Sololearn raises $24M for its bite-sized, Duolingo-like mobile-first coding education app

Coding is not just for engineers and computer programmers anymore: The pace of technology and its growing ubiquity mean that even nontech roles will require workers to have some degree of knowledge to do their jobs in the future. Today a company called Sololearn — which has built a popular mobile-first education platform to meet that demand, now with over 21 million users across some 25 curriculum categories like Python, JavaScript, Java, C++, HTML and SQL — is announcing $24 million in funding to expand its business.

Drive Capital led the round, with participation from past backers from Sololearn’s previous $1.2 million Series A round in 2016 (Learn Capital and Prosus Ventures).

Of note, Drive Capital was co-founded by two alums from Sequoia out of Columbus, Ohio, with a mission to focus on founders outside of the “usual” hubs. That’s precisely what they have done here: Sololearn comes from Yerevan, Armenia, which has produced a lot of engineering talent, but interestingly not as many startups. (PicsArt, which is also HQ’d in San Francisco, may the biggest name to come out of there.)

Sololearn was founded and is currently led by Yeva Hyusyan, who tells me that the impetus for the company came out of a previous project (a startup accelerator) she worked on while working for Microsoft in the country.

One side effort to that was a coding bootcamp they put together to help upskill would-be entrepreneurs. The bootcamp took on a life of its own eventually, with tech companies in the country, and specifically the capital city, approaching Hyusyan to source interesting candidates for jobs, and soon after to take and train people in specific areas on behalf of the tech companies themselves. In the process, the accelerator started building tools that could be used outside of the classroom. Through all of that, Hyusyan said she realised that there was an opportunity in itself to focus just on this. And thus Sololearn was born.

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Now I know what you must be thinking at this point: Aren’t there already dozens, maybe hundreds, of decent online coding courses and tools out in the market already? Why fund Yet One More?

Key to what Sololearn is doing is that it has taken a realistic approach: On mobile, people want short bursts of content, so coding education on that platform should follow from that. The “lessons” such as they are come in bite-size engagements, which can be run through in minutes if needed. Its target users are equally distributed among those who are focused on learning deeply about coding, and nontech people who are trying to learn some specific skills for their jobs, and she said that both have taken to the format.

“Everyone was critical about the idea of learning coding on a mobile screen, so we built a compiler a few years ago,” she said. “But believe me, the younger generation prefers to code on mobile. It’s as normal as a desktop. You’d be amazed at the thousands of lines of code they put together, all on a phone.”

The Duolingo-like approach to the curriculum was further followed by the fact that there are no formal “teachers”, but if people need help they can turn to others in the Sololearn community. Helpers are incentivized, Hyusyan said, “because they learn and they get recognition from the community.”

“The best helpers are community influencers, experts that work with us for free and basically help everyone out. They are our best and most influential members,” she added.

The formula seems to have worked. Sololearn is adding between 200,000 and 300,000 new users every month, she said, with active users up 300% over last year. The 21 million people who are already using the platform essentially gravitated to it by word of mouth. (That will surely change now that Sololearn has raised this big round…)

The potential audience is a massive one. “Billions will need to re-skill in the next 10 years,” Hyusyan said, with the implication being that Sololearn (and others like it) will take on that re-skilling role. “We think the era of institutional learning is over. No one institution, not even a consortium, could cope with that demand.”

With the company also seeing a lot of traction for learning in platform-specific languages, such as C# and Swift for Apple iOS, Kotlin for Android and Go for Google cloud computing, it will be using the funding to continue expanding into more languages, but also more learning tailored to specific job categories.

With Duolingo and other bite-sized content players seeing huge growth, that speaks to a lot of potential in the educational realm, and with Sololearn specifically.

“Sololearn provides bite-sized habit-forming instruction at scale, a warm and supportive community, and amazing user-generated content,” said Masha Khusid, partner at Drive Capital, in a statement. “And with Sololearn bringing that same proven approach to a subject matter with such a profound impact on millions of peoples’ financial futures, it’s particularly exciting and rewarding to be their Series B lead.”