In the dynamic world of technology and startups, Dmytro Voloshyn’s journey from a small city in Ukraine to co-founding and scaling Preply into a global language-learning powerhouse is nothing short of inspiring. In this in-depth interview, we delve into Dmytro’s early aspirations, the founding story of Preply, the challenges faced, and the strategic decisions that led to their remarkable success.
Dmytro’s venture, Preply, has attracted funding from top-tier investors like Horizon Capital, Hoxton Ventures, Evli Growth Partners, and Owl Ventures.
In this episode, you will learn:
- Dmytro’s early focus on building an international team laid the foundation for Preply’s global success, challenging the notion that startups must originate from traditional tech hubs.
- Preply’s journey from initial setbacks in the U.S. to mastering customer acquisition costs underscores the importance of resilience and strategic iteration in overcoming challenges.
- The shift from an intuitive product approach to a data-driven model, guided by influential investors, reflects Preply’s commitment to continuous improvement and adapting to market demands.
- Building a team representing over 60 nationalities has been instrumental in Preply’s success, demonstrating the importance of diversity in fostering innovation and understanding their global user base.
- Overcoming the geographical barriers associated with fundraising, Dmytro emphasizes the crucial role of strong metrics and a growing openness among investors to international startups.
- While leveraging AI to enhance language learning features, Dmytro stresses that the future of education lies in augmenting human connections, empathy, and emotional engagement rather than replacing them.
- Dmytro’s hands-on approach, particularly in the early stages of opening international offices, highlights the importance of personal involvement in recruitment to establish trust and credibility in new locations.
For a winning deck, see the commentary on a pitch deck from an Uber competitor that has raised over $400M (see it here).
The Ultimate Guide To Pitch Decks
Remember to unlock for free the pitch deck template that is being used by founders around the world to raise millions below.
About Dmytro Voloshyn:
Dmytro Voloshyn is the CTO and co-founder of Preply. Dmytro has over 10 years of experience in software development, specializing in developing commercial applications.
Dmytro Voloshyn has a Ph.D. in machine learning and AI from the Institute of Software System at Kyiv, Ukraine. Dmytro also has a M.S. with honors in Applied Mathematics from Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv.
In addition, they have certification from Coursera in Mining Massive Datasets, Machine Learning, and Algorithms: Design and Analysis, Part 1 and 2.
They work with Josh Crossick – CPO, Andreas Kyprianou – Director of People Operations, Systems and Analytics, and Filippo Gallignani – CMO. Dmytro Voloshyn reports to Kirill Bigai, CEO and co-founder.
See How I Can Help You With Your Fundraising Or Acquisition Efforts
- Fundraising or Acquisition Process: get guidance from A to Z.
- Materials: our team creates epic pitch decks and financial models.
- Investor and Buyer Access: connect with the right investors or buyers for your business and close them.
Connect with Dmytro Voloshyn:
Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
Alejandro Cremades: Alrighty hello everyone and welcome to the dealmakerr show. So today. We have an exciting story. You know ahead of us you know from a founder that today is going to be telling us a thing or 2 about being a first product culture type of company how they achieved their product market fit how they went about it. You know when he came to covid. Also there are thoughts about anything Ai. There’s a lot going on around Ai and also you know how they went about raising over 170000000 so again, a really interesting episode all the good stuff that we like to hear around building scaling financing and everything in between so without further ado. Let’s welcome our guest today de mitro bo ocean welcome to the show. So born and raised in Ukraine give us a walk through memory lane. How was life growing up demitron.
Dmytro Voloshyn: Thanks for having me here all sound.
