Tools for learning a new language have never been as readily accessible as they are today. There are numerous free or low-cost videos, apps and other methods to help people pick up a new language. Perhaps the main challenge they face is deciding which option is the most effective.
Univoice believes it has the solution. It offers a mobile app that teaches the casual learner a variety of languages through music and singing, including informal words and slang speech. We reached out to founder and CEO Sami Halabi to learn more about his experiences and the future he envisions for Univoice.
Note: This interview was conducted over phone and email. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Can you give us a brief elevator pitch for your company?
Univoice is the first mobile app that teaches languages exclusively through music. In a market flooded with clone flashcard apps using the same traditional teaching methods, we’re bringing a completely new — yet familiar — approach to the language-learning game. Univoice addresses the two biggest challenges in e-learning: (1) loss of interest and (2) lack of long-term retention. Supplementing its unique ability to engage and maintain interest, music is scientifically proven to anchor information to your long-term memory, so you can easily remember what you learn. In short, our unique language learning solution is as effective as it is entertaining.
What inspired you to take the leap and build this company?
Ever since I could crawl, I’ve been woefully obsessed with two things: music and languages. Growing up in a trilingual household (speaking Arabic at home, French at school, and English in society), I was raised with a deep fascination for language and culture. Starting at the age of six, I began playing piano and singing.
After reaching proficiency in six languages, I decided to start teaching languages as a side hustle. And, since it had been so instrumental in my own language journey, I relied heavily on music in my lessons. After amassing 12 language students from ages eight to 38 who raved about my “learn through music” method, I created an Instagram account to extend my impact to the masses! Then came the video series that would change my life forever. I wrote simple grammar jingles to Disney tracks the world knows and loves, which went viral — tens of thousands of views and hundreds of comments per video.
And the rest was history!
What past experiences prepared you to start, build, and lead your company?
I always joke with my friends that I was “born with entrepreneurial blood.” My father started 36 companies throughout his lifetime, many of which I’ve had the privilege to witness and support — some great successes, others big failures. Failure and success alike taught me more than I could imagine about team-building and management, concept development and execution, money management, and so much more. I’ve always known entrepreneurship is my calling; I was just waiting for the right opportunity to come along. And it did!
What is your vision for the future of the industry you are operating in?
I envision a new reality for language learning in which learning to speak the language is just as dynamic and engaging as connecting with natives in that language once you’re proficient: a new lifestyle that emerges around learning languages — one that’s steeped in community and cultural connection. You should never have to endure a rigorous classroom curriculum or flip through a repetitive flashcards app to learn; similarly, you should never have to learn alone. The future of language learning is fun, addictive, collaborative, and community-driven.
Who is on your team and how did you come together?
Bryan Riester was the first key executive to join the team as CPO. He has more than 14 years’ experience in product development and management, heavily entrenched in the education space. His work in education through gaming can be found in schools throughout the US, teaching kids to learn to read quicker. We met through a networking app named CoFoundersLab.
Next was Enrique Ortiz, our CTO. He harbors more than 30 years in tech, is a SXSW board member of more than 10 years, and was named a Top 50 Mobile Influencer by SAP. He led development for mobile apps that have been used by millions, including the Starbucks mobile app. We met through an Indeed job posting and knew right away of the mutual fit.
The last executive to join the team is Greg Nicholson, our head of user acquisition. He was an early employee at three startups acquired for more than $1 billion. He is also an Amazon bestselling author and a music producer who speaks Japanese. It all started with a simple LinkedIn connection request, which led to a phone call and a quick realization that we’re meant to jointly raise Univoice to the highest heights.
Do you have any competition, if so, how do you differentiate?
The e-language learning space is comprised of quite a few players, which makes competitive differentiation all the more important. Starting with a few high-level differentiators:
- We have a pending patent for “interactive language learning with an audio recording”
- We’re the first “languages through music” app in market, which expands our total addressable market (TAM)
- We are among the first to teach slang and colloquial speech in addition to “textbook” language
- Our app is naturally “language flexible” — if you speak any of our supported languages, you can learn any of the others
- We’re developing a group language-learning experience as a supplement to individual learning (first of its kind in our industry!)
