promise we could never keep (and which we doubt our competitors can).

We monitor each and every user’s progress. We’ll regularly reach out by email or phone to users who we think need a little guidance, and we’ll monitor how users navigate the website to ensure that we’re making the site as easy to use as possible, and the content as educational as can be. Knowing that we are essentially having to convince our users each month that they should stay with us means we work harder to make sure they get value for money.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we price our product below.