Education / Professional development / startups

How a Brooklyn startup is helping devs leap the language barrier

For many foreign-born technologists, English is a second language. Here's how Dumbo's Lingo Live is using personalized coaching to help tech workers with their communication skills.

Robert Cobb, team player. (Courtesy photo)

Seattle software engineer Oki was having trouble preparing for a presentation he was supposed to give at a company conference.

The Indonesian native kept mispronouncing the words in his deck. “Server” was “surfer.” “Other” was “udder.”

“I thought how I was saying things would overshadow what I was trying to say,” Oki said.

He decided to Skype with Kristin Vincenzo, his coach at Lingo Live — a Brooklyn-based language learning service. She helped Oki work through his pronunciation issues and also supplied him with some practical tips. The presentation went off without a hitch. Oki even earned praise from a company vice president.

“With Kristin I feel comfortable and I’m not afraid to make mistakes,” Oki said. “That helps me express myself more confidently in the real world.”

What separates Lingo Live from other language learning services is that personalized, one-on-one interaction with coaches and “learners,” according to CEO Tyler Muse. Muse started Lingo Live in 2012 after learning how to speak fluent Spanish through a tutor he communicated with virtually.

“I thought the whole experience was really fun, convenient, cheap and effective,” Muse said.

Lingo Live participated in the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator in 2014 and set up a headquarters in Dumbo. The business evolved to focus on enterprise, specifically tech companies with lots of international employees working in the U.S. The mission has remained the same: encourage meaningful human connections through learning.

“There are hundreds of non-native English speakers working in tech who struggle with articulating their ideas freely, advocating for themselves, and having a cultural understanding of what is or isn’t appropriate,” Muse said. “We believe these are the skills you need to transform your career and they require a mentor or coach.”

Coach Rachel Zolotarsky working with a learner. (Courtesy photo)

Coach Rachel Zolotarsky working with a learner. (Courtesy photo)

Lingo Live works by matching learners with coaches based on their schedule, proficiency and professional interests. Courses can focus on pronunciation, culture, presentation, interpersonal communication, leadership and writing. Learners typically meet with their coaches 2–3 times per week for 45-minute sessions. Lingo Live allows learners to work with their coaches via Skype, Google Hangouts, Facetime or whatever other platform they feel comfortable with.

Many coaches have master’s degrees, corporate experience and diverse cultural backgrounds. Lingo Live has a roster of 150 coaches living all over the world who serve as independent contractors. The coaches work with over 1,400 learners at companies like Twitter, OutbrainZillow and Eventbrite, who pay Lingo Live per employee.

“The power of our product is within our community of coaches,” Muse said.

Lingo Live tripled in revenue year over year for its first four years, and has been able to double its revenue every year since. In the first quarter of 2017, Lingo Live closed a $5.2 million Series A round of venture funding led by Owl Ventures, Entrepreneurs Expansion Fund, Alpine Meridian Ventures and Fresco Capital. Muse says that money has been reinvested across the board and allowed the business to double from 18 employees to 35.

Muse sees continued growth for his business as tech companies continue expanding internationally. Lingo Live recently opened offices in San Francisco and Tokyo and also offers classes in Spanish, French, Japanese and Mandarin. In an environment where 70 percent of engineers leave their company within five years of being hired, Muse says services like his are crucial for employee engagement and retention.

“People want to move up in their organizations and a lot of that has to do with finding your authentic voice and being perceived as a leader,” Muse said. “That is where I think coaching and a relationship based approach is huge.”


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