Verbling began as the Chatroulette, or a speed-dating version of language learning. At one point it was hailed as the best free software you’ve never heard of, and one of 150 brilliant new things you must try online. It competes with ventures such as Livemocha, Voxy, PlaySay, Duolingo, and Busuu. This venture continues to use video chat to connect language learners with live native speakers – basically virtual language immersion. The venture began as a site that paired people up according to language and experience level. For example, a Spanish speaker wanting to learn English will be randomly paired with an English speaker learning Spanish, and they would take turns exchanging in conversation. The venture has since expanded into live tutoring services, and classes delivered through video chat. It appears the emphasis of the site has since transitioned to selling subscriptions for the online classes and tutoring services.
Jake Jolis founded Verbling in 2011 with two fellow Stanford classmates. Cofounder Mikael Bernstein realized that his Russian improved when studying abroad and speaking it every day. Then, like many others learning a new language, finding language partners back home proved to be a struggle, which led to the idea to use the Internet to connect language learners with one another. Jolis subsequently dropped out of Stanford after his sophomore year to build Verbling when Y Combinator funded the startup. He raised his first round of funding at age 20, and his second at 22. Jolis also sits on the advisory board of GuestDo. Jolis speaks Swedish, French and Spanish.
I think in its original form, this was a brilliant idea, and an attractive investment opportunity for a venture capitalist seeking large returns. It had the potential to get users talking and engaging enough to actually make progress with language attainment, because it was easy, spontaneous, non-threatening and fun. The new iteration, focusing on online classes and tutoring, fails to set itself apart from the myriad other virtual language learning ventures out there. In fact I was not able to locate the Chatroulette feature, which was was the unique aspect of the venture. This has apparently become an afterthought or is no longer an option.
The multi billion dollar language learning market will be disrupted by the solution that solves the problem of engagement. Educators understand the importance of engagement and immersion. I have personally tried many language learning solutions including Rosettastone software, university classes etc., but I found that the most beneficial has been one-on-one, or small group engagement with fluent speakers. I believe the venture that somehow captures this engagement problem in a fun, easy, spontaneous and unobtrusive way will gain the critical mass required to succeed and own the market.