Caitlin Sykes

Caitlin Sykes is the NZ Herald's Your Business editor

Small business: Embracing the cloud - Jason Oxenham

Jason Oxenham, CEO of Rocket Languages.
Jason Oxenham, CEO of Rocket Languages.

Can you tell me about Rocket Languages?

Rocket Languages provide online courses that help people master a new language. Currently our courses for English speakers include Spanish, French, Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), German, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and American Sign Language. We also offer English courses for speakers of Spanish and Japanese.

Although it varies for each language, our customers are primarily from the US, at 61%, followed by Europe, at 19 per cent. More than a million people use our courses, and we have around 3,000 users login every day.

We have a team of 10 in our Christchurch office and a further six at various locations around the world. Our team consists of language learning specialists, customer support staff, programmers, sound engineers and graphic designers. We are now based at Ferrymead after our offices in the CBD were demolished after the earthquake.

How did you get started in this market?

The company was formed back in 2004 by myself and a friend, Mark Ling. We had been friends through playing squash and at the time my wife, Julie, and I had just returned from a couple of years in London. Mark already had a lot of experience in ecommerce and I was an experienced project manager, so between us we had a good synergy for starting an online business.

Mark was taking Spanish at university and I have always been a francophile. Once we started talking about business possibilities we both realised that we thought the language learning resources available back then were boring and not very interactive or motivating. We thought we could make something substantially better and that there could actually be a market for language learning online. That was 10 years ago, when there was really no one in the online language learning space, so our Rocket Spanish and Rocket French courses were pioneers of a sort.

The first courses took around a year to develop and we set ourselves the goal that our courses had to work for anyone, anywhere, regardless of the users' previous language learning experiences.

How has the way you deliver your products changed over time as technology has changed?

Our courses have changed enormously over the years. When we first started out, downloadable MP3 tracks and PDFs were about the limit of what was achievable online. Fast forward 10 years and while we still have the core MP3s, much of the rest of our courses are unrecognisable from what they were.

A lot of research on second-language acquisition has been made more accessible online to people and companies like us. There are now also very strong online polyglot communities, which has meant more open sharing of language-mastery techniques. We've had to modify our course structure and content to match these advances and make our courses work more effectively.

Also, advances in technology and user interface design means that we can do a whole lot more with our courses to make them more fun, engaging and effective. Everything changes so fast these days that the product lifecycle is probably only around 12 months, which means product improvement is a key focus for us.

Why have you chosen to deliver your products through the cloud?

There are a number of advantages for us. Firstly, given our courses use a lot of multimedia, the amount of bandwidth we use is very high - often around 2 terabytes a month - so using a cloud-based server has helped reduce our server and bandwidth costs by around 50 per cent.

Secondly, with the advent of people now using a range of devices in conjunction with, or instead of, a desktop PC it's important that information is synced between those devices, and that happens more easily with a cloud-based server.

Also, with cloud servers there are more options in terms of location of server. So by having our server in the US, it will decrease load time for US users. Another pro is having complete control over the settings and software. It's easy to upgrade or downgrade things such as disk size, memory, or CPU and so on.

What's your vision for the future of the company?

From a product perspective we are looking to increase the efficacy of our courses by introducing a lot more video. We are also going to be introducing language-level certification when people complete our courses. And, finally, we have Rocket Russian currently being built, with a release date towards the end of August.

In terms of the company, we've just started hiring in the US with an aim to expand our share of the business-to-business and scholastic markets there. We have KIA Motors USA as a client and currently have some other big name companies piloting our courses, including a major restaurant chain and multinationals. Our aim is to establish a strong footprint in the US and Canada by developing a sales team over there.

- NZ Herald

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