First Look at – YongoPal

YongoPal – Make Money by Making a Difference!

Sounds great, right? But what exactly is YongoPal? Apparently the site offers a service that connects Korean university students with native English speakers who will get paid for having a chat in English with the students.

The service is only targeting the Korean market and in this market only university students who want to practice their spoken English.

YongoPal describes the service as complement to the basic academic and curriculum-based English language education in Korea which is focused on rote memorization and teaches only what students need to receive high marks on standardized written exams with the result that many students struggle with simple conversation even if they learned English for years before.

The conversation partner earns $9 USD for a 50 minute conversation. The recommended VoIP client is TokBox which works in the browser, so no download or installation needed, and is free to use for the teacher and the student. Conversation partners do not need to speak Korean as the aim of the service is to get the Korean students into speaking and understanding English.

YongoPal also tries to get a good student : conversation partner ratio so that people who actually would like to earn some money have the chance to get booked. There are no minimum or maximum working hours.

Students can rate their conversation partners by timeliness, patience and quality of the conversation but the platform is working on further rating options which will provide the conversation partner with more feedback.

As you noticed, I tried to avoid the word teacher in this post. Of course it is not said that only people with a non ESL / EFL teaching background can subscribe to the service. But is this service made for teachers? Teachers tend to take control over the conversation and hence start to do, what they do: teaching. I think the focus of YongoPal is more on a casual conversation without focusing too much on learning about grammar and so on. Also $9 USD per 50 minutes would be fairly low end in terms of teacher payment, even for the ESL market.

All in all I think the guys could be on to something here. They target a very interesting market with a huge potential as Korean parents invest a lot of money in the education of their children. Another interesting point that is mentioned on the YongoPal website is the fact that Asian countries are very homogeneous compared to Europe or the US where we interact with foreigners on a daily basis. In Asia English speakers are very rare and hence the overwhelming demand in comparison to the scarcity of opportunities to actually meet or interact with a native English speakers has built a sizable market.

YongoPal was created by Darien Brown and Jon Hickey and is based in Seattle.

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  • Jason Renshaw

    Thanks for posting about this, Kirsten.

    As someone with 10 years experience in Korea (and as someone who has contemplated setting up something similar – but certainly not the same), I found this really interesting.

    First – yep, they're offering the native speakers $9 per 50 minutes. That's what you notice when you land on the English page of their site.

    Mosy on over to the KOREAN page, however, and you'll see some interesting info… They're going to charge the student $11 per 50 minutes during the trial/beta period, but they mention their standard going rate is going to be $20 per 50 minute session.

    So, during their trial/beta period (per 50 minutes):
    Student pays $11
    NES partner gets $9
    Yongopal makes $2

    If the 'standard' pricing is applied?
    Student pays $20
    NES Partner gets $9
    Yongopal makes $11

    Doesn't exactly add up, does it? In fact, unless Yongopal can do some pretty good explaining, this looks like the making of – well, a bit of a rip off sham.

    Let's say the trial/beta rates apply (and I have to stick with this to start with, because the alternative “standard” equation looks too ridiculous to be true), and Yongopal is making $2 per student per 50 minutes…

    What are they doing to earn that commission? They're using Tokbox – not their own software (and actually, if they take a careful look at Tokbox's terms of use, I think there's a good chance they could be in violation – particularly if they're actively mentioning and promoting Tokbox as part of their service).

    Do they provide any sort of innovating matching system for participants, or a range of language practice tools for paying customers to benefit from as they apply their conversation skills? Doesn't appear so.

    Consider also this – there is already a “red ocean” of competing online service providers in Korea that provide access to actual qualified native English speaker teachers for LESS than $20 per hour – and in many cases even less than $10 per hour. To say university students would rather pay more per hour to 'chat' to someone casual without teaching credentials or experience is something close to a massive misunderstanding of what makes Koreans and the Korean language learning market in particular 'tick.'

    More than anything else, I have to say that this sort of initiative has the potential to go nowhere fast, as it shows a genuine lack of understanding about how the Korean 'market' works – both in terms of learner expectations and routes to online services. Unless there are some pretty heavy Korean partner companies or institutions involved (and anyway, there are already plenty of Korea-based companies either already doing similar services or fast on their way to doing so, without needing external partners), this is looking rather doomed before it even gets off the ground.

    I could well be wrong on some of these counts – just calling it as I see it based on the (rather limited) information at hand. At present: feeling seriously sceptical.


