Pure Value: The English Forward Story
How A Learn English Forum Grew Into The Largest English-Topic Q&A Site and Online Community, With Over 292 Million Individual Visitors Served, Half-Billion Page Views Loaded, 2 Million Question and Answer Posts, Used As A Reference Tool By Language Schools Globally — Without Any Staffing or Labor Costs, With $0 Spent On Advertising, No Marketing Activities and $0 in Venture Capital
A website that launched in March 23, 2003 recently turned 16 years old…
In itself: unexciting.
Although, given that the entire World Wide Web is 29 years old (and more practically in terms of mainstream usage, roughly 24 years old)… that’s a lot of history.
This website though, one that started as “a web forum for the parents’ English school” has never had a marketing team, no ad spend, no growth hacking, no sales and not a dime in venture capital or angel investor funding …
It was built as a “utility” for English learners and English language industry professionals and focused on a single principal: value to the user.
Here’s some of what that once little community accomplished:
- 190,000 registered users on a platform that never required login or registration
- Combined audience of 500,000 (including the various social channels that sprung up from the community)
- Reached Alexa Top 5000 ranking
- Served nearly 300 million unique, international visitors — without any ad-spend or marketing
- 2 million user-generated content, Question and Answer posts
- 100% volunteer moderators team (no labor costs) to clean and maintain the community
- Recognition, testimonials and thanks from international schools that use the site as a reference for their students
- Google favored and historic strong relationships with Google
- Now serves academic learners (students), professional (career, work, business) and native speakers (grammar, sentence structure) and industry professionals.
- 100% organic traffic, 100% organic content (user-generated), 100% user moderated.
- Select posts on the site have seen 4million+ views (for a single article).
- Select members have contributed 100,000+ question/answer posts.
- Entirely free to use.
| The Backstory: Francis West and English Forums
Francis West is an engineer, a code “architect”.
He has been programming since age 6 and worked on enterprise level applications at age 11. His programming career is 36 years of veteran experience.
Frank’s parents, for years, operated a successful language school in Malta, Elanguest. They’ve since sold that business. Students traveled in from various European and international locations to study English there.
Malta itself is a well-established hub for “learn English” schools. Many of today’s learn language and English education brands are based out of or have a presence in Malta, including: EC English, Eurocentres, ELA (English Language Academy), ACE English, EF (Education First) International Language Schools, Berlitz Language Centre among many others.
To provide a way for students to interact while in class and even after, Frank built a community discussion forum for his parents’ business.
In the years since, discussion forums are not only outdated but are as simple to setup as installing a script on a server. It wasn’t as push-button in those early years of the internet. [ reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_forum ]
I’m a former-Vancouverite — I liken Frank’s then-named “English Forums” to another community that also launched in 2003: Plenty Of Fish.
Vancouver (Canada) based Markus Frind, founder of PlentyOfFish.com draws parallels to Francis West: quiet, not a show-man, rarely seen in media or events, engineer with a preference for simple, clean utilities.
Plenty Of Fish (POF) was known as “the ugliest online dating community” — with a very minimalist design but a fast-loading, simple platform that users could easily navigate and interact with. And, like English Forums, it was entirely free.
It too was pure value.
In its first years, POF was run entirely by Markus. He started hiring and building the site as a company only 5 years after its start. [reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlentyOfFish ]
It became one of the largest sites in the world, with 100 million registered users and 2 Billion page views per month.
POF now has an estimated $100 million in revenue. In 2015, it was acquired for $575 million USD by the owners of Tinder, Match.com and OKCupid: IAC.
Aside: IAC or InterActiveCorp also owns the Q&A site Ask.com (the search content of which they licensed to Google for $3.5 Billion) and the other English Forward comparables: Dictionary.com, Reference.com and Tutor.com
Unlike POF, English Forums never pursued a business model.
Frank’s philosophy and passion for building open and free resources for all put revenue or “monetization” of EF as an always second if not a 20th priority.
Upon the repetitive and almost annoying insistence of a personal friend, Frank agreed to incorporate AdSense into the website — back in the AdSense early days.
Even this step sat uneasy with him…
He agreed to weave in just two ad blocks on the site and only for non-logged-in users.
That was the full and complete “business model” for the former English Forums for nearly a decade.
While it produced a very respectable personal income and really ran hands-off for years, it’s a far cry from what is needed in today’s landscape to scale.
These days start-ups, like pop-singers, are pushed with brute financial force.
Millions in funding doesn’t guarantee their success, as that hinges on 1001 other variables — but it more or less guarantees that any valuable project that doesn’t have enough financial ammo, will be buried by the noise created by this “competition.”
Of course, funding, scaling, unicorns and Lambos weren’t anywhere remotely on Frank’s agenda.
His inspiration comes from creators, inventors, builders and philosophers.
