Verbling’s mission is to empower people all over the world to become fluent in a foreign language through their online platform. This month, Verbling launched Verbling Enterprise the same day as they announced to have reached over 1 million users. The two first partnerships for Verbling Enterprise are none other than multinational corporations Inditex, owner of the clothing line Zara, and Volkswagen. SACC-SF/SV met the three Swedish co-founders to find out more about their new enterprise solution, their initiatives for refugees in Sweden and how moving from Sweden to the US have impacted their business model.
Verbling’s co-founders – CTO Gustav Rydstedt, CEO Jake Julis and CPO Mikael Bernstein met, as many other Silicon Valley start-up founders, during their studies at Stanford. After Stanford followed an intense 3 months program at the incubator Y Combinator that has worked as a starting platform for companies such as Dropbox and Airbnb.
When we meet them, they have had a hectic morning launching Verbling Enterprise. “Our two first partnerships, Inditex and Volkswagen really are the sort of companies Verbling Enterprise is meant for.” Jake tells us. “As large, international companies they have barriers affecting their ability to make business across borders. When they previously offered employees language courses, attendance was low and lectures would easily be skipped for their core work tasks. Verbling Enterprise solves for all that – it gives employees more freedom while we help the companies keep track of progression and statistics.”
Verbling HQ, located in the heart of Mission, has an international vibe with employees from all over the world – but a hint of the founders’ Swedish roots can still be revealed from the blue and yellow painted walls. Gustav agrees that the Swedish corporate culture is also visible in how the organization, compared to some US startups, tends to have less hierarchy and allows all opinions to be heard. “We want to empower people to learn language for a good cause – that’s pretty Swedish.“
“I would say that our culture is pretty international, we all grew up in Sweden before moving to the US – so we know how it is to emerge in a different culture and we have connection to places outside of the US.” Jake explains. “I mean, it’s no coincidence that we’re having this interview in English. Swedes are brought up with an almost unfair good system where we are forced to learn foreign languages, and a lot of other countries, for example Spain or Italy, don’t have that. The workforce is built up so those that have English skills can get the best jobs, while the others fall behind.”
With thousands of teachers from all over the world connected to the platform and over 1 million of subscribers, it can seem surprising that only nine employees in San Francisco run the organization. Mikael explains how only a few years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible to even build the products they have today. “You need to remember that we’re first and foremost a tech company. We create technology and tools to empower teachers to teach.”
“We have built our software to make our small team as powerful as possible. Building our business model on technology makes it possible to automate the things that computers can do, and focus our human brains on the things that only we can do. It helps to be a technology company so we actually can make that possible” Jake continues.
Several times, the three of them emphasize how Verbling wasn’t founded to outcompete existing language courses or teachers. Instead, Verbling works as a complement to the traditional ways in which language can be thought. Just as Airbnb and Uber, Verbling’s core business model comes from the sharing economy where both contributing sides are equally important.
“Our business model works mainly because of the trust we have built up for our teachers.” Gustav continues. “All teachers are professionally educated and we rigorously screen every applicant through video samples of their pedagogical skills, as well as charisma to a certain extent. This makes the teachers of Verbling the best there are. After putting all this effort in it really shows off in the average score of 4,9 out of 5 scores for teachers.”
Free language courses for refugees in Sweden
Jake tells us about how Verbling, in the year-end of 2015 when the refugee crisis escalated in Europe, initiated free Swedish lessons for immigrants in Sweden. The program is still live and the outcomes have in some ways been unexpected for Jake. “I found myself in actually quite close contact with participants, through talking on the phone with them from here. I hope that the misconception is starting to sublime more and more, but we often see pictures in media and think of these people as only helpless. And it’s not true. One of the people in our program is a highly skilled, qualified software engineer. He had a great job back home and when he came to Sweden he couldn’t get a job. And to me – that’s crazy – because if you’re a software engineer in Silicon Valley you will have companies grabbing you from all sides trying to hire you. So, we got him set up with an Angellist profile and he can now be contracted remotely.”
“What was fairly difficult was to scale up the Swedish teacher supply. We had a lot of interest from volunteers, but at the same time didn’t wanted to sacrifice the high bar we have for Verbling’s teachers. Overall we had to change a couple of things that did go outside our model. One example is from Riksgränsen, in northern Sweden, where we actually partnered directly with the ski resort. Their facilities work as asylum accommodation and we ended up doing Swedish lessons with one of our top teachers on a massive projector for over 600 people.”
“We never suggested that we would solve the integration problem, but want to raise awareness. That it is possible for companies to actually do something about this. If you can shrink the time of integrating, just slightly, it’s usually a good thing for everyone.”