The Babbel founders: Markus, Lorenz, Toine, Thomas
Four years ago, on 15 January 2008, the official beta version of babbel.com went live. It had taken us (i. e. the four founders Lorenz, Markus, Thomas and Toine) eight months to build this first, still limited version of the language learning system. Back then Babbel was an interactive vocabulary trainer with a few community features. That day, we were sitting in our “office”, the front room of a rambling old apartment in Berlin, Kreuzberg, re-loading the page every other minute and were just amazed. Our assumption had sort of been that learning languages online was a concept with a future, but this rapid user growth – we were speechless. By the end of the month about 20.000 people were using the platform. It dawned on us that we must have hit the bull’s eye.
Another reason for that quick growth was that we managed to attract the attention of the right people: TechCrunch, for instance, one of the most important blogs in the whole internet industry, covered our launch – thus introducing us to experts and journalists in no time. Ever since the TechCrunch people from London and San Francisco have continued to report on Babbel news. This wasn’t just considered an accolade within the start-up community, it also helped to spread the word in the rest of the world. We would like to use this opportunity to thank M.G. Siegler, Steve O’Hear, Nick Gonzalez and, above all, Mike Butcher, who is known to generally support the start-up scene in Berlin. It’s their job, of course – it’s just that they are doing it really well.
Four years later, success is still with Babbel. The team continues to grow, the learning system has matured and is being used by so many people – we couldn’t have dreamt this. Last year was the best year in the history of Babbel (fortunately, we have been able to say this every year so far). We start 2012 with a great team, many ideas and quite elaborate plans, and we are looking forward to it. Next Friday we are going to celebrate all of this extensively. We would like to thank everyone who has tried and shared Babbel, with a special shout-out to our customers. Thanks to these people who have realized that it does pay out after all to spend money on an online learning tool, we are able to maintain our team and improve the product.
So we continue to make use of all this to build the best inter-active language learning system ever.
There also is a German version of this post.
What did 2011 bring for Babbel – our users as well as our team?
A whole lot of growth…
The range of courses available has more than tripled – from around 60 to 190 Courses! (And that’s not even including the many subsidiary courses and individual vocabulary and translation exercises in all the different languages!)
In June an exciting project came to fruition when four new languages went online: Dutch, Turkish, Polish and Indonesian. We now offer comprehensive basic and advanced vocabularies in these languages as well as dedicated iPhone Apps.
Our content Team has also developed some new and innovative course formats: e.g. the ‘Music’ course (at the moment still only available for people learning German – our German spokeswoman Tini has recorded new singer-songwriter versions of old folk songs especially for the course), the ‘Love Letters’ course, which works a bit like an online soap opera, and courses for learning numbers in several different languages. And for some languages we now offer a useful course in ‘Idioms’. In addition we have added new lessons to existing courses, and revamped them to make them work even more intuitively.
Users doubled, Customers quadrupled:
The number of people who learn online with Babbel.com has doubled in the year 2011 – from about one million to more than two million. The iPhone Apps have three times as many users as they had at the end of 2010 – also almost two million. At the same time the number of paying customers has quadrupled.
We can also now count whole organizations and companies among our clients, from Hotel.de to an american branch of ‘Doctors Without Borders’, Spellbound Entertainment AG, the day school ‘Sesam’ to the Cottbus Fire Brigade. We produced a course in ‘Railway English’ especially for german train attendants – we just couldn’t listen any more to ‘Senk you for trevelling viz …’! We offered access to this and other Babbel courses free of charge for the staff of major railway operators. It seems however that their train attendants’ English knowledge is no priority: they turned the offer down.
Mobile Apps: more and not just for iPhones
Last year there was quite a lot of activity in the mobile arena. We now have a dedicated Mobile Team, which amongst other things is developing the new Android Apps. At the moment they are still in the Beta testing phase. Unfortunately we had to delay the release as a technical problem meant the App didn’t yet conform to the high standards we demand of our products. We are therefore working flat out on a solution. Anyone who would like to have a look at the Beta version of the App can download it from here: http://www.babbel.com/home/beta-android
At the same time we have developed an App that is optimized for the iPad, which can already be found in the App Store. We haven’t yet trumpeted its release as we first want to find a way to offer its content for free to all Babbel Online users. Sometimes Apple doesn’t make life so easy! We will of course keep you up to date with developments and hope soon to find a satisfactory solution.
