Lang-8: The language learning startup that’s playing the long game

Lang-8: The language learning startup that’s playing the long game

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Lang–8, launched in 2007, is a language-learning platform in which users from different language backgrounds can socially correct each other’s writings.

The CEO YangYang Xi started the service when he was 23 years old while studying at Kyoto University. Xi, born in China and raised in Japan, got the idea of the language-learning platform from keeping a diary, in which he asked friends to correct his own writings (in Chinese) when he was studying in Shanghai.

Six years, half a million users later

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Skip to the present day in 2013, and Lang–8’s user base is about to reach 510,000, with the current active user rate at about 10%. The service is used by people in 190 countries, 70% of them from outside Japan. The primary users are business professionals.

While the 500,000 user milestone is an impressive one, the company took more than a little while to get there. When asked about this six-year journey, Xi says he didn’t experience real growth until about a year ago, and that it took a lot of preparation to reach this point.

Having started his career as a student entrepreneur, the first order of business was research and development. The service needed to expand enough to be profitable. Initially Lang–8’s staff spent the majority of their time on site development and other technical elements. But two years after launch, Xi had a bit of a falling out with his engineer. Abandoned and left alone to nervously face 15 servers on his own, he decided that he couldn’t entrust his work to other people. That moment prompted him to make an effort to learn programming, and in the following two years, he learned development skills by interning at a friend’s company.

Interestingly, this period of personal growth for Xi coincided with strong user growth on the site as well – likely not a coincidence.

In 2009, Lang–8 received an angel investment of about 10 million yen from four private investors, including Nishikawa Kiyoshi of NetAge. In order to raise more funds, he will have to prove that Lang–8 has real growth potential. And that means addressing one key problem: smartphone support. Lang–8′s competitor busuuu experienced sudden growth as an iPhone application, reaching 1,9000,000 users. And while Lang–8′s userbase is not as large, its position as a social network is unique. If solid smartphone support is added, Xi believes it could become a serious competitor.

The other crucial point is monetization. Xi explained several of his ideas for controlling the corrections which play a central role in the service. For example, whether an entry receives corrections can be an issue. About 60% of English entries get corrected, as compared to 80% of entries in other languages. But a paid service could ensure that all entries are corrected. The jump from free to paid is never easy, but if that’s what users are looking for, it may possible.

Belief in an idea

Xi’s six-year journey from a struggling student startup to a community of 500,000 has certainly not been a glamorous one – although his persistence is certainly admirable. But compared to the explosive growth of social gaming and chat services in recent years, Lang–8′s growth rate might not grab the attention of investors.

Even with the recent improvement in user growth, there must have moments when Xi considered throwing in the towel. But he asserts, “I feel it has potential, and that’s why I can continue.” There are several entrepreneuers who are currently supporting him as mentors, and hopefully this can help with his plans to grow and expand his staff in the future.

That kind of unshakable belief in an idea is what has carried him this far. And with any luck, it’ll continue to drive him as he takes Lang8 to the next level.