In 2009 few leading VCs noticed the appearance of Zadane.pl, a Polish website aiming to connect students with each other, working mutually to complete their schoolwork. Today the firm – rebranded as Brainly – is present in 35 countries, works in 12 languages and offers answers to eight million questions, all within the education sphere.
Little surprise, then, that in October Brainly’s series A funding round of $9 million made it Poland’s second-largest tech investment. Of no shock, too, should be the company’s provenance: Poland has for some time been lauded as a paragon of modern education. Brainly has taken that reputation online.
Brainly expounds on the theory of social learning, developed by Canadian-American psychologist Albert Bandura in the 1970s. It quickly cornered Poland’s market in massive online open sources (MOOCs), before expanding into Russia – still its biggest market – and Turkey. Last month the firm won Best Education Startup at the Europas Conference and Awards – a gong that surprised spokesman Jakub Piwnik.
“It’s the first time when we actually got a physical (award), so it will look great in our office,” Piwnik tells Red Herring, before reeling off a succession of impressive figures: 40 million unique users per month, 5 million registered users and 70 employees, from 17 countries, working at three offices in Krakow, Berlin and New York City. “At the same time,” he adds, “we did a lot of hard work to accomplish our goals, using both the money raised and the great support we’ve received from our investors.”
Those investors include Berlin’s Point Nine Capital, US VC General Catalyst Partners and Runa Capital, based in Moscow and San Francisco, all of whom recognize a platform that is relatively easy to scale, and winning visitors from all corners of the world.
“We offer a perfect solution for the students, who outside of school are unable to get help with their problems,” says Piwnik. “It’s a common case, when parents or siblings are unable to help and teachers are unavailable. Some people turn to private tutoring, but it’s costly and sometimes there’s no time to arrange that.
“Searching for the answers in the common search engines can lead to misleading answers, or simply wrong ones,” he adds. “Students now know, that they can be sure that they can quickly find the right answers to their questions, with the proper explanation on Brainly.”
Technically, Brainly’s competitors could include other answer-based platforms such as Quora or Yahoo! Answers. But, Piwnik is quick to add, Brainly only includes educational content, meaning that the level of maintenance, and questions and answers, remains high.
“At the same time, our approach is different than other Edtech tools,” he says. “While they mostly work with teachers, parents or school administrations, we focus only on the students. What Brainy is now is the effect of many student focus groups, AB testing and hours of data analytics.”
Poland’s education stock has been rising consistently since the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 2000 only 1% of children received four hours or more of language class. In 2006 that reached 76%. This has allowed Poland to open up its economy to more international sectors, as its domestic economy has flourished.
Pre-primary school education for five-year-olds became compulsory in 2011. The number of children enrolled in such education leapt 33% between 2005 and 2011, the highest in the OECD. Between 2000 and 2012 the gender gap widened in 11 participating countries. In Poland it narrowed.
In these ways the Polish education system allowed its students a more holistic learning, and training suited to a knowledge economy. Poland came 19th overall in its OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) math test score, but only has the 46th-highest GDP per capita in the world – by far the lowest of those 19.
Last February Red Herring reported on the vibrant startup scenes that have emerged in Warsaw and Krakow, Poland’s most and third-most populated cities respectively. This January we wrote about Poznan’s fast-materializing tech credentials, boosted by high-speed rail, interactive bus stops and low rents. A highly-educated workforce remains the lifeblood of all three tech spots. And that has soared across Poland.
“We have a lot to do ahead of us, and I think our greatest mission is to help the students to be able to function in the future, to believe heavily in citizenship and exist on the market, not just local markets but general,” says Ewa Dudek, undersecretary of state for education. “To do this we still need to concentrate more on the individual needs of students.”
Piwnik plays down the importance of Brainly’s Polish roots. “Comparing to the U.S. or several other European countries, we’re not doing that great,” he says. “Quality over quantity I’d say.” But he knows that Brainly is shaping more than its own expansion as a tech startup: “The truth is, when we started in 2009 there were no websites or apps for students to use when they needed help and wanted to collaborate with peers.
“You could say that Brainly has shaped the Edtech space in the country.”