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Seoul-based educational startup Smatoos today announced a KRW 3 billion (US$2.7 million) series B investment for its business English learning service, BeNative Pro, which launched earlier this year. The latest funding comes from Korea Investment Partners, Mirae Asset Venture Investment, and Partners Investment. It will go toward expanding into China and Taiwan, as well as increasing the startup’s existing presence in Japan.
Online English learning platforms are a dime a dozen in Asia, where such services offer a cost-effective alternative to physical tutoring at traditional conversation schools. Hagwon in Korea and eikaiwa in Japan can cost hundreds of dollars a week, but virtual lessons from BeNative Pro (BeNative Premium in Japan) will cost US$100 a month or less depending on the specific package. The business English service spun off from BeNative’s original conversation app, which has been downloaded half a million times since 2013.
Smatoos vice president Jonathan Moore tells Tech in Asia that 64 percent of the original app’s users are in Korea, with 27 percent in Japan and 9 percent in China. Some universities in Japan and Korea are also accepting BeNative’s lessons as course credit. On the business English front, Moore explains that the startup has been busy securing corporate clients.
“We’ve already completed contracts to offer our content to Credu and Meganext, the official online education providers of Samsung and LG, respectively,” he says. “We also just completed a contract with Benefit One, one of the largest ecommerce sites in Japan. We’re currently in talks with Sony and Hitachi as well.”
Schools in Asia tend to focus on grammar and formal English over conversation – in line with what students eventually find on university entrance exams, but with little day-to-day practicality. Private conversation lessons for business people are almost exclusively taught by recent graduates from the West with little to no relevant experience as actual businesspeople.
These flaws in the existing English education system effectively created the startup’s market. As the name implies, BeNative’s focus is on real-world English and learning to speak naturally. Its business English learning service is based on video clips featuring American entrepreneurs and CEOs who’ve spent years managing staff and negotiating deals. Moore explains:
[Videos] are 100 percent unscripted, we just ask basic questions about their business, product, and services. We choose [entrepreneurs and CEOs] based on recommendations, networking, and also when we meet various companies at events. We’ll be an official sponsor at the Edison Awards in New York next month and will be conducting interviews there. In the past, we gave interviews at TechCrunch Disrupt and Red Herring’s event in LA. We are open to give more interviews at future events as well, in both English and Chinese, since we plan to launch BeNative Chinese.
Smatoos’ series B brings the startup’s total funding to roughly US$6 million. Many of the current round’s investors also invested in Smatoos CEO Alan Moonsoo Kim’s previous company, Etoos, which was sold to SK Communications for US$30 million in 2006.
Moore adds that the startup plans to raise a series C round next year, and IPO in 2017.