Dmytro Voloshyn: Oh yeah I was burning in Ukraine in a small city. It was a very interesting journey for me because usually when you are far away from the tech scene you read about it in the news in blog posts on social media and you try to get better. To get to the ass to Silicon Walley and for me when I was growing up I got my computer first time in 2000 and then I got an internet and I tried to basically build products to learn how to become a good developer I got computer science education. But my dream was always to build my own products and I always had that you know entrepreneurial mind and being in Ukraine helped a lot because we have a very strong um school of mathematics and computer science in Ukraine. So my education there was like topnoch. And though I was kind of a bit disconnected from the all of the tax scene because I was like in the different time zone in the other parts of the world I was always inspired about thes and the culture of technology companies there. We saw a lot of movies about it like social network about Matt Zuckerberg or something like that. And into in early 14012 all of that startup narrative became ah pretty inspiring in Ukraine and there were a lot of interesting startups born in Ukraine at that time and 1 of them was bradley.
Alejandro Cremades: So then so then in your case I mean what was the yeah, the whole nature of computer Science Ph D So what? what got your interest on that.
Dmytro Voloshyn: Yeah, so we had ah programming competitions when ah school kids write in computer code to compete which is with each other and time was quite good at that I was like in top 10 among in in and all of the country. And that helped me to basically apply to any university in Ukraine without exams which I did and I applied to the ba university like on cybernetics department where we started mathematics computer science algorithms and so on and it ah built ah reallyillan. Nice foundation for me because I’m a technical cofounder so I understand not only how to manage people who write code. But I also understand how to write code myself and what are the good quality code. How technology can transfer to the good business product. So I started. Um, computer science and then in 2012 I think I got an offer to start my pgd career I started to be in academia for a while but after a year I understood like it’s not a good ah journey for me because like I am not a real academics I am more like entrepreneural. Kind of person and I’m met my cofounders ah cural and search and we were starts thinking to start something um, inspiring and we started what with the time became prep in 2012.
Alejandro Cremades: And when you say I’m more entrepreneurial. You know you were talking about all these stories that you were you know, exposed to the social Network you know all of this stuff. What do you think you know like really made you you know like.
Dmytro Voloshyn: And.
Alejandro Cremades: Feel like I want this, you know this is this is the path that I want I Want to build my own thing. You know what do you? do you remember like at what point that seed was planted.
Dmytro Voloshyn: Yeah I think when I was super young. So Ukraine was a part of Soviet Union which was like a big communistic empire and I remember when Soviet Union collapsed my father bought me a book called capitalism for kids. And I read about the capitalism as like as basically ideology that basically there isa value in ever since that we do it. We can sell and trade things and we can accumulate capital and so on and I kind of from the early ages understood the nature of basically moneyi capital and other things and tai. Always wanted to basically build a company which would be a business not like a charity but a company businessgenerating money understand all of the cash flows within the company. Ah I was always inspired by that. So I read also a lot of like fictional books like Theodore dreiser financeist and. I and reigned and so on so like a lot of my cultural background helped me to shape myself as person who thinks about themselves as entrepreneur so that was like a big part of my journey like reading books and like from the early childhood understanding how like. Money market works.
Alejandro Cremades: So then tell us about meeting your cofounders. You know how did the ah whole idea of Prepley you know and and more importantly, you know like meeting the people you know like getting the band together. How did that look like.
Dmytro Voloshyn: Um, yeah.
Dmytro Voloshyn: Um, yeah, so interesting fact about me meeting my cofounders is that I met them through a common friends through university and I strongly believe is that people who study in the universities. They don’t only get like a you know technical knowledge and diploma. The most important part about college or university where you study is your network and I started to build in my network from the early years in my university and I had a lot of smart people who I started with and they later started working in Facebook uber. Ah, Google and so on so I met my cofounder kirills through a common friend who later started working in Google we got introduced to each other as it was some good connection between us I was more like technical person. My cofounder qrill is more like a hustler like business person who will like do sales who do operations and so on. So we met each other and we started thinking hey what could be the right business idea to follow and what um what we had in common with kiil is that we were born in Ukraine so english was not our native language and we both struggled. To improve our language skills and we started exploring the domain of language learning in group or in english schools or visit tutor and we found out that there is a pretty good market that um is there which is online language learning and it was in 2012.
