How a startup founder sold his language-learning app for $436 million

  • Busuu is a language learning app named after an endangered Bantu language from Cameroon.
  • The startup was recently acquired by the American company Chegg for 436 million dollars (385 million euros).
  • Its founder, Bernhard Niesner, created a platform where learners are also teachers.

“No dschin wong Bernhard” – my name is Bernhard – this is how Bernhard Niesner introduces himself in Busuu.

Bernhard Niesner named his online language learning platform after Busuu, an endangered Bantu language from Cameroon.

It’s a particular language he wanted to preserve, but there was also a more practical reason behind the choice of the name.

“The name sounds great and the domain was still available for €10,” Niesner said with a laugh.

The startup was recently acquired by the American company Chegg for 436 million dollars (385 million euros).

small beginnings

It all started with Niesner’s interest in languages.

“I’ve always been drawn to faraway places,” he said. “I learned Spanish while in college and spent a semester abroad in Buenos Aires. After that, I backpacked in Latin America for four months.”

“I don’t think I would have survived that trip if I hadn’t learned Spanish in college and Portuguese in Brazil. That’s when the language effect started to kick in. fascinate me,” the 42-year-old said.

Prior to his backpacking trip, Niesner earned a business degree in Vienna and worked for two years at Roland Berger Strategy Consultants in Munich.

“It wasn’t so exciting having to always tell people what to do instead of doing it myself. I preferred to do my own thing,” the entrepreneur explained.

While studying for his MBA in Madrid, he met a like-minded person, fellow student Adrian Hilti.

“Our idea was to enable many people to realize their dreams through languages,” said Niesner.

As their classmates left for high-paying jobs after graduation, Niesner and Hilti rented a five-square-meter office where they worked 12-13 hours a day, unpaid, on an idea for their own business. – a language learning platform for everyone, where people could learn a language quickly. Start-up capital was provided by Niesner’s former job in management consulting and Hilti’s family.

People are afraid when they learn languages

“I still remember very clearly how many hours I spent standing in front of the whiteboard drawing the drawings of what Busuu should look like. And Adrian immediately typed it into the computer,” Niesner said. .

One thing was a priority from the start.

“We realized during our own travels that you don’t learn languages ​​alone. Acquiring a new language on your own, without a community, is like learning to swim without ever having seen water: you have to learn the technique and then be able to try it,” said Niesner.

“But a lot of people are afraid of making mistakes when they speak, of embarrassing themselves. We wanted to build a community where you didn’t have to be afraid and where you could learn directly from native speakers, among other things “, he added.

The solution was obvious. On the Busuu platform, each learner also becomes a teacher by tutoring others in their own mother tongue.

“That way a German hears that an Englishman absolutely makes mistakes when learning German. This then lowers his own inhibitions when practicing a new language,” he continued.

The number of customers grew faster than he himself had expected.

“We realized we had found something that there was a real need for in the market,” Niesner said.

Today, Busuu claims to have over 120 million users worldwide. Half a million customers pay for a premium account that offers language lessons in twelve different languages.

Niesner sees clear benefits in online learning. Busuu uses assessments of over 10 billion data points to design learning courses.

“We know exactly when a user has looked at which vocabulary, and based on this data we can now calculate when this vocabulary is likely to be forgotten again and counter this in advance. The best university teacher does not can’t follow that,” he explained.

Attempts to take over and invest follow one another quickly. Many wanted to be part of the Busuu boom. To date, however, Busuu has only raised more than $18 million (€16 million) in outside capital, which pales in comparison to other European startups with similar balance sheets.

So why the decision to sell to American education company Chegg now?

Niesner and Hilti reached a point with Busuu where they needed massive capital to continue growing, otherwise they would have had to take the plunge to go public. The American online tutoring company came at the right time.

“Chegg gives us access to its own six million paying customers. And still has two billion dollars on the balance sheet after the acquisition. So the plan is to invest heavily in us. For us, it’s a shortcut to other alternatives”, Niesner mentioned.

“Lots of room for improvement”

After the takeover, Niesner will remain at the head of the group and wants above all to drive the expansion in the B2B sector. Currently, Busuu’s clientele includes companies such as Inditex, Massimo Tutti, Adidas, Puma and FC Bayern Munich.

“There is still a lot of room for improvement,” the CEO said.

In addition to his mother tongue, he speaks Spanish, Portuguese and English. He also speaks a little Busuu – “for professional reasons”, so to speak.

However, things are not going so well for the language.

“At the time, eight people in the jungle could still speak Busuu, but today, unfortunately, there are only two or three,” Niesner said.

“We put a lot of audio material online and even had small learning units on our platform to bring the language back to life.”

But interest in learning about Busuu remained low, he said.

“Where’s the next bar?” is something Niesner can also say in Busuu. Maybe phrases like this will encourage more people to learn the language.


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