Chatterbug wasn’t supposed to be a Berlin-based company.
But fast forward to three years after its launch, finishing touches are being put on Chatterbug’s new office in the German capital’s Prenzlauer Berg district. From the looks of it Chatterbug is here to stay.
The language learning app, which was created in 2016 by founders of the US tech unicorn GitHub, provides 45-minute one-on-one online video lessons with local natives for English speakers learning French, German and Spanish. It also provides English lessons to Spanish speakers.
Chatterbug’s four cofounders were living in San Francisco when they started developing the app by together attempting to learn German. They chose German not because of a unanimous taste for Riesling or affinity for Rilke, but because none of them knew it.
“It was the one language that all of us wanted to learn that none of us spoke,” cofounder Liz Clinkenbeard tells Sifted.
Cofounder Scott Chacon, who had unsuccessfully tried to learn French through another app, wanted to develop an effective language learning tool that mimicked face-to-face lessons, kept a progress report and allowed a user to learn at his or her own pace.
“I started writing software to do these things. I hired a tutor, who is now our head of linguistics and curriculum, to start doing the German class for me and using the technology on myself because I didn’t speak any German when we started three years ago. It grew up sort of from that,” he explains. Videos of his sessions are all online.
Chacon, who is now at an advanced level of German, says that Chatterbug “came to Berlin because we had German.” They also understood Berlin’s large expat population would be a good source for beta testing. They hired a few people, took it to market and, even today, its German courses for English speakers remain the most popular.
“The language that we started with dictated the location that we started growing in and then the location led the growth,” Chacon says. “So, I think if we had stayed in San Francisco and tried to build a company in San Francisco it would be a very different company from what you’re looking at now.”
“I don’t think when we started it that we foresaw that it would be a German company or that we would be a Berlin-based company, but that has been where everything’s taken off,” Clinkenbeard admits.
“There’s a large startup culture here that I think is the best in Europe,” Chacon says of Berlin, comparing it to Frankfurt, where banking dominates, and Munich, where it’s the auto industry. “Berlin is this cool, artsy place where startups kind of fit in as this sort of small industry.”
Chatterbug believes its relationship with other Berlin-based language learning apps is complementary, not competitive. Apps such as Lingoda, Tandem and Babbel, which is often viewed as the most successful of the bunch, also have roots in Berlin.
“I think both of us understand the relative strengths and weaknesses of our platforms,” Chacon says, referring to Babbel. “Our best customers are people who have done Babbel until they get kind of to the end of Babbel and then they find us and want to move forward.”
Chacon explains that, with Chatterbug, the expectation is that students are speaking from the first day. That is perhaps intimidating for some people and why Babbel is sometimes a good start, though it is possible to go from zero to advanced with Chatterbug.
But it’s not just Babbel. “I think all of the offerings of the language companies in Berlin are fairly complementary to each other,” Chacon says.
“Our sweet spot has definitely been people that really want to learn how to speak but have tried other language learning platforms and sort of gotten as far as they can with those,” Clinkenbeard adds.
But why are there several language learning apps in Berlin? Chacon thinks it’s a number of reasons, one of which is the growing international population and, as a result, that English is now largely spoken. The Office of Statistics for Berlin-Brandenburg estimated there were 675,210 foreigners living in Berlin last year (Berlin’s total population was 3,644,826 people).
For startups, he explains, the international talent pool with English language capabilities is ideal for most founders.
“It’s good for the startup culture because it means, like us, when you go to hire you can find people from every background. It’s very diverse,” Chacon says, acknowledging that the prevalence of English-language could be “annoying” for locals. Chacon called out Paris where he lived for some time, and described the tech scene as much more difficult to participate in because French is spoken most of the time.
Clinkenbeard thinks that language learning apps thrive in Berlin because she’s observed that so many people, such as the large expat population, have an incentive to learn another language. She also says that being in Europe, where access to various languages is greater, is an incentive in itself.
Further addressing their growth in Berlin, Clinkenbeard and Chacon, who are both American, say it’s been better for them to hire in Berlin as opposed to San Francisco, largely due to Berlin’s international talent pool. For almost every hire they’ve debated hiring in San Francisco or in Berlin. But according to Chacon, for Chatterbug, “It’s almost always more advantageous to hire in Berlin.”
While the founders are based in San Francisco, with Chacon splitting his time between the United States and Germany, Chatterbug currently employs about 27 people in its Berlin offices. “For the most part the company is now a German company,” Chacon tells Sifted.
Chacon was part of the founding team of highly successful GitHub, a US software development platform, in 2008 and left after seven and a half years. Liz Clinkenbeard joined GitHub as their first head of communications in 2012, but after focusing on open source startups for most of her career, she was looking for new challenges. Having studied linguistics at university Clinkenbeard returned to her roots at Chatterbug. In addition to Chacon and Clinkenbeard, the company’s other two founders are Tom Preston-Werner and Russell Belfer.
Chacon wanted to focus on language learning, feeling that it is a “market that is poorly served” and that language is an effective way to build empathy and connections among individuals of different backgrounds. Preston-Werner wanted to build an app that could give people jobs if all they had was a laptop and internet connection (Preston-Werner resigned from GitHub in 2014 for “mistakes and errors of judgment”. Neither he nor Belfer were present for the interview in Berlin).
Chatterbug currently has around 150 teachers for the four languages they provide across 36 time zones. Students who subscribe to the app can schedule classes at any time with different teachers.
Both Chacon and Clinkenbeard say Chatterbug is like GitHub in that it is very product, not marketing, focused. But Clinkenbeard says Chatterbug strays from its GitHub origins in how the company is organised. Explaining that, while GitHub’s flat structure worked when it was a smaller company, it made it much harder to grow and scale. “We made a decision from the beginning that we wanted everyone to have a manager. We wanted clear lines of communication,” Clinkenbeard says about Chatterbug.
Chatterbug’s funding is also mostly founder-led, having closed a Series A round of $8m this past June. “This is what our dream is. This is what we want to do. So we haven’t really been looking to get a lot of outside capital because want to control the company,” Chacon explains, saying it has help keep the funding product focused. Clinkenbeard adds, “It’s so nice.”
Taking on VR
With their new offices and the latest investment round, the Chatterbug team will continue its hiring growth, develop its mobile app further and even test virtual reality (VR) tools in language learning.
They have been hiring a VR team and, according to Chacon, “figuring out what they want that to look like from the point of view of what is possible if you have no constraints.”
“The possibilities for language learning in VR are amazing,” Clinkenbeard says, adding that VR can provide a “no judgment” space for language learners to practice real situations, like ordering coffee at a cafe.
“I feel like language learning is something everybody wants to do, that people are very passionate about and that people are tricked into thinking is easy and not sort of told what it takes,” Chacon tells Sifted.
Anecdotally, Chacon and Clinkenbeard share that they have had English-speaking students of theirs take standardised foreign language learning tests and all passed, scoring particularly high on the speaking components.
For the Chatterbug team the goal is to make learning a second language easier and more motivating. But they also want to make sure it’s effective — and they want to continue doing it from Berlin.
This article was produced by Catherine Treyz in collaboration with Silicon Allee, which supports a community of international startups based in Berlin.