Dmytro Voloshyn: So people who wanted to learn languages online did that through Skype. Not even Zoom as a major like video conference platform right now but like through Skype and there was like a big chunk of keywords in Google of people searching like I want to learn english by Skype and we. Took that inside. We combined it with our own problem that we wanted to learn english much better and we started building and shaping a product around that era in 2012.
Alejandro Cremades: So then tell tell us about to you know, like how did the whole idea of shaping up the product and making sure that you got to product market fit and and and and why you know you guys are also a product first a type of company I think that before you even get there just so that. The people that are listening get it. What is preply today.
Dmytro Voloshyn: Yes, so um, preply today is the biggest online marketplace for online language learning visit tu. So if you want to learn english french german with a real human online. You go to prepley. And we have more than 40000 tutors on our platform we grew from 3 cofounders to more than 600 people in Barcelona New York cave ah we attracted more than 170000000 of us dollars. In venture funding and as I said before we are the market leader in our area. So like we believe that we provide the most efficient way of learning language online. So that’s where we are. And we started from quite a different idea because now we are super international. Our major markets are the yes Europe but when we were thinking about how to st start we were located in kev ukraine k is capital of Ukraine and our initial idea was let’s build ah basically classified for one city. Where you could find english teachers in that city and we started doing that and we found that the market size is not big enough then we tried okay can we also try to build some ah product for schools offline schools where you can learn english and we.
Dmytro Voloshyn: Tried to do that but like the sales cycle wasn’t very good so we basically iterating all over again with the different kind of product ideas around the same customer persona a person who wants to learn english but doesn’t have like a good ways to do that in their location and. Um, the third or even fourth it’s raised to be found out. Oh okay, but these people can learn english online and the technology in 2012 finally enabled to do that so basic in 2012, you could have a pretty good stable video connection.
Dmytro Voloshyn: Ah, by Skype between Ukraine and the us between Philippines and Norway between any pair of the countries and we found out that technology enables. It. So like it’s a clear new wave of transition between offline language learning to online. Ah, we found that there is a prettyizable market for that. So we explored a amount of keywboard requests in Google for that and so on and we had a good team so which was like combination of everything like technology team the market and we started basically okay, that’s how our market that’s a product. We want to build we want to build the marketplace for. Um, and online language shooters and we started building that and to accelerate that we even moved to Boston us to be closer to basically a taxing and also to the biggest market in the world and it was quite a journey for us because you moved to a different country. And you try to launch a product from scratch your language skills at that time were not our language skills weren’t not perfect. So there was a lot of miscommunication and it was quite a stress for us to move to Boston but it was also an an availableable experience. Because we were able to go to the university’s campuses to see how people who are teacherstors themselves basically talk think about their business and profession and so on and if you were much closer to the fundraising actors in the world.
Dmytro Voloshyn: So ah, we moved to the s in 2012 tried to build like prep with like an international marketplace being in the s but to tell you the truth we failed we were not able to do that in two thousand and twenty twelve being in the s because our burn was. Pretty high. We were burning like a few dozens of usolers per month and we were not able to unlock marketing so it was like a big pushback for us. Um, we returned back to Kib Ukraine and we radically diminished our burn. And we started building it much more gradually. So our first experience on launching pretla as you see it right now was very unsuccessful. Our unit economics didn’t work so like we didn’t even know the term unit economics but we understood that if we spent $500 to attract one customer and we earn all the $100 from them. Um, sin doesn’t feel a right? So we returned back ah to kib ukraine and we started rethinking on how we do marketing and how do we do product and over time over 1 or 2 years we were able to push customer acquisition cost like too like 10 10 times less perhaps even hundred times less. Were able to become much better in marketing including organic marketing and we started basically seeing our ccltv finding themselves in a very good balance between each other in two thousand and thirteen fourteen we were focusing on the markets where our ccl 2 ratio was like pretty good.
