Online language learning remains a big opportunity for businesses, with the most engaging experiences attracting a rush of interest from consumers eager to get more out of the hours they spend on their smartphones. A language learning app called EWA, which has built a media-based approach to language acquisition, with excerpts from films and television shows, as well as books, to familiarize learners with vocabulary and speaking, has passed 51 million downloads and 3.5 million monthly active users, and has now raised $2.7 million in its first outside funding.
EWA — pronounced “E-vah,” according to co-founder and CEO Max Korneev — has been bootstrapping since its inception in 2018, and it’s been doing well on its own, with a current annual revenue run rate of $32.4 million, based on three tiers of usage charges. (The “freemium” portion of the app is a three-day trial, but it also has a large following on other social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram, where it is effectively a content provider, with millions of users learning languages informally from its posts.) EWA English alone has a following of over 5 million people.)
Korneev said the startup is seeking outside funding to meet the current growth demands as it scales, as well as to hire more engineers to build out features that it has long desired in the app, such as more social elements, gamification hooks, and a wider range of languages than the current list of English, Spanish, French, German, and Italian. Day One Ventures, Elysium, and angel investors, as well as founders and executives from Semrush, Zynga, Niantic, and Zynga, participated in the seed round.
And, according to our sources, EWA is already working on its Series A, a $30 million round that will be raised at a $150 million valuation, with SoftBank among the VCs interested in partnering with the company. (I went out to SoftBank for comment, but Korneev declined.) Duolingo has stolen a march on the online language learning market by making its app extremely sticky: users log in daily to keep learning streaks going and to stay at the top of their leagues, and they connect with people on the app who they may also know in the real world, tapping into natural competitiveness and turning it into habitual behavior.
Up until now, EWA’s distinctive selling point has been how it has used the enormous universe of online media to further its mission. The software allows users to learn by reading well-known books or portions from popular films and television shows, with the hope that their familiarity with narrative threads will help them understand what others are saying. It then uses word games to reinforce that information. The method appealed to me because it was similar to how my family and I learnt English when we first arrived in the United States from Russia. (And yeah, the fact that Korneev is also Russian did not escape my notice.)
According to Korneev, the company made the decision to try something new and more in line with modern times in order to attract a different type of language learner. “If you look at the self-education apps area, a lot of them imitate the dynamics of a classroom, and more especially outdated methologies, but these are just not effective anymore,” he added, noting that according to Duolingo’s own research, only about 1% of individuals complete an online language course. “People want to be entertained,” says the author. When we ask our users why they use EWA, they tell us it’s because it’s fun. We integrate fun and instruction in this way.”
It appears that my family is not alone in using “native media” to study languages: Korneev used this method to learn multiple languages while working in IT. “A lot of startups are formed out of pain, and EWA was no exception,” he explained. “I ended up watching movies with subtitles and reading books with supplementary vocabulary,” he explained. “I saw that others were doing it, and it was helping them progress with a language,” he said, and he quit his job in IT to see whether he could turn his own language learning strategy into a business. Stepan Nikitin, Anton Aleshkevich, and Stas Morozov joined him as co-founders, and EWA was born.