YongoPal, UW Business Plan Winner, Looks to Cash In on Video Language Lessons—and Some Lessons of Its Own

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university students using our service, so we can connect foreign students with their peers. We’re building some traction at Harvard, Stanford, and University of Washington.

X: How are you different from your competitors, such as Livemocha in the Seattle area?

DB: Most of our competitors are Korean companies. The education culture is such that their classrooms are very teacher centric. They teach toward exams, and it puts the teacher at the center of the classroom. Other learning styles aren’t emphasized in Korea. When it comes to one-on-one English education programs, even when done online, they still tend to use credentialed teachers for those interactions. If you want one-on-one interaction, you’ll be speaking with a credentialed English teacher. That’s how the market is divided. But how valuable is it to speak with a credentialed teacher if you just want to practice your English with a native speaker? Our students have told us that’s not important.

Livemocha is a conversation exchange platform. If you’re a Korean student who wants to practice English, you have to find a native speaker who’s learning Korean. It’s also a very tricky market. In my mind, if a company is approaching this market [English education in Korea], and it’s not the only thing they’re focused on, they’re going to screw it up. The market for English in Korea is very special—they vastly outspend the rest of the world on English education. University students are our niche for now, but adults in Korea spend about $8 billion on private English education.

X: What do you think about Chatroulette (the chat-with-random-strangers site), and how do you screen your customers?

DB: We actually use the same Adobe tool for our service as Chatroulette. It’s a real-time media flow protocol. So the conversations are actually peer-to-peer, not routed through a server. Also you’re cutting out server costs, which makes it really inexpensive to use. I think there could be some educational potential in a service like Chatroulette, if the people using it could be properly screened.

At YongoPal, we have a rating system to let people rate [conversation] partners. To make sure we have the right people in the system to begin with, we’re going to make people use their official university e-mail addresses. Right now, we have to approve them. I look them up on Facebook [for instance]. We make sure they are who they say they are.

X: What is your outlook for the coming year? And will there be a strong mobile component?

DB: The only thing we’d do in mobile is scheduling, given the current technology. In a year, we’d like to hit breakeven, and be profitable by the end of next summer (2011). We hit the summer marketing a bit late this year. This is our opportunity to make sure what we’re making is completely customizable to the needs of our students. This is our opportunity to iterate our model and polish it up. Our first real big push to market will be the fall, for the winter season (mid-December to early March). For “cram schools” and English camps, it’s a big season for private educators.

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