Technology: faster and better
The Babbel servers were moved from the USA to Europe. There they are better able to cope with the growing demand on their resources (the daily number of logins to Babbel has quadrupled). As a result of the move they will be able to make Babbel an altogether faster experience. In addition many improvements, large and small, have been made to the learning portal itself.
The team of permanent staff tripled last year: 30 people are now working every day to make Babbel bigger and better. They take care of the course material, the technical side, the mobile applications, customer support, product design and spreading the joyous Babbel message! In addition we work with over 80 freelance authors, editors and translators. Consequently we have had to expand our offices here in Kreuzberg and will be needing even more space this year.
After this fantastic year we are looking forward to the next one full of confidence.
We have big plans; new ideas and exciting projects; and 2012 has already started well – but there’s more to come. Onwards and upwards!
And in this spirit we wish you a Happy New Year!
Two years ago we broke new ground with the release of Babbel 2.0. This was a significant step forward. Instead of Babbel being a platform almost entirely financed by advertisements (with some additional products on the side) we decided to create a high-quality learning portal that would be financed solely through user subscription fees. You can read more on the reasoning and thought behind that decision in my blogpost of November 2009.
The orientation of a product is always determined by those who pay for it. We wanted Babbel’s orientation to be determined by language learners themselves. This ultimately led us to conclude that the transformation of Babbel into a fee-based portal was a necessary step. Nevertheless, we realised what a radical decision this was.
Babbel is very reasonably priced when compared to traditional e-learning products like CD-ROMs (our business model was initially questioned for being “too cheap”). But we benefit from the advantage of not having to press CDs and ship them around the world. While you have to fork out between 80 and 500 euros for most mail-order products, with Babbel language learning costs only a few euros each month. Despite this,
In November 2009 Babbel had 500,000 registered users. Today the number of people using Babbel, both online and on smartphones, rose to over 3 million. This proves that many people are willing to pay for high quality courses, even if they are online-based. In the past six months alone, our customer base has more than doubled. The numbers speak for themselves. Some of our users are so motivated that they take an active part in Babbel’s development by acting as beta testers. They continue to inspire us with their feedback and I would like to take this opportunity to thank these users for their dedication. You contribute greatly to the success of Babbel and to the ongoing growth of the team and its products!
In the meantime, six new learning languages and two new interface languages have been added to Babbel. That means 20 possible language learning combinations have turned into 70! In addition to just studying vocabulary, you can now choose from a broad range of integrated courses: from the beginner’s course for those with no prior knowledge, to the more challenging refresher and grammar courses; from idioms and tongue-twisters to numbers and “Denglish”. With new music courses coming up, and many others in development – that’s hundreds of courses in various formats covering a wide range of topics.
In the technical field, Babbel has also made giant leaps forward. We’ve developed and introduced, for example, a real-time browser-based speech recognition tool that doesn’t need to be installed and that helps you perfect your pronunciation. With the introduction of eleven iPhone apps (downloaded by over 1.5 million users!), you are now able to learn and practise vocabulary on the go.
The Babbel Team 2011
2011 has been the first year since Babbel was founded that we have been able to pay salaries solely from our earnings. In other words, our company is now stable and can continue to grow self-sufficiently.
Our new office in the Kreuzberg area of Berlin is now home to 30 permanent employees – three times as many as there were only a year ago – and that’s not counting our pool of over 60 freelancers. That makes a total of almost 100 people working on content development, translation, technical development, and support. (We are, by the way, still looking for specialised staff in several departments. Read more!)
We count ourselves lucky in that we have forged a team of exceptionally motivated and gifted people. This makes working at Babbel fun, which, of course, has a direct impact on the product itself.
We now have a development team working specifically with mobile apps. At present, they are working on new apps for Android and iPad. These are all due for release later this year with more mobile offers to follow next year.
A highly-skilled specialist from Norway is now working on further improvements to Babbel’s speech recognition tool and on ways of implementing more voice-controlled exercises. Furthermore, specialists from AI research, cognitive science, and the many linguists and teaching experts who surround me are all using their knowledge to develop even more new features and content. These include new course formats that cater to the requirements of specific career profiles, changes to the platform itself and, last but not least, completely innovative approaches that will change the learning experience with Babbel profoundly.
We really do have a lot in mind for the future – so everybody stay tuned!
Read this post in German (Deutsch)
The European Award for Technology Supported Learning (eureleA) is a prize awarded once a year for “outstanding examples of teaching and learning through digital media”. The jury had more than 70 submitted projects to choose from – and we’ve won. The eureleA prize for the “Best Technical Implementation” has gone to Babbel.