    • KirstenWinkler

      I had to translate the Korean version of the page with the Google translator so I was not sure about the pricing, that's why I did not mention it in this post :).

      For now I think the $20 USD are just a lure to get the first students to sign up for the service. If it is the strategy to set the price on $20 USD later on the value preposition needed to be completely different as an actual conversation class conducted by a teacher is a whole different ball game.

      I contacted Darien who is one of the founders to have a chat about the project so I am pretty sure we will know more soon :).

    • KirstenWinkler

      And about the value they deliver: they promise every cpnversation partner who signs up the possibility to earn money. As you know, getting students is the difficult part of the business. If they actually are able to deliver students, they deserve the $2 as they also need to invest in Adwords etc. So $2 are pretty low to run the service on a scalable basis, I'd say $15 are the minimum they need to get from the students or, if the market is only allowing lower rates they need to go down with the conversation partner payments to $5 or less.

      • Jason Renshaw

        Yes, you're right.

        But there are also some other issues here…

        This is being billed as conversation – not teaching. So is there something that can be realistically called (much less billed as) a “conversation service” – if one person is paying and the other is being paid? With “conversation-based teaching” things are much clearer and more easily equated with services.

        Also… “Students can rate their conversation partners by timeliness, patience and quality of the conversation.” This is going to be a massive grey area, not only in terms of defintions but also measurement or evaluation. Apart from the risk of something akin to a popularity competition, the whole validity of something being marketed as genuine personal interaction is again being called into question.

        • KirstenWinkler

          I think you have to see it more as a “dating site” for ESL students. Of course there is the question if students are willing to pay for “just” a conversation without focus on methodology, curriculum etc and why not chatting on one of the language learning communities like Livemocha, Busuu et al which all have a VoIP chat integrated.

          On the other hand targeted services have their advantages, too. They can focus on one niche and try to get the best out of it. As we don't know about the marketing strategy yet it is hard to say but still I think it can work with some proper planning and with making clear what YongoPal is and what it is not.

    • Darien Brown

      Hey Jason,

      Thanks for the comments. Just so you know, the student side of our site hasn't actually launched yet (that's slated for early next week), so it's not really meant to be viewed at the moment. A lot of the content is inaccurate and absent (you'll notice there are no site terms as of yet).

      The $20 figure is actually also inaccurate. We have more or less settled on a long-term price point that hovers somewhere in the $13 USD range, although we will be billing Korean students in their native currency.

      The real value, as Kirsten mentioned, is going to be marketing; we think we can manage the ratio of native speakers to students in a way that will ensure that, if you create an account, you will be able to find students at times that are more-or-less convenient for you.

      The market we are after is pretty specific; basically university students, with some specific university targeting. The services you mention aren't really in the same space. Actually, most of the services on the low-end that you're referring to, while they provide “qualified” English speakers, do not actually provide Western speakers, which is what most of the students in our demographic actually desire.

      I'm not going to go deeply into what our strategy is, for right now, but I can tell you that we actually have a reasonably sound understanding of the market. Your skepticism is certainly warranted! It's a tough market to crack, but I think we may surprise you with what we are hiding up our sleeve… ^_^

      • Jason Renshaw

        Hi there Darien. Thanks for clarifying a few of those points, and also showing you can see constructive criticism for what it is :-)

        You are correct in saying that many of the existing Korean providers are linking students (mainly children actually) to teachers who are not actually native speakers. There are some businesses making a roaring trade out of hiring teachers from the Philippines – charging the students a healthy rate and paying the teachers absolute squat. It's also true that with the right marketing and awareness, it's possible to actually use that situation to present a more 'valuable' product that involves native speakers (I did that with a blended learning program add-on which provided speaking and writing online for a couple of institutes over there).

        It is interesting that you targeted university students to start with, and my guess is because that sector in Korea is showing huge uptake of things like Twitter and Facebook. Hence, a serious growth in social media uptake that is NOT Korea-based.

        I still have serious doubts about some angles of this, but I don't want to harp on them, as I think there are several very positive things about what you are trying to do, and I applaud them.

        Best of luck with it!

        ~ Jason

  • jasonoutthere

    You know, this is all very reminiscent of Guardian Languages, which caused a right old hoo-ha way back in 2007! I should know, that was my idea :-) (Too soon, too soon, darn it! Although we had our own VOIP app and materials to add to the value of the service).