Dmytro Voloshyn: But then we started expanding and perhaps in 2015 we reconcurred as I would say the us market and we were able to launch them again to launch there again with much more success and now the us is our biggest market so like ah. In 2012 we failed but like in 2023 we are the biggest player in this market and like I think where the us is a good market for us. Yeah, and our and ta thinking about the products that we built was very you know like the tool start tab methodology on how you think what? what next feature. Is requested by your customers that you should build. That’s how we started in the thousand twelve to 12 and 13 but later um our product culture evolved a lot and it was because of the fundraising because we were raising additional funding and one of the very. Ah, important milestones for Pret was might raised over bigger round of $1000000 it was I think press seat round or some so or seed round for us and that’s what I would call smart money because we’ve got investors on board who previously built other marketplaces and they were able to share with us. A lot of wisdomum on how you should build a business and for example, 1 of the investors in that round was Maro goilelesky and he is a cofounder of a doc planner. It’s the biggest marketplace for doctors another angel investors for us was Artur Costan and he was Cmo at booken.com and the book. It is the biggest marketplace for hotel hotels in the world.
Dmytro Voloshyn: And basically we’ve got this amazing investor essentials investors on board and we start asking questions hey how you build the marketplace how you do liquidity how you do marketing how you expand your marketing channels and so on and basically we learned a lot and brokeed a lot of our. Initial company culture from other companies who were hundred times more successful at that point of time than prepley for example, from art and arter. We learned a lot how to do a b testing can scale. So our initial approach was like hey there are customers. They wants and features. Let’s build that features for them. But that’s not how a bigger companies do product bigger companies launch atas and we became pretty a b test-d drivenven company around two thousand and sixteen seventeen we launch like hundreds of a btas and it’s helped us like to basically to move to the higher leap from like the intuitive type of a company to more data-driven type of the company.
Alejandro Cremades: Because in noro in in total there I mean how much how much capital have you guys raised today so one hundred and seventy million now you were alluding to it. You know getting those angels you know, really big time angels I mean you.
Dmytro Voloshyn: I’ll stop here for a second in. 70000000 seventy million us dollars
Alejandro Cremades: You’re coming from the Ukraine so you know you land here in the us you know you got to figure yourself you know and and your way there you know a network. So what was that journey like of raising that money through the different cycles and then also from meeting these people getting getting them excited and getting them enroll to jump into.
Dmytro Voloshyn: Um, yeah.
Dmytro Voloshyn: Yeah, a great question I would say that initially in 2012 you could raise money even before you have a product. It was much easier because like the market was like very heated. Um, we were likely to get ah great asters and bor. But we were also like we’re hardworking founders to make sure that our product grows our growth sample typically is like 3 x ah revenue grows year over a year for the last ten years whichever so basically we were lucky to have a good network of investors. But you wouldn’t be able to race if you wouldn’t be growing that fast so we always had is that you know and mindset is that hey we play the when your game that means that you raise you grow very fast and you dominatminate the market with the money that you raised in the previous round and then you raise again. Because you have a track or track record of that you are able to invest monoli wisely in your product and marketing growth on the market. So for us. It was an combination of us being hustlers basically approaching a lot of different investors in different geographies but also showing them. What is the potential of prattley. And also pron that potential by our metrics so we always were very open with sharing our metrics with not only our existing investors but all so investors who rejected us and also from investors that we were like talking with because some of the investors that are are on our cup tableable.
Dmytro Voloshyn: They rejected to invest in Pretley but then changed their mind because they saw how amazing numbers are in our business. Um, the fact that we were founders from Ukraine and our initial basically location as a cofounders was Ukraine was challenging in the beginning. But if your business has a number has good numbers. It doesn’t matter where we are so we are not in the era when investors um from Silicon Valley just like investing companies from California they are much more open to international companies if you have good numbers and. You need to have good numbers to get the best masters that was our our our sin can always like we don’t want like to um, we we want to stay true to the numbers in our business if you commit to say is that hey our business plan is to grow like 2 extra x in the next year and we are rising to do that we would work very hard to deliver. It.
