Gavin Dove, CEO and Co Founder of a Canadian based startup, Fluent which aims to help language learners achieve language fluency has been a builder for as long as he could remember.
“Building was my joie de vivre,” he says over Zoom from Canada, as he nostalgically recollects cutting through tangled brambles and thorny shrubs as a child, armed with enough plywood to build a fort.
His parents, though, had preordained plans for his future. As Hong Kong and British-Ghanaian immigrants, they valued two things above all else – “a good education and a good job”.
The career plan for him was to become a medical doctor after a mechanical engineering degree. So off he went to McGill University in Quebec before enrolling in medical school.
Once there, he could rarely be found in classrooms, though. When he wasn’t calculating which assignments he could safely discard without failing, he was on the school’s robotics team building Bhumi – a Mars Rover Project designed to compete in the European Rover Challenge. When McGill beat 40 other teams to win third place, a fire was lit. “This time, that feeling of building was intoxicating,” Mr Dove says. “After that, I don’t think I could ever go back to classes and a normal career.”
So, with his plans of becoming a doctor jettisoned, Mr Dove went on to co-found an intelligent transit start-up with a classmate from McGill. However, this didn’t work out and he soon bowed out of the company, landing him back at square one: brainstorming start-up ideas with a group of friends.
“We thought it would be fun to only come up with bad ideas,” Mr Dove says.
He spent a lot of time surfing the internet and was intrigued with the fact that some people spent a sizeable chunk of their time learning new languages through Google Chrome. After realising they could be nurturing a winning idea, Mr Dove and his friends – Olga Sanchis, Yaniv Silberman and Ara Ghougassian – teamed up together as co-founders to enter a two-day hackathon where they built a minimum viable product. The early version worked by scanning the text of websites users were on and translating select words into the language they were trying to learn.
“By the end of the hackathon, people were telling us they would pay for Fluent if it was a real product. That’s when we knew we had to go all in,” he says.
Fluent made its debut on the edtech scene earlier this year, just as the EdTech space was beginning to shake off years of neglect. The shift to remote learning has played a large part in pulling e-learning initiatives to the forefront of where venture capital is being deployed, with private investors pumping $1.68 billion into EdTech companies so far this year, according to TechCrunch. Online learning platform Coursera also raised $510 million after its float on the New York Stock Exchange in March valued the company at $4.3bn.
As a Canadian start-up outside the reach of Silicon Valley, Mr Dove and his co-founders had to get creative to gain early traction. The team’s first 1,000 users came off the back of a semi-viral tweet that Mr Ghougassian – Fluent’s self-described ‘chief cheerleader’ – sent out on a whim in May last year aimed at the language learning app Duolingo saying it was gunning for the popular language learning app.
The tweet attracted the attention of angel investors who backed the project financially. “A lot of our angels are people who’ve scaled start-ups before, so it feels like we’re getting paid to learn from them,” Mr Dove says. “Like an inverse MBA.”
Fluent currently has over seven thousand users and a grand expansion plan.
the Fluent team has no shortage of wisdom to draw on. Mr Dove says what differentiates Fluent in an overcrowded market worth almost $21.2bn, according to a study by Meticulous Research, is its mission to flip the language learning model on its head.
Most language learning apps on the market today rely on gamification, he says. Gamification can be fun, with meme-type mascots, progress bars and streaks creating the feeling of playing a more productive variant of Angry Birds that nudges you towards bilingualism.
Fluent’s area of focus is on developing a high-quality, embedded learning experience that etches deeper than gamification and quick-wins, Mr Dove says. As a testament to this, giving users the chance to repeatedly test their mastery of words in the context of what they’re doing is just as core to the Fluent experience – and for Mr Dove, more powerful – as learning new words is.
The Fluent team is also taking a deliberately slow-burn approach to introducing new languages beyond their current offering of French, Spanish and (soon) Italian.
Like Grammarly and Honey, Fluent exists solely in the realm of Chrome extensions – which is a deliberate strategy.
“You can access everything through Chrome: Spotify, Netflix, emails, articles,” Mr Dove says. “In the future, we want to be able to auto-dub video content on Netflix, or even say to users – you should listen to this French song on Spotify because you’ll be able to understand 80 per cent of the words.”
Chrome should therefore act as a built-in gateway that opens the door to other mediums in the future, he says. “If we do our job right, our users will wake up one day, their entire (digital) lives will be in the language they’re learning, and they won’t even bat an eyelid.”
For now, though, Mr Dove is still excited by the small wins.
“The other day I saw the word ‘rifle’ in French etched on the side of a building, and that’s a word I learnt on Fluent two days prior. It felt so incredible; I almost jumped up and down.”