American edtech startup EnglishCentral earlier this week announced the acquisition of a Japanese startup offering similar online tutoring for English learners. Langrich will be acquired in a share-swap agreement that sees the Tokyo-based startup’s investors – KLab Ventures and Hitomedia – become minority shareholders in EnglishCentral. According to a KLab spokesperson, it marks the first time that a Japanese startup has been acquired by a larger American one.
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Founded in 2010, Langrich uses English tutors in the Philippines to provide English instruction via Skype. Like its main competitors, Rarejob and DMM, lessons are one-on-one and focus on conversation skills. Langrich users will now benefit from a video lesson archive for web and mobile, as well as EnglishCentral’s speech recognition technology for studying vocabulary and pronunciation.
"We will keep the Langrich brand as our consumer brand in Japan," Alan Schwartz, EnglishCentral’s CEO, tells Tech in Asia. "EnglishCentral will remain the name of the company and the name of the platform that we provide to our global partners, including many leading online learning companies […] in Korea, China, and Brazil."
EnglishCentral, headquartered in Arlington, Massachusetts, boasts more than 100,000 paying users per month. The service is available in more than 100 countries and at over 400 universities across the globe. Perhaps EnglishCentral’s biggest differentiator in the crowded edtech space is its money-back guarantee – the startup refunds 100 percent of a student’s lesson fees if they don’t level up after three months.
Schwartz says that EnglishCentral will retail all of Langrich’s current employees – a total of 260 including teachers. "We’re also adding dozens of teachers a month, and we will not limit teacher hiring to the Philippines going forward," he adds.
The Japanese juku – cram school – industry is valued at roughly US$10 billion. Eikaiwa – conversational English lessons – take a big chunk of that market. With strong internet infrastructure and a population that’s increasingly fond of smartphones, many of those lessons are moving online. That could hurt brick-and-mortar schools, which have already faltered, since online learning is more cost effective for learners. This shift to online has created, arguably, one of Japan’s hottest startup verticals.
"After the Nova implosion (once Japan’s largest physical English conversation school, Nova went bankrupt in 2007), the whole market in Japan stalled, but things have changed in last several years," Schwartz explains. "Rarejob is now public and you can see from their financials they are growing at close to 50 percent in terms of registered users. DMM we believe is growing even faster. They are the main competitors in the online market in Japan that have traction. We grew 90 percent last year in terms of revenue."
Further evidence of Japan’s online tutoring boom could be seen at Tech in Asia Tokyo’s Arena pitch battle last week, where domestic edtech startup Mana.bo took the grand prize.