A startup out of Berlin that’s built and grown a successful online language learning platform based around live teachers and virtual classrooms is announcing some funding today to continue expanding its business.
Lingoda, which connects students who want to learn a language — currently English, Spanish, French or German — with native-speaking teachers who run thousands of 24/7 live, immersion classes across a range of language levels, has picked up $67 million (€57 million). CEO Michael Shangkuan said the funding will be used both to continue enhancing its tech platform — with more tools for teachers and asynchronous supplementary material — and to widen its footprint in markets further afield such as the U.S.
The company already currently has some 70,000 students, 1,400 teachers and runs more than 450,000 classes each year covering some 2,000 lessons. Its revenue run rate is at 10x that of a year ago, and its customer base in that time grew 200% with students across 200 countries, so it is not a stranger to scaling as it doubles down on the model.
“We want the whole world to be learning languages,” Shangkuan said. “That is our vision.”
The funding is coming from a single investor, Summit Parnters, and the valuation is not being disclosed. Founded in 2015 by two brothers — Fabian and Felix Wunderlich (now respectively CFO and head of sales) — Lingoda had only raised around $15 million before now, a mark of the company being pretty capital efficient. “We only run classes that are profitable,” said Shangkuan (who is from the US, New Jersey specifically) in an interview. That being said, he added, “We can’t answer if we are profitable, but we’re not hugely unprofitable.” The market for language learning globally is around $50 billion so it’s a big opportunity despite the crowds of competition.
A lot of the innovation in edtech in recent times has been focused around automated tools to help people learn better in virtual environments, technology built with scale, better analytics or knowledge acquisition in mind.
So it’s interesting to come across edtech startups that may be using some of these same tools — the whole of Lingoda is based on Zoom, which it uses to run all of its classes online — but are fundamentally also retaining one of the more traditional aspects of learning, humans teaching other humans.
This is very much by design, Shangkuan said. At first, the idea was to disrupt in-person language schools, but if the startup had ever considered how and if it would pivot to more automated classes and cut the teachers out of the equation, it decided that it wasn’t worth it.
Shangkuan — himself a language enthusiast who moved himself to Germany specifically to immerse himself in a new country and language, from where he then proceeded to look for a job — noted that feedback from its students showed a strong inclination and preference for human teachers, with 97% saying that language learning in the Lingoda format has been more effective for them than the wave of language apps (which include the likes of Duolingo, Memrise, Busuu, Babbel, Rosetta and many more).
“For me as an entrepreneur trying to provide a great product, that is the bellwether, and why we are focused on delivering on our original vision,” he said, “one in which it does take teachers and real quality experiences and being able to repeat that online.” Indeed, it’s not the only tech startup that’s identified this model: VIPKid out of China and a number of others have also based their learning around live teachers.
There are a number of reasons for why human learning may be more suitable for language acquisition — starting with the fact that language is a living knowledge and so learning to speak it requires a pretty fundamental level of engagement from the learner. Added to that is the fact that the language is almost never spoken in life in the same way that it is in textbooks (or apps) so hearing from a range of people speaking the language, as you do with the Lingoda format, which is not focused on matching a student with a single instructor (there is no Peloton-style following around instructors here), works very well.
On the subject of the teachers, it’s an interesting format that taps a little into the concept of the gig economy, although it’s not the same as being employed as a delivery driver or cleaner. Lingoda notes that teachers set their own schedules and call classes themselves, rather than being ordered into them. (Students can request a teaching level if they want it, and it can take between a day and a week for it to materialise, typically with 1-5 students per class, but a teacher needs to step up to take it when its been requested.) This format makes it fall into more standardized language learning labor models.
“We closely mirror the business model of traditional (brick and mortar) in-person language schools, where teachers work part time in compliance with local laws and have the flexibility to schedule their own classes,” a spokesperson said. “The main difference is that our model brings in-person classes online, but we are still following the same local guidelines.”
Lingoda’s growth is coming at an interesting moment in the world of online education, which has been one of the big juggernauts of the last year. Schools shutting down in-person learning, people spending more time at home, and the need for many of us to feel like we are doing something at a time of so many restrictions have all driven people to spend time learning online have all driven edtech companies to expand, and the technology that’s being used for the purpose to continue evolving.
To be clear, Lingoda has been around for years and was not hatched out of pandemic conditions: many of the learners that it has attracted are those who might have otherwise attended an in-person language class run by one of the many smaller schools you might come across in a typical city (London has hundreds of them), learning because they are planning to relocate or study abroad, or because people have newly arrived in a country and need to learn the language to get by, or they have to learn it for work.
But what’s been interesting in this last year is how services created for one kind of environment have been taken up in our “new normal.” The classes that Lingoda offers become a promise of a moment when we will be able to visit more places again, and hopefully order coffees, argue about jaywalkers, and chat with strangers here and there a little more easily.
“The language learning market is increasingly shifting to online offerings that provide consumers with a more convenient, flexible and cost-effective way to improve their foreign language skills,” said Matthias Allgaier, MD at Summit Partners, in a statement. “We believe Lingoda has developed one of the most comprehensive and effective online language learning solutions globally and is positioned to benefit from the ongoing and accelerating trend of digitization in education. We are thrilled to partner with the entire Lingoda team, and we are excited about the future for this business.” Allgaier is joining Lingoda’s board with this round.