As cross-dressing sensation Conchita Wurst belted out her Eurovision Song Contest-winning tune across a room filled with Europe’s hottest tech start-ups, I knew it could only mean one thing: the Europas annual awards evening had officially begun. From Berlin came Babbel, who have become one of the world’s leading language learning platforms. Used in 190 countries, with over 25 million app downloads to date, they swept to victory in the education category in exuberant style. However Busuu, Babbel’s nearest rival both in market and geography, reached a staggering 50m users this year, proving that Europe has truly emerged as the home of social language learning.
Editor’s Note: This post has first been published on edcetera -straight talk on edtech.
Way back in the days, in August 2009 to be precise, I hosted a webinar series called the E-Teachers Conference. Around that time crowdsourcing became quite a popular topic among education startup people, especially in the language learning space. The reasoning behind that trend essentially was: if Wikipedia can do it, so can we.
Most notably Livemocha, which used to be the leader of the pack at that time, crowdsourced nearly all of its freely accessible language courses from its global community. While this enabled Livemocha to add new language options at a rapid pace, it also showed the flaws of such an approach: the localizations were mediocre at best.
This column was first published in EducationInvestor Volume 6, Issue 3 April 2014.
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When it comes to language, Europe is in a unique position. In a small geographical area, connected by a common market and to some extent common culture, we have access to nearly all the world’s most important languages: English, of course, but German, Spanish, Portuguese and French all play major roles in global trade, too. And the European Commission is keen to get people learning: a year ago, it announced the lofty goal of making every European speak at least three languages, calling this multilingualism strategy “mother tongue plus two”.
“The acquisition of Tell Me More is an exciting way to close out what has been a transformative year for Rosetta Stone.” Steve Swad, President and CEO of Rosetta Stone
Indeed. It seems that this year ends with a bang for the language learning market as Rosetta Stone announced the acquisition of its French competitor Tell Me More for $28 million.
Yesterday Duolingo released a new promo video on its YouTube channel. Marketing and feel-good / world-changing agenda aside, the spot has a pretty telling message: Language, free at last. (emphasis mine).
I also just got an email stating that
“Since its launch 15 months ago, Duolingo has reached 10 million students and become the most popular way to learn languages online. No ad campaign, no gimmicks; just your support and a mission of free language education for the world.”
Looking a few years back the premise of language learning startups like Livemocha, busuu and babbel.com was to make language learning more affordable compared to their chosen nemesis Rosetta Stone. Since then Livemocha’s newsletter has turned into a sales channel for Rosetta Stone after the acquisition, promoting RS products at 60% off.
As a funny side note: if you follow the link to Livemocha’s YouTube channel on the bottom of the email, you will still find the legendary Livemocha spot with the (infamous) yellow boxes.
But back to Duolingo. If you talk to folks in the language learning industry you notice that most (all) of them are not happy about the new competitor. How can you compete with a free product that also seems to work quite well according to a study.
What Duolingo does is essentially disrupting the former disrupters or at least establishing itself as the third alternative method. busuu’s success is clearly its global community of language learners and babbel.com has chosen a more technology based approach similar to Rosetta Stone.
Now, of course we all know that there is no free lunch and, to use another catch phrase, if the product is free you are the product. Duolingo is selling this over a call to join a movement, giving your language learning a bigger purpose
“With Duolingo there is no tuition or subscription fee. It’s 100% free. Instead students like us give back by helping to translate websites, news and Wikipedia articles. It gives our personal language learning journeys a bigger purpose.”
I can see why many folks in the space see this storytelling as misleading. In fact Duolingo users are Mechanical Turks but instead of getting paid a couple of cents per task, they get “free” language lessons in return. Sounds good but they should also know how much their work is actually worth and whether language lessons, as good as they might be, are an adequate recompense.
The new spot is definitely a step-up from the first one that was more toned down yet also mentioned the business model behind Duolingo, adding the layer of being part of a global movement to better the world through language learning.
I also think people underestimate the power behind such global communities. Just recently Viki, the online community around translating and adding subtitles to popular TV shows, got acquired by Rakuten. One of the rumored bidders was Google.
Since I first heard about Duolingo and its concept I was pretty sure that the startup is one of the upcoming acquisitions by Google. Not only did Google acquire Luis von Ahn’s first startup reCAPTCHA but if Duolingo can prove that a global community can offer nearly instant translation of every web page, Google just has to write that check as it perfectly fits the overall strategy that we can see with Google Glass, Google Translate and other related services.
And if you think about it, von Ahn also took a site out of Google’s playbook in terms of the business model. Give the users a great service for free and make money based on their data and content.
Are the days of high priced language learning software over? With Rosetta Stone’s latest acquisition it surely looks as if one of the leading companies in that sector is looking for greener meadows.
The $22.5 million all cash acquisition of Lexia Learning reported by the Wall Street Journal is one indicator that language learning isn’t enough to survive in the long term; the quote
“We are evolving the company from a language company to a learning company,”
by Rosetta Stone’s CEO Steve Swad a second one.
