Verbling: Using Platform Technology to Transform Language Learning

Can an online platform for language learning convince 97% of the current market that prefers in-person, offline courses to switch? If so, how can it become the dominant platform in this space?

Verbling is an online platform connecting people interested in learning a language with qualified teachers.[1] Started in 2011 and backed by Y-Combinator, it now boasts over 1 million users and has attracted qualified teachers of many languages.[2] Different from competitors in the online language learning space who focus on language-learning software, Verbling focuses on the platform connecting people. According to Verbling’s CEO, 97% of the language-learning market is still transacted offline.[3] Can Verbling use its platform technology to draw market share from its biggest competitor – the traditional, offline, in-person courses? If able to do this, how can it ensure to remain the platform of choice connecting language students and teachers online?

Before we address the above questions and see what else Verbling is doing, let’s take a look at how Verbling creates and captures value.

Value Creation:

Verbling’s platform attempts to provide students and teachers with a user-friendly, efficient experience.

Teachers

Teachers must pass a screening in order to be certified to teach – and this certification provides teachers credibility to attract students. Teachers enjoy a flexible work schedule – they can advertise time slots whenever they choose – and they also choose their hourly rate for lessons.

The platform provides each teacher with a review mechanism to establish credibility. They are rated by students on a scale of 1-5 stars after completing a session and these ratings are visible to potential students as they choose between teachers (see image below).

Students

The platform provides an easy interface with instructor photographs, reviews, rates, and schedules visible for fast booking. Almost all instructors are trained teachers and native speakers and sessions provide one-on-one immersive instruction.

Click on the image below to see a zoom-in of the interface:

Value capture:

The commission rate charged by Verbling is around 15% of the selected hourly rate.[4] Teachers can request payment for the remaining 85% on a weekly basis, and this amount is sent via PayPal.

 

While Verbling reported that it successfully attracted 1 million users, it needs to attract 97% of the language-learning market that is still offline. Here are some ideas as to how it might do this:

  1. Marketing/Advertising – making potential customers aware of the platform, focusing on enabling employment in countries across the world, and targeting international cities.
  2. Take advantage of enhanced technology – continue to make the learning experience as real as possible (to compete with in-person offline) by integrating cutting-edge technology into the platform and ensuring teachers have the proper equipment (video quality, sound quality, camera quality, virtual reality, etc).
  3. Value Sharing – provide a more attractive option of employment for teachers than in-person, offline learning centers.

If Verbling is able to gain significant market share, it will then likely have to deal with increased competition as other players will be attracted to a growing market. Here are some ideas as to how Verbling can remain the dominant platform:

  1. Leverage network effects – as Verbling attracts users, more teachers will be incentivized to join the platform, causing more users to join, and so on (indirect network effects). Additionally, I think there are direct network effects for students as well – the more students that use the platform, the more reviews that are logged, enabling students to make a more calculated, credible teacher selection.
  2. Invest in website and platform –students and teachers will be attracted to a quality, easy-to-use website. Verbling needs to continue refining and investing to ensure competition does not leapfrog.
  3. Improve experience for teachers/incentivize them to remain on the platform – I think some of the biggest risks to this model are the teachers. Even though Verbling has taken steps to minimize off-platform transactions, it would be relatively easy for students and teachers to move off the platform after initial connection (to avoid commission). They will need to create incentives for both parties to stay on the platform. Verbling also needs to worry about teachers multi-homing should competition arise in the form of another platform. Doing points 1 and 2 above would decrease incentives to multi-home, but also being aware of any levers competition attempts to pull, and then quickly reacting to it, will also help.

Other news:

In October 2016, Verbling announced that it would pursue an enterprise service, partnering with businesses to provide language lessons. Instead of going from service to platform, Verbling elected to go from platform to service. The enterprise opportunity would be a large and lucrative market, but would also help to build a brand and advertise the platform to many potential customers.[5]

 

[1] www.verbling.com

[2] http://venturebeat.com/2016/10/20/y-combinator-backed-language-learning-startup-verbling-is-going- enterprise/

[3] http://venturebeat.com/2015/07/21/yc-backed-verbling-teaches-its-way-to-2-7m/

[4] http://www.lifeinanewcountry.com/teaching-online-verbling/

[5] http://venturebeat.com/2016/10/20/y-combinator-backed-language-learning-startup-verbling-is-going-enterprise/

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