Andres and Nicolette Moreno founded founded Open English, a super fast-growing Miami company that offers English instruction through online classes, which is profiled in this week's Miami Herald Business Monday section. Nicolette shared some thoughts with me about what it's like to found a company with your husband, menorship and being a women in tech.
A. It's been beautiful, rewarding and a lot of work! What we have is uniquely complex, but works in all directions. In the early days, we didn't know the meaning of balance and we'd often work 20-30 days in a row without taking an afternoon off. At this stage we've been fortunate enough to have attracted a talented senior management team that allows us to get out of the weeds and spend more time thinking about long-term vision and the strategic direction of the company.
Working with your husband day and day out is an intense experience, but I've found that it fosters a deep sense of unity between us. We've been in the trenches together and needed to rely on each other's skills and commitment to get to the next stage. We don't have kids, but I'd imagine it to be a similar experience in the sense that you are both working full time to create the best future for your
child, and in our case, the company.
Q. You said your investors weren't totally keen on a husband-wife team at first? How did you turn them around?
A. In the early days, some investors took pause in the fact that we were married. This dynamic shaped our work ethic by demanding that we go above and beyond to continuously prove yourselves to colleagues and investors. Still today we keep the habit of giving each other feedback as we drive back home from work. We really don't cut each other much slack during these daily sessions, which is valuable for our professional advancement but tough to turn off once we get home. We are still
working to improve this; hopefully we'll get it right in the next "release" of our marriage. :)
Q. Do you have a mentor and if so how has he or she been helpful?
A. Yes. I've had several people that believed in me before I believed in myself.
Mike Hooper (former boss) has been my rock for the last decade. Funny enough, we end up talking more about life than work. He's been at the crossroads with me in some of the big decisions that've shaped who I am today. I can call him day or night and he always helps me gain clarity.
Two of the people that have most influenced me are John McIntire, our Chairman, and Thomas Wenrich, our COO. What I've learned from John is the power of bringing people together, as well as how to deal with adversity. From Tigre, how to get things done and how to protect the castle.
Q. What advice do you have for other women entrepreneurs?
A. The advice I give to other women entrepreneurs is to look at our challenges as opportunities. It's
certainly a challenge to be a woman entrepreneur because there are fewer of us out there and the start-up ecosystem is dominated by men, all the way from programmers to venture capitalists. Having said that, that's also our biggest opportunity because women have a unique optic on a host of social and professional issues that have not been solved yet.
The same is true for Open English. U.S. investors often ask why no one created an online English
school before we did. Our answer is always that if U.S. entrepreneurs would have had to learn English as a second langage, there would have been a number of competitors in our space well before our time. Our advantage was simply that we had personal insight on our market opportunity.
Check out this Geeky Beach video that features Nicolette and other successful South Florida tech entrepreneurs -- of the female kind: http://geekybeach.com/miami-tech-scene/geeky-beach-women-in-tech/
Following is the profile on Open English that was published in this week's Business Monday.
Profile: Open English expands across Latin America
BY JOSEPH A MANN JR., firstname.lastname@example.org
Back in 2008, Open English, a company run from Miami that uses online courses to teach English in Latin America, had just a handful of students in Venezuela and three employees. Today the company has more than 50,000 students in 22 Latin American countries and some 2,000 employees.
To fund this meteoric expansion, the founders of Open English — Venezuelans Andrés Moreno and Wilmer Sarmiento and Moreno’s American wife, Nicolette — began with $700. Over the last six years, the partners have raised more than $55 million, mostly from private investment and venture capital firms.
Their formula for success? The founders rejected traditional English teaching methods in physical classrooms and developed a system that allows students to tune into live classes every hour of the day from their computers at home, in the office or at school, and learn from native English-speaking teachers who may be based anywhere. Courses stress practical conversations online and the company guarantees fluency after a one-year course, offering six additional months free if students fail to become fluent.
“We wanted to change the way people learn English,” said Andrés Moreno, the 30-year-old co-founder and CEO, who halted his training as a mechanical engineer and worked full-time at developing the company with his partners. “And we want students to achieve fluency. Traditionally, students have to drive to an English academy, waste time in traffic, and try to learn from a teacher who is not an native English speaker in a class with 20 students.”
Using the Internet, Open English offers classes usually with two or three students and a teacher, interactive videos, other learning aids and personal attention from coaches who phone students regularly to see how they are progressing.
Courses cost an average of $750 per year and students can opt for monthly payments. This is about one-fifth to one-third of what traditional schools charge for small classes or individual instructors, Andrés noted.
“We work at building confidence with our students and encourage them to practice speaking English as much as possible during classes,” said Nicolette Moreno, co-founder and chief product officer, who met Andrés in Venezuela while she was working there on a service project. “Students are taught to actively participate in conversations like a job interview, traveling and talking on a conference call,” said Nicolette, who previously lived in Los Angles, worked with non-profits to create environmentally friendly products and fight poverty in emerging markets, and was head equity trader at an asset management firm. “Students need to speak English in our classes, even though it is sometimes difficult. They learn through immersion.”
