The Entrepreneur: Ed Cooke, Memrise

Co-founder of the £4m company making learning languages "easy and fun", Cooke talks profits, "being fooled into business', and a love of...eggs

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Founder: Ed Cooke
Company: Memrise
Description in one line: A global mobile language learning game
Turnover: $4m
12 month target:$12m

Business growth

Describe your business model and what makes your business unique:

  •  Memrise is a global language learning game on mobile
  •  We make learning languages uniquely fun and effective
  •  Our popular freemium subscriptions have attracted hundreds of thousands of users

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

Achieving profitability.

What numbers do you look at every day in your business?

The following:

  • Average time spent learning per user
  • D7 retention (% of learners coming back on the seventh day after signing up
  • Total daily revenue

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?

We’re a very global business, operating through Google’s Playstore and Apple’s App Store to offer learners all round the world the chance to learn a language joyfully, no matter their location and the language they wish to speak.

That said, most of our international growth lies in the future.

Describe your growth funding path:

We had seed funding through Techstars in 2011, and that led to an angel investmeent round in 2012. We raised our Series A in 2013.

What technology has made the biggest difference to your business?

International air travel: most of our team and funding comes from abroad (though I guess the funding money isn’t actually delivered in briefcases!).

Where would you like your business to be in three years?

I’d like Memrise to be widely acknowledged as the world’s most powerful learning system, and to have 50 million active users.

Growth challenges

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

On a couple of occasions I’ve had to let go of someone who was also a friend. That sucks.

What was your biggest business mistake?

Not going purely mobile in 2010. We considered it at length but, because our only developer knew web and not mobile development and we already had a web prototype, we thought it would be safest to stick to the web.

Piece of Red Tape that hampers growth most:

I don’t feel too constrained by red tape to be honest. I do wish immigration policies were a bit more generous (generally, as well as for the fact that I run a company).

What is the most common serious mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

Mistaking being busy (one always is) for doing the most useful work. It’s almost always worth slowing down and making sure you are focusing on the single most important thing.

How will your market look in three years?

I think learning will be considered more a form of entertainment than, say, professional or scholarly development.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

A collection of surprisingly small micro-improvements can turn a hopeless-looking situation into a wonderful one.

Personal growth

Biggest luxury:

Two boiled eggs with soldiers every morning.

Executive education or learn it on the job?

Learn on the job. I hadn’t actually had a job of any kind before starting Memrise, or at least not one in a company.

This took the “working it out as you go along” approach a bit too far to be honest as amazingly basic things like office politics took me completely by surprise, as did the need for people to be aware of their responsibilities.

What would make you a better leader?

Better listening skills.

What one thing do you wish you’d known when you started?

I can answer the opposite question: I’m glad I didn’t know it actually takes 10-15 years to create a true company.

When I set out, I thought it’d be a year or two, and I’m not sure if I’d have set out on the path if I’d been aware of the timescale. I’m very grateful I was fooled into it though!

One business app and one personal app you can’t do without:

RebTel is my top business app as it’s still the only decent way of cheaply calling people round the world.

For personal use, I love the new app Olio for sharing food in local communities.

Business book:

I love Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull as its a story of how to combine creativity and discipline in the same team/process.

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