Go Vocab – winner of this month's BNZ Startup Alley competition at Webstock – is revolutionising language learning for the self-motivated.
Like most of us, the founders of Go Vocab took foreign language classes at school. Unlike most of us, who proceeded to let the knowledge seep right back out of our grey matter, they decided to improve on the entire learning process.
“When I was at school I had to learn a language, and we were just given a list of words at the start of the week,” says founder Michael Dowse.
“We’d take them home and memorise them just by staring at this bit of paper, basically. Then on Friday you would have a test – you’d cram in the hallway for five minutes and then forget it all straight away.”
His creation, Go Vocab, is a tool for students and teachers delivered via its website and mobile apps. While classroom teaching traditionally focuses on the conversational aspect, Go Vocab handles vocabulary, word matching, verb conjugations and all the other “boring parts” of language learning.
“It can’t teach you a language on its own – it’s designed more as a complementary tool. We still think the best way to learn a language is with a teacher – it’s designed to work with teachers in the classroom.”
Go Vocab enables teachers to supervise students’ progress, gives them complete control over what they impart and matches their individual style.
Users are mainly high school students, who pay an annual service subscription of $30. It’s free for teachers, and Go Vocab also sells to schools as well as individuals.
“We’ve all learnt languages at various points, but we don’t really have that language teacher’s perspective,” explains Dowse. Therefore, the
company consults teachers in order to build and refine its product features.
“We’re not trying to be a textbook, particularly – more like a whiteboard, using it as a tool to teach themselves.”
Go Vocab originated from a vocabulary revision iPad app Dowse pitched for an Apple Student Developer scholarship while studying computer science. He didn’t win, but kept going and turned it into a website that would have broader appeal. Around this time, Dowse befriended fellow student Jeremy Geros, and they briefly worked together on a contract for another startup.
That was back in late 2010, with Dowse working on Go Vocab part-time. In January 2011, he and Geros quit their software development jobs and went full-time on the newly-incorporated business. They had enough saved to last six months, and in February the first student began using Go Vocab. For the first school term, the product was trialled by Wellington schools, but before long they rolled out to the rest of the country and started bringing in revenue.
May marked the company’s first round of funding. Dowse had previously worked with Michael Koziarski from investment firm Southgate Labs, who was sufficiently impressed to front up.
“The product was very well put together, it was functioning well and there were no obvious rough edges,” Koziarski says.
“But what interested me most was the team involved. We often have people that come to us with a vague idea, but in this case the guys had built a more or less fully functioning product. “They had also managed to get a number of people to actually pay and use it. In terms of market validation there’s nothing better than knowing there’s people in the potential target market who are willing to pay for the product in its current state.”
Barely out of his 20s, ‘Koz’ refers to himself as “the old man” of the group. He works closely with Go Vocab in a mentoring capacity and describes the team as “young and hungry”.
Between the Southgate funding and further capital raised from family members, Go Vocab had enough to keep going for the next year. In August, it hired the company’s first employee, Dowse’s childhood friend Tim Fraser. With job titles such as “minister of refreshments” and “marshmallow roaster”, it’s clear they have a lot of fun at work.
“We don’t take anything too seriously,” Dowse says.
Geros is responsible for most of the technical development, Fraser handles marketing, customer support and sales, and Dowse takes care of a mix of design and development.
Go Vocab now has more than 7,000 registered students, according to Dowse, with 400-plus teachers across 100-plus schools. Users are primarily Kiwis and Aussies (evenly split), although somehow word has spread further afield to customers in Canada and Singapore too.
“There’s nothing particular about learning vocabulary that is tied to New Zealand and Australia. There’s no point in focusing on the local market only when you’ve got this large, global opportunity available,” says Koziarski.
Dowse says teachers largely find out about Go Vocab through word of mouth. The software is connected to Facebook, so students often share links among themselves, spreading the word wider and further. The team also flies the Go Vocab flag at various professional development events for language teachers. And it goes both ways, Dowse says.
“If you sign up teachers, they’ll sign up their students. If you sign up students they’ll tell their teachers.”
Not surprisingly, the most popular languages are French and Japanese, matching the languages most commonly taught in schools. German and Maori are also popular; Latin, slightly less so. In Australia, Indonesian has also proved a hit.
It’s still early days and the Go Vocab team is heads-down, bums up, content to keep building the company up. There’s scope for expansion into more languages or even beyond language learning entirely.
“We just want to keep going and see where we can take it. We’re not on some treadmill where we have to keep raising more rounds.”
And with its recent win at Webstock's inaugural BNZ Startup Alley, netting the guys $10,000 cash and flights for two to that hotbed of tech entrepreneurship, San Francisco, the future is bright.