Grammarly: how Ukrainians in the U.S. has created a company worth $1 billion

Check English spelling Grammarly is known and loved by tens of millions of users around the world. A few years ago, managing partner at AVentures Capital Yevgen Sysoyev Grammarly was estimated at $100 million. Since then, the number of service users has increased tenfold, and increased the assessment to $1 billion Grammarly was founded by three Ukrainians Alexei Shevchenko, max Litvin and Dmitry Leader.

Grammarly: как украинцы создали в США компанию стоимостью $1 млрд

Photo: Depositphotos

Edition MC Today offered to recall the history of Grammarly and published an excerpt from the book “Startup in a million” Timur Crows.

How it all began

Alex Shevchenko and Maksim Lytvyn met in the late 90-ies while studying in International Christian University. It was one of the first fully English-speaking universities in Ukraine, all training was conducted in English, and the teachers were native Americans.

During the study, the two friends and the idea of the first joint business – service check student work for plagiarism MyDropBox. Without exception, the students downloaded the course work and homework from the Internet and presenting them as his own. It was a real headache for both Ukrainian and foreign universities. Teachers could not check the texts for originality and often put excellent grades for the work students downloaded from the Internet. Tools to check texts for plagiarism did not exist in principle. In addition to the Ukrainians, the decision of such problems was engaged in only one company from California TurnItIn – it appeared after the launch of MyDropBox.

The guys rolled up his sleeves and got down to business. Initially, the startup team consisted of three people: two friends and one system administrator. Maxim Litvin almost completely wrote the service program code and after creating a working technology friends started to think about monetization.

Maxim and Alex have tested the service on several pilot customers in Singapore and the United States and began to sell licenses to use the technology to leading American universities. And immediately faced a problem: to sell to us customers, while in Ukraine, it was very hard. As a result, the friends decided to move closer to the potential market and to continue their education in Western universities. Maxim entered the MBA at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, and Alex two years later he moved to MBA in Toronto.

These two years MyDropBox was half-asleep. Maxim strenuously “biting the granite of science”, and he has almost no time left on sale, and Alex just might help from Ukraine. But friends were not going to throw started preliminary talks with publishers of textbooks have shown that the idea of standing and she could become a profitable business.

After Maxim Litvin moved to Toronto, partners took active sales. The first paying customers they were looking for at conferences in educational technology. At events friends gathered feedback on the project, met with representatives of the universities and invited them to try the service. The name of the service is not associated with the famous Dropbox file sharing service, since it came a few years later – in 2007.

In parallel with the universities became interested in the service the publishers of educational literature. They delivered MyDropBox complete with textbooks, and thus gave his books an added value. After the sale of the first license, the company has grown to 12-15 developers in Ukraine and five or six sellers in North America. By 2007, the product was used by 800 universities and nearly 2 million students. Today similar services are using 95% of American universities.

After the start of sales MyDropBox joined the Blackboard Developer Network and has developed a plugin called SafeAssignment for the largest U.S. educational platform Blackboard, which allows you to test the user experience Blackboard for plagiarism. The plugin is deeply integrated with Blackboard and imitated the interface of the system so that users Blackboard was easy and fast to work with him.

“We went for the full integration of products, and it took over” – says Maxim. SafeAssignment began to grow rapidly, major customers recommended it to each other. In the end, he attracted the attention of the Blackboard, and the company did MyDropBox offer to purchase.

The amount of the transaction Alexei did not call, but, according to him, it was relatively small. One of the conditions of purchase was a two-year cooperation Maxim Litvin with the company. During this time, along with the startup team, he had to transfer colleagues from the Blackboard their knowledge and technologies to adapt the system to Blackboard and implement multilanguage support.

Then the Grammarly team was joined by the third co-founder – Dmitry Leader. He first worked as a developer in MyDropBox, and after its sale he was the project of adaptation of the product to the requirements of Blackboard. Base Grammarly Maxim and Alex offered him the role of technical partner in the new project.

He was in Washington, Alexei Shevchenko, Dmitry Leader began work on a new product to keep the core team MyDropBox/SafeAssignment. “From the experience of the previous project we knew that even native-speaking students in the States there are big problems with literacy writing. We had the idea to make a service that would help them write better English,” – says Dmitry Leader.