Alejandro Cremades: Now when it comes to Also investors is it’s obviously good metrics as you say is is key but then also having a clear vision now when we’re thinking about vision. You know want to ask you this if you were to go to sleep tonight dimitro and you wake up in a world where the vision for prepley.
Dmytro Voloshyn: Um, in it.
Dmytro Voloshyn: Are.
Alejandro Cremades: Is fully realized what does that world look like okay.
Dmytro Voloshyn: Ah, So first of all I don’t think that we will ever realize our vision in full potential because vision is something that is always higher than you were where you are like you all. It’s It’s more like a dream and the dreams that you. Try to achieve but you don’t always really achieve it. So the closest that it would be to it is that people on this planet have the most efficient way to learn languages and that’s proudly. And they are able to improve their language learning skills that helps them to progress in their career to get a better relationships to travel the world and so on and people are constantly improving their language to and properly and they are very happy with the products that we have built them.
Alejandro Cremades: So then as we’re talking about the future here I also want to talk about the way that you guys are thinking about things because there’s a lot going on now with Ai you know there’s a lot of Ai related topics and I know that you guys are taking it seriously too. So how do you think? how are you guys thinking about ai and how do you think that’s gonna also.
Dmytro Voloshyn: Yeah I think the growth of Ai is exciting right now for us as a cofounders. We think that ai will help people to be much more efficient in what they do right now. We already see that internally. For example, our developers.
Alejandro Cremades: You know, change things.
Dmytro Voloshyn: Are much more efficient because they have compiled tools that help them to write a better code faster. We think that the same will happen in all of the professions and language learning and and and language teaching would be basically transformed by ai. We in 2023 already built a few features for our teachers on the platform and one of the features is teaching assistant where basically teachers who teach language have a compile it on preply with them that helps them to prepare for the Lesson. Generated Homework exercises squeezes for their students customized by the student by their arrival and so on and secondly we also released a feature which we called lesson insights we were listed to the smaller group of better tasksters and they are all super excited. Basically if student and. Tutor give us an access to do that we can record their lesson which happens online then we basically transcribe it and we generate insights from it. For example, you had a lesson learning spanish and we generate new spanish words that you learned on this lesson. We analyze. Who said, what on the lesson and you suggest to the tutor. What should be the topic of the next lesson we assess the level of the student right after a lesson and so on and we basically could generate homework based on what you learned on the lesson itself. So it’s become a super customized way to have language lessons online.
Dmytro Voloshyn: And it’s like lessons insights features that we launched in 2023. We strongly believe that the future of ah humanity overall and also like people who study and teach languages online is ah very much connected with ai but we don’t think that Ai will replace teachers. We think that. Ai will give teachers superpowers to become much better in what they do and Ai right now and in the next few decades we believe we will not unlock empathy emotional connection and which is most important motivation that ah other humans bring to the table when it comes to online.
Alejandro Cremades: Now we’re talking about the future here but I want to talk about the past and doing so with a len of reflection. You know you’ve been doing this now for over twelve years which is a could be a lifetime in the world of startups right? and Tim and I guess the question here is.
Dmytro Voloshyn: But English learning.
Dmytro Voloshyn: Um.
Alejandro Cremades: If I were to bring you back in time to that moment where you guys got started with a company you know, perhaps back in 2011 even even when you were like thinking about a world where you could bring an idea to life and stuff like that if you had the opportunity of having a chat with that younger self and giving that younger son 1 piece of advice for launching a business. What will that be and why given what you know now.
Dmytro Voloshyn: Ah, that’s a great question I think that advice that I would give to myself would be higher faster. And better people and be much tougher with the people who do not perform so overall I think it is very hard to build a product as a basic solar entrepreneur it really or even few cofounders. So basically your role transfers to being. Able to manage a great team of star performers or like a star team of performance and that would be something that I was able to unlock only few years of mistakes and experience hiring people and being able to. Norture is a talent within the organization I think I underestimated the amount of impact that great team has on a great product for some time and that’s basically my job. That’s basically my my my job right now I don’t write code myself I don’t build product I built teams I built great teams that are able to deliver value. So like advice would be make sure that you work with ah great people and be very deliberate in building. The best team.
