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Millions of investments: Ukrainians have created a language learning platform that is used by the whole world

In early January, journalist and communications specialist Margarita Rivchachenko decided to fulfill her own New Year's promise and learn Spanish, says Air force... She had previously studied Spanish for several months, but for lack of time she stopped. This time Margarita decided to use the Preply language tutoring platform.

Photo: Shutterstock

It was created at the end of 2012 by three Ukrainians - programmers Kirill Begay and Dmitry Voloshin and designer Sergey Lukyanov. Now Preply users are hundreds of thousands of people from more than 180 countries of the world who strive to master different languages, and 45 thousand teachers who teach them.

And now it is one of the most successful Ukrainian projects in EdTech - online education technologies.

BBC News Ukraine spoke with the platform's co-founder and its users to find out how it was created and how it works, how convenient it is for learning languages ​​and which of them are currently the most popular.

“Our site helps a person to settle in a new life”

Speaking to BBC News Ukraine, Preply co-founder Kirill Begay says that he and the other co-founders initially wanted to create their own product that would be used by people around the world.

“We decided to focus on foreign languages. Our goal is to build an effective way to learn foreign languages, ”he says.

Now the platform allows you to choose to study more than 50 languages ​​- from international ones, such as English, Spanish, French or German, to those that are not often used outside of one or two countries, for example, Urdu or Indonesian. Users can choose from tutoring services from over 160 countries around the world.

In March 2020, Preply managed to attract $ 10 million in investments at the start of the pandemic, Business Insider reported. Among the investors were, in particular, the London venture capital fund Hoxton Ventures, the German venture capital fund Point Nine Capital, business angels - the former chief marketing officer of Arthur Kosten, the founder of Couchsurfing Daniel Hoffer and others. This allowed the company to leap forward at a time when the demand for online education services was skyrocketing.

According to Kirill Begai, Preply's experience helped attract investors.

“This is an international project that helps people achieve their life goals through foreign languages. Tutors play an important role in people's lives, ”says the co-founder of the company.

“If a person travels to another country, and he needs a foreign language very quickly, our site helps to get settled in a new life. The company has a good and important mission, ”he notes.

Over the past year, the number of Preply clients has grown 2,5 times. The authors of the project explain such an influx not only by the transition to online education and closed schools, but also by the fact that online tutoring is becoming the norm in everyday life, and people have understood and tried it.

Why is it user-friendly?

Margarita Rivchachenko, who is studying Spanish, liked the learning environment at Preply. First, there is a large selection of teachers. You can study with Ukrainian teachers who live in Ukraine or abroad with foreign teachers and directly with native speakers. You can read information about the education of teachers, student reviews.

There are tens of thousands of tutors on Preply. Most of all in English - the search results in more than 16. Thousands of tutors are in other international European languages, hundreds - in Eastern languages. For example, more than 000 teachers are ready to teach you Spanish, many of whom are citizens of Spain or Latin America.

“Because of the low level of knowledge, I chose not a native speaker, but a girl Elmira from Odessa, who has been living in Spanish Malaga for 8 years. I study with her for one hour every week, ”says Margarita.

After two months, she can already translate simple sentences. Time flexibility is important for her.

“There is an opportunity even four hours before a lesson to cancel it for free (Preply explains that both students and teachers can make changes to the schedule no later than four hours before class. - Ed.),” Says Margarita.

Every teacher on Preply has a calendar that lets you know when you can sign up for classes. You can engage in secure video conferencing on the Preply platform, which has a mobile application, or via Skype or Zoom.

And finally - trust in money matters.

“Paying in advance to someone I don't know is a little strange to me. Preply allows you to track all transactions. My money is in the account. You can set up so that your card is remembered, and automatic debiting of money for a package of lessons, or a lesson, ”- says Margarita.

After each lesson, the user is asked by letter if the lesson has taken place.

“If the lesson did not take place, because the teacher did not appear, I can inform about it, and he will not be credited with these funds. If I didn’t come to class, on the contrary, my money could be written off, ”says Margarita.

There is also a certain system of discounts, subject to the choice of packages of lessons.

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What languages ​​do they learn?

According to Kirill Begai, the top ten most popular languages ​​among Preply users so far look like this: English, Spanish, French, German, Chinese, Arabic, Russian, Japanese, Italian and Portuguese.

This list varies from country to country.

For example, among users in Britain, the most popular languages ​​are English, Spanish and French, in Germany - German, English and Spanish. The primacy of the official languages ​​in both countries is due to the presence of large migrant communities who are learning the language of their new homeland.

The situation is similar in France, where only English is taught more French.

But in the United States, the four most popular languages ​​for learning are Spanish, English, French and Chinese. The popularity of Spanish can be attributed in part to its Latin American cultural influence.

According to Kirill Begai, the popularity of the East Asian languages ​​- Chinese, Japanese and Korean - is also growing in the world.

The most popular languages ​​among Ukrainian users are English, German and Spanish. And what about the Ukrainian language?

“Over the past year, almost 35% of the total number of hours spent on the Ukrainian language learning platform was with US users, followed by the UK and Ukraine, which take another 20%,” says Preply.

In addition, Ukrainian users from German-speaking countries, Canada and Russia are studying.