Also, customers already are under the false impression that Rosetta Stone is offering far more learning products than just languages. According to the WSJ a survey showed that people already relate RS to math, reading and music products. Swad stated “To me, it’s just evidence of brand permission to extend.”
Of course the acquisition of Lexia Learning also strengthens Rosetta Stone’s position in the K-12 and global English learning market yet we have to see it as part of a far broader strategy to transform Rosetta Stone into a learning company. From the press release
“This acquisition is another step in the transformation of Rosetta Stone,” said Swad. “We`re moving beyond language; we`re leveraging technology; we`re growing our business in new and meaningful ways. And we`re positioning this company to change the face of learning as we know it.”
I think it is pretty obvious to Swad and the team at Rosetta Stone that the days of high priced boxed (or downloadable) language software are numbered. The acquisition of Livemocha earlier this year and therefore the transition to a cloud based language learning portal was a first step here to compete with similar players like babbel.com and busuu.
All three offer language learning products at a fraction of the price customers need to pay for a Rosetta Stone product. Even the current half price offering Rosetta Stone is promoting on Facebook at $395 looks outlandishly expensive compared with the package prices Livemocha, babbel.com or busuu offer.
And we must not forget Duolingo that is slowly but surely becoming a real threat to the startups that aimed to disrupt Rosetta Stone. Duolingo already offers different languages and mobile applications at no cost to the learner. Duolingo also has studies that show the efficiency of its products and the startup is growing fast. Also, the reviews of people learning with the product I have read so far were fairly positive.
Therefore, it seems to be a good idea to find more lucrative niches as soon as possible. Other verticals are yet pretty much untouched from decreasing prices and Rosetta Stone’s brand and technology might enable the company to build up a new foothold there.
Rosetta Stone’s CEO Steve Swad is accelerating the company’s transition into a cloud-based learning experience. What used to be one of the marquee items of Rosetta Stone will soon only be a memory: the airport and mall kiosk.
Not even two years ago, under Rosetta Stone’s former CEO Tom Adams, the company invested in new experience kiosks where people could test the software and retail stores targeted at an audience in Hollywood and Capitol Hill. But according to the press release
Rosetta Stone’s kiosks had come to represent a shrinking portion of the company’s overall sales mix, especially as their revenue contribution was eclipsed in 2012 by growth from the web channel and the rising popularity of digital downloads. The company has closed over 100 kiosks since 2011, and by exiting its remaining locations, it sheds a low-margin channel and positions itself to invest in more profitable channels going forward.
With the closure Rosetta Stone is going to let go 245 full and part time sales representatives who worked in the kiosks, following the goal of turning the company into a more nimble and innovative player to compete its smaller however quickly growing competitors babbel.com and busuu.
London-based busuu just shared the news that it has surpassed 30 million users, now adding 40.000 new users per day. It also launched a new iPad application for young Spanish learners. According to TechCrunch busuu shows strong growth in emerging markets like Brazil, Russia and Turkey, markets that are also of high interest for babbel.com which just raised a $10 million Series B round in order to expand its services globally.
With Rosetta Stone’s focus shifting away from physical locations and products and last week’s acquisition of Livemocha this is going to be a very interesting year in the language learning space. Now that Rosetta Stone really goes all in it is certainly getting harder for busuu and babbel.com to keep on grabbing market share.
Of course, Rosetta Stone needs to come up with a compelling low cost alternative of its products, probably using the Livemocha brand, I could imagine them to start by offering a version of their Mobile Companion application branded as Livemocha, likely with less features to make it different from the premium Rosetta Stone products.
Talking about premium products I am pretty sure that with the transition in to the cloud Rosetta Stone’s physical CD-Rom and DVD courses are the next thing that will disappear. Reminiscent of Livemocha’s rivalry with Rosetta Stone, let’s watch Livemocha mocking the emblematic yellow boxes in a 2011 commercial.
Picture by San Diego Shooter
The group of Rosetta Stone contenders shrunk to two today. According to a press release Rosetta Stone has acquired Seattle based language learning community Livemocha for $8.5 million in cash.
Just a week after announcing the acquisition of PlaySay, Berlin-based language learning startup babbel.com has more news to share. Today we learned that they have closed a $10 million Series B round led by Reed Elsevier Ventures with participation of Nokia Growth Partners as well as the existing investors, IBB Beteiligungsgesellschaft via its VC Fonds Technologie Berlin and Kizoo Technology Ventures.
The round brings the total funding raised to date to $12.2 million and therefore close to its US based competitor Livemocha which raised around $14 million. The third of the trio, busuu comes to a total of $4.5 million with its latest Series A round last October.
While the ability to raise funding not necessarily makes a statement about the quality of the product or its business model I think that in this case it actually makes sense. As I wrote in my previous article about babbel.com last week, the founding team has proven to be able to build a viable company based on a relatively small amount of outside capital and then grow based on revenue. As babbel.com noted in the press release about the PlaySay acquisition which was also “fueled from operative cash flow”.