Open English has successfully tapped into an enormous, underserved market. Millions of people in Latin America want to learn English to advance in their jobs, work at multinational companies, travel or work overseas and understand the popular music, movies and TV shows they constantly hear in English. Many of them take English courses at public and private schools and learn little if any useful conversational English. While students at private schools for the upper middle class and wealthy often learn foreign languages extremely well from native English-speaking teachers, most people can’t afford these schools or courses designed for one or two students.
Students who want to take Open English courses fill out a form on the company’s Website and are contacted by an Open English employee from either the Bogota call center (for Spanish speakers) or the Sao Paulo center (Portuguese). Once they sign up, they receive an activation code and instructions and can start classes immediately. Classes last 45 minutes and students can choose basic, intermediate or advanced levels. For beginning students, teachers are bilingual.
While Open English continues to expand in Latin America, the company plans to offer classes in the U.S. in the future, Andrés said.
Success did not arrive overnight for the company’s founders. Before setting up Open English, they ran a school that offered English courses in Venezuela to corporate executives with native English-speakers and very small classes. But they found that it was difficult to find native English-speaking teachers who were willing to relocate to Venezuela, so they developed the scalable idea of online courses where these teachers could work from virtually anywhere.
At first, they struggled to find capital to put together their project, quickly using up their own limited funds and obtaining a $10,000 bank loan six months into the project. They presented their business plan to venture capital and private investment firms, but it took about 18 months to obtain the first $400,000. Once potential investors saw that Open English had obtained funds, more money came in.
While Open English had received some money from angel investors, Flybridge Capital Partners, which focuses on providing seed money and early-stage technology investing, was the first institutional investor to take a major stake in the company, starting in the fall of 2012.
“We are very interested in online education and were aggressively exploring possibilities in this area,” said Jon Karlen, a general partner at Flybridge’s Boston, Mass. office. Flybridge saw an opportunity for Open English to appeal to the large, rising middle class in Latin America, Karlen added, “But what was really unique about the company was Andrés, who is an exceptional entrepreneur and became an outstanding CEO and leader.”
Currently the largest investor in Open English, Flybridge sees excellent growth opportunities for the company, in part because there is a huge market and broadband penetration is growing rapidly every year in the region. Flybridge has invested in Open English over three different rounds. Typically, the firm puts a total of $8 million to $12 million in their projects over the life of the investment, Karlen said.
As of today, the company has received more than $55 million from investors like Flybridge, Insight Venture Partners, Kaszek Ventures, LAM Ventures, Redpoint Ventures and angel investors. As the company’s operations staff expanded in Miami, the company needed new space and moved into a large, new offices in Coconut Grove in October of 2012.
After developing their system, videos, supplementary materials and software to support online courses, the three founders began promoting Open English in Venezuela five years ago.
They used — and today continue to use — advertising in Spanish and Portuguese that include clever and amusing Internet ads where Andrés and Nicolette have key roles. Andrés plays a student who speaks fluent English thanks to Open English and jokes with his friend who is taking traditional classes, spends hours in traffic to and from class and can hardly utter a phrase in English. Nicolette, who in real life is from Los Angeles, plays “Jenny from California,” one of the company’s teachers.
After Open English began attracting students in Venezuela, the company moved on to Colombia, Peru and other Latin countries. Currently, Brazil has the largest number of students, followed by Colombia, Venezuela and Peru. Brazil has been one of the fastest-growing markets for the company. Open English started with less than 50 students there in November of 2011 and now has more than 10,000, Andrés said.
Alain Lagger (pictured here), who assumed the new post last October, is responsible for creating a culture of optimism and cooperation in the company. His role includes creating motivational initiatives, team-building activities that emphasize the company’s core values, organizing group sessions and personal counseling. “We want people to feel a sense of purpose in their work,” Andrés said. “Some work — like call centers — can be tedious and we want to show employees that their jobs have a real purpose, that their work has the power to transform students’ lives.”
Interviews with Open English students — who range in age from teens to people over 50 — indicate that the convenience of online courses, the ability to practice English in a small class and the availability of teachers and coaches set the company apart from other types of courses.
Diego Fernández Acevedo, a 31-year-old teacher from Bogota, took English classes in school but turned to Open English to gain fluency and studies about one and a half to two hours daily. “I’ve been studying with Open English for more than six months and I find their small classes and interactive programs very interesting. It is difficult to practice English in the course but the experience is very valuable.”
“Learning English is not just one more language” Andrés said. “It’s a global communication tool that allows us to be better at work and helps us understand our social surroundings. We’re excited that Latin America is being transformed, how people today can start up companies like ours. And Miami is a kind of hub for startups in Latin America.”
• Business: Provides online English courses to speakers of Spanish and Portuguese in Latin America. Online courses are live and use native English-speaking teachers. The company says it currently reaches more than 50,000 students in 22 countries throughout Latin America. Operations headquarters: Miami (Coconut Grove)
• Established: 2006
• Founders: Andrés Moreno, Nicolette Moreno, Wilmer Sarmiento
• CEO: Andrés Moreno
• Employees: Approximately 2,000, including full-time and contract workers
• Operations: Call centers in Bogota and Sao Paulo and offices in Miami, Caracas and Panama City
• Funding: Started out with $700 in 2006 and since then has raised more than $55 million from private investment/venture capital firms
• Website: www.openenglish.com
Source: Open English