Entrepreneurs: Paul Maglione from English Attack
I see from your bio that you grew up in the U.S, Italy and The Philippines, tell me a little about your formative years?
I was born in New York City and spent the first 10 years of my life in the US, first in the city itself and then in typical New Jersey suburbia. We then moved to Italy – both my parents are naturalized US citizens originally from Italy, and Italian was in fact my very first language spoken at home before I switched to English when I started school – and I attended international schools in Rome until the age of 16, when my father’s job took us to Manila in the Philippines. I completed high school, got my first job intern experience, and attended a semester at a local university there before returning to the US to finish my university studies. Growing up in three very different environments – the US; then the “old country” in Europe and then a developing nation in Asia – has allowed me to appreciate different cultures and ways of doing things, and this in turn has enabled me to be at ease in almost any social and business situation.
How did your background equip you to become an entrepreneur?
I guess living through big changes in your life and in your environment gives you a certain mental flexibility and adaptability that come in very handy when starting up a new venture. The one thing that is certain about start-ups is that they never go exactly to plan – sometimes they don’t even go remotely to plan – and so the ability to quickly change course, adopt new models and ways of working, and look at the market you want to serve dynamically and with new perspectives as things evolve is key.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I would recommend that he invest in Google when it first opened up to investors! Ha, no, seriously I would advise him to travel around the world when he had the time, even more than he did; I would tell him to start a company years and years before he actually did, and I would tell him to get an MBA when young and single rather than doing it at night and on weekends with a family, as I ended up doing – very painfully!
You’ve held senior positions in CNN and CNBC and helped to establish CNBC in Europe. Tell me about your time in broadcast television?
In the 1980’s, working for a big successful television channel had the aura of excitement and the “leading edge” cachet that working for Google, Apple or Facebook has today. It was the place to be, it was at the forefront of the multi-channel broadcast and media revolution, and it also opened up to me the world of advertising, sponsorship, audience measurement, programming and on-air promotion. CNBC was the first 24-hour financial news channel in Europe when we launched; CNN was the only real 24-hour news channel in Europe at the time, and so it was exciting to feel like a pioneer and introduce Europeans to new ways of getting important news and information quickly and conveniently.
You started out in Journalism and magazine publishing; does print media still have a place? Major newspaper publishers have experimented with different kinds of online monetisation strategies: paywalls, premium content, etc and The Independent in the UK has ceased printing altogether. Give me your two cents on the future of publishing, how you see it?
I see the print versions of newspapers and of most magazines as continuing their decline and eventually disappearing, which is not something that fills me with joy – I used to read each issue of the Economist cover-to-cover as a teenager, and I love the feel of a fresh morning paper in my hands over breakfast. But ultimately people are switching to digital as their primary and often only source of information, entertainment and communication, and just as e-mail, text and messenger apps have largely supplanted letter-writing, so online media will in time permanently displace printed publications for all but a few niche titles.
Has having an MBA been an asset to your starting English Attack, in your opinion?
To a certain extent, yes, but it is certainly not a requirement. Some of the biggest start-up successes were founded by people who did not even finish university. I’m glad I did mine, but if you have a great idea and can get funding, I would not put off founding your own company in order to do further studies.
You’ve been involved with the expansion, and now with English Attack, the founding of companies. Is it fair to say that the start-up process is what most excites you?
For some reason, even when working for large corporations I have always been involved in new ventures, new products or new initiatives. So yes, “new” is a powerful motivator for me, and the good news is that with the rapid pace of change brought about by the internet in the present era, even “old’ things are being radically transformed and targeted by creative minds seeking to change the way things are done: witness FinTech, or, closer to home, language learning.
What motivates you?
I love showing people that the way things were done in the past doesn’t have to be the way things have to be done today. At CNN, we loved bringing instant, live, round-the-clock news to a world used to waiting all day for the 8pm evening television news. At iPlay and Vivendi Games Mobile, we helped evolve videogames from something requiring lengthy sessions on a dedicated console plugged into your TV set to something you can play in a few minutes on a device you carry around with you everywhere and at all times. And now at English Attack!, we are showing learners of English around the world that building up their language skills can be fast, entertaining and affordable.
Tell me about some valuable mistakes you’ve made?
