HelloTalk is a language learning app with a difference. Based in Shenzhen, China, the company has a mighty mission:
“To utilize technology to connect the world through language and culture.”
Today, we speak to Zackery Ngai, CEO, and founder of the app, which exists to help language learners to practice by chatting just as you would with a friend.
In this interview, you’ll learn about:
HelloTalk’s rocky beginning
How the app connects language learners worldwide
Zackery’s thoughts on marketing your new idea
Funding and profitability
The changing nature of language app development
Zackery’s tips for Langpreneurs
“I was born in China on Hainan island and migrated to Hong Kong at about 10 years old with my family. So, I grew up speaking Cantonese there.”
That may have been Zackery Ngai’s first language-learning experience, but it certainly wasn’t his last. By the time he attended university in the US, he could speak Mandarin and English as well.
In the 1990s he became fascinated by animation in Japan, so he added Japanese to his language portfolio. Then, in 2005 he spent a year in South Korea working in e-commerce and — you guessed it — learned to speak Korean while he was there.
So Zackery’s working days were filled with the stressful business of wheeling and dealing. But he spent his leisure time chatting with friends while also improving his language skills.
The problem with language learning
Zackery knows that it isn’t easy to learn a new language.
“I think the problem with language learning… it is a very boring process and you tend to give up.”
But he also knows how to make it all seem more natural and less academic. Zackery’s secret: Find ways to chat with people who know how to speak the language. Go to language cafes, hang out with friends, take online classes. He says, too, that DVD subtitles are invaluable aids.
“How I learned Korean, I watched Korean DVDs with subtitles. Then I talked to my friends when I’d just been learning Korean for a month. I would hang out with them and talk to them.”
Have knowledge — will share
So, Zackery had found that the key to learning a new language was to practice it naturally as often as you can. And he had a dream to share that knowledge with everyone who needed it.
“I wanted to build something that connected people and allowed them to learn… a language… in a more natural way. Because we all have the resources to memorize, to study by ourselves, to look at grammar tips and all that, but what we lack is really practising with someone.”
HelloTalk: A tricky app to develop
Zackery decided that a mobile app was the way forward for his great idea. In 2011 he hired two developers, settled them in a Shenzhen apartment, and waited.
“They told me it would be ready in 6 months time,” he says.
One trouble was that mobile apps were so new, no-one was really an expert in building them. So, Zackery’s developers had to learn on the job. It was a frustrating process.
Even a year later, there wasn’t a working demo to show for all the pain.
“Then, the lead developer wanted to quit, so we ran into a lot of problems. It almost didn’t come out.”
Launching HelloTalk in 2012
But miraculously, in December 2012, HelloTalk was finally ready to launch for iOS.
Somehow the app quickly went viral, and within five days, it was topping the education app charts.
The unexpected popularity brought a few headaches, as Zackery recalls.
“Our server wasn’t ready to handle that many users so it crashed.”
Just one year later, HelloTalk had 150,000 users. In 2014, they brought the app out on Android and downloads exploded. By early 2015, HelloTalk had 12 employees and an impressive 800,000 registered users.
At that point, Zackery ran out of money.
Growing an app takes passion, work, time and a whole lot of money.
For four years, Zackery had funded HelloTalk’s development entirely on his own. Now, he needed help. Luckily, a venture capitalist showed interest and gave the business the push it needed to become polished and professional.
“It’s a very complicated app to develop, with instant messaging, with a community… technically it is very heavy. It’s not a small project.”
With finance secured, Zackery could grow his team, but it wasn’t easy. Starting up in the same city as the hugely successful company, Tencent (We Chat, QQ) meant that many of the best developers were already fully employed.
But, having committed to putting further development ahead of turning a profit, HelloTalk added developers, marketers, planners, SEO experts and customer service reps to the team. Now, the company employs 80 people; all focused on making HelloTalk the best language learning app on the market.
HelloTalk has several ways to help users learn a language by chatting.
‘Hello Talk’ connects you with someone who speaks the language you’re studying.
‘Moments’ is where users post photos and chats and can correct mistakes that others have made.
‘Learn’ features vocabulary and listening lessons from HelloTalk content partners.
Lately, HelloTalk has created more standalone apps, including:
AI Grammar Checker, which rivals Grammarly for efficiency.
Hello Words, which focuses on vocabulary, and
English Times, which has many articles to help improve reading skills for those learning English.
Financial Questions: How does HelloTalk make money?
“We could have been profitable in January this year but we decided to invest more in development, making the product better at this time.”
It takes years of development before an app can turn a healthy profit. In 2017 HelloTalk did, indeed, turn a small profit. The app does have some content monetisation and advertisements. But most of its revenue comes from a premium membership option.
“About 2% of all users become a VIP member. They have unlimited translations, they can practise and learn multiple languages, get more exposure and some other features and privileges. Our paying membership conversion is about the same as Duolingo. That’s our main monetisation.”
How vital is influencer marketing to app developers?
Zackery says to be effective you need to choose influencers whose audience would benefit from using your app. It’s a win-win situation: you get exposure to a new audience, and the KOL (Key Opinion Leader) has something useful to recommend to their fans.
He warns that it can be time-consuming to work with influencers, but it can be worth it, especially when you’re new.
Advice for new language app developers
“You always want to look at what problem you want to solve. Maybe build a small tool to solve one particular problem. It doesn’t need to be an app; it could be a plugin on a browser.”
Zackery says it’s tough to launch an app today because there is so much competition.
HelloTalk mainly relies on organic growth, and in 2020 it reached 20 million registered users. That’s a huge number, but the app had the advantage of starting when mobile apps were new and the app stores weren’t so crowded.
Nowadays, he says, there are about two million apps on Google Play and about 60% of them have never been downloaded.
“You require a lot of resources, money, dedication. For us, it’s been eight years and we still aren’t making a lot of money yet.”
Looking to the future
Zackery sees 2D world games as an exciting way to learn languages. He’d love to add a 2D interactive world to the app.
He also believes that the trend for short, 15-second videos will continue to grow and notes, “people are telling stories, learning languages, doing everything on short video. I think short video is a very important media format.”
Zackery’s tips for Langpreneurs
Just go to it. Get started and test your ideas on the way.
Don’t be too complicated — look for the simple solutions first.
Look for influencers on the new platforms, that’s where your future audience is gathering.
Consider making short videos with a focus on teaching through entertainment.
If Langpreneurs want to collaborate with HelloTalk, what can they do?
“Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, where we get business, marketing and collaboration enquiries. State the purpose of making the contact. Our team will connect you to the right people.”
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