Q&A: Memrise co-founder talks diversity, mentorship and long-term plans

At Tech City News, we’re always keen to shine a light on those who make up the UK’s thriving technology community. This week, we spoke with Ed Cooke, co-founder of Memrise, a language learning app. 

Tech vertical: EdTech
Funding: $6.28m 
Staff count: 45
Location: London
Founded: 2010

Q: When was the company founded, how many employees does it have and where is it based?

We began life in 2010, and got off to a slow start: we still had just 6 employees in 2014. Since then, we’ve grown to 45 employees. We’re based in a converted church in Bethnal Green.

Q: Where did the idea come from?

The intention of Memrise is to give everyone learning superpowers. The idea came from my experiences in memory championships, where I saw how simple techniques of imagination can help almost anyone achieve extraordinarily speedy and effective learning, crucially by having more fun with their minds.

Q: What’s your background? What were you doing before?

I studied cognitive science for many years – hopping between various European universities – and did a lot of teaching and writing – at one point, I was Mr. Memory columnist for the Times.

The thing that always interested me the most was how the same information, depending on its context and how it’s presented, can be joyfully simple to learn or impossibly difficult.

Q: Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.

I once taught a US journalist in a single year to become the US memory champion.

Q: How does Memrise make money if the app is free?

We have a freemium model where a small percentage of our users pay for a few extra features: including the ability to download courses offline, and play extra game modes. Great features that add value to the experience.

Q: How is Memrise going? Can you share stats on number of users/revenue?

We’ve grown 20x in the last two years, and we now have millions of active users, so we’re in the top handful of learning apps worldwide. We make enough money to support our team. The goal’s to grow 20x again in the next couple of years.

Q: How is the company funded (VC, Angel, self-funded)?

We have some really interesting and helpful angels in the US, whom we met by doing Techstars Boston in 2011: including Matt Mullenweg (founder of WordPress) and Jeff Hammerbacher (who was the first data scientist at Facebook, then founded Cloudera).

On the VC side, we’ve been brilliantly supported by Balderton in London, and a firm called Avalon in the US, who were the first investors in Zynga.

Q: What has been the most challenging part about setting up your company?

Having never had a job in a company before starting a company, it took me a long time to comprehend that processes enhance creativity, vs destroying it.

Q: What has been the most enjoyable part about setting up your company?

Getting to work alongside wonderful people, and the fun of building a diverse team: we have 24 nationalities at Memrise, and the team is 50-50 men and women.

And then of course seeing the reception of the product: millions of people actually having fun while learning. Vain though it is to say, it’s particularly delightful seeing someone greedily using Memrise next to you on the tube.

Q: What have been your biggest company milestones?

Internally, the key milestones I recognise are those when certain people joined the company. I could name five whose arrival noticeably changed the possibilities of the whole company.

From an external point of view, our most important decisions tend to have been the most painful: dropping key features, focusing on languages vs everything, going all-in on mobile. Decisions that simplified the product and amplified the team, but which were controversial at the time.

Q: Have you had a mentor? If so, who and what did they do for you?

I’ve been very lucky with mentors. Peter Reed in London, for instance. One early mentor who made a big difference was Bill Warner, a Bostonian who’d founded Avid, the first video-editing software. Bill helped me understand that the essence of a company is its intention, and that when the intention is clear, the decisions take care of themselves. When, on the other hand, the intention isn’t so clear, everything becomes effortful and slow.

Q: Who do you see as your main competitors and how do you differ?

There are a number of wonderful companies in the language learning space, including Busuu in London, and Duolingo in the US. But Memrise is doing something wholly different to these quite academic, interactive text-book apps. We’re creating a genuine learning game: something you play without a sense of effort or obligation or aspiration. Something you play even if you’re tired or don’t care especially about languages. Entertainment learning. We think there’s a category bigger than formal education waiting to be unlocked by the right product.

Q: What did you do the last 12 months?

We launched a whole new look and feel to the app, much more gamey. It’s been a great success. We also sent a double decker bus full of linguists and film-makers on an 8,000 mile road trip across Europe to collect video dictionaries of 9 languages. It’s the most human, real-world language content ever created. It makes learning anarchically fun, which is how we like it.

Q: What are your plans for the next 12 months?

We’re elaborating our game, making the learning ever more delightful, and also doing marketing for the first time: the aim is to grow to 10s of millions of active users, while continually improving the impact of the learning technology both through machine learning and human content invention and design.

Q: What advice would you give to those starting their own tech company?

Discover an intention that you really care about. Keep it separate in your mind from any specific features or initiatives: this gives both flexibility and focus, a magic combo. Also: make sure to build a diverse team: it produces better ideas, more creativity, more fun and a more joyful product.