From a pure learning standpoint, we distinguish ourselves as “acquisition-focused.” Rather than teaching grammar, syntax, semantics (how the language works/functions), we provide a proven, sticky approach to acquiring new words, phrases, sentences, and expressions. Hence, we cater to the “casual learner” rather than the “serious learner.” Furthermore, a core value is our unmatched focus on speaking (vs. reading and writing). Since speaking is the hardest part of learning any new language, we focus on speech recognition assessments and granularity of feedback.
What does your business model look like?
We run on a freemium-to-premium subscription model. After five free minutes of daily usage, users are prompted to purchase a weekly ($2.99), monthly ($8.99), quarterly ($17.99), or biannual ($35.99) subscription. We plan on phasing in branded in-app advertising in order to monetize our free user base as a secondary revenue stream.
What brought you to equity crowdfunding and how do you intend to use the money you raise this round to scale the business?
We were unanimously advised to give crowdfunding a go by our board advisors, given the great potential to draw in investors, ambassadors, and app users all at once. For a consumer-facing product like ours with a wide degree of applicability and a message that resonates with many, it’s a “hand-in-glove” opportunity. A no-brainer.
At a high level, around 45% will go towards human capital (product engineers and marketing staff), 37% will go towards marketing and advertising, and 18% will be allocated to operations. Drilling into a few of the more notable costs: curating more songs and adding more languages, music licensing fees, new hires and scaling hours of existing staff, creating and refreshing new marketing content, and incrementing our ad budgets.
What do you want potential investors to know about you and/or your company?
It’s a secret to none that TEAM is the greatest contributor to any company’s success (or failure). I’m grateful to say that our team is our single biggest point of pride at Univoice. Supplementing the impressive track record of executives are our hands-on strategic advisors and investors.
Starting with investor and music advisor Ian Henderson, who served as the global head of label licensing at Spotify for three years; our user acquisition advisor, Puran Parsani, former head of international growth at Babbel (the world’s highest-grossing language app globally); our UX/product advisor, Ram Alagianambi, an esteemed product leader with ample management experience at Amazon; Eugene Bond, our lead investor and the former head of engineering at Babbel; and finally, our corporate strategy advisor and investor, Kris Laumann, who sold his company, LingoVentura, to Babbel in 2018 (recent industry acquisition, second only to Rosetta Stone’s acquisition by Cambium Learning).
As you think about the business 5-10 years down the road, what do you see exit opportunities looking like? have you set any future goals for the company?
Over the next five to seven years, we have elaborate strategies in place: to invest heavily in product and technology; to create an enterprise-grade language solution that’s powered by AI; to expand our mobile application to Apple TV, an at-home experience (learn in your living room with friends); to roll out an enterprise edition for organizations with a language-learning use case; to launch an EDU edition for teachers and home-schooling parents eager to engage and maintain their learners’ interest; and more.
After amassing millions of consumer clients, dozens of enterprise and EDU clients, and aggregating more than five years’ worth of training data for our AI application framework by 2027, we’d be strategically positioned to integrate the Univoice solution within the product suite of a fellow market leader. The highest potential prospects for acquisition are Duolingo, Babbel, or Rosetta Stone, all of which are constantly looking for new ways to diversify their teaching methods to address a larger TAM and cater to underserved markets while maximizing the stickiness of their learning solutions. And considering the wide moat that exists for replicating the Univoice offering — building an AI algorithm that understands spoken and sung words and training it extensively, sourcing for quality translators with deep idiomatic and colloquial knowledge, and braving 12- to 18-month music licensing deal cycles — acquiring our company will be far more reasonable than merely copying our features. That is the current plan to exit by 2027 or 2028.
We at KingsCrowd are excited to see where Sami and his team take the company. Univoice is currently raising on Wefunder.