First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Gabe Wyner: I’ve been doing alright. It’s been a challenging time from a mental health standpoint, but coming to terms with the idea that it’s okay not to be okay was pretty helpful.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Fluent Forever
Gabe Wyner: I’ve come into this work through a pretty strange route. Once upon a time, I was a mechanical engineer and opera singer. The engineering side meant that I had strong problem-solving roots, and the opera side meant I needed to learn a lot of languages. That led me to create a method for learning languages that brought me to C1 fluency in French in five months and seemed to work for my students as well. I went on to learn Russian, Hungarian, Spanish, and Japanese. I wrote about the method, and that book eventually turned into a national bestseller. I then launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the development of an app that would automate the method in the book, and that turned into the most successful crowdfunding campaign for any app in history. We launched in April of 2019, and we’re now serving around 27,000 customers with a team of 20 people.
How does Fluent Forever innovate?
Gabe Wyner: Up to this point, we haven’t taken the most efficient route: I’ve written up thousands of features that I’d personally like in a language learning app, and then we’ve attempted to figure out a rough prioritization for those features based upon what we see in product-market-fit and NPS surveys, and go from there. But now that we’ve finished fundraising for our seed round, we’re changing to a much more methodical approach. We’ve hired a Head of Product who can do user research before we start drafting up features, who can build mockups and test them with users before development, etc. So I anticipate our innovations to be a lot more impactful and user-feedback-driven this year.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Gabe Wyner: We’ve been very fortunate. So many businesses have suffered during the pandemic, and we just happen to be in the group of businesses that are positively impacted by it. People have more time and more interest in learning languages while they’re stuck at home, and that’s allowed us to grow exponentially over the past 6 months.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Gabe Wyner: We didn’t have to make difficult choices due to the pandemic, so I don’t have a lot to report there, except perhaps to say that there are sometimes opportunities that arise out of crises. We realized that since we were in higher demand due to the stay-at-home orders, we could partner up with larger companies that were struggling or wanted to give their customers something to do at home. That led to a lot of really strong, mutually beneficial partnerships that wouldn’t have happened were it not for the pandemic.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and Fluent Forever in the future?
Gabe Wyner: So much therapy! I can’t overstate how much I’ve benefited from having someone there to help navigate the emotional rollercoaster of startup life. There will always be sources of stress, but separating the external sources of stress (e.g., there’s a global pandemic) from the internal ones (e.g., beliefs about one’s own self-worth) is just essential.
In terms of the future of my company, we’re poised to build some really incredible things. I think the next two years will be some of the most exciting; we’re finally in a position to really grow our user base, our team, and our product. And I’m aiming to do a lot of growth; my work today barely resembles the work I was doing two years ago, and I know that my work in two years will barely resemble my work today. I don’t yet have the skills I need for that future, so I have a lot of learning to do right now.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Gabe Wyner: Our competitors are the other language learning apps – Duolingo, Babbel, Rosetta Stone, Busuu, etc. We’re aiming to grow by continuing to improve learning outcomes for our users. We have a methodology that’s actually producing fluent speakers, and the next year or two of progress will allow us to make that methodology 2-3x more effective than it is today. We just need to deliver on that and prove it out in the market, and I suspect we’ll do quite well!
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