After time spent teaching English abroad, Henry Blue realized there were several gaps in language education that are making barriers, particularly for business people trying to become proficient in English. Private tutors cost a hefty chunk of change, but online and mobile tools were clunky — especially considering the average person downloads exactly zero apps per month.
Enter Spoken, a tool that provides English lessons for business professionals, but instead of existing as a separate platform, integrates itself into the messaging app you’re already using, such as WhatsApp or WeChat. Spoken connects users to real instructors that serves as a guide, but also uses AI to modify your instruction as you learn.
The product also includes “Emojigrams”, a way to learn English idioms that prove difficult for non-native speakers to pick up. For example, instead of having to decipher what the heck “it’s raining cats and dogs” could mean, the app uses emojis to show the phrase for “very heavy rain”.
Blue and co-founder/CTO Jonathan Wilson, now Techstars alum and residents of Chattanooga, TN, explain how the tool works, where they are with fundraising (hint: seeking!), and why they decided to grow their company in Gig City.
Funded or bootstrapped?
$120K via Techstars boulder. We’re raising a seed round in 2017.
Spoken leverages AI and natural language processing to provide English language instruction through the ultimate ease and convenience of learners’ preferred messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, WeChat, and Facebook Messenger. Spoken’s unique model combines AI-driven chatbot technology and live human interaction maximize learner engagement and scalability.
What problem are you solving?
With 1 billion current learners, English constitutes 70 percent of the global language learning market yet less than 5 percent of learners achieve their goals due to the cost and inconvenience of high-efficacy solutions.
Please describe the market impact.
Spoken is initially targeting the $40-$60B global English language instruction space. In person private English instruction runs $50-$80 per hour depending on the region. We deliver high quality instruction at 10 times less the cost per hour to the learner.
What is your revenue model?
Spoken sells subscriptions packages to learners based on the number of lessons that learners plan to take each week.
How did you come up with this idea?
As a team we have significant experience in linguistics and teaching English as a second language abroad. We’ve seen how crazy the rest of the world is about their preferred messaging apps compared to Americans— they use them for everything! We came to believe that the moment was now for launching the first messaging app-based education company.
Was this your first product?
We had previously created web-based instructional software that is actually still in use by educational organizations. Ultimately, the disruptive and innovative appeal of leveraging messaging platforms drove us to shift our focus.
Who are your competitors?
We compete against other providers of live language instruction such as Education First, Open English, and iTalki. We’re the only platform that reaches learners through ease and convenience of their preferred messaging platform, so we’re never ‘out of sight, out of mind.’
What has been your biggest obstacle/challenge thus far?
Reaching a customer base living all around the world with a diverse set of cultural expectations. And, of course, native languages always poses more marketing challenges than reaching customers in your backyard.
How did you land in Chattanooga?
We moved to Chattanooga, TN following 6 months in Boulder, CO for Techstars Boulder. 2 founders were educated in the southeast and Josh is from Birmingham, Alabama. We think Chattanooga will continue to evolve into a powerful tech startup hub in the southeast the same way Boulder is the for the U.S. Mountain States.
What are your next steps?
We have a lot of market to work with in English language training and will focus on servicing international professionals for the next 12 months before addressing other market segments. We will also continue to built out our tech platform to continue to increase the interactivity and scalability of our market. We will fundraise off of our traction and growth metrics in 2017 and are kicking off fundraising at present.
Interview and Q&A by Mary Stargel, development by Holly Beilin.