Technical implementation doesn’t just refer to technology. Emphasis was on innovation, user-friendliness and standards. The jury named Babbel as “an example for usability and applied learning”, and a prototype for how “conventional learning systems can be made more mobile, flexible and user-friendly”.
We’re especially happy to hear this, because it describes a challenge we face every day: how to be innovative and user-friendly at the same time. It’s not enough just to have new ideas, and it’s not enough to technically implement them. We’ve created Babbel for people. We think people from all over the world, from different cultures and generations should feel at home using Babbel. Someone who wants to learn a new language doesn’t want to have to read the instruction manual first.
We are proud of this prize. The eureleA 2011 is an incentive to continue making our conviction a reality: it’s easiest to learn a language when you’re having fun.
This post in German
We’re proud to announce that the magazine Mac Developer, INTERNET WORLD Business and iPhone & Co. have named the Babbel App as Germany’s best in the Business to Customer category! Lufthansa and Floop made the second and third positions.
Urs of Aspirement accepting the award
At last week’s iPhone Developer Conference in Cologne, a jury of four tech journalists was impressed by Babbel Mobile’s overall concept and user-friendliness. What particularly caught their attention was our unique speech recognition feature that encourages learners to practice their pronunciation on-the-go. The app was created in cooperation with a startup of young developers, Aspirement. It’s a perfect addition to the Babbel online learning system.
And the jury is not alone, it seems. By now 250,000 people have downloaded the app and it made it to second place in France for the favorite app in any category. 3000 words and a basic and advanced vocabulary for English, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, German and Swedish come in handy anywhere. Download the app here.
There might have been more than a few raised eyebrows last November when we at Babbel decided to move away from our known Freemium model. We were forging into unknown territory; we got a lot of feedback saying that it was “daring”, “dangerous”. But now the verdict is in – the switch to a pay service has been a resounding success. The change has brought in a committed cadre of learners happy with Babbel’s usability, efficiency and overall quality. It shows that our concept works. (more…)
“Free” is the most important keyword on the World Wide Web. It implies “free of charge”. Babbel has been “free” in this sense for almost two years. More than 500,000 users have registered for the platform. Now, with the release of Babbel 2.0, we start charging. Why? Might this seem unfair? Shouldn’t the internet – and education in general – be free for all? So many other sites seem to show that this model works.
Our plan, in fact, was to partially finance Babbel with advertising. We intended to provide a “freemium” product that would have a basic version that was public, while providing additional premium content for those who might want to dig deeper. But now we see this just doesn’t work. It simply is not possible to build a high-quality online learning environment while simultaneously selling ad space effectively.We tried to bring these two objectives together. But ultimately we had to accept that a business model appropriate for social networks and news services is plain wrong when applied to online education.
Babbel is now one of the first online services to decisively abandon this antiquated idea of “free”. We certainly still want to make the world – or at least the internet – a better place, but we no longer think that we can do so using online advertising. In this (admittedly epic) blog postI’d like to give some background about our decision and some words on some related, internet-wide changes.
Free as in “Free Sharing” or as in “Freebie”?
The internet does provide a number of highly valuable things for free. Software such as the Linux operating system or the Mozilla browser belongsto this category, as well as some online encyclopedias and communities. It’s wonderful how many useful things you can find onlinethat are absolutely free. This is thanks to a combination of internet technology, on the one hand, and the selfless dedication and idealism of a great number of people all over the planet on the other.
But beyond these truly free services, there are a great number of websites, as well as search engines, freemail, and a good portion of online dictionaries and social networks, that are sponsored by ads. In contrast to Open Source software and Creative Commons, where developers and authors often work for free, ad-sponsored services are designed to make money – and they do.
What’s Wrong with Ads?
Of course, making money is not necessarily a bad thing. But ads can have drawbacks for users of these sites, some of which are obvious and some of which are not so apparent.
The most striking downside of advertising is the ads themselves. They have to attract attention, so they are flashy. They are constantly evolving to keep us from becoming immune to them. The objective is consistently to draw our attention away from other things like news or blog posts and to make us read, click and interact with more ad content and, ultimately, buy a product. Advertising’s main strategy is interruption. And interruption is what we at Babbel are trying to avoid.
Yet another aspect of online ads is that they don’t have to get everybody’s attention. They can focus on a specific target group. So besides making ads more attractive, promoters and engineers are working to “target” them to those who are most likely to respond (i.e. to buy). To do this, user data has to be collected, processed, and analyzed. This data analysis doesn’t harm people per se, but more and more internet users want to protect their privacy andare justifiably feeling uneasy about it. I must admit I feel a bit uneasy myself when I see how much it is possible to know about the users of your website when their personal data is what you’re after.
