Picking you up where Duolingo drops you off
Fluento wants to get you speaking like a native
PreSeed Now brings you an in-depth profile of a different B2B or deep tech startup every Tuesday and Thursday. Subscribe to get it straight to your inbox.
Is there room in the language-learning space for a newcomer to stand alongside the mighty Duolingo?
Today’s startup believes so, and they’ve got a completely different approach to that of the big green owl, and they see big potential in a B2B offering.
Scroll down to read all about Fluento.
But first! A couple of things you should know:
📰 On Friday, The Information published a interesting (paywalled) long read on increasing US interest in UK tech. I was quoted in it, which led to a higher than usual number of signups over the weekend, so hello if you discovered us there!
⛽️ Fuel Ventures has announced a new £100m fund for pre-seed and seed rounds in the UK.
PS: Just to note that shortly after we published last Thursday’s edition, we corrected the number of companies on Valuechain’s Network Portal. It’s 6,700 - much larger than the 600-700 we initially reported. Apologies for the error.
Have you tried our Startup Tracker?
When we launched the PreSeed Now Startup Tracker, we expected UK-based investors and companies that work with startups would be obvious users. And there are plenty of those, but we’re hearing about some other interesting use cases.
For example, one new signup over the weekend is based in San Francisco and is using it to get a better understanding of the UK startup ecosystem as they consider a move to London. We’re happy to help! [Find out more]
Fluento picks up where Duolingo finishes
When it comes to learning a new language from scratch, Duolingo is many people’s first port of call. But while it can get you started, it’s not so good at polishing your patter so you can have a fluent conversation like a native speaker.
That’s where Fluento wants to step in, with a focus on speaking ability rather than grammar and vocabulary. It’s an approach based on an educational method called CLT: Communicative Language Teaching.
The app pairs users up with someone else from a different part of the world who is learning the same language. Criteria like age and learning level help match users appropriately. The app then sets the pair a goal-driven roleplay scenario such as ordering at a restaurant or conducting a job interview.
The two users then join a video call to carry out the roleplay.
“Along the way we use A.I. to give you tips and suggestions on how to maintain the flow of the conversation,” says co-founder Ido Cohen. “And then after you finish the session, we analyse the entire speech and give you feedback on what you've done well and what you need to do to improve.”
Cohen says the current version of the product is a work in progress. It gives users goals to achieve in the conversation, which they must manually check off, plus a quick translation box for when you’re searching for the right word. After the conversation finishes, A.I. provides feedback on pronunciation and grammar.
As you’ll notice from the images in this article, work is in progress to provide real-time automated checking off of goals in the conversation, and other ‘dashboard’ type features measuring things like the pace a user speaks at.
The story of far
Cohen has a background in product management roles at big companies like Google and Microsoft, and at startups. But before that, he spent a few years working for online language school giant Berlitz, developing conversation-based training programmes for businesses.
“What I learned is that for people outside the UK and US, learning a new language is not about fun, it’s life-changing, it’s about getting a job. And I learned that you can learn a language really, really fast if you're using the right methodology.”
As with many startups we’ve covered at PreSeed Now, the idea for Fluento came to Cohen during the Covid lockdown era. Looking for something to do with the time he was saving by not having to commute into the office for his job, he decided to learn French.
But, coming to it with experience of developing language learning programmes, he found using Duolingo a frustrating experience that didn’t help him make the progress he wanted at the speed he wanted.
So he started to conduct market research, which led him to communities on Reddit and Discord where users were pairing up to help them refine each other’s language skills.
“They were coming out of Duolingo saying ‘I need someone to teach me, I need somebody to practise with, I need feedback’. It was easy to engage with them because they were frustrated about the problem,” Cohen explains.
Inspired by this, he tried a classic market validation trick: make a landing page and waitlist for a service that doesn’t exist yet, and see if people sign up. Within a couple of weeks of advertising it on Google, he says he had 1,000 people on the list.
Deciding to go all in on the idea, he built a basic user matching system in Excel. He then built an MVP that automated the matching but with Cohen providing manual feedback to users after their conversations.
“Everything underneath was me. They didn't have to know and it wasn't really relevant. It was trying to figure out whether this is actually going to work.”
Ready to push forward, Cohen met Jan Vincent Hoffbauer through Y Combinator’s co-founder matching platform, and invited him in as co-founder. Together, they’ve built London-based Fluento into a working beta product with 700 users. Initially they’re focusing on the English language.
“We've helped dozens of users ace job interviews; we've helped them ace proficiency tests like the IELTS; we've helped them with team meetings and public speaking… We've raised their confidence; people are very engaged in the community telling us that.
“And there is a chunk of users who have been on Fluento since day one. They have not left, they’ve stuck to the product.”
While there’s an obvious B2C angle to what Fluento is doing, the startup is exploring a B2B offering, too. It’s early days for this as they only began pursuing it a few weeks ago, but Cohen says two businesses are already on the platform as paying customers.
The model Fluento is developing will see businesses charged per user, with upsells available for features like the ability to customise training scenarios to their employees’ needs.
Business use cases could involve training hotel staff to serve customers who don’t speak the local language, salespeople looking to close more deals, or helping professionals working in internationally distributed teams communicate better with colleagues.
Cohen says a university has signed up for its students, too, pointing to academia as a potentially large market.
Go deeper on Fluento
More on their funding, vision, competition, and challenges: