Learning a new language is difficult and time-consuming. Yet, once one does so, one’s ability to appreciate and experience a culture is fundamentally augmented. Whether someone heads to Ibiza for vacation or conducts business in Beijing, being able to speak the native language enhances one’s interactions. Benjamin Dent, 30, and Joon Beh, 29, are two entrepreneurs who have built a platform and community called Hallo to democratize English language learning.
Dent recollects, “During my birth, my mom experienced complications that left me blind in my left eye. However, my parents didn’t know until my kindergarten teacher expressed concern when he watched me struggle to find a crayon I dropped. For the next nine years, I wore glasses with a patch covering my strong eye to strengthen my damaged eye, eventually switching to a less conspicuous black contact lens. It was a bumpy and lonely road. From being called 4 eyes to running into walls, this experience endowed me with a new kind of vision: to dream and to create.”
His vision manifested Hallo.
It’s helpful to understand the following question to appreciate Hallo’s goal fully.
What is language?
Some assert language to be humans’ ability to communicate the actual appearance of the world. Others posit language as our attempt to produce concepts that incorporate and reinforce our individual and collective experience within the world. The philosophical debate continues. Yet, one must also consider how humans use language in practice. There is no better example than the Rosetta Stone.
Discovered on July 15th, 1799 by French troops during Napoleon’s military campaign of Egypt, the stele, or stone slab, was a watershed moment for European historians studying Ancient Egyptian civilization. Inscriptions etched into its surface in three different texts: hieroglyphics, Demotic, and Ancient Greek. The critical insight is the three distinct Stone’s etchings reflect the same proclamation. At the time of its discovery, no one could decipher hieroglyphics, but they could read Ancient Greek. Thus, an English physicist named Thomas Young used the Ancient Greek text to translate the hieroglyphics section of the Stone. The Stone’s purpose was to record King Ptolemy V’s decree as the divine ruler of Egypt during the 2nd century B.C. The proclamation’s detailing in three different languages was a consequence of communicating his order to different classes of the population: hieroglyphics for the priests, whose favor Ptolemy wished to gain and secure as he ruled; Demotic (the common language) for the hoi polloi he governed over; and Ancient Greek for his administrators to reinforce the spirit of the text as he reigned. From the Rosetta Stone’s existence and function, one can offer up an answer to the question of the nature of language.
Men ceaselessly try to understand Man physically, mentally, and emotionally as he lived in a particular time and place. Language is Man’s temporal and spatial expression of himself and his relation to others and his environment.
In contrast to examining only Ptolemaic Egypt, humanity’s capacity for travel necessitates the need for language to help comprehend a global world and its myriad civilizations. The barriers between cultures continue to break down as our world becomes more interconnected politically, economically, and socially. However, language has proven to be both an obstacle and a conduit towards integrating oneself among a foreign nation. Dent and Beh saw the chasm between these linguistic worlds and built a bridge called Hallo to connect them. Hallo bills itself as the “future of language learning,” allowing native English speakers to teach users through the startup’s smartphone app. Founded in April 2017, the Provo, Utah-based company has recently raised a $1.4 million seed from Kickstart as the lead investor, with participation from RevRoad and Tamarak.
Dalton Wright, a investment partner at Kickstart, says, “We invested in Hallo to create a space for language learners and teachers around the world to easily connect, form virtual communities and engage in authentic interactions that accelerate the acquisition of language and cultural fluency, all while making new friends and contacts in regions in which users hope to travel, immigrate, do business and pursue their dreams.”
The American Dream served as the fuel for the immigrant’s imagination in fashioning a better life for themselves abroad then and now. Dent’s ancestors heard America’s promise and responded by undertaking the Atlantic voyage towards an uncertain, hopeful future. Deanna, Ben’s mother, retells their family’s American presence rooted in their Italian heritage.
She says, “Ben’s maternal great grandfather, Giovanni Giuseppe Lazzareschi, was born in Camigliano, Italy. He came to America and enlisted immediately in the U.S. Army about 1915. Joining the Army is one way to gain citizenship quicker. He was stationed in France and Germany [during World War I]. He fought alongside his cousin Julius Pacini (from Lucca, Italy) and even saved his life. He received the Purple Heart and other medals (so did Julius). He learned a lot of English during his time in the Army. Once in America proper after the war, he sent for Ben’s great grandmother, Maria Clementina Clotilde Lazzareschi (née Manni), who was born in Lucca, Italy, to come to America, so they could get married. They were very proud to be in America and received their naturalization, so back then, they had to have excellent English skills to pass that test.”
Dent’s great grandparents’ American pride was found in Beh’s family as well, for the latter immigrated several decades later to the U.S. Beh states, “My parents were born and raised in South Korea. The first time my dad saw native speakers was at Yonsei University, which is in the top three universities in Korea. He was walking around the campus one day and ran into two Americans that were Mormon missionaries in Seoul at that time. They started hanging out together, and my dad started enjoying learning about different cultures. He ended up studying at [the University of] Cambridge, where he learned his cool British accent. Later on in 2007, my family decided to move to Utah in the USA, and that’s how my American Dream started.”
In both families’ cases, their ability to learn English was critical to their successful assimilation into American life. The need to adopt the mother tongue of their new country is a timeless challenge for any immigrant. Despite the lack of formal classes and curricula, the Dent and Beh families were able to find their way in a land far, far away from their own. Although they were able to learn English, many immigrants and travelers are not. In America’s current political climate, the country has scaled backcountry’s immigrant-friendly rhetoric and aspirations. The Trump administration has recently suspended the issuing of H1-B visas, which U.S. corporations used to hire highly talented immigrants to work legally. (It certainly does not help matters given the European Union has barred U.S. citizens from traveling to Europe given the the coronavirus surging in America.) While the flame attracting the brightest from around the world to the U.S. has temporarily dimmed, the need for a better way to become fluent in English still burns brightly.
Beh says, “Because of my immigrant background, I’ve experienced and lived through the problem that Hallo is trying to solve for many years. When my family moved to the United States from Korea 13 years ago, I realized what it takes to become fluent and speak like a native speaker. Language learners spend most of their time in textbooks, but the most effective way to learn is by practicing and speaking with real people 24/7. As I listened to Uber’s engineers as a Deloitte consultant in San Francisco, something clicked in my head. ‘Uber for language learning!’ It would be amazing if I could speak and practice with a native speaker via video at the click of a button.” For the next couple of weeks, I couldn’t help but keep thinking about the idea. I started telling my family and friends, and most importantly, I was so excited that I made up my mind to pursue my dream.”
DongChol, Joon’s father, confirms this: “Joon is a boy who does what he wants to do. When he was young, he asked his mom to buy his favorite toy. My wife asked me to buy it for him, but I thought the toy was not worth it, so I didn’t. Anyway, he started asking all day long, day and night, the next day, and so on. How focused he was. I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I ended up buying it for him. From this experience, I realized Joon does whatever he sets up his mind to no matter what. He would do whatever he wants to do.”
There are several problems as one takes a closer look at the challenge of learning a new language. Most English language lessons fail to include the opportunity to practice speaking in an authentic conversation. The standard exercises used in these training fail to approximate any real-world situation when communicating with another in the same language. The cost of such lessons is also a significant barrier. For well-rated programs, their prices run into the hundreds and thousands of dollars. English language studies teaching has stagnated for decades. There is an endless number of academies training pupils a new language in tired, static ways. The most critical problem is the lack of community while learning different languages. Language isn’t solely expressed by yourself, but with others in dialogue. Community reinforces your learning of a new language in ways that individual lessons struggle to recreate. The unsolved problems associated with learning a foreign language reveal a lucrative market in addressing students’ unmet needs.
Dent adds, “When Joon shared the idea of Hallo, ‘Uber for language learning,’ I instantly saw the vision. At that time, I worked on a side hustle focused on building community within mental health. I connected the two ideas and boom – it clicked! Both of us had experienced the ups and downs of learning a new language and living in other countries. The passion and vision we both shared as we mapped out Hallo on a whiteboard in room W210 on BYU’s campus were tangible.”
