AM: We’ve created an online English school that has become the leading online English school in about 20 markets – so all of Spanish speaking Latin America, Brazil and more recently the US Hispanic market.
What we offer is an alternative to the traditional brick and mortar approach. So if you’re a consumer in Sao Paulo or Mexico City you’re going to have to go through traffic to go to school to get to a classroom that’s full of students and the focus will be on taking notes while you listen to a teacher that’s talking mostly about grammar. And it’s very hard to find a native English speaker, so people end up learning with the wrong intonation, pronunciation and it’s all done with pretty antiquated books and photocopies.
“What we offer is an alternative to the traditional brick and mortar approach”
So eight years ago we decided to transform that space by creating a pure online school where you can go from anywhere or anytime. You can go at 3am and they’re not going to be locked up. You’re going to get a native English teacher there and you have unlimited classes with native English speakers. It’s all small group interaction or one on one. The focus is on fluency and on speaking, which is what we find is the biggest need of our consumers, where they know a little bit of English but they can’t really pass that job interview or travel to the US or present to the boss in English or really develop professionally with the language.
Not only that, but the books and photocopies are replaced by thousands of hours of engaging multimedia lessons. And you’ll be learning with the latest trailer of the movie you love. We even have study advisors that are similar to trainers at a gym who are there motivating you to move forward and to not lose site of the goal. So there’s a lot that goes with it.
The PIE: Is all the teaching through live instruction?
AM: Yes. We never wanted to use technology to do away with human interaction but a lot of other companies are trying to create software where you wouldn’t need a human. We did the opposite: we decided that we wanted to use technology to enhance and make human interaction more efficient, and that’s been the key to the success of the business. Most people don’t just want to learn a few words in an app; they actually want to learn how to speak it because they need it to develop professionally.
“Most people don’t just want to learn a few words in an app; they need it to develop professionally”
The PIE: You must have teachers placed all over the world in order to have someone available 24 hours a day?
AM: Yes, we do. That’s the experience at Open English. That’s what’s different from some of the other businesses that you may know and recognise. In the US the focus is on other languages, not so much English, so there are other language learning companies or softwares that you probably think of the most. There are more software options in the US if you learn Spanish or Italian; it’s cool to know a few words and be able to get around maybe but it won’t change your life professionally, most likely; whereas in emerging markets it does. We developed a product that was very well suited for that demographic.
The PIE: So would you say your typical student is motivated mostly by learning enough to get a promotion at work or to find a better job?
AM: Yes, that’s right. They’re lifelong learners. But again, it’s different in the US where you will learn Spanish – maybe there’s a professional link, but it won’t change your life. In an emerging market if you know English you can be a bilingual call-centre rep or you can actually speak English at work in an office. It just gives you a whole new grounding.
“It’s different in the US where you will learn Spanish – maybe there’s a professional link, but it won’t change your life”
The PIE: What do you attribute your success to in Latin America?
AM: A tight product market fit with our value proposition. The marketing has been very effective. We’re one of the top-ten cable advertisers in all different countries. We do very effective and funny ads. You can see a lot of them have had millions of views. They’re on YouTube and make fun of the traditional way of learning and how antiquated it is and we’re representing an alternative. Those ads have become viral every time we release a new one. The last one had millions of views on Facebook. And they become very much part of the culture down in Latin America. It’s a combination of a great marketing engine that we’ve developed together with a great product and word of mouth.
The PIE: How is success measured for students?
AM: You go through the programme and the certificates that are earned along the way. You get a fluency certificate at the end. But it’s a lot of work to get there. You have to get through a number of different level programmes to be able to achieve that.
The PIE: Where did the idea come from?
“We were bringing teachers physically down to Latin America and that was a lot of work because we had to find them, fly them down, train them and house them”
AM: I’m originally from Venezuela, I dropped out of school- I studied engineering for five years- to start a company in the language learning space. We were basically working with global Fortune 500 companies that had offices in Latin America to train their executives in English. So we were doing it by bringing teachers physically down to Latin America and that was a lot of work because we had to find them, fly them down, train them and house them. The first time I used Skype in 2008 I said: ‘Wow this is really incredible, we can have the same level of personal interaction but without needing to have the person to be physically in the same place.’
The PIE: How will your strategy in the US be different from what you’ve used in Latin America?
AM: We’re very excited the US Hispanic market because we’ve seen a lot of organic growth of the business here. A lot of our consumers in Latin America have friends and family that live in the United States, so as a result, business has been growing here without us marketing aggressively. So we thought there’s really a business opportunity here and the potential for great social change if we’re able to carry out our mission of helping Hispanics here in the US reach fluency. Some of the states that are compelling, 68% of working class Hispanic adults have limited English proficiency and one in ten working professionals in the US has limited English proficiency, which is almost 20 million people. So you can imagine what that does to limit their ability to integrate into the fabric of society.
The PIE: Are you going to employ the same humorist approach in the US?
“Some of the states that are compelling, 68% of working class Hispanic adults have limited English proficiency”
AM: Initially we’re going to show the product on TV and show the link to a better job and employability, and then we’re going to continue with our humour after that.
The PIE: What are your goals or expectations?
AM: We’re very excited. We’re now launched in South Florida and from here we’ll take it to New York and the rest of the US. We’re offering the same value proposition, which is that we’re able to bring a native English teacher to your home anytime, anywhere. It’s great to be able to come to the US now and offer a product we’re very confident will transform people’s lives in this community that was so good to us. It feels like a double win for us.
The PIE: How old is your average student?
AM: We’re working with mostly young professionals, 20-45.
The PIE: How does technology development impact language learning?
AM: Technology allows you to get great quality education but at a much lower price. Before you had to pay US$3,000-$5,000 a year to go to Berlitz twice a week to get a native teacher. Now for a fraction of that – $70-$80 a month – you can get unlimited access to a native English teacher.
The PIE: Could you see your model being used in HE or VET?
“For the first time in history you can actually train yourself for the competency even if you haven’t gone to school and that can be a great addition to your career”
AM: There’s a lot happening in this space. I also founded another company called Next University and we’re tackling a similar problem in Latin America with education through English, which is training people to have the tech skills that are required in the work place: web development, programming, social media marketing. It’s all these different things that in 12 months can actually employ you and give you a job if you’re good at it. So for the first time in history you can actually train yourself for the competency or perfect something even if you haven’t gone to school and that can be a great addition to your career.
The PIE: So it’s like online upskilling?
AM: Yes, we’re giving you a real skill.
The PIE: Where does the accreditation for your courses come from?
AM: We’re competency-based and that’s the big thing that’s happening to people. Accredited means that we have to wait two years to have our curriculum accredited in Brazil, for example. The issue is through teaching technology in two years, the technology and the platform has completely changed. We have to renew our curriculum basically every quarter and it needs to be much more flexible, that’s why there’s a space now for competency-based learning that’s not accredited.
If you walk into an employer and you speak Engish that’s all the proof they need. It’s very skills based.