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It’s a big moment for the company, which CEO Yeva Hyusyan founded in Armenia in 2014. Since that time, the company’s app has been used by more than 21 million people from every country, and active users are up 300% from the prior year. Sololearn is now adding more than 300,000 users per month, Hyusyan said in an interview with VentureBeat.
It’s a rare success, and rarer still as a female-founded company. Columbus-based Drive Capital led the round, with participation from prior investors in Sololearn’s $1.2 million first round in 2016, including Learn Capital and Prosus Ventures. To date, the company has raised more than $30 million.
“We are scalable, we focus on engagement,” Hyusyan said. “The social aspect of learning keeps people on the platform for much, much longer. And also the bite-size format makes us stand out.”
A humble start
The company got its start seven years ago because of Hyusyan’s interest in teaching people how to code.
She grew up in Armenia during the Soviet Union stewardship until the country became independent in 1991. After that, she worked for the U.S. government, the World Bank, and eventually became the country manager in Armenia. In 2010, she started a startup accelerator. There, she met the other people who helped start Sololearn.
“That’s how I got into the startup life,” Hyusyan said.
The accelerator, which was part of the Microsoft Innovation Center, held a computing boot camp where people could learn how to code. Big companies hired the graduates from the boot camp, and that was encouraging. But Hyusyan realized that no how big the training center became, it would never serve enough people to make a difference.
“It was really inspiring to see how much impact you can make through a very intensive targeted program,” she said. “But the problem we were facing was that, no matter how many more instructors you can bring, and how much more space you can rent, it was hard to scale.”
So she decided to start working on Sololearn as a mobile-first platform to teach people how to code. She wanted to address the problem of how an estimated billion people will require reskilling over the next decade.
The idea was to empower anyone who wanted to improve their professional life by putting a coding school in the palm of their hand.
The World Economic Forum estimates that new technology demands will require one billion workers to be “reskilled” by 2030, and 60% of all new jobs will require technology skills.
Sololearn offers instructional content, practice challenges, and community support, all within a gamified experience where users and community members can earn points that reflect their progress and contributions. Students can also subscribe to Sololearn Pro, which offers real-life coding challenges they will face during interviews or at work. Pro also eliminates all ads.
Masha Khusid, partner at Drive Capital, said in a statement that Sololearn provides bite-sized, habit-forming instruction on a large scale, with a warm and supportive community and good user-generated content. It is having an impact on the lives of millions of people and their financial futures, Khusid said. Drive Capital focuses on investments outside of Silicon Valley.
I asked what helped set Sololearn apart from its competition, as there are a lot of ways to learn online programming.
“We have figured out a way to give them really simple tasks, but then make them think about them,” Hyusyan said. “And once our students solve those, I think they have this great sense of accomplishment that makes them come back for more. And then whenever they get stuck, there is the community that helps them out. So these are the two classroom experiences that make a very big difference in the online space. ”
The mobile app helped the company reach that scale. But users would come in, learn, give the app a five-star review, and never come back. It was bad for user retention and the business.
But then the team started focusing on enabling learning over a longer period of time, adding more fun and bite-sized lessons. It enabled users to start practicing so that they could truly learn, and engage in this practice over and over. The company started providing more real-life programming challenges and enabled peer-to-peer interaction, so people could help each other out. That led to a stronger community and a reason for people to return to the app.
The team added ways for people to show off their work, and it gamified the experience to improve engagement. It also enabled more personalized learning so people could learn on a desktop or mobile devices, and it worked more on the problem of keeping people engaged and enabling more user-generated content. Users can make money off the content via competitions.
“It’s forever a work in progress because gamification and learning go hand in hand, but you should be very careful not to overdo it,” Hyusyan said. “We’re a freemium model where you learn for free but you pay for some premium experiences.”
Sololearn will use the new funding to build out its content to new languages and technical skills, launch an enterprise learning management system to help companies train employees on specific development environments, and expand secondary and post-secondary education partnerships in which Sololearn complements classroom instruction.
Sololearn has grown to 100 employees as of June 2021 and expects to double headcount in the next 12 months. Hyusyan is based in San Francisco while the rest of the team is in Armenia. The company has been hiring people around the world in the pandemic.
There are now more than 600,000 five-star reviews for the apps on iOS and Android.
She noted that during the pandemic, many students were forced to learn from home, and learning via Sololearn became an additional option for self-learning.
“This is about changing human behavior, and so we combined a lot of active learning research, about human psychology combined with our own data, and it was fascinating to put this all together,” she said. “I think that’s exactly why our engagement and retention metrics are so much better than everybody else’s. There is a lot of room for improvement, obviously. But it’s basically the core experiences, which is theory, practice, and social aspects of it.”
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