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 blog, 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.
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Building the Foundation in Ukraine
Dmytro reflects on his early years growing up in Ukraine and how, despite being geographically distant from tech hubs, the strong educational foundation in mathematics and computer science played a pivotal role in shaping his journey.
Dmytro remembers getting his first computer and the Internet in 2000 and learning computer science to be able to build his own products. That’s what spurred him to become a good programmer, along with the fact that he had always had an entrepreneurial mind.
Dmytro was impressed and inspired by the culture of technology companies in different parts of the world. He recalls watching movies about social networks, Mark Zuckerberg, and other entities. Around early 2012, many startups were born in Ukraine.
Academics and a University Education
A top performer in programming competitions, Dmytro secured admission to a university without exams and laid the groundwork for his technical prowess.
He won a place among the top 10 contestants across the country and applied to BA University in the cybernetics department, where he started learning mathematics, computer science, and algorithms.
This learning built a great foundation for Dmytro since he became a technical co-founder who could not only write the code himself but also manage the people who wrote the code. He also learned how technology can transfer to a good business product.
Around the time the Soviet Union collapsed, Dmytro’s father bought him a book on capitalism that introduced him to the ideology of selling and trading things and accumulating capital.
That’s when he understood money and capital and developed an interest in building a company that could have cash flows and generate money.
Reading books and his cultural background helped Dmytro shape himself as an entrepreneur and understand how the money market works.
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The Birth of Preply
Dmytro met his cofounder, Kirill Bigai, while still in university. He strongly believes that aside from the technical knowledge and diploma, students take away a valuable asset from their colleges–a strong network that they can start building early on.
Some of his friends went on to work at Facebook, Uber, and Google.
While Dmytro was a technical person, Kirill was more of a business person who could handle sales, operations, and other tasks. Their common ground was having a Ukrainian upbringing. Both were working on their English learning skills.
That’s when the duo started exploring the domain of language learning in a group, in English schools, or visiting tutors. They realized that there was a pretty good market for online language learning. Most people who wanted to learn a new language preferred to use the Skype platform.
Preply’s inception in 2012 emerged from a different idea of a local English teacher and eventually became the largest online marketplace for language learning. Dmytro and Kirill shaped the product and developed the ideal product-market fit by exploring keyword requests on Google.
Emerging technology in 2012 and stable internet connections enabled the establishment of the platform. Anyone wishing to learn languages from a real human online can visit Preply that has more than 40,000 tutors.
The company grew from three founders to more than 600 people in Barcelona, New York, Kyiv, and 30 countries worldwide.
Preply has attracted over $170M in venture capital funding and has quickly become the market leader in its segment. The platform provided the most efficient way of learning a language online with a primary market in Europe.
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Struggles and Iterations
Dmytro shares the challenges faced in the initial stages with pivots made to align with market demands. He moved to Boston in the US to be closer to the biggest market in the world, which was another challenge since his lack of language skills resulted in a lot of miscommunication.
Although the experience was stressful. Dmytro and his co-founder were able to go to campuses and interact with teachers themselves. They learned a lot by getting the teachers to talk about their business and profession.
The candid discussion reveals Preply’s initial setbacks in the United States, such as facing high burn rates, the inability to unlock marketing, and negative unit economics. Finally, Dmytro and Kirill made the decision to return to Ukraine for a strategic rethink.
Dmytro elaborates on their journey from failed launches to mastering customer acquisition costs, eventually achieving a balanced unit economics model. This phase emphasizes the significance of resilience and adaptability in the startup ecosystem.
The duo got better at organic marketing, and by 2013-14, they had developed a workable business model. In 2015, Dmytro and his co-founder relaunched in the US with more success, making it their biggest market.
The Evolution of Product Culture
As Dmytro notes, Preply has become the biggest player in the US market in 2023. They built the tool start tab methodology to cater to customer demand and continue to evolve their product culture, transitioning from an intuitive approach to a data-driven model.
The influence of key investors, including Mariusz Gralewski and Arthur Kosten, played a pivotal role in shaping Preply’s approach to A/B testing and strategic decision-making.
Raising Capital and Overcoming Geographic Barriers
The interview sheds light on the challenges of raising capital as founders from Ukraine. Dmytro shares insights into their growth strategy, the importance of showcasing solid metrics, and the role of a strong network in the fundraising process.
Dmytro emphasizes how the investor landscape has evolved, with a growing openness to international startups backed by robust numbers. He also talks about their fundraising approach, where they reached out to different investors across worldwide locations, demonstrating Preply’s potential.
Global Team Building
As Preply expanded, Dmytro highlights the deliberate choice of building an international team, fostering a diverse workforce representing their global user base. He discusses the challenges of opening offices in different locations, particularly in Barcelona, Kyiv, and New York.
Currently, Preply has more than 600 employees with different cultures from more than 60 countries and nationalities. Dmytro stresses the importance of hiring in different countries to better represent their customers. That’s how Preply can become an international champion.
Dmytro also emphasizes the importance of hands-on involvement in recruitment to establish trust and credibility.
The Future of Language Learning and AI
Looking ahead, Dmytro envisions the future of language learning intertwined with AI. He looks forward to helping people improve their language learning skills that helps them to progress in their careers, build better relationships, travel the world, and so on.
Preply helps people constantly improve their language skills, and Dmytro is happy about the products they have built. He discusses recent features like teaching assistants and lesson insights that leverage AI to enhance the teaching and learning experience on Preply.
Students and tutors can give access to their lessons, which Preply records, transcribes, and then generates insights. The analysis can help tutors work out the topic of the next lesson and assess the level of the student right after the lesson.
Generating homework is much more streamlined and better customized.
Leveraging AI to help come up with better products is also a possibility. While acknowledging the potential of AI, he emphasizes that it will augment, not replace, the crucial human elements of empathy and emotional connection in language education.
Dmytro also explains how, in 2023, they have compiled AI tools that help them to write better code faster.
Dmytro Voloshyn’s journey, as shared in this interview, encapsulates the spirit of entrepreneurship, resilience, and adaptability.
From a young dreamer in Ukraine to co-founding and steering Preply to global success, his insights serve as a roadmap for aspiring entrepreneurs navigating the challenges of the startup landscape.
As Preply continues to redefine the language learning landscape, the interview offers a glimpse into the strategic decisions and cultural nuances that have fueled its remarkable journey.
Listen to the full podcast episode to know more, including:
- 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.