A leader in the language learning industry Featured

2:38pm EDT September 13, 2011
Tom Adams, President and CEO, Rosetta Stone Tom Adams, President and CEO, Rosetta Stone

After Rosetta Stone’s original founder passed away in 2002, the then-small company of 90 employees needed a new leader with passion and direction.

At the urging of his lifetime friend, Tom Adams met with the founder’s family and asked to come on board with the company as CEO.

Swedish by birth and raised in both France and England, Adams said he brought his lifetime experience of learning languages to the company. When he was 10 years old, he moved to England and was placed in school without knowing the English language. He said he learned through immersion.

“It was a very painful experience, but it developed a lot of intuition about what works, what doesn’t,” Adams said. “I kind of just feel it.”

As president and CEO of Rosetta Stone, Adams uses his experiences to enable others to learn languages more rapidly and efficiently.

Q: You came in as CEO; on day one, what did you bring to the table?

I know what learning strategies deliver results when you are trying to acquire a new language. I learned other languages after (learning English). But beyond that, I think people who know me know that I am very competitive. I’m also a visionary in the sense that I have a vision of where things need to be, and that allows me to be bold.

My core is passion and a vision of how language learning should be. It should be much easier than most people have experienced; it should be much more effective. And technology can deliver a much better experience now, especially if you adopt the right methods, the right pedagogy. You can have much greater success than people have experienced in school.

Q: What were some of the challenges you faced in taking over the organization?

We had less than $1 million of cash in the bank. We didn’t have the budget to spend on a big media splash. What we had to figure out was how we could advertise to create a little awareness, and make sure that that little bit of awareness actually paid off.

We developed very technical approaches to marketing, inspired by other companies, but developed organically within the business. People developed their own solutions to the problems of doing micromarketing, and we embraced that and started scaling it. As we found things worked, we repeated the things that worked. We didn’t repeat the things that didn’t work, and so we got scale.

Q: So what worked?

Print advertising, where we would run an ad that essentially explained our method and stipulated who was using us. We had a phone number that they should call, and by having that unique phone number, we knew which publications worked. We were successful with the Atlantic Monthly and then with The New Yorker, and from that base, we continued to build.

Q: What didn’t work?

In the beginning it was a lot of the administration systems and managing external vendors. We found that incredibly hard because we were trying to build an e-commerce system that could handle thousands and thousands of transactions seamlessly that it would all flow through.

You would read the (information) from the vendors of these IT systems, and with enough money, they work the way they describe them. But as a company that was getting off the ground, it was just really expensive. So we had a false start and had to reflect if we should continue and put more money into the company to get a result from all the investment.

But we did eventually decide to put more money in (and buy the systems). In the end, we believed that we had very strong potential and that we would become a large company. We’re still on our way there, but having that technology as a back end supporting our growth was key.

Q: How long did it take before you were getting traction on sustained growth?

It was about six to nine months before some of the ideas started proving themselves. We were so excited. And, we were so experimental. I find it hard to pick a time when we knew were going to succeed because we thought we were going to succeed the entire time. We thought it was just a matter of testing, with enough frequency and enough different ways, as well as having the discipline to interpret results.

Q: Did you find that you had to continually communicate to your staff, asking them to trust you on what would work?

Our staff is just as passionate about the course, so we are a fortunate company in the sense that Rosetta Stone is a much bigger thing than a company. It’s more of a movement to change how people learn languages. As a result, our staff tends to base their expectations and their tracking of the company on things other than just the economic performance of the business.

But sure enough, we had economic success, and so it was reinforcing the overall hypothesis of how we would build Rosetta Stone into the game changer in the language learning industry.

Q: How do you see your role at Rosetta Stone these days versus when you took over?

When I started out at Rosetta Stone, I was really about working collaboratively with the senior team to figure out what we were going to do. Once we had done that, my job became to be the chief cheerleader, so once we committed around a vision, I was the evangelist of it. I was the one who would take the hardest stance to defend that core mission we developed.

How to reach: Rosetta Stone, www.rosettastone.com

Interview by Dustin S. Klein / Story by Jessica Hanna