24. March 2017–
After his pitch Scott Chacon speaks with one of the audience members who asks: “What did you do before Chatterbug?” Chacon answers: “I founded GitHub.” The man standing across from him can barely believe it: “Thank you for starting Github, it helped me so much.” They take a photo together.
Tonight the TechMeetup in Berlin is not about Scott Chacon and his co-founder Tom Preston-Werner’s past, but it still follows them: The duo created the popular US startup GitHub. The development platform is an important internet tool for developers and has received more than $300 million from well-known investors, like Sequoia and Andreessen Horowitz.
But recently things have been quieter for Chacon and Preston-Werner. While their other co-founder Chris Wanstrath continues managing GitHub, Chacon left the startup in early 2016.
On stage in Berlin Chacon explains how he moved to France with his family –and realized how hard it is to learn a language. “There are a lot of issues with learning a language as an adult,” he says. Either you pay for an expensive teacher or use apps like Duolingo or Babbel. The problem? “With Duolingo you don’t speak to people.’ And that gave Chacon an idea for a new project.
“We don’t need people with much skills”
The online service Chatterbug combines two elements: It builds and measures a user’s vocabulary. And it connects students with a language teacher via video. The program assesses exactly what level a language learner has, the founder explains. “We developed the learning material completely from scratch.” His own language teacher (who now works for the startup) helped him with that. Chatterbug then gives teachers on the platform the exact information on what the users need to learn: “We don’t need people with much skill,” Chacon says.
The first language on Chatterbug is German. “No one on our team could speak German,” Chacon says. The startup positioned itself to help Americans and Britons interested in learning German. A lot of expats will live in a country but never learn to speak the language properly, Chacon explains. The startup is currently testing the program in a private beta phase. First they want to complete all the German lessons – then they will add other languages. A German office is also on the horizon.
A profession that can’t be automated
Tom Preston-Werner stumbled into being co-founder of Chatterbug. He had already left GitHub as CEO three years earlier, after a highly-publicized scandal. After that he worked for a non-profit coding initiative. When Chacon called him and told him about Chatterbug, he asked himself: “Could the idea create one million jobs?” He decided that it could and stepped on board.
Chatterbug provides opportunities for many people to make money via the internet, especially in rural areas, Preston-Werner says. But aren’t human language teachers an intermediary step before replacing them with language robots? Preston-Werner doesn’t think so. If you compare the model with Uber, there is a huge difference: With Uber you just need to move a passenger from A to B with a suggested route. “You don’t have to be creative,” he says. That’s why that job will eventually be replaced with self-driving cars.
That is different when learning a language. The human communication is what makes language learning fun. As a student you just want to ask questions, like “what is in German the difference between Frucht and Obst?” The founders themselves spend two to four hours per week learning German.
“And are you experimenting with artificial intelligence,” asks an audience. The answer: All tests in that direction didn’t work well, Chacon says. “Terrible” was the result.
This article also appeared on Gründerszene.