Alejandro Cremades: So to double click on the team I mean you guys have offices in Boston sorry in Barcelona in Kiev in New York you have over 600 employees. So I guess when it comes to having a remote remote teams like different offices. You know like that you obviously have different cultures too. What have you? What have you learned too. You know when it comes to cultures you know and and having different locations like that.
Dmytro Voloshyn: Yeah, um, initially our initial team was all located in Ukraine and we as ukrainians we found out that we we pretty early understood that it is impossible to build international company if you have very. Homogenous team in 1 location. So from the early years of prep we restarted building international team. So I think when we were like 20 people perhaps 30 we already had like 5 or 10 people from five ten different nationalities different countries and that was our playbook. That if you want to become an international champion. Our workforce should represent our customers so we started hiring in different locations even though we didn’t have much money to do that. 1 of the life hacks that we did to unlock that was that. Needed people who are native speakers of english like from Canada from louiss and so on but like the salaaries are are pretty high so we unlocked student internship programs. So we basically were were hiring students. Ah who went on the internship to Ukraine. Or to other countries to become like an early employees of prepley and we were able to find the best like ah better energetic people some of them stayed for preply for years. Some of them are still working in a Pretley Lake for 10 years Perhaps um, but they were students. They were not like young professionals who already like.
Dmytro Voloshyn: Have a high pay job That’s what you do if. You don’t have enough basically capital to hire a lot of people. Um, so for us it was. Very deliberate choice that we want to have very international teams. So we start to hiring people from the yes Canada Brazil po and Germany all of the european countries right now we have more than 60 nationalities working with us which is amazing and like no one even thinks about prepli as ah as something other than international company but it was. Not easy to do that. Ah even for us as a cofounders like as I said like english was not our um first language native language and we were made a very deliberate choice to always speak english in public and private communication in the company. Even like if you are on the kitchen making coffee with you. And the right of coworkers and you share is the same language with them. You would also like revert to english as a way to speak to them because you build them that you know international company. You try to have that gene of ah people being united though having different culture or other backgrounds. And we were pretty successful among that ah in that and our biggest push was always like when we were like opening office in Barcelona as a cofounders we moved here and we started doing like recruiting and hiring ourselves. You basically.
Dmytro Voloshyn: Chart from 0 if you open an office in different location because you don’t have any presence people don’t believe you that it will be big and you always promise people that practical will become big. Our Barcelana office will become big but like people don’t believe you and aberb first hires first few engineers that I hired in Barcelona I met them at. Meetops in the bars here in Barcelona but I did it myself a recruiting team was not able to sell the company as well as like co founder can do so as ah, entrepreneurs advice here would be don’t be afraid to be hands-on even in some of the things that are.
Dmytro Voloshyn: Kind of not as inspiring As for example, building a strategy for the company or or going fundraising do things that where you have the biggest ary and if your biggest awry is like hi and few new people in a new location like to do that We do that.
Alejandro Cremades: I Love it. So the me throw for the people that are listening that will love to reach out and say hi. What is the best way for them to do so.
Dmytro Voloshyn: I think ah for people who entrepreneur her is the best way to do that with build Linkedin I think it’s like the most professional social network where most of us are like present and we always have a lot of open positions for smart and ambitious people in prepless and as ah, entrepreneur myself I will always be happy to. Support and advice other cofounders or founders entrepreneurs who try to launch their own business.
Alejandro Cremades: Amazing! Well hey dimitro thank you so much for being on the deal maker show today. It has been an honor to have you with us.
Dmytro Voloshyn: Thank you hundred.
If you like the show, make sure that you hit that subscribe button. If you can leave a review as well, that would be fantastic. And if you got any value either from this episode or from the show itself, share it with a friend. Perhaps they will also appreciate it. Also, remember, if you need any help, whether it is with your fundraising efforts or with selling your business, you can reach me at [email protected]