Paul Gollash, Founder & CEO, Voxy talks about founding Voxy, what he learnt from Sir Richard Branson and why there is room for more than one billion dollar business in the language learning space.
Founded in 2010, Voxy is a web and mobile language learning platform that helps students learn a language in the context of their lives by transforming their daily activities, surroundings and the media they consume into personalised language lessons. Leveraging activities based on real-life, Voxy’s needs-based approach ensures that each of its nearly two million users is able to achieve his or her unique goals.
Voxy integrates advanced mobile technology with proven pedagogical principles to deliver a highly innovative and effective learning experience. By updating content daily, Voxy offers language learners a new experience every time they log in while simultaneously giving them access to the rich target language input they need to succeed.
Voxy’s iTunes app has consistently been ranked number one in 23 countries since its launch. In 2013, the company raised $8.5 million in Series B financing round led by education corporate, Pearson. Thus far, the company has raised nearly $20 million overall. Headquartered in New York, the company has 40 employees.
Founder and CEO of Voxy, Paul Gollash has over 15 years of experience building businesses as an operator, investor, and entrepreneur. Prior to founding Voxy, Gollash was a venture investor for Virgin Group. At Virgin, he evaluated new business opportunities across various sectors, helping conceive, fund, incubate and launch Virgin Hotels.
If there was one important lesson to be learnt from Sir Richard Branson, it was to attack big markets. He explains, “There’s literally billions of people who are trying to learn English right now and one of the things Richard Branson said was attack markets of huge scale.” That scale is shown by the fact that English represents 60% of the language learning market.
When asked about the company’s strong investors, Gollash answers, “We worked hard to attract as investors the people behind some of the most successful education companies in the past decades. Voxy benefits from the incredible experience that our investors bring to the table – they are the individuals and institutions who built The Princeton Review, Schoolnet, Wireless Generation, Kaplan, and 2U.com. With their guidance, we are confident that we can get our product into the hands of the two billion people in the world that want to learn English.”
The experiences of these companies have also shaped Gollash’s thinking on the long term vision for Voxy. Gollash believes Voxy should remain an independent standalone company, as the massive market for English Language learning should have at least a few publically traded companies. That said, there is a lot more work ahead to make an IPO a reality.
Voxy’s disruptive technology allows users to learn within context. Whether that’s games, news headlines or daily conversations, it differentiates itself from traditional learning environments by seamlessly integrating with users’ lives in one neat, multi-platform application. Instead of making time for learning, users learn on the go with their mobile phones, tablets, or personal computers.
Gollash found inspiration during his time working at GM Europe in Spain. He tried every technique available to learn Portuguese. Much to his surprise, magazines and other popular media proved the most effective way. He realised because he was already interested in the content, he absorbed the information more easily.
It would be several years until he put this experience to use in a real-life application. He explains, “I came to language learning before I came to education”.
Back in 2009, Gollash researched the competition. The first thing he did “was download the annual report for Rosetta Stone”. He was surprised by what he found. It was the only pure-play publically traded language learning company – and truthfully the only language learning company with any scale – and it made scant reference to huge marco trends like mobile, the real-time web, and personalisation. Furthermore, with all of the content trapped in physical media, Gollash spotted a gap in the market for real-time learning, and this proved the “genesis of Voxy”.
Voxy implements a personalised, tailor-made approach to language learning. This means an investment banker in Beijing will get the targeted learning content he needs most to help him communicate and improve business relations with foreign English-speaking clients versus a taxi cab driver in Brazil. Voxy starts each learner’s educational experience with a “need analysis”. These preferences provide input into Voxy’s personalisation algorithims that build customised lessons and activities with interactive exercises and quizzes to reinforce what the user has learned.
In September 2011, Voxy expanded into Brazil. Brazil exhibited many favourable characteristics: massive size, low English proficiency, and two events that are going to place Brazil on the global stage: the World cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. Last year, Gollash hired a country manager who works with the Pearson sales team to sell Voxy to different organisations and higher education institutions. The company has also secured distribution partners
such as Terra, the third largest internet portal in Brazil.
Voxy has applied an innovative, partnership led model. An example of this is its deal with 99Taxis, the “Uber” or “Hailo” of Brazil. 99Taxis has 40,000 taxis in its system across the entire country, and has over 50% market share in cities like Sao Paulo. Voxy offered these taxis free, customised courses designed specifically for taxi drivers. The taxi drivers receive 10-12 hours of customised language instruction that is specifically designed to help them serve tourists, and ultimately improve their financial position. Providing the company with a PR boost, the courses will be free up until the football World Cup in June 2014 and if the drivers want to buy the full course, there will be another offer with discounts. 99Taxis also benefited from the partnership, by using Voxy to differentiate their offering from other copycat taxi dispatch businesses that are springing up in Brazil.
Gollash believes the World Cup will be somewhat of a wake-up call for Brazil and anticipates a huge surge in Brazilians seeking to learn English after the World Cup.
Gollash is reluctant to answer a question around whether his company will diversify into teaching foreign languages to English speakers. He admits it isn’t a focus right now but suggests that English speakers who want to learn Spanish might be a target going forwards, given the United States’ bi-cultural shift.
Whichever languages Voxy continues to focus on, Gollash is optimistic for the future. “I’m under the belief that there’s a right to have at least one, if not three or four billion dollar businesses in language education. So, my goal right now is to keep going and see how many English learners around the world we can help.”