TechCrunch reports there is a “$60 billion global language learning market” up for grabs. According to the Harvard Business Review, English is the “global language of business.” Given the international scale of business, it is no surprise that efforts to learn English generate the majority of the overall revenue. Adroit Market Research estimates, “the global English language learning market value was around $33.5 billion in 2018.” The projected value of the online learning sub-sector of the overall market is $17 billion by 2027. Duolingo, VIPKid, Babbel, Rosetta Stone, and others are competitors in the market. Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, and Babbel offer multiple languages to study via structured modules and lessons, while Hallo and VIPKid only offers English to learn. VIPKid focuses on native English speakers teaching Chinese students, in contrast to Hallo ostensively cultivating a more diverse user base. Nevertheless, Hallo aims to find a way to stand out among the competition to teach users how to learn English.
Hallo has built a live-streaming learning platform for non-native speakers. Native English speakers host live streams via their startup’s smartphone app to teach English and allow learners to experience cultural immersion from all parts of the world. These live streams consist of multiple users listening to a native English teacher at once. The community that forms from users engaging with one another while learning from a teacher generates more opportunity to practice. Such a digital gathering serves as a retention tool to keep users on the platform. If they make a friend while learning English on Hallo, they will be more likely to continue using Hallo by practicing with others to master their command of the English language. These Hallo communities also function as customer acquisition channels via word-of-mouth. The better experience users have on the platform with their fellow learners or teacher, the more likely they will tell peers who are not using Hallo to download it. The virtuous cycle repeats to create a powerful network effect. Hallo’s network effect emanates from three underlying factors: the proliferation of smartphone technology, the rapid growth of the passion economy, and the emergence of Utah’s startup ecosystem, Silicon Slopes.
Dent says, “The timing couldn’t be better for Hallo. A lot of our users are coming from outside of the United States in areas like South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Our plan is to dominate in the English market where there is a big opportunity. We focused first on English. It is such a valuable language to learn. It’s essentially currency and in someways a degree/passport to new opportunities. Then, our plan is expand into other languages. Also, there couldn’t be a better time and opportunity to democratize language learning through technology. One of our initiatives, The Language Summit, aims to bring language learning community together and innovate as the future is shaped through modern day technology. In the words of our fans, Hallo is “uniting people under one roof” through language.”
Beh adds, “Utah’s startup scene has been in the news lately, and the state of Utah has done a lot in recent years to position itself as one of the main hubs for tech companies in the United States, if not the world. We are getting tremendous support from fellow entrepreneurs and startup communities in Utah, and we are proud to be part of Silicon Slopes.”
Hallo claims that they have been able to 50x their growth without spending any additional capital on marketing. The cofounders also state that they have over 700,000 registered users, with an average of 15,000 new students signing up per week and daily user engagement of roughly thirty-five minutes. The startup’s strong user growth with minimized spending reflects a sound, capital-efficient business model. Hallo has three key revenue streams: live streams ($5/mo), private lessons ($14/mo), and premium features ($5/mo). The startup claims its competitively- priced three-pronged strategy has resulted in a 50% month-over-month revenue growth. Hallo’s product offerings differentiate them from their competition while allowing for durable unit economics. Dent’s and Beh’s respective talents combine to build upon Hallo’s successes so far.
Dent’s and Beh’s blended, unique skillset give Hallo a chance at being the de facto language English learning platform for non-native speakers. Both cofounders graduated from Brigham Young University. Dent and Beh earned their undergraduate degrees in Psychology and Accounting, respectively. Dent previously worked at Workday in their Account Development department before Hallo. Beh worked at Deloitte for a year before leaving to start Hallo with Dent. Their ability to recruit capable software engineers to complement their sales and operations experience is critical to their success. Language binds humans to each other and their environment. The existence of language implies a shared destiny.
The future of language learning is broadcast one Hallo at a time.
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