Tell us about you, your Career, how you Founded Chatterbug
Scott Chacon: My name is Scott Chacon. I actually started in tech a little on accident. I applied for a master’s program in Linguistics in the San Francisco bay area in California when I got a programming job right out of university. I ended up staying in tech because it paid quite well, and it turns out that I really enjoyed building products at startups.
I love learning things and solving problems, and that led me to write and teach, in addition to hacking and coding. I wrote some books on Git starting in 2008 when the technology wasn’t widely adopted, and that led me to meet the guys I would end up starting a developer tools company called GitHub.
GitHub slowly exploded. From the four of us starting the company, working out of our apartments and coffee shops in San Francisco, it grew over the next 8 years to a company of over 400 employees globally. We raised $350 million in capital, and eventually, a few years after I left, the company was sold to Microsoft for $7.5 billion.
I found that I love building companies and working on products. When I left GitHub, I started a language learning company with another GitHub co-founder who had previously left, Tom Preston-Werner. I learned while living abroad for a year that foreign languages are much harder to learn than I thought and have been working on making that goal easier, more accessible, and achievable for people ever since. We started a company called Chatterbug, whose aim was to be the best way in the world to learn a new language from zero to fluency.
How does Chatterbug innovate?
Scott Chacon: The idea to start a new language learning company came to me when I was living in Paris for a year, and I tried to learn French. After 11 months of living in France, and trying several popular methods of learning a new language, I was still barely past an A1 level.
I tried in-person classes at the in-person Alliance Française school, private tutoring, iTalki classes, Duolingo, Youtube videos, podcasts, and many of them at the same time. While each of them had benefits and drawbacks, there was no excellent unified system for having high-quality digital study tools, media, graded readings, a variety of video tutors, and a scaffolded curriculum. I wanted to pay for a great online school with integrated digital tooling, but nothing existed. So I built Chatterbug.
Chatterbug has done several things very differently from other language learning offerings. We have live tutors, available around the clock, and bookable with a flexible scheduling system that relieves all the headaches I had scheduling trainers on online tutor marketplaces.
We have a full curriculum, all produced in-house, so you don’t have to use pirated PDFs of course textbooks, as nearly all of my French online tutors encouraged. We have our digital classroom with integrated video and curriculum, as opposed to the standard Skype or Zoom based classes you get with other offerings.
We have our iOS and Android app that provides flashcards and media synced with the live lessons you’re doing, so there isn’t a total disconnect between your classes and your digital studying.
We essentially started from the perspective of the serious language learning student and asked, “what would the best possible online learning experience be?” and have worked for the past years to build that vision. We want online learning to be as seamless, simple, and effective as possible, wasting the least amount of time on overhead or ineffective methods. You can get to the same language level in half the time and with total flexibility with our school than with an in-person school like Goethe or Alliance Française.
Long story short, we’re innovating by combining the effectiveness of in-person schools and digital language apps’ flexibility into one comprehensive learning experience.
How the Coronavirus Pandemic affects your Business, and how are you coping?
Scott Chacon: There are two ways to look at this question, one is how we fared internally as a company, and the other is how this affected our product adoption. Honestly, from both sides, we performed relatively well.
I think, in general, the pandemic has forced a lot of people to more seriously evaluate working and learning from home, in multiple ways. It isn’t easy to fully separate various initiatives we were trying at the same time as the onset of the lockdowns. In general, we saw a surge of people moving to learn with us at the beginning of the year, just as this was all hitting. Some came from in-person language schools that could not be held anymore; others just had extra time on their hands at home and wanted to learn something useful while connecting with human beings.
From a corporate perspective, we also did well. We have always had a very flexible work-from-home policy. Most of our employees work from home a day or more per week, sometimes even for extended weeks or months if they decide to visit family during the winter or something like that, so we are already fully prepared as an organization for people working remotely. We use asynchronous collaboration tools like Slack, Dropbox, and Notion extensively, and we have been using Zoom for group meetings for a long time now. Instead of having a sudden crash course in remote work like so companies at this time, we just had most of our company go from 20% of the time working from home to 100%. It wasn’t very disruptive, comparatively.
