Video Transcript


How a Live Tutoring Platform Helps the Working World Get Ahead

The Cambly interface on mobile and tablet

In today's global economy, English proficiency unlocks opportunity. People all over the world are motivated to improve their English skills in order to make a better life for themselves and their families. Cambly is a language education platform that helps millions of learners advance their careers by connecting them with English-speaking tutors from a similar professional background.

For many language learners, speaking is often the hardest skill to improve in a classroom setting. Conversation time is limited, and students tend to practice with each other rather than with a teacher. Some students may not have a fluent speaker available in their location. Cambly offers one-on-one tutoring sessions over live video chat, 24/7. Students anywhere in the world can practice speaking with a tutor at any time during their busy day, whether it’s for 15 minutes on their lunch break or late at night when the kids are asleep.

Cambly’s “Hello, World” moment

Two important developments in mobile hardware paved the way for Cambly’s founders, Kevin Law and Sameer Shariff, to bring their vision to life. Smartphones started coming out with front-facing cameras, and broadband internet connections became widespread across devices and markets. For the first time, most people had hardware that could support live video chat without having to strap a USB camera to their laptop.

The founders took full advantage of these features and developed an MVP for iOS. That first app was super simple. When a user pressed a button to initiate a tutoring session, Kevin’s phone would ring and he’d run to a computer to join the video chat. Cambly has since evolved from there, of course, but these early experiences proved that the founders had a market.

In the beginning, Kevin was the only tutor available, and his very first chat took him, and his caller, by complete surprise. An App Store reviewer was just testing the app and had hit the call button to see what would happen. When Kevin suddenly appeared in the app and said “Hi,” the reviewer panicked and hung up! As the calls started rolling in, many people like the Apple Reviewer were shocked to have a live person appear in the app just moments after downloading it. Kevin says, “I had some pretty funny conversations in those days. But on-demand service has always been an important part of Cambly, especially for that first-time user experience.”

An example of featured tutors, showing their name, rating, location, and description

The working world speaks on Cambly

Over time, Kevin met hundreds of people from around the world. Many people had never spoken with a native English speaker, even though they had been taking English classes throughout their lives. Many were professionals who excelled at their jobs, but needed to improve their English speaking skills in order to advance their careers. English fluency would help learners communicate better in the workplace, ace a job interview at an international company, or attract more English-speaking clients.

“It proved our hypothesis,” says Kevin. “I’m not a professional English teacher; I’m a software engineer. I thought that there may be a lot of people who have studied English for a long time that would be interested in talking to me.”

Not only do tutors teach language skills, but they also help learners understand the culture and context of their industry in a different country. For example, a registered nurse may want to understand patient etiquette in the U.K., or a tour operator may want to know more about Australian cultural norms. As Kevin points out, “I’ll speak with software engineers who want to know what engineering teams in the U.S. care most about. They want to learn insider lingo, as well as how to pronounce technology brands and terms like a native speaker.”

The global diversity of tutors on Cambly is also a major bonus. Many learners want to practice speaking with tutors with different regional accents to enhance their listening and pronunciation skills.

The (not so) secret language of pilots

Kevin and Sameer soon discovered that it’s not just software engineers who want to practice their English with other engineers. Learners from a wide range of industries flock to Cambly to speak with tutors from the same background. The platform predominantly attracts sales and business professionals, as well as people from healthcare, government, tourism, and many other sectors. All want to practice their speaking skills with the opportunity to learn industry-specific vocabulary and pronunciation, as well as cultural and regional differences.

“Often, people just want to talk with someone who understands what they do for a living,” says Kevin. “With their English-speaking counterpart, they can go much deeper than casual conversation and get themselves ready to converse in a professional way.”

Sometimes, these industry segments develop organically on Cambly in surprising ways. At one point, the founders noticed a trend with one small group of tutors: retired airplane pilots. These tutors happened to be booked solid, even though Cambly did not specifically target their particular industry. It turned out, one of Cambly’s students was a pilot for Turkish Airlines who had posted about his experience in an online forum for pilots. His colleagues saw the post and were inspired to try Cambly themselves.

The Cambly interface, showing a tutor and student talking via video chat

Naturally, Turkish-speaking pilots can fly domestic routes within Turkey with no problem. But to fly to international destinations like San Francisco or Beijing, pilots must be able to communicate with air traffic control in English. It’s hard to learn and practice those conversations in a typical English class. That’s where Cambly fills the gap with tutors who, like the retired pilots, can teach learners the terminology and phrases that require fluency.

Many industries require applicants to pass a standardized exam, such as the IELTS or TOEFL, to qualify for particular jobs. Similarly, academic institutions also require testing as part of their admissions process. Cambly provides tutors that specialize in helping learners prepare for these exams and take a critical next step in their career path.

Turning the tables: learning Spanish from an English tutor

The name “Cambly” is actually derived from the Spanish word “intercambio,” which means “exchange.” In the early days, Cambly supported both English and Spanish language learning. However, the numbers of English learners far surpassed Spanish learners. Also, the goals and level of commitment were very different between the two segments, particularly when it comes to the professional context. So, the founders eventually decided to optimize the platform for English only.

Undaunted, Spanish learners found a clever workaround on Cambly. One advantage of the platform’s diverse community of tutors is that many are multilingual. Learners can choose a tutor who also speaks their own native language, which can come in handy when they get stuck. But it also opens up a hidden opportunity for native English speakers.

Cambly’s Spanish-speaking tutors have reported that occasionally students come to them, not to learn English, but to practice Spanish. Tutors are surprised when one of these unusual students logs into a chat, but the unstructured nature of conversation practice makes it easy to shift gears. Spanish learners can enjoy an equally rich experience on Cambly, and also benefit from a tutor’s professional background in the same way.

In the era of working from home

When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, people around the world were forced to stay at home indefinitely. For some, this meant more time to focus on self-improvement goals, such as language learning. Cambly saw a massive surge in traffic as lockdowns swept the world in the coming weeks. A wave of new learners joined Cambly and existing learners were logging in more often.

The pandemic also brought a spike in Cambly Kids, the company's language learning product for children. As families were under stay-at-home orders, parents looked for ways to supplement their children's online studies or fill their day with educational activities.

During this unprecedented global experience, the Cambly team has seen the beginning of a paradigm shift in language learning. As Kevin says, “I think people are still getting used to the idea of learning English online, but there’s so much value that technology brings. You can record sessions and go back and review them. We offer translation tools in the chat, so you can look up words in the moment. It’s forcing people to think about nontraditional ways to learn English and they want to try it out on Cambly.”

Read the Cambly case study to learn more about how Kevin and team built Cambly on Heroku.

Originally published: July 21, 2020

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