But there is another, more insidious, drawback of ad-sponsoring that is less visible to the naked eye: the true customers of these ad-sponsored services are not the users but rather the advertisers. And as everywhere else, the Customer is King. This means that these services are not optimized for the best use–value but for the best click–rates and advertising revenue. Of course, users need to be brought back to the website somehow in order to see the ads and to click on them… but that is just a means to another end.
These downsides of ad-sponsoring are especially problematic in a learning application. If we want to build a new kind of learning environment that really works, we simply cannot let the learner’s attention consistently get drawn away. We don’t want to spend our engineering resources on ad targetting, but rather on improving the Refresher and Recommendation systems. Most of all, we need our customer to be the learner.
Our idea is to create a new kind of online learning system that adjusts itself to the needs of the learner and makes it easy to comprehend new subject matter without too much effort. This has yet to be done successfully, and we have no real role model we can emulate or by whom we can “be inspired”. It’s pioneering work, and it requires expertise to be constantly rethought and redone.
To significantly improve our service and to approach that user–centered learning environment we’re dreaming of, we’ve put together an extensive team of professionals from different disciplines. Software developers and internet specialists work side by side with more than 20 teachers and language experts. Simultaneously, we are striving to make this complex application easy to use and more or less imperceptible behind the content.
So yes, Babbel 2.0 is commercial. This means that we want to – and have to – make a living from of it. We’ve got some financing and loans, but ultimately, wehave to pay our own bills. And it seems that advertising is the wrong way to do this.
Because we deliver Babbel over the internet and don’t have so many variable costs per user, we can keep the price relatively low. Instead of charging more than a hundred Euros per product, as many learning software companies do, Babbel goes for a price of €4.95 to €8.95 per month. That’s affordable for anyone who wants to learn a new language. Also, we make it a point to have fair conditions. There are no hidden costs or implicit commitments. Users can cancel their membership at any time without any unpleasant surprises.
Internet Beyond the Advertising Industry: Will this be Web 3.0?
It’s clear that we are breaking a taboo. Many internet users think that all online services should be free. A lot of them will be angered by our change in strategy. But we’re convinced this will be the best way. As a matter of fact, we think it brings with it a lot of exciting opportunities.
As the internet plays an increasingly important role in all our lives, unreliable quality becomes more and more of an issue. If we use the internet for our basic everyday needs, we can’t afford to waste time comparing and verifying information and stitching together our own services. We need quality delivered steadily and without distraction. Again, this is especially true for online education.
This is why paid services have a great future. The demand for high-quality services and providers who don’t monetize user data is rising. After the huge wave of ad-sponsored “Web 2.0” websites, these new business models might be the core of what could be “Web 3.0.”
Paid services are particularly advantageous for small providers and start-ups because you don’t need to reach a “critical mass”. You can survive on the subscriptions of your customers, even if you have a comparably small niche market. That’s why this potential Web 3.0 could be more diverse – and less monopolistic – than what we see now. Babbel 2.0 is one step in that direction. We hope that many users take that step with us.
Babbel is changing – for the better. With the just-announced funding of one million Euros from the EU’s European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the State of Berlin, we have plans to expand through 2011 in technology and content. This means new and improved vocabulary packages, Beginners’ Courses, grammar lessons and an even better learning experience. The funds will be complemented by 200,000 Euros of our own.
In contrast with various other online learning platforms, Babbel.com is completely ad-free. The idea is to keep up the quality of the content with an eye to Babbel.com’s 500,000+ users, and not to advertisers. Not exceptionally in the world of young internet companies, up until now our earnings have been significantly less than our expenses. With the help of venture capital and the appeal of a completely revamped platform, we’re looking toward a unique and exciting new future for language learning on the internet.
After being selected in the short lists in two categories for the TechCrunch Europas awards, Babbel was “highly commended” in the category “Best Design”. We’re very proud, especially because we didn’t ever think of Babbel as eye candy. Instead, we try to keep the user interface clean and simple.
Babbel’s up for “Best European Web Application or Service” and “Best Design” at TechCrunch’s award The Europas. TechCrunch wants to determine the most innovative tech companies and startups across Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Voting closed on Wednesday, July 1st so let’s see what the results are. Thanks to all who voted for Babbel!
Update July 6th: Babbel made it into the shortlist in both categories, “Best Design” and “Best Web Application Or Service”. Thanks to everyboy who voted!