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What unites Ukraine and Latin America

The Ukrainian market accounts for less than 5% of Preply's revenues. The USA and Western Europe remain the most important markets. Kirill Begay says that there is a lot in common between Ukraine and Latin America in language learning.

“If a person wants to study with a native English speaker, it can cost $ 15-20 per hour. If 12 lessons per month is about $ 250. For many in Eastern Europe and Latin America, this is still quite expensive, ”he notes.

In Ukraine, the paying capacity of users often depends on the region.

“There are regions where users can afford much less, and there are regions where people are willing to pay like in the EU countries. In Ukraine, there are users who are willing to pay even $ 20 for a lesson, but basically it is still $ 5-10. It's the same story in Brazil or Mexico, ”says Kirill Begay.

How tutors work

“We register tutors on the platform when we need them. We are focusing on the balance of tutors and students on the platform, ”says Kirill Begay.

According to the co-founder of Preply, it is important for the company that teachers have enough students and a good income on the platform.

“If a tutor makes $ 20 a week on the platform, it’s not serious and we don’t become an important part of his life,” he explains.

Teachers pay a flexible commission for Preply services. First, 100% payment for the first lesson with a student, and after the first lesson, a commission of 33% is paid, which gradually decreases to 18% after 400 lessons.

“This money is being invested in attracting new students to the platform, as well as in improving technologies that support the educational process,” says Preply.

Among the teachers who work through Preply is KNLU graduate Zoryana Dyak. She has been working as an English teacher for 15 years, has taught classes in companies and language schools. Preply Clerk started using it a few years ago. Since then, she has had students from more than 30 countries, especially from Southeast Asia, and now more than 70% of the students are foreigners. According to her, Preply helps teachers not waste time looking for students.

“Preply takes over the marketing process. A big plus - they give students who are already ready to study, that is, they provide an opportunity to meet people who are looking for each other. There is no need to maintain your professional profiles, where you need to generate a lot of content - that's why many teachers burn out, ”says Zoryana Dyak.

She says that for a high rating on the site, you need to work hard, accumulate positive feedback from students.

“Don't think that you will have a lot of students and a lot of money at once. The platform responds to how students evaluate you. For money, this rating cannot be raised - you need to provide quality services, you can only ask students for feedback, ”explains the teacher.

She sees the inconvenience in the need to constantly be in touch so as not to lose the already achieved rating.

“To get results on the platform you need to be very active, follow the message. It is tied to the phone, even if you are on vacation, otherwise you will lose your rating, ”says the teacher.

Graduate of the Kyiv National University Irina Shevchenko has been teaching English for 7 years. She previously studied in the United States, worked as a teacher at a language school in Kiev, and then became a private tutor who taught classes at IT companies. Now, according to the teacher, 90% of students turn to her on the recommendations of friends and colleagues.

Irina stumbled upon Preply by chance in 2019 and worked with its users for several months. For registration, she uploaded educational documents and certificates. The payment system caused certain difficulties for her.

“Payment is possible through Paypal or Payoneer. You need to order a card from the USA, when withdrawing cash in Ukraine, a commission is charged, ”says Irina.

At the same time, she would like to reduce the commission for lessons for teachers and improve the work of the support service. Now Irina no longer teaches through Preply, but she plans to start learning Spanish with a native speaker through this platform.

Preply says that the conditions for teachers will change: "In the near future we plan to review the structure of our commissions." The company notes that the tutor himself determines the price for training, can change it, and remind that the commission in private language schools for the services of teachers can reach "up to 80% of the cost of a lesson."

Preply is also working to reduce faculty costs when using PayPal and Payoneer, and is already covering some of the fees associated with withdrawals.

For teachers' vacations, settings have been developed in their calendars that allow them to indicate unavailability for a certain time and “hide so that new students do not see them in the search”, which makes it impossible for the rating to drop.

Another priority is to speed up the work of the help desk.

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Strength in diversity

In 2019, Preply opened an office in Barcelona and is preparing to open an office in the United States. Barcelona is one of the most attractive relocation destinations in Southern Europe and currently employs more than 80 of Preply's 230 employees, people from around the world.

Kirill Begay admits that it is extremely difficult to attract many of them to work in Ukraine, now only 30 foreign employees work in Kiev. Reasons: the English-speaking environment is rather small compared to Berlin or Barcelona, ​​air traffic with other countries is worse, there are security issues, and most importantly, it is not so easy to get a work visa, as the company was convinced of when trying to hire an employee from India.

Since opening an office in Barcelona, ​​Preply is hiring more and more experienced employees, such as people from Booking, Google and Amazon. The support service of the company employs people with knowledge of three to four languages, citizens of different countries of the world - from Ukraine and Turkey to Indonesia and Brazil.

According to Kirill Begai, it is very important for Ukraine's success to create conditions for foreigners to work in the country and to simplify taxation for foreign technology companies so that it would be easy for them to open offices in Kiev.

“IT is what can bring Ukraine to a new level. These are highly specialized and highly paid positions. These people spend on apartments, restaurants, recreation - and this has a positive effect on the Ukrainian economy, ”said the co-founder of Preply.

In the near future, the company plans to focus on creating content for language learning, increasing the number of customers in both traditional Western markets and the markets of East Asia and Arab countries.

“The world market for language learning is estimated at 60 billion. This is a fairly large market and Preply has a lot of work ahead,” says Kirill Begay.

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