As Ukraine continues to be battered by Russia in an unprovoked war that has sent hundreds of thousands of refugees scattering elsewhere, a language learning startup hatched by Ukrainians has found traction growing outside of the country — and today it’s announcing a round of funding to take its ambitions to the next level.
Preply, which has built a marketplace where language tutors and would-be students of different languages connect for online learning sessions, has closed a round of $50 million. This is a Series C, and Kirill Bigai — the now-Barcelona-based CEO who co-founded the company with Dmytro Voloshyn and Serge Lukyanov — said the startup will be using the funds to continue building the technology that it uses to run the platform, as well as to build out more specialized content for its tutors to use.
Owl Ventures, a specialist VC focusing on education, is leading the round, with past backers Diligent Capital, Hoxton Ventures, Educapital, Evli Growth Partners and other backers such as Przemyslaw Gacek, co-founder of Grupa Pracuj; Swisscom Ventures; and Orbit Capital.
Notably, it has raised about $100 million — $85 million of which has come in the last year; it’s been around since 2012 and has largely grown through bootstrapping. And while it’s not disclosing its valuation, PitchBook data puts the figure at just under $400 million post-money, a figure that the company did not dispute (nor confirm) when I put it to them earlier.
Bigai did note to me that the valuation was definitely at an “up round” compared to its previous raise — $35 million in 2021 — and that generally over the last several years it’s been growing. “I feel lucky that we have a strong business and business dynamics,” he said of the pressures in the current climate.
Preply (pronounced “Prep-lee”) does not disclose how many students it has except to note that they are in the “hundreds of thousands,” and it says that today there are some 32,000 tutors from 190 countries teaching over 50 languages. I should point out that in 2021 it said it had 40,000 tutors, but this is not a sign of the company business shrinking but of it simply tightening up and focusing on quality, as I understand it.
The company, as with most startups, is also fairly unspecific when it comes to talking about revenues: Bigai said it has not given year-over-year figures, but since 2019, he said the company has grown revenues and users more than 10x.
Building on the fact that its user base skews older than some other online learning platforms — the average age is 25-40 rather than students — it’s also been doubling down on a newer B2B2C business line, providing services to companies whose employees need or want to improve their skills in a particular language. Customers for that business include Bytedance (and specifically TikTok), Mercedes and McKinsey, and Bigai noted that this segment of the business has been growing even faster, albeit from a smaller base.
Preply’s germination, and its focus on “live” learning, comes out of the direct experiences of its founders. Bigai told me that he first came up with the idea for the company when living in Boston: he’d relocated from Kiev, having studied English for years in school, to build something. But it turned out that his on-paper knowledge of English had almost no relation to using it practically.
He quickly found a tutor to help him with conversation and learning the language in a more realistic way, and his lessons took place over Skype.