According to TechCrunch the three founders won’t take money off the table, therefore the investment will go directly into the expansion of babbel.com into new markets and platforms. Other European countries and the Americas are now in the focus. With two major global events around the corner and a growing middle class with dispensable income, Brazil is poised to be one of the battle grounds for language learning startups. The US which Markus Witte, CEO of babbel.com sees as “most matured” will be the other main market the startup wants to grow in with help through the PlaySay acquisition.
Which brings us to London-based busuu. The startup has a similar story and modus operandi, having raised small amounts of outside funding and growing quickly since the introduction of their mobile applications. According to the numbers both startups officially share, busuu has about 10 million users more than babbel.com, 25 million to 15 million. On the other hand, babbel.com only offers premium content which means that all users have to pay for the service whereas busuu offers freemium content which means that a significant number of its userbase does not pay for learning languages.
I am pretty sure that busuu is going to raise a $10 million or similar Series B in the coming weeks, latest in two months. It should not be difficult for the founding team as their numbers are quite impressive as well and the startup is also generating positive cash flow for years now. From what I have heard the busuu team certainly have some interesting ideas on how to innovate on their product which might go beyond ‘just’ apps. Let’s see if that vision is yet mature enough to be released in a near future.
However, busuu and to a certain degree Livemocha will need a well-filled war chest to fight off babbel.com. All three now target the same markets and thus it is going to be about marketing and teams on the ground.
Which brings us to Livemocha. Up to now Livemocha has no mobile applications I know of. It seems as if they are working on a new version of the web application (which probably also includes mobile applications) but nevertheless they are late to the game. Even compared to the yellow box selling old bull, aka Rosetta Stone, which offers a variety of mobile and tablet based applications.
It is hard to say how much money is left from the $14 million and if it is enough to launch a compelling suite of mobile applications. Maybe Livemocha has to raise a new round as well but I am not sure if the numbers are as good as those of babbel.com and busuu as the other two have basically accomplished the same user growth with far less funding.
Nevertheless I won’t count out Livemocha just yet as their focus now also seems to go into premium content and teacher lead learning. There are some English for professionals courses going on which are a mix of self-paced learning with the web application, peer learning with the community and instructor lead live lessons in a virtual classroom. Again, pretty similar to Rosetta Stone TOTALe.
So while babbel.com and busuu seem to go for the mass market with applications for the self guided learner, Livemocha is going towards a more personalized approach with expert teachers and live interactions. All in all the battle between the three promises to remain interesting.
Now that is indeed something that does not happen everyday. A German startup acquires an US based startup for parts, in this case language learning startup babbel.com from Berlin the user base of San Francisco based PlaySay which is pretty telling as neither the PlaySay team nor the technology will be integrated into babbel.com products. Only PlaySay’s founder Ryan Meinzer, whom I interviewed in October 2011, is going to join babbel.com in the role of an advisor for the US market.
So let’s break this one down. PlaySay started at TechCrunch Disrupt as a Facebook application for learning Spanish, and eventually pivoted its way to a mobile application to learn Spanish. It even ranked #1 in the education category of the iTunes Store in ten different countries including the US at one point.
But babbel.com does not seem to be interested in the technology or applications but merely in the PlaySay users who now have 45 days to switch over to using babbel.com instead.
babbel.com is part of a group of three language learning startups which all emerged at about the same time and have battled to become the next Rosetta Stone. Besides babbel.com the others are Livemocha out of Seattle and busuu who just relocated their HQ from Madrid to London after raising a Series A round.
Similar to busuu, babbel.com did not take on tons of funding at this point which probably helped the team a lot to figure out the business model and how to sell best. A strong factor in the growth of both busuu and babbel.com have been the respective mobile applications. In fact, babbel.com’s first acquisition was the mobile app developing startup that had built the first babbel.com applications.
The only real problem babbel.com seems to have had is growing its footprint and finding success in new territories. Both Livemocha and busuu succeeded early on to grab market share in key markets like the US and South America.
Taking all this into consideration I suppose that babbel.com got PlaySay for a pretty reasonable price as the press release states
Deal fueled from operative cash flow.
PlaySay have only raised $820k since 2008 which means that even if babbel.com paid a bit more, like in the range of $1.5m to $2m it was still kind of cheap. It also shows that PlaySay did not manage to get enough traction to make it worthwhile for the founder and his team to keep on working on the product or to raise another round of funding. I think the following sentence from the press release why PlaySay sold to babbel.com is pretty telling.
“It’s fun, social and mobile, just like PlaySay…only better!”
I don’t know how many users PlaySay actually has in its database but if we assume that 1 million people have downloaded the application or signed up for the Facebook application at one point, babbel.com may have paid about $2 per user. I am also not sure what the cost per acquisition for a language learner is these days but I guess it’s much higher, maybe in the $10 range.
Of course, babbel.com can’t be sure that all of the PlaySay users will happily switch to the new service and then also pay for it but in the end it might be enough to get the babbel.com Spanish app ranking in the US iTunes Store which will eventually lead to better exposure and new users.