At the end of 2008 appeared the first version of the product called EssayRater. A few days before the launch of the Ukrainians briefly opened the start page to test the integration with AdWords, spent a few dollars on an advertising campaign and unexpectedly received the first user who bought a subscription in the amount of ten times the cost of advertising.

A year later it turned out that many buyers of the product use English at work and in everyday life. “We realized that we can make a tool that would be useful to anyone who writes in English on the Internet, and decided to move towards the mass market, starting with enhancements to the grammar checker”, – says Dmitry Leader.

The idea worked, and by the end of 2009 was born Grammarly. In 2010, the team in the role of CEO, joined the former partner of an investment Fund General Catalyst CEO Brad Hoover.

How it works

Grammarly helps users to create competent, clear and efficient texts. The service keeps track of grammatical errors and stylistic flaws in real time, and explains how to avoid repeating mistakes in the future.

The algorithm allocates potential problems in the text and suggests corrections, or recommendations that users can accept or reject. For each correction is attached an explanation of why this circulation should not use and what are alternatives. The product is available both in free version and subscription.

Grammarly is available in three browser extensions for Google Chrome, Firefox, Safari, two desktop applications under Microsoft Windows and Mac OS, as well as in Microsoft Office products. Users can also check the ready passage of English text by pasting it into the online editor on the website.

Addressing a similar problem for many years the fight to Google and Microsoft. Unlike Grammarly, these companies have almost unlimited financial possibilities and human potential. However, the grammar proofing tool in Microsoft Office and Google products are still far from perfect and often miss or show errors where there are none.

According to Oleksiy Shevchenko, Grammarly from the first days of beginning to use the user feedback to improve the algorithms. “Our system was not perfect, and we have added the ability to vote correctly or not was proposed correction. It smoothed the negative effect from the mistakes”, – says the businessman.

Gradually these reviews, stats, and other data received from the users helped to improve the testing technology, which now covers more than hundreds of categories of textual problems. Under the hood, Grammarly is a complex hybrid system that combines the rules of the English language, and machine learning.

How to get customers in the Cisco, Boeing and leading universities in the USA

Despite its huge popularity among ordinary users, the company continues to engage in corporate sales. At Grammarly about 700 corporate clients including Cisco, Boeing, Dow Jones, Dell, Expedia, Salesforce, and leading US universities.

“A few years of work on MyDropBox, we have studied the academic market and established a lot of contacts. The first sale Grammarly got to do with this experience and loyal customers MyDropBox. Also well done purchasing lists of leads and participating in professional conferences-exhibitions”, – says head of corporate sales Department of the company Igor Karpets.

Igor allocates three points that help Grammarly to sell your service to large corporations.

  • Treat the client as a partner to focus on long-term relationships. To first build relationships and then sell something. It is important to study the company and its key decision makers.
  • Be ready to customize the product to fit the customer’s requests. In most cases, customers of Bank of America present a list of certification and legal requirements, and requesting a number of changes in the product. Without them they just can’t work with suppliers. Compliance with safety criteria, for example, may be more important functionality of the product.
  • Hiring sales people-therapists, not “wolf with Wall Street”. Aggressive sales aimed at a quick deal, which often brings one-time profit. The seller-the therapist will develop a relationship with the client, working primarily as a consultant.

Igor notes that in the West, business relationships are often built on trust. “You may be surprised that customers no questions asked give access to their systems or send the card details to make payment. But once you once you submit false information or fail to fulfill a promise, you are removed from the list of contacts for years,” he says.

The sale of licenses to companies and universities brings Grammarly less than 20% of total revenue, but big-name corporate clients enhance the reputation of the service and contribute to its promotion. “Write by priority of position: the President of the company, then leaders of second and third level. Having four contacts of corporations that are somehow involved in budgeting, you can try to sell the product”, – says Igor Karpets.

In Grammarly does not seek to “sell” the service to the customer at any cost. “Customers are not always right. Moreover, they often have no clear understanding of what they need. The goal of the seller is to listen to the client and help him to generate the optimal solution, given the budget, schedule, scope, product support, and maximum detail to discuss all the details of the service”, – said Igor Karpets. He also notes that it is not necessary to be overly aggressive in North America this is not love.

To search contacts important customers in Grammarly sometimes use little tricks. The company has a team called Lead Generation Team, it is engaged in the search for quality leads. For example, picks the email addresses of the bosses of large companies.

