A nice case of German-style innovation: a paid service that has already collected 20 million subscribers, available on smartphones, tablets and computers. We talked about it with one of the founders

When is the stock exchange listing? We are not thinking about it. A special package of Babbel lessons for children and young people, or courses for companies? No, because we should. A development kit for new third-party apps based on the Babbel service? No.

Welcome to German innovation. The answers of Markus Witte, one of Babbel’s three founders and managing director, perfectly represent the nature of the Teutonic people as applied to one of the most successful start-ups of the last year, which, not surprisingly, is a paid service.

Babbel is a foreign language learning platform available in 14 languages, 190 countries and 20 million registered users worldwide. The cost ranges from 9.95 euros for a month up to 59.40 euros for a year (4.95 euros per month) but the best-selling cut is the quarterly from 19.95 euros (6.65 euros). The first lesson is free, but only that one.

You can’t know the conversion rate between the user who tries and what goes on – Witte just claims that it’s “very high” – but it’s a fact that the service likes and that there are many people willing to pay for an app that really serves something.

But don’t call it a start up, say the manager: the three founders didn’t have the idea during a lunch at a university campus canteen. Everyone had been working for a long time in the technology sector and, among other things, we are talking about a company founded in 2007, with eight years of seniority behind it.

A company, Lesson Nine GmbH, which developed the Babbel translation platform in-house and quickly won a number of awards worldwide. Babbel is an innovative and simple system, available via mobile apps for Apple, Android and Windows Phone devices and via web for PCs. The user profile, lessons and progress are also uploaded to the cloud so that you can access and resume the lesson from any device.

The service uses exclusive speakers and teachers, and is based on strategies and techniques borrowed from the video game industry rather than books and CDs, in fact the product manager is a former gaming industry. But don’t talk about Gamification, Witte points out, rather about Game Mechanics. We proceed to lessons with increasing difficulty and we also interact vocally to treat the spoken part.

Yes, why should Witte and its members chase after a listing on the stock exchange when they grow 100% every year, register 120,000 new downloads a day and can count on a loan of 10 million dollars from an investment fund led by Reed Elsevier Ventures, based not in Silicon Valley but in London? Why should they open their platform to third party development when they can count on a team of 300 people, about half of whom are at home, in continuous growth, who manage the entire development of the service? And why should they build packages for specific user groups when they have a very well-defined audience?

In short, why change something when the machine is perfect? “We made a service that was missing, in the right way – sums up Witte, and for him the interview could end here.

Of course, Lesson Nine over the years has also acted as a successful start-up: in March 2013 he acquired the Californian PlaySay, a social e-learning platform, with the intention of using the collaboration of its CEO to expand in the United States. And now he’s looking for a country manager for the newly opened office in New York, on the opposite coast.

In fact, as early as 2008 he acquired Friends Abroad, an English community of people with a passion for languages. And he only did it to start with a membership base. But – Witte confesses – managing already established communities has proved to be a useless effort, better to start from scratch.

Witte explains the choice to open in NY: to grow in the U.S. market you need to have a local office, you need to understand the market, the American public has different motivations from the European one. It is an advantageous party and, at first glance, may not be interested in learning a language as the world adapts to English. But that’s not the case, says Witte, Americans want to understand and make themselves understood when they go abroad.

And in Italy how is it going? Witte makes use of the faculty to sip the strong answer of the fact that the company is private and is a multinational. The few data that can be obtained concern the reasons for learning, the platform and the preferred languages.

In truth, the data do not distinguish our country from the rest of the world and are quite predictable. The preferred medium is the laptop, for all age groups while the desktop PC likes it as you progress. The fact that the vast majority of Italian respondents claim to use Babbel at home, or however when they can concentrate, indicates that the app is taken very seriously, and it could not be otherwise since you pay.

The main reason for learning is the opportunity to explain and understand on the go but, especially among the youngest, also open up a job opportunity abroad and, especially among older people, maybe just to keep the brain trained or for a simple whim. Finally, Italians prefer German to English, perhaps because Shakespeare’s language they think they have acquired from school heritage.

What’s the latest news from Babbel’s development team? An app for Apple Watch, available in Italy at the arrival of Apple’s smartwatch and that, thanks to a partnership with Foursquare, loads the most appropriate thematic dictionary according to the place where the user is, so as not to load unnecessarily network and smartphone megabytes.

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