Duunokid, a language education platform built by University of Chicago alumnae Monica Chang He, came in 2nd place in the inaugural Alumni New Venture Challenge. I sat down with CEO and founder Monica Chang He and CTO A. Adesina Lalude to learn more about how its reaching millions of Chinese families seeking multilingual education.
I was hooked to the Duunokid presentation at the University of Chicago’s Alumni New Venture Challenge (ANVC) within the first 30 seconds. It wasn’t just the cute video of a Chinese toddler named Yoyo that spoke to my emotions, but the fact that Duunokid’s language platform is filling a market void in China, one of the world’s largest markets, with a growing middle class willing to spend. Duunokid is an online language education platform for children under the age of 12. Built on the lab-tested “Duuno Methodology”, its curriculum is based on short duration, high frequency, one-on-one lessons with native speakers. We can’t remember how we learned our native tongue, right? Duunokid aims to simulate the language learning experience of how we learned our native tongues by connecting children at very young ages to native speakers. I’m sure we have all heard that there is a critical period in a child’s life for learning languages. In fact, this is much earlier than we originally thought. New research now shows that babies begin producing speech like sounds as early as 7 months and some other studies even indicate that the process of language learning happens even in the womb.
High frequency and learning from a native speaker on a one-on-one basis are key. When you were a baby your mom spoke to you everyday and that’s how you absorbed the language.
– Monica Chang He, Founder & CEO
The company is the brainchild of Monica Chang He, who came to the U.S. for the first time to pursue her undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago. Unlike her clients, she didn’t start learning English at such a young age, but discovered a love for languages in college. Having studied abroad during her time at University of Chicago and eventually working abroad after getting her MBA, she embraced the importance of multilingualism in today’s global business environment. It was while pursuing her PhD in linguistics in Hong Kong that Monica discovered the keys to learning foreign languages effectively and decided to test out her methods with other families.
Language Education in High Demand Among the Chinese Middle Class
Duunokid lesson in action
Duunokid is capturing two emerging market dynamics: 1) The rising Chinese middle class and their high willingness to pay for education and 2) Increased demand for western education, specifically effective foreign language education.
With 76% of China’s urban population expected to be in the middle class by 2022, that’s over 550 million people (and approximately 183 million households). What’s more compelling is that this growing middle class is spending – a lot – on education. A survey conducted by the China Institute for Educational Finance Research shows that spending on preschool and primary education reached 1.9 trillion yuan (USD$ 296B), accounting for 2.48% of the GDP in 2016.
While my parents’ generation only began studying a foreign language in college, or simply in order to prepare for the TOEFL exams if they wanted to study abroad, the current generation of kids is being exposed to English almost as soon as they can walk. As education in China is moving towards multilingualism, parents are seeking a wide range of resources to teach their children English and other foreign languages. Ranging from books, online courses, in-person classes, one-on-one tutoring, to TV shows and games, Chinese parents are desperate for native speakers and results. In fact, many parents are willing to pay for expensive international schools. Today, approximately 60% of children enrolled in China’s international schools are Chinese citizens, demonstrating an increased demand for Western education in China. However, language education options are limited depending on location, with varying degrees of success. Many are forced to cope with sub-par methods like plopping their kids in front of the TV, hiring expensive tutors/nannies, or sending their kids to overcrowded language classes.
Agile Product Development is Key to Duunokid’s Success
As a mom herself, Monica faced the same struggles that other parents in China faced when attempting to raise a multilingual child. With a hypothesis that the way toddlers learn their mother tongue can be replicated for the foreign language education process, Monica sourced a focus group to try out her method. Starting with leveraging her American friends as initial teachers, Monica called the project “American moms tell stories.” Each 15-minute session would start with greeting and chatting between teacher and student, followed by a song or story that taught kids new vocabulary, and ended with goodbyes. Taught through a live video chat platform that allows student and teacher to see both each other as well as a 3rd section of the screen with class content, Monday through Thursday classes introduced new content, while Friday was set aside for review. When the parents in her 2-week trial program begged for more lessons and began purchasing year-long or even two-year long subscriptions, Monica knew she had developed something special. The Duunokid team has been able to evolve the curriculum and method of delivery using a rapid prototyping method. Monica and team follow the lean startup philosophy. Thus, they are less concerned about delivering a perfect version of the product because they know that their passionate customers will give them valuable feedback; if the team can quickly implement changes, they can create a product customers love and as a result, a sticky customer base.
You don’t get useful feedback from free trials.The best feedback comes from paid users – they want to get their money’s worth and care about the outcomes.
– Monica Chang He, Founder & CEO
In addition to delivering foreign language education, Duunokid is also proud to offer flexible employment opportunities. Recruiting many of their language teachers on platforms like Upwork and university campus job postings, they attract individuals who love teaching and want to earn supplemental income through a job that offers flexible hours. Currently, because the majority of students are in China and teachers are in the US, the time difference actually allows teachers to engage in lessons before the start of their formal work day, or for Spanish and French teachers in Europe, during their lunch breaks. The student and teacher referral networks have been strong since Duunokid’s launch, bringing the cost of acquisition of both sides of the platform down. Education blog posts and social media platforms, especially Wechat in China, have also been crucial free sources of customer acquisition.
Facing Fierce Competition and Planning for Global Expansion
Monica and Adesina with 4 Metcalf Interns from the University of Chicago, who will join Duunokid this summer in Shenzhen. From left to right: Nick Ding, Victor Ooi, Allen Hu and Angie Guo.
Of course Duunokid is not the first or largest language learning platform in China to capitalize on this huge opportunity. VIPKid, DaDa, and 51Talk are the leading English as a second language platforms in Asia. However, no competitor targets toddlers specifically, when language learning is most crucial. Furthermore, these companies primarily focus only on teaching English, rather than offering multilingual options. Starting out with only offering English on the platform, Duunokid has also recruited Spanish and French teachers as well to meet demand for multilingual education. It of course plans to add Chinese teachers in the future, as it seeks to expand into the US and Europe – another differentiation compared to competitors.
In addition to securing 2nd place in the University of Chicago 1st Annual Alumni New Venture Challenge (winning $30,000), Duunokid has also received 500,000 HKD (~$64,000) from Cyberport Hong Kong and 400,000 RMB (~$60,000) from the Shenzhen government for innovation in the region. It’s leading competitor VIPKid (valued at $3B USD) has raised investment from Tencent, Coatue Management, Sequoia Capital, Sinovation Ventures, Yunfeng Capital, among others. If its success has any indication on the potential of Duunokid, the future looks bright.