Priority is given to cold mailings to people who might be responsible for the procurement and allocation of budgets. Grammarly to collect detailed profile of each potential client and write personalized emails instead of mass mailing the same message.

“The letter itself is written on the diagram I’m searching for appropriate person who handles copywriting (for the company) or academic resources (for College). If the letter is the President of the company, it is mention those officers that wrote. So it will be easier to choose responsible and to forward the message to him. And the man directly responsible for procurement, will not be able to ignore the letter from the chief,” says AIN.UA Igor Karpets.

Naturally, all responsible for sales staff speak good English and at least lived or studied in the United States. By the way, the current CEO Brad Hoover met with the service because he wanted to learn to write correctly.

Work with social networks and promote the service among users

As the vast majority of modern IT-companies, Grammarly sells its products exclusively online. Therefore, the company does not have offices in all countries where it operates. Customers looking for Kiev using the standard methods of promotion: banner advertising, search engine optimization, content marketing, email marketing and SMM. “We tried to take on everything at once, looking better, and invest more resources there,” says Litvin AIN.UA.

Best for Grammarly works promotion in social networks. The first subscribers to Grammarly was due to requests from friends to “like” the page. At that time Facebook was overloaded with information, as it is now, and people willingly signed up for community with interesting content.

After this method has been exhausted, the company started thinking about what I want to see their potential users and what they want to share with your friends. From the first days in Grammarly refused a direct advertising service in social media and have relied on interesting content for people who are interested to develop and improve. Many of them are loyal users of the service. To convince people to pay for the service using social networking is not easy, but still possible.

For example, the user can go to the Grammarly website, by clicking on the infographic with a list of the 10 most common mistakes in a resume. On the website Grammarly is a more detailed article on the same topic. And in the article – banner or message in the style of “Install our app and it will automatically fix all these mistakes”. Such methods often work because the person already understands the value of product and friendly to it is set.

According to SMM Manager company Kimberly, Jockey, in social networks it is necessary to behave naturally as possible and quickly adapt to changes in the Facebook: internal algorithms of the social network, preferences of the audience and other things. “Creating a loyal community is not one month, but if all this time, publish interesting and useful content, then eventually it works,” says Kimberly.

Work great and entertaining post: gifs, pictures, short videos and live broadcasts. “We are watching the interests of our audience and try to choose interesting topics,” notes SMM-Manager Grammarly Celeste Mora. For example, a very good “go” positions involving headings in the style of “Check whether you are ready to go back for a school Desk”.

It is noteworthy that many millions of subscribers, oversees a team of several people. Two employees are responsible for compiling and posting, the designer creates viral images and engineers, developers and even the management of the company propose ideas for social networks.

Motivation of employees and work with the team

The Internet is extremely difficult to find bad reviews about Grammarly as an employer. The company regularly wins prizes in the rating of best IT employers in Ukraine.

Grammarly to pay a lot of attention to the development of a healthy and productive internal culture.

According to Dmitry Leader, the ideal corporate culture should reflect the values of the team and help the company achieve its goals. “I am very pleased to see Grammarly today, and am inspired by her tomorrow. I can confidently say that we now have the best team of all with whom I have ever worked in my life,” he says.

“As a startup, it affects many things: philosophy, culture, a sense of urgency. For us it is extremely important that we all understand that startups need for growth and that everyone in the company needs to make this increase in contribution,” says Alexei Shevchenko.

“We are looking for people that fit our values and culture, I want to gain work experience in a fast growing company with a global audience and to grow with it. The process of work is very transparent and every employee from the very beginning to understand what his objectives are and what results are expected of them.

Financial motivation is not necessary in the first place just because we are of great value self-development and involvement in the creation of a product that helps millions of people all over the world,” adds the Manager of the Kiev office of Anatoly Vistinski.

Many people Grammarly is associated primarily with the grammar checker. But, according to the founders, the company has set itself a more ambitious goal: to improve through technology the quality of communication in the modern world, to help people, and possibly in the future, and machines to communicate effectively.

“This project for years. We want to show the history of Grammarly that in Ukraine there are good opportunities for the creation of technology-based businesses, and to contribute to the community development product design and artificial intelligence technologies. I would be very happy if our example will inspire some of the readers to the embodiment of own ideas,” sums up Dmitry Leader.