July 19, 2024
YC alum Fluently's AI-powered English coach attracts $2M seed round | TechCrunch


There are plenty of resources to learn English, but not so many for near-native speakers who still want to improve their fluency. That description applies to Stan Beliaev and Yurii Rebryk, and this is what inspired them to create Fluently.

Making use of AI, Fluently operates as a coach that gives users feedback and tips on their spoken English. This makes it akin 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 building its feedback from listening to calls.

Users can have Fluently record and transcribe their side of real-life calls, for instance while using Zoom for work. However, there’s also the option to practice with an AI coach — either “Ryan” for daily chit-chat, or “Kyle” for mock interviews, which are often a priority for foreign candidates hoping to land a job that requires advanced English speaking skills, as is more and more often the case.

While they are scratching their own itch, the duo estimates that there are 84 million non-native employees who work in English-speaking environments. It is hard to say how many of these would like to be understood more easily, but it is arguably a large enough niche, a growing one, and a much less crowded space than ESL as a whole.

Fluently feedback card
Image Credits: Fluently

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

It didn’t hurt either that Fluently leans heavily on the tech side of edtech. Out of its distributed team of four, three are engineers, Rebryk told TechCrunch. With a shared background in machine learning, he and his former university roommate have the kind of track record that gets VCs excited these days, with internships at Amazon, Google, and Nvidia. 

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

Another point is that Fluently wants to be a one-stop-shop for better speaking skills. Rather than accent, its goal is understandability, and that includes improving pronunciation, grammar and pace, as well as expanding one’s vocabulary. Rephrasing advice, like Grammarly or Ludwig offer for writing, could be another addition, Rebryk said.

In its current, beta form, Fluently is clearly still in its early days, and not immune to crashes. But to users who don’t mind sharing their credit card details to give its free trial a spin, it already gives a strong sense of what it could achieve. For instance, yours truly learned how to better pronounce “computer,” which can be quite useful when you work in tech. To at least some, that could that be worth the $25 a month that Fluently plans to charge.

Fluently - computer pronunciation
Image Credits: Fluently

There’s still a page that Fluently could take from Duolingo on helping users correct their mistakes and keep track of their progress in a gamified way. This is usually key in helping people stick to their goals, and motivation to learn a language tends to have ebbs and flows. But rather than learning overall, it wants to leverage technology to focus on a user’s specific difficulties in going from nearly 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 insists on telling users during onboarding that their privacy is guaranteed, with audio stored locally, encryption, and data protected from third-party providers. On the latter, the startup notes that “data sent to third-party Al providers for transcription is anonymized, and not used for training.”

Some of this is made possible by the recent release of Apple Silicon, Rebryk said. This ties into another limitation of the beta version: It is only available on MacOS. However, Fluently is already building a waiting list of users it will notify when its Chrome extension is ready.

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



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