Startups To Start Noticing: Fluent City
kaylee | Mar 22, 2017 | 1:00PM |

Remember when your parents made you sign up for Spanish or French (or German? Why were we all learning German?) in high school because they had dreams of you going to an Ivy League school and making literal boatloads of money? I do! And maybe for some of us, it really did all work out that way and to the people that managed to do it, a hearty congratulations for you. It certainly didn’t for me.

I’ve retained far less Spanish than I’ve hoped. While I occasionally surprise myself by pulling a word out of what I imagine must be a dusty old supply closet in the back of my brain, I absolutely wish I could do better and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Which is were Fluent City comes in. Started in an apartment in Brooklyn (now where have we heard that before?), Fluent City strives to become the language class you wished you’d taken from the beginning. Eschewing rote memorization for true conversation, they want to give you the skills and present day culture know how that allows you to be a fully capable speaker. Whether you’re brushing up and updating your knowledge or starting down this bumpy road for the first time, Fluent City has a variety of classes in a variety of languages all over the East Coast.

We caught up with Jared Graf, director of marketing at Fluent City, to talk about the specifics that set them apart from other language courses, as well as a cool new program they have for those working in social justice aligned careers.

Tell me a little bit about Fluent City’s origin story.

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Fluent City was started by a guy named Sam Maher out of his apartment in Brooklyn in 2012. He thought that all the other language schools out there were stuffy and serious and academic. He wanted to create a warmer environment to learn languages, so he started teaching French out of his apartment and started using more pop culture references instead of literary or academic references. That kind of sensibility really appealed to the younger generations in Brooklyn and it slowly built by word of mouth. He was able to expand into a classroom space and then into multiple cities really quickly all while always making sure there was a focus on having really great charismatic teachers and a focus on conversation rather than memorization and a focus on putting the experience and immersion first over grammar.

How did you become involved with the company?

I was looking for an opportunity to do something I was passionate about… I’m passionate about culture. I studied film and video in school and I wanted to do something that was touching on the diversity of the world, while helping people connect to other cultures. At the time, Fluent City had a different brand identity and site design and they were looking for someone to come on and rebrand the company into a larger cultural school. And they wanted someone to build out the marketing team.

What’s an average day like for you?

On a day to day basis, I’d say 30% of my time is spent on strategic initiatives. Either working with the senior leadership team, or the CEO, on things like new market expansion or product expansion. So looking at ways to bring Fluent City to more people online or offering flexible scheduling programs and changing the product itself. Then 70% of my time is spent on working with the marketing team to ideate on revenue focused campaigns and execute on those campaigns. Coming up with the content, messaging and revenue trigger’s we’ll be rolling out.

What would you say Fluent City’s goal is, as a company?

Fluent City’s goal is to to expand the horizons and better the lives of our students by expanding their horizons. We believe that language is a bridge to other cultures and by learning about other cultures you become a more rounded person.

You guys have a handful of different languages available and you’re in a couple different cities on the east coast. How do you guys decide which languages you’re going to hire new teachers for and how do you decide where you’re going to expand?

Right now we’re in New York, D.C., Boston and Philidelphia. How we decide to hire for teachers is based on the demand in those specific cities. A lot of it is based on search demand. We look at class keywords, but also things like private lesson and tutoring keywords. Then we also keep a very tight feedback loop with our students and our coordinators in those cities, so if they’re looking for other levels or other languages we know that pretty quickly and we get NPS feedback along the way.

As far as new city expansion goes, we do put a lot of stock in search demand because it is one of the biggest channels for our current markets. And then we look at other factors like the competitive landscape in those markets, as well as the unique pricing and regional distinctions of the area. Also, how easy is it to go to a physical location? In LA, for instance, we’re looking at more of a distributed model where we might have more pop up locations instead of more larger long term locations because it is harder to get around that city.

You guys also throw events as well. Can you tell me a little bit about those?

The most popular and regular event we throw is an open house. We throw a few every month and it’s really a chance for students to get a sense of what the language classes will be like. We have refreshments and some light snacks and dessert and people get a crash course in their chosen language and a chance to have a free assessment of what their level would be. We’ve also been from time to time, offering some extra curricular events. For instance we’ll do an Italian cocktail night where you’ll learn a little Italian, but also learn how to make a Negroni. We’ve done partnerships with a local theater where we’ve showed foreign films. For other businesses, we’ve partnered on longer form programming in cocktails and interior design as well as other cultural programming. So we did a popup on French culture to teach people what it would be like to actually go there and prepare people. Those are mainly in a partnership capacity right now. We’re really more focused on the language business for the general public.

Are there any languages you guys don’t offer now that you plan on rolling out? Or is it more of a city by city decision?

We’re constantly evaluating demand so languages like Russian for instance has become more popular, as well as Arabic. Korean is becoming more and more popular. So we look at trends in that way, but at the same time it is pretty city specific. In certain markets there are trending languages that are not in others. At the core of it, French and Spanish are still our most popular languages, by far, but we do try and provide as much variety as they can and sometimes that just means that we may be doing more one on one lessons with people. So we’ve started to branch out into other languages in that capacity.

In the advent of apps that are also trying to do the same thing… I mean the most famous is Duolingo but there are many others, why should someone take a class when they can use this more passive technology for free?

We’ll that’s kind of part of it. We view apps as a great supplement to language learning but it can’t replace the depth and immersion that you get in person. Having real life conversations in a language learning setting can’t be replaced. We love apps like Duolingo, but the focus that we put in all of our classes is to have a really engaging teacher who can inspire you and let you feel like it’s okay to make a mistake. A lot of adults are scared of making mistakes at this point. Plus having all these other peers as your support network who are working through the same challenges as you, you can’t really get that from an app. There’s also a focus on conversation and what you actually need to get by. We have our own course material that focuses on real world application. Things like setting up your dating profile or texting with a friend or getting through airport security… and not getting bogged down in all the rote memorization, but being really focused on practical application.

What would you say the hardest part is about your job?

Communicating the real change you see in students. We try doing student profiles and teacher profiles to show the human aspect of what language learning can do for people in terms of expanding their own horizons and improving their jobs or their relationships or their well being through travel or self growth. I think that as hard as we try it’s still a challenge to bring that emotional connection off the screen or off the page and help others to understand the impact that it can have.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

I think just interacting with so many types of people. We have 350 teachers and they’re literally from all over the world. I love having those mixed perspectives permeating through our company culture.

If you could go back in time to when you started at Fluent City, what advice would you give yourself?

I think everyone has their own biases when it comes to what channels they may have worked with in the past or what they’ve found to be successful. I think I would give myself the advice of trying to be more open minded when it comes to things that I might not have had experience with before. Like local marketing tactics. So things like Yelp and Google Reviews, for instance, may not really seem like a big part of a strategy when you come from a national product before, but in a local market those things are paramount. I think I would give myself that advice.

Also, one thing I just thought of is that we just launched a pretty cool program called the Fluent City Grant Program where we’re granting free languages classes to those who are working for social justice causes. So those who work in immigration law and climate change or extreme economic inequality can apply and we’re giving away a certain number of free language training classes to those folks.

Photos courtesy of Fluent City