YC alumnus Fluently’s AI-powered English coach attracts $2M seed round

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There are a lot of resources for learning English, but very few for people who are almost native English speakers and still want to improve their fluency. This description applies to Stan Belyaev and Yuri Rebrik, and it’s what inspired them to create Fluently.

Using AI, Fluently acts as a coach that gives users feedback and suggestions on their spoken English. This makes it similar to ELSA and its AI speech tutor, as well as online and offline one-on-one coaching solutions, but with the difference that Fluently is creating its feedback from listening to the call.

Users can record and transcribe real-life calls with Fluently, for example when using Zoom for work. However, there is also the option to practice with an AI coach – either “Ryan” for daily chats or “Kyle” for mock interviews, which is often the preference for foreign candidates hoping to get a job that requires advanced English speaking skills, as is often the case.

While they’re scratching their own itch, the pair estimate that there are 84 million non-native workers who work in English-speaking environments. It’s hard to say how many of these people would like to be more easily understood, but it’s arguably a big niche, a growing field, and a much less crowded field than ESL as a whole.

Fluent Feedback Card
Image Credit: fluently

This potential market helped Fluently get into Y Combinator’s Winter 2024 batch, and close a $2 million seed round with participation from Pioneer Fund, SID Venture Partners, and individual angels even before Demo Day.

It also doesn’t hurt that Fluently relies heavily on the tech side of edtech. Rebrik told TechCrunch that three of its distributed team of four are engineers. With a shared background in machine learning, he and his former university roommate have the kind of track record that excites VCs these days, including internships at Amazon, Google, and Nvidia.

It may be surprising that none of them are teachers, let alone experts in pedagogy. But building a product they themselves need gives them an edge. For example, they know that people who already speak fairly fluently are more interested in a solution that can be used in the background, and only draws their attention to the issues that need to be addressed.

Another thing is that Fluently wants to be a one-stop-shop for better speaking skills. Instead of pronunciation, its goal is comprehension, and it includes improving pronunciation, grammar and speed, as well as expanding vocabulary. Rewriting advice like that offered by Grammarly or Ludwig for writing could be another addition, Rebrick said.

In its current, beta form, Fluently is obviously still in its early days, and not immune to crashes. But for users who don’t mind sharing their credit card details to try out its free trial, it already gives a strong sense of what it can achieve. For example, I learned how to pronounce “computer” better, which could be quite useful when working in tech. At least for some people, this could be worth the $25 Fluently charges per month.

Fluent - Computer Pronunciation
Image Credit: fluently

There is still a page that Fluently could take from Duolingo, to help users correct their mistakes and track their progress in a gamified way. This is usually important to help people stick to their goals, and motivation to learn a language fluctuates. But instead of learning holistically, it wants to leverage technology to focus on the user’s specific difficulties in going from almost fluent to fully proficient.

One concern with personalization can be privacy, especially with an app that runs in the background and has mic access. For this reason, Fluently emphasizes telling users during onboarding that their privacy is guaranteed, with locally stored audio, encryption, and data secured from third-party providers. Later, the startup notes that “data sent to third-party AI providers for transcription is anonymized, and not used for training.”

Rebrick said some of these things are made possible by the recent release of Apple Silicon. This ties in with another limitation of the beta version: it’s only available on macOS. However, Fluently is already building a waitlist of users who will get notified when the Chrome extension is ready.

With that in mind, the seed round will help Fluently hire another team member, and also have cash to spend on marketing when the time is right, Rebrick said. “When you have a small team, you prioritize what to do first,” he said, smiling.

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