TLabs Showcase on travel startups featuring US-based Verbling, a one-to-one language learning platform using video technology to connect users around the world.
Who and what are you (including personnel and backgrounds)?
Verbling lets language learners video chat with native speakers. We’ve built a platform that uses P2P video technology to link up people worldwide so that they can learn from each other.
For example, an American learning Spanish might be matched in a video chat with an Argentine learning English inside the web browser. They practice Spanish first and then switch to English when prompted.
Our CEO Mikael Bernstein has previous language education experience as a Russian military interpreter for the Swedish Special Forces.
Fred Wulff joined Verbling from Google, where he worked as a software developer. Jake Jolis has taught languages in Tanzania and Silicon Valley. We became friends while at Stanford.
What financial support did you have to launch the business?
We’ve received seed investment from a startup fund as well as angel investors. To date we have secured $170,000 from Y Combinator ($20,000) with Yuri Milner and Ron Conway contributing the remainder.
What problem are you trying to solve?
As language learners and teachers ourselves, we found that the biggest barrier to reaching fluency was the lack of opportunity to practice with native speakers.
Academic classes or language learning software taught grammar, vocabulary, reading, and listening but were bad at introducing students to real native speakers with whom to practice.
In existing online language communities, learners wasted time browsing each other’s profiles, exchanging emails and later Skype addresses, deciding on a time that worked for both speakers, and hoping that the other person - on the other side of the world - would be there.
If a user’s conversation partner missed the time, the user was stranded. All of this is time they could be using to practice the language in Verbling.
Describe the business, core products and services?
The core of Verbling is a structured language exchange: five minutes in Spanish, five minutes in English.
When the conversation starts, a silent timer starts ticking down. When the first language timer hits zero, it’s time to switch languages.
If users are having a good time, they can keep talking with the same speaker. Together with Stanford Spanish professors, we’ve developed a conversation topic generator that makes the conversation colourful and pushes learners away from one-word responses.
While we’re gaining critical mass, we schedule sessions at specific times to channel many language learners and native speakers towards the same time; users therefore find many different people to talk to at the time of each session.
All they do is log in and the conversation starts. It’s a language party!
Who are your key customers and users at launch?
English and Spanish language learners around the world, including college students, travellers, and businesspeople.
Did you have customers validate your idea before investors?
We tested extensively with customers during the development of our idea. The head of the Stanford Russian program was so taken with the product that she helped us demo it to our investors.
What is the business AND revenue model, strategy for profitability?
While we connect all language learners to native speakers in a video chat for free in the first phase, we will build out our platform and implement features that create large value for our users—value that users will be willing to pay for.
SWOT analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats?
- Users love it and are telling their friends. We’re growing. Also, we’ve already solved our chicken-and-egg problem.
- Bad internet connections in Latin America sometimes make video chat slow.
- The online language learning market size is $83 billion. We aim to expand beyond Spanish and English to many more language combinations.
Who advised you your idea isn't going to be successful and why didn't you listen to them?
- Bigger companies like LiveMocha and Busuu have great reach and scale but don’t do a good job at connecting people for verbal communication. We do.
Jake’s aunt said young people wouldn’t take the site seriously and would just log on to be obscene, but Jake knew that the site would attract serious language learners, and it has.
What is your success metric 12 months from now?
Two million users.
NB: TLabs Showcase is part of the wider TLabs project from Tnooz.