Startup Spotlight: London-based Memrise wants to give everyone 'learning super powers'

As part of our weekly Startup Spotlight series, in which we feature interesting but mostly below-the-radar European startups, here’s a Q&A with Memrise co-founder and CEO Ed Cooke.

Aside from shining a light on some of Europe’s finest bootstrapped technology companies, we’ve also kicked off the ‘Startup Spotlight’ series featuring relatively under-the-radar but interesting European tech startups on a weekly basis.

This time we shine a light on London-based Memrise, which uses images and science to "make learning easy and fun". A lot of companies in the digital education space say that, of course, but few actually pull it off.

Here’s a Q&A with the brilliant Ed Cooke, a British writer, author and entrepreneur who certainly has the credentials for starting this type of business, being a Grand Master of Memory and all.

Grand Master of Memory How would you best describe Memrise and your vision for the company?

Ed Cooke: Memrise seeks to give everyone learning super-powers. We’re focused on creating a uniquely effective and joyful way to learn languages.

What would you say is the main thing that makes Memrise different from other companies tackling digital education, and more specifically the online language-learning space?

The most obvious thing is that we exploit more than anyone else the brain’s powerful visual learning systems. That and our focus on the science of learning make Memrise an unusually innovative and effective creator of language-learning experiences.

What do we think of our rivals? The view’s not great from up here, to be honest. Too many of them have simply put an interactive digital wrapper around a textbook.

We think in time the space will evolve to favour forms of rich, real-world content of a kind you’d never see in a textbook, and learning interactions, equally, that do justice to the incredible technology we now have in our smartphones and networks.

When was Memrise founded? Where did the idea for the startup originally come from?

In 2010. The idea originally came from the project of combining the best knowledge from the science and practical arts of memory (I have a background in competitive memory tournaments) into a learning system optimised for efficiency and power.

As we’ve developed, we’ve increasingly recognised that the emotional and imaginative elements of learning are as important as the cognitive, and in doing do we’ve steadily improved the joyfulness, as well as the effectiveness, of the Memrise learning experience.

How much funding has Memrise raised so far? Any plans to raise more?

We’ve raised a total of about $6 million of funding. We’ve no immediate need to raise more now, but as we expand into more markets there’ll probably be some call for a war-chest. At the moment though, we’re extremely focused on our product invention.

memrise office

How many people are using Memrise today?

We’re in the space between 500,000 and 1 million users learning each month, growing strongly. On current trajectory, we’re anticipating several million MAU by 12 months’ time.

What is your business model or future plan to monetise? Has your thinking on business model evolved since the start of the company?

We’ve always been extremely keen to ensure that all of the fundamental learning on Memrise is open and free. So our business model focused on extra tools that provide analytics and personalisation for the committed learner.

This freemium offering is quite popular: thousands of our learners are having great fun identifying their strengths and weaknesses and tweaking their learning accordingly. We’ll elaborate this freemium model further in the future with extra personalisation and learning modes.

On a personal note, how do you maintain a balance between your personal and professional life?

It’s certainly important to make some separation. The single rule by which I try to abide is not to work on Saturdays. But I love what we’re doing at Memrise, I’m close friends with many of my colleagues, and we’re having the best time of our lives building what we’re building; so overall, I’m happy at the moment with a fairly tight fusion between the personal and professional.

Do you allow people to bring pets to the office? Why (not)?

Funny enough, our Chairwoman is a cat called Mousha who lives in the office. The only constraint on other pets in the office is whether they get along with Mousha. She’s quite territorial.


What are Memrise’s plans for the next three months? And what can we expect from you in the coming year?

We’re seeing some wonderful growth and engagement from our newly re-engineered Android app at the moment, and with our new iPhone app due for launch this month, we’re looking forward to supporting similar advances there.

Overall, we’ve been making a big investment in the diversity and sophistication of the learning experiences we’re able to purvey these last six months, so you’ll see some exciting developments bubbling through there.

Finally, we have a very exciting experimental project coming to fruition involving a new level of richness and joy in our language content.

What are your thoughts on the London startup scene, and the European startup ecosystem(s) as a whole?

There’s no doubt that the London startup scene’s hotting up impressively, but I’d say there’s still a long way to go before we rival the great US startup ecosystems.

Memrise was part of Techstars Boston in 2011, where we had an amazing experience of what a well-advanced startup eco-system can give to a company. London is catching up, and you can feel how it might rival Boston come the end of the decade.

One area where London (and Europe) still have a long way to go is in the culture of collaboration, generosity, and excitement at others’ success that’s so strikingly present in US ecosystems like Boston, NY and SF. I think that’s a huge part of the magic of these communities, and London remains comparatively guarded and joyless by comparison.

The first thought of the US entrepreneur, on hearing of your business, is to co-imagine how amazing it might be and see how they might be able to help. In the UK, the first reaction of a fellow entrepreneur is more normally to try to pick holes in the idea and point out why it’s probably been done before or is moronic. This is a big weakness in the ecosystem that is still improving too gradually.

Positive energy is part of the oxygen of great ecosystems.

But the confidence in the European scene is clearly growing, and my bet is that the next Skype-scale European startups will gun all the way to becoming a $50 billion juggernaut, rather than wimping out ahead of time; just one such success would be transformative for the ecosystem as a whole.

If you could live and do your startup from anywhere else in Europe, which place would you pick and why?

Berlin’s obviously a great place to found a startup: it’s cheap and full of talented, creative people.

In Britain, beyond London and Cambridge, it’s Glasgow and Edinburgh that seem to be thriving most. I have a suspicion that Manchester, with its extraordinary computer science department and history of industrial invention, may wind up as a powerful European tech hub in the years to come.

So if we were to move, I’d perhaps like to try and catch and help grow that wave, and so live and do my startup from there.

All images credit to Memrise

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