Ukrainian startup Preply overcomes geopolitical difficulties by investing $50 million to develop its language learning platform

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As Ukraine continues to suffer from Russia in an unprovoked war that has dispersed hundreds of thousands of refugees, a language-learning startup created by Ukrainians is gaining momentum outside the country — and today it is announcing a funding round to take its toll. ambition to the next level.

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Pre, which has created a marketplace where language tutors and potential multilingual students connect for online learning, closed a $50 million round. This is Series C, and Kirill Bigai — now a Barcelona-based CEO who co-founded the company along with Dmitry Voloshin and Serge Lukyanov — said the startup will use to continue building the technology it uses to launch the platform as well as create more specialized content for their mentors.

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Owl Ventures, a specialist venture capital focusing on education, leads the way with former backers Diligent Capital, Hoxton Ventures, Educapital, Evli Growth Partners and other backers such as Przemysław Gacek, co-founder of Grupa Pracuj; Swisscom Ventures and Orbit Capital.

Notably, it raised about $100 million, of which $85 million came in its final year; it’s been around since 2012 and has grown largely from bootstrap. And while the company does not disclose its valuation, according to PitchBook, the figure is just under $400 million after paymenta figure that the company didn’t dispute (and didn’t confirm) when I told them earlier.

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Bigai noted for me that the score was definitely “up” from the previous raise – $35 million in 2021 — and that in general over the past few years it has been growing. “I am lucky that we have a strong business and business dynamics,” he said of the pressure in the current environment.

Preply (pronounced “Prep-lee”) does not reveal how many students it has, other than to note that there are “hundreds of thousands” of them and that today there are about 32,000 tutors from 190 countries teaching more than 50 languages. I should note that in 2021 it was claimed to have 40,000 tutors, but this is not a sign of the company shrinking, but that it is just pulling up and focusing on quality, as I understand it.

The company, like most startups, is also rather vague when it comes to revenue: Bigai said he doesn’t provide yearly data, but since 2019, he says, the company has increased revenue and user numbers by more than 10 times.

Based on the fact that its user base is older than some of the other online learning platforms (average age is 25-40, not students), it is also doubling down on the newer B2B2C business line by providing services to companies whose employees need or want to improve their language skills. The business’ customers include Bytedance (and especially TikTok), Mercedes and McKinsey, and Bigay noted that this segment of the business is growing even faster, albeit from a smaller base.

The germination of Preply and its focus on “live” learning stems from the direct experience of its founders. Bigai told me that he first came up with the idea of ​​starting a company when he lived in Boston: he moved from Kyiv, having studied English at school for many years in order to build something. But it turned out that his paper knowledge of the English language had little to do with its use in practice.

He quickly found a tutor who helped him with speaking and learning the language in a more realistic way, and his lessons were delivered via Skype.

Finally, he realized that this is there was a business he wanted to build: a way for people like him – older and out of school – to really learn a language, and a way for them to find tutors to do it more easily.

One note about the Ukrainian roots of the company: Bigay and the other founders moved the company back to his home country to build it after this initial idea was born in Boston. Then, years later, Bigai himself – and some of his employees – moved to another location. About a third of the company was still in Ukraine when the war broke out earlier this year. Now about half of them are still in the country, the rest have also left. (Those who remain are now mostly in the western part of the country, away from the most serious fighting, and some are actually fighting.)

Just as the company’s corporate profile has changed significantly over the years, so has its platform. Specifically, Bigay tells me that Preply uses machine learning algorithms to better match potential students with teachers — options include matching people in compatible time zones and skill levels and desired outcomes — and they will see an investment to potentially become more advanced. .

There will also be investment in content. Today, most educators, Bigai said, are developing their own learning plans, although they have begun to introduce more teaching materials to formalize what is being learned and set benchmarks for progress. Today, they exist in two languages, Spanish and English, which is one of the most popular languages ​​on the platform (18% learning Spanish; 23% learning English). Other popular languages ​​include French (10%), Arabic and Italian, and according to Bigay, the plan was to introduce more formal material for these and other languages ​​over time.

On one level, Preply competes with Duolingo, Babbel, Memrise, and other online educational platforms that help people learn new languages; and on another level against the likes of GoStudent and any number of freelance marketplaces (and word of mouth) for providing tuition through real human tutors who interact with students via video streaming, usually lessons one for one.

Preply has been a lot freer than either of them so far, giving tutors a lot of license in terms of what they teach and even what they charge. However, as the company intends to go toe-to-toe with all of them in hopes of gaining a larger share of the lucrative language learning market – worth $47 billion by 2025 — I suspect that the introduction of more formal parameters in terms of what is taught hints that perhaps some other aspects will also become more formalized.

“We are thrilled to be partnering with Preply in the next phase of their growth,” Ross Darwin, director of Owl Ventures, said in a statement. “We are particularly encouraged by the continued momentum of the consumer business, as well as its new language learning offering for companies increasingly dependent on an international workforce.”

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