    I think this service and the other ventures in Korea that the other Jason talks about are indicative of the way things are going, obviously.

    However, there still seems to be some kind of communication problem (ironic since that is what we are all deeply involved in) with regards what is or is not an English teacher..what is a fair price for their time..and what they should definition of their 'status'…allowed to do with students.

    As with so many industries, technology has changed the rules of engagement dramatically. That is now happening with language teaching and learning. Language teachers, understandably, are fearful (as were printers, car workers, bakers, weavers, journalists, film producers, the list goes on…) because what is happening is outside of their usual sphere of influence…the classroom….and they can also detect a growing belief in the language learning community that getting decent real practice with multiple partners is better than hours of more of the same old same old. Technology now makes the former possible in spades but the advancement of the ELT industry is being hampered by a refusal to budge from methodologies/materials that a) don't fit the new technologies (and I include all recent high profile publisher/web2.0 partnerships in that) and b) have left millions of learners (especially in Asia) able to read and write well but not able to speak English with any confidence or fluency. In their eyes the medicine probably isn't working.

    What is happening is the battle between the status quo and the new order. For example no teacher or publisher got in a flap about computer assisted conversation practice did they. People only worry about their vested interests when the new stuff actually works.

    Key to dealing with change is to embrace and adapt…Kirsten has written in her blog about teachers' roles changing and I agree. The days of sole point of contact with the target language are gone (i.e. teacher in a classroom). They still have a role they just haven't worked it out because they have been too busy manning the ramparts.

    What services such as YongoPal do need are materials (if they haven't got them already) that work with the medium and the process, that prepare learners for their conversations and help them to focus on specific language.

    QED: I just found this, which is closely linked to the whole concept, higher education is catching on too: (second artcle down..'Crossing…')

    These guys were already highly literate in German but didn't have the confidence or fluency and, as more advanced students, could do with a topic prompt to get conversation going. They were also the same age, university students etc. so well matched in many ways. But what if your learner is a lower level and wants to practise with a 70 year old on YongoPal, what do they use to a) get the conversation flowing and b) make the most of the time/money in terms of the effectiveness of the learning experience? Correct! A special course to follow plus some support and a face to face or online outlet for feedback and clarification/explanation (i.e. a qualified teacher).

    It all makes perfect sense to me, but then I've been swimming against the tide for what seems like years (hang on, it is!). Maybe the tide is finally turning.

  • Andrew Playford

    I had to comment on this post because the quality of the comments section is so extraordinarily high! Each one of these could be a blog in itself. Thanks Kirsten, Jason and Jason for your insights. We at LingoMatch are watching closely and learning…

    • chinamike

      So Andrew, with all that experience, you must have something more to say…..

      • Andrew Playford

        @chinamike – I am not the one with the 10 years of experience! At we have launched a very open system and we are casting a wide net geographically. As yet we have not committed ourselves to this model or that model but we are listening to our users and when we think we have enough good data to make a decision we will go for it. This market is really big and very fragmented and competitive. i.e. there's lots of market noise, even if one's product is good.

        I am really trying to learn as much as I can and take it from there one day at a time! :)

        • chinamike

          Andrew, I think you have done a good job of characterizing the market. One theme that is running through the present discussion (or maybe it is an undercurrent) is the difference in quality between a discussion partner and a teacher as well as why students opt for one over the other.

          I personally don't think the reasons can be reduced to price alone.

          Your business seems to be taking advantage of this demarcation. As a teacher myself I am curious where you see the market heading and what you feel the role for teachers will be in a globalized market.

          As you can see, I really think your perspective is valuable and you can contribute to the conversation.

          • andrewplayford

            Hi Mike. We are not planning to take on the teacher-student market any time soon unless it can be done in an unusual highly value added way and I don't know what that is yet. As a teacher I can see your predicament and the tendency for the internet to make teaching a commodity which it is not. I am personally a big proponent of language conversation to complete the learning process and, in this, my view is quantity over quality. However not so for teaching where quality prevails. So I do think if there is a cheap way for students to practice conversation in between lessons then thats a good thing but should not compete with teaching hours.

            Lets wait to see what Darien and his team have up their sleeve. Those boys in Seattle push out some pretty good stuff!

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  • KirstenWinkler

    I had a chat with Darien on Skype yesterday and I have to say that they are very focused, have a good inside of the market so we all should keep an eye on these guys. They are definitely not poking in the dark.