We’re a nation of monoglots. Despite spending countless hours learning languages at school, many of our efforts are wasted.
Through the power of technology and its social network, the London based company Busuu is trying to change that. But Bernhard Niesner’s ambitions are necessarily global, as he explained at a recent Leap 100 breakfast.
Language learning is a $60bn market. “There are already a billion people learning English, which is going to grow to two billion by the year 2020. Currently, only four per cent is online, so it’s without a doubt one of those industries that’s going to be disrupted by technology,” says Niesner.
Busuu is growing rapidly. It has over 70m users and is adding around 25,000 to 30,000 new users per day, with significant growth in the US, China, Russia, Germany, Brazil and Turkey. The company has users in nearly every country on the globe and receives payments from over 100 – some of which Niesner hadn’t heard of before the monthly payments arrived.
But there are challenges with rapid international growth and a widely distributed user base.
Niesner explains that it’s vital to focus on the right markets. “We use quantitative and qualitative metrics to decide on which market to go for. At the beginning, we just went everywhere. If we saw user growth in Brazil then we went to Brazil, then it was China and then it was Turkey. It was a complete mess.”
Now the strategy is much more focused. “As I’m an ex-consultant and a big fan of Excel, we have an Excel sheet for our scoring matrix for countries. We have a long list of criteria – including GDP, propensity to spend and information about the language learning market – and then rank those parameters and come up with a ranking.” Although it’s “not just a mechanical approach” – Niesner finds it useful to test natural biases people have for certain countries.
Niesner is a big proponent of studying data. By comparing countries’ registrations or cart conversions, they can spot blockages caused by payment methods or ineffective marketing. Busuu runs a lot a A/B tests to hone its service. “We can raise prices by 30 per cent in Japan and demand increases; in Russia they are very sensitive to price discounts.”
China has been a “hard nut to crack”, but efforts are paying off. “We now have over four million users in China. A week ago we were the top grossing education app, but it took us quite some time to get there and we had to do a lot of improvements around the product.” For example, Niesner dropped the Facebook and Google signups, moved from email to phone number signup, and invested in WeChat marketing.
By the sounds of it, Busuu is on a course to grow with maximum efficiency, whether through cross-functional teams solving specific problems, employing “young and hungry” MBA students from London Business School or making use of UKTI for company trips and relatively cheap market studies.
And with its focus on international expansion, I’m sure Busuu will have a big part to play in helping millions – if not billions – of people across the world learn a language – although solving Britain’s je ne comprends pas mentality may turn out to be the toughest test.
This article originally appeared in City A.M.