Right after finishing university, instead of getting a normal job I foolishly followed my then-girlfriend to Paris where she was doing a semester abroad. This went against the wishes of my parents who pretty much cut me off financially: my saving grace was permission to live in the chambermaid’s quarters in the attic of a distant aunt who lived in the city. I learned to live with almost no funds and started writing freelance articles to earn enough money to eat. Those freelance articles got me my first publishing job with a news and current events magazine, which in turn got me my first corporate job, so that initial mistake of preferring heart over head turned out to be a good thing after all and taught me that no matter what you do in life, it will lead to new and different things, and perhaps more interesting ones than those you would have encountered in a pre-set path.
How did the idea for English Attack come about?
I was discussing with my co-founder, Frederic Tibout, who was working with me at Vivendi at the time, how the internet had already transformed so many industries, and we were hypothesizing which would be the next to be upended by the online revolution. We both came to the conclusion that it was going to be education, and we decided upon English language learning as one area of worldwide education that was large, already monetised, and ripe for an innovative approach.
How does it work? Why is it different? Why is it needed?
There are two main roadblocks to more effective language learning, and they are related to each other. The first is motivation: if the way in which a language is taught is painfully boring, not relevant to your interests, and seems outdated to you, you are not going to engage with your learning the way you would need to in order to get anything out of it. The second thing is exposure: the more you immerse yourself in a language, the more your brain starts forming the neural pathways that make its syntax structures, lexical items and speech rhythms start to feel familiar to you, which is why young people in countries where US and British television programs are not dubbed into local language tend to learn English faster and better than in countries which dub these programs into the local language, and thus where this exposure to authentic English over time is not achieved. By using current entertainment as the basis for our exercises, we leverage the motivation that comes from popular culture, and by publishing new entertainment-based learning units on a continuous basis, we keep our learners coming back on a continuous basis and thus achieving levels of repeat exposure that facilitate effective learning. When they use our platform, they are in fact working hard at learning English, but it does not seem to them like hard work at all, so they stay with it much longer and learn more.
Where do you see the place of game-based learning?
As an alternative to traditional methods of teaching and learning?
To complement what’s being taught in the classroom?
To supplement classroom lessons?
I would say “all of the above.” In terms of alternatives to traditional learning and teaching, it’s not just about games: it’s a whole approach to learning that, for digital natives, is very different to that of all the generations that came before them. They like autonomous learning. They love to explore and naturally gravitate to the content that motivates them the most. They like learner autonomy, as opposed to a linear approach. And yes, they like the game-like principle of learning by doing, failure as a stepping-stone to getting to the next level, and scores to beat rather than grades to pass. We’re also big believers in the flipped classroom approach. Having a class do a Video Booster exercise on English Attack! at home, on the evening before an English class, is a great way to equip learners with a current and interesting topic, some key vocabulary, and an appropriate grammar rule or usage principle that will make for more fluid and productive discussion in class. Again, it goes back to motivation, and exposure. And using valuable classroom time for interactive discussion, rather than absorbing content.
Do you think teachers and educational institutions have grounds to fear online learning? Will the role of the teacher become redundant?
Quite the contrary. The flipped classroom approach gives teachers a new and powerful opportunity to engage their learners in purposeful conversation that is relevant to them and plays off their interests, and off the wider culture, and in real time as things – movies, news items, new songs topping the pop charts – happen in that culture. Both comprehension and production are enhanced as a result, making the teacher’s role in leveraging this input in creative ways more valuable than ever before. Online resources will never be able to replicate the authenticity, interactivity and sheer human-ness of a teacher truly relating to his or her students; and conversely teachers cannot compete with online resources in terms of making great content available to learners. Both can work together to make the learning experience better and more effective than ever before, and thus continue to add value to their respective functions in the pedagogical equation.
Tell me about the future of English Attack?
We have been working on a complete site revamp for the past few months, and will shortly be rolling out the new version. We’d done a lot of work to improve the user experience, especially for those new to the site. We’ve also spent a lot of time better structuring the content, re-engineering the Schools platform, creating a personalised user content repository, and creating new coaching functionalities. The new site will result in a better smartphone experience than at present, but further out we will of course be ramping up the mobile apps side of things, launching new games on the service, and figuring out ways to help learners build up more types of language skills. With the investment we took in a few months ago we finally can reach a much wider audience, and therefore we are more bullish than ever that English Attack! can constitute a real learning accelerator for anyone struggling with more conventional approaches to learning the world’s language of opportunity.