In 2016, Francis recognized that he had brought EF as far as his own interests and skill-sets would allow.
He decided to sell.
To get that done, he connected with me and my firm, OODIENCE.
My company OODIENCE works specifically and exclusively with “specialized audience” (OODIENCE is a play on ‘audience’) media channels, community and p2p marketplaces.
Which was important because based on a financial multiples model, the business would have had an unfair and inaccurate valuation.
And without OODIENCE’s real understanding of proven revenue-models and growth opportunities for these particular business models, it would have been more challenging for prospective Buyers to see where it could go.
| SOLD: English Forums
I flew out to Malta to meet Frank and learn more about what he had built.
After signing in late 2016, we took English Forums to market early 2017.
After a couple of months of campaigning, Frank asked me to pause.
While we generated demand and I was holding conversations with qualified strategic-Buyer parties, as Frank was exposed to the same sales materials we created for presenting the business acquisition opportunity — he asked to hold it for a little longer after recognizing the many opportunities that remained untapped for his English Forums.
So the work was paused and EF was no longer on the market.
That was early 2017.
2017 was also the year all-things Blockchain (and crypto) exploded.
Frank had been involved in the pioneering talks, engineer community discussions and exploration of Blockchain from the early days…
While he recognized English Forums could be a lot more, Blockchain, or more specifically, decentralization became his legacy pursuit.
(plug: look for Francis West’s upcoming and much anticipated book on Decentralization — hitting bookstores soon.)
And so… EF went back on the market November 2017.
Again, I presented and talked to previous and new strategic buyers: comparable learn language platforms, learn English app companies, language schools, global education brands, edtech investors and similar …
This included dialogue with CEOs of billion dollar “learn English” authorities, well-known serial EdTech investors, recently funded 9-figure valuation competitors and more.
A couple of months later, we found a new home for it with education-system evangelist, serial entrepreneur and hotelier Mitch Rankin and signed papers early February.
| Advancing Forward: Mitch Rankin and English Forward
Mitch Rankin is a South Africa based entrepreneur and investor. He believes that the education system can use more upgrading and improvement.
English Forward is his legacy business.
Take a look at this profile video I coordinated to introduce Mitch to the EF community:
His local residence is South Africa, where the percentage of the population that is unbanked or operates entirely from a mobile phone gives him an understanding of the need for English Forward to be a mobile-first platform and to also incorporate digital tokens (crypto) for payments to reward contribution.
Mitch has been part of many hotel development projects internationally, including Hollywood — this has further shown him how much language for effective communication (whether for hotel guests or for hotel business development) matters.
When Mitch acquired the former English Forums, he brought the assets into a new Malta-based corporation and under a new brand.
He began the work to turn the former English Forums community and “utility” site into the new “English Forward” education technology company.
He developed a business model and growth strategy and brought on the core team:
All of these are important foundation-building steps … but the real focus is in expanding the Q&A and discussion community into a new, all-round, English language portal with a peer-to-peer marketplace, powered by Blockchain and shifting everything to a mobile-first model.
Post-acquisition, I worked with Mitch to develop the new brand and logo strategy for this new company: English Forward.
- We retained the EF initials (from English Forums to English Forward) for consistency.
- The dated “forums” was swapped to “forward” suggesting progress not just for the site itself, but, more so, for any student or professional wanting to forward advance their language proficiency.
- We moved from the blue and often tech-associated logo colors to orange, the color most often used for content, publishing and education brands.
- The new logo font was bolded — to represent a bold and ambitious goal.
- The forward arrow was worked into the logo icon to visually represent the same “forward” and progress concepts.
- The negative space in the icon can be recognized from mobile devices as the home icon. This is, again, in-line with the company’s goal of “mobile first” and to further indicate that English Forward is for everyone in your home.
A mascot was also introduced.
The current “version 1” of “Ella the English Forward Elephant” is already live …
The elephant was selected for its symbolism of wisdom and knowledge.
Ella will take-shape and become more present on the upcoming revised site designs and in the educational videos that will follow.
Converting English Forums into an operational and scalable company is comparable to acquiring a valuable piece of water-front land, with all piping and electrical work already in place — but still needing to develop the luxury hotel onto the land and getting all services ready for customers.
For English Forward — this includes: SEO related rebrand, new site build, mobile app development, UX and user registration flow improvement, partnerships with educators and industry professionals, activating the company’s first-ever advertising, growth and marketing initiatives… it’s all taking shape:
One of the primary company focuses is the Blockchain code and p2p marketplace continued development with the technology partners as the English Forward story continues …
Investors and Learn English, Learn Language, EdTech Brands:
English Forward is exploring opportunities and meeting with investors and strategic brand partners for this next level growth. These conversations and presentations are being coordinated by our M&A and Fundraising firm. Business development and investment enquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow English Forward on Medium @ English Forward.