We’re lucky enough to be based almost entirely out of Berlin, Germany, which got back to easing restrictions relatively quickly and safely. We’ve now transitioned back to having employees more regularly in the office if they need or want to, a luxury that our peers in the US mostly cannot enjoy yet.
Did you have to make Difficult Choices, and what are the Lessons Learned?
Scott Chacon: Concerning COVID, we haven’t had to change things very much, due to our product being well suited to people working from home and our own company being well prepared for this type of work.
We have taken this time to evaluate the possibility of going more into a remote working direction, as many other companies have. If we can all work from home for a few months, why not all the time and get rid of our high office costs?
However, we considered this when first starting the company years ago. All the co-founders were previously from GitHub, which had over 60% of its workforce working remotely. We are fully aware of the difficulties that companies and employees face when the business is remote-first and where things start to break down.
After thinking about it again, we decided to stick with our current policy, a “hub” model of working. This means having most of our Chatterbugs in or near one of our two hubs, Berlin or San Francisco, and working from home whenever they see fit. This means we can have most of the company together in person on very short notice, while still giving our employees most of the advantages that fully remote companies have.
How do you Deal with Stress and Anxiety? How do you Project yourself and Chatterbug in the Future?
Scott Chacon: I’ve always found that exercise is a great way to deal with stress and anxiety. If I’m starting to feel overwhelmed or stressed out, I will go for a long run around the large park next to my house. Or get away for a weekend and try to take my mind off things for a while—something to switch modes.
I like to think that the flexibility in our working policy helps everyone here have that possibility. It provides everyone the freedom to do a long run in the morning and stay later, or meet up with people in the office for a drink after work, or work from a beach somewhere for a week, whatever is needed. It’s also great for the flexibility of the company as a whole. If Berlin locks down again, we can all reasonably transition to working entirely from home without missing too much of a beat.
Who are your Competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the Game?
Scott Chacon: Depending on your definition, we either have thousands of competitors or virtually none. Nobody is taking the holistic approach that we have – having a comprehensive suite of digital tools and a pool of tutors and modular and customized curriculum from zero to C1 level language learning.
However, there are tons of in-person schools or small apps that do some aspect of what we do. Apps are particularly interesting, as many people think they can learn a language with something like Duolingo or Babbel since that’s sort of how they advertise, but the truth is that you can’t. Even these companies themselves will say that at best, their products can get you to an A1 level, the most basic, Hulk-like level of language competency. The truth is that you can’t learn a language in 5 minutes a day, or even 30. You need hundreds of hours of practice with human beings, and that will never change. Apps cannot do that alone; they can only be a powerful piece in a much more comprehensive solution. It’s like trying to learn a language by reading a book.
We’re in this game for the long haul. We’ve gotten hundreds of students making real progress in learning multiple languages, and our product will only get better and better. I already fully believe that we’re the best way to learn a language that exists, and we have even more tools coming for our students.
Even now, we’re pushing the edge of what language education looks like. We’re working on a virtual reality-based language platform. We’re teaching languages over WhatsApp, trying to imagine even better ways of integrating language learning into student’s lives. We have a great product, I genuinely believe it’s better than anything out there, but there is still a long way to go. I don’t think that technology has been utilized to its fullest extent in the problem space of helping people learn languages.
Your Final Thoughts
Scott Chacon: I love technology. The internet has allowed me to participate in a vast world.
I could learn about technology like Git and use the internet to publish and teach for free in a way that was never possible before. My book, Pro Git, was open-sourced and is now available in 13 other languages and has been read by hundreds of thousands of people. My last company, GitHub, is being used by over 50 million people today. It’s an incredible feeling to be able to provide something of value to so many people I’ll never know.
I hope that I can also make a significant impact in the world of language learning. We’ve already provided a platform and product where hundreds of students have made tremendous progress in languages, but it’s only the beginning. There is so much more that technology can do to help people learn a new language, which opens up new worlds for people. That’s incredibly exciting for me.