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Memrise, a language learning platform using cognitive science to make learning fun

I recently caught up with the brilliant mind that is Ed Cooke, CEO of language learning platform, Memrise. I first met Ed when he gave a talk at my school in 2008 on the joys of memory and, of course, sleeping in 20-minute stints throughout the day. Needless to say, Ed is an eccentric and since then has accrued nearly a decade of building Memrise, numerous memory-related accolades, and some fantastic adventures in self-experimentation.

Our conversation took many wonderfully strange twists and turns, but we cover the infamous Membus trip,  entrepreneurship, and a brief foray into EdTech as a sector.

Background

Ed has the unassuming title of Grandmaster Memory Champion of the World after his victories at the World Memory championships in 2007. While memory has been a great, quantifiable tool to play with, Ed says that his interests have always been more in human consciousness rather than memory itself. After studying Philosophy and Psychology at Oxford and after a healthy dose of roving the world, Ed explored cognitive science and philosophy in Paris and then Australia. Ed is a deeply curious person and he says during this time he had a real “anti-work philosophy” and was generally “very unimpressed by adults”. But in 2010, Ed founded Memrise and remains the CEO, and, we hope, is a bit more enchanted with adults and/or work.

The app blends powerful, educational tech with fun, vibrant, real-life experience and in 2016, Memrise embarked on a ludicrous trip across Europe to bring these principles to life: The Membus. The team kitted out a 1970s double-decker bus with the Memrise branding, and, with their help of their Kickstarter fundraising, embarked on a European Odyssey to collect videos of locals speaking words and phrases in their native tongue. The epic journey comprised 12,000 miles during which they met and filmed over 20,000 locals. The trip put Memrise on the map (..!); it procured gold-dust content and remains a key factor in differentiating the brand. Ed somehow coerced thousands of locals into this and the result is a ready-set bank of phrases that make learning languages fun, and crucially, memorable. Stay tuned for a potential crowd-sourced version in which people upload their own videos from around the world.

Had Memrise not come about, or if time allowed, Ed tells me he’d like to “be a philosophical entertainer, pursue my Theory of Parties and publish essays on ‘The Adventures on the Frontiers of Consciousness’, but at the moment Memrise takes up 100% of my time”. I joked, ‘surely Memrise runs itself by now?!’, but Ed says that the aim of creating a ‘recreational learning experience’ is in no way fulfilled, and it very much involves day-to-day hard work to get there. With an immense 50 million users on the app, they tirelessly continue to play around with concepts to improve the experience.

Entrepreneurship

We spoke of the unrelenting, unwavering focus a CEO has on its company. What I’ve always been interested by is how someone can quite quickly go from an entrepreneur with a great idea to the CEO of a global company with little or no preparation. Being a great ideas person does not necessarily make you a great manager, speaker or leader, and Ed and I spoke of the responsibility of managing a company and being somewhat stripped from the ‘thinking’ side of entrepreneurship.

“You get fanatical on revolutionising the product itself but you should really spend at least one day a year thinking about starting totally afresh”

Ed Cooke, CEO of Memrise

“Fundamentally, your mind is incredibly narrow. You don’t have time to question whether or not you’re going down the right path. You get fanatical on revolutionising the product itself but you should really spend at least one day a year thinking about starting totally afresh.” This becomes especially difficult when the product has millions of downloads, but it is interesting to think about constantly trying to disrupt your product, even when it’s a very successful one.

The company now employs over 85 people and Ed says this is by far the most challenging aspect: “there are so many difficulties associated with orchestrating a company. Sometimes, building a business can feel like a punishment for building a great product”. But Ed admits the reward of getting it right is always worth the struggle: “if you can recruit the right awesome people and align them 100% around strategic goals, atmosphere, and communication with absolute commitment, you can do crazy, crazy things”. In Ed’s 10 years of building Memrise, he says “the best way of unlocking potential, is being very, very discursive about all aspects of the business”. He whole-heartedly agrees that although it can feel painful and unnatural, “you’ve never wasted a moment if you’re spending time on alignment. When a team goes right, it’s the most amazing thing in the world”.

Ed is fascinated by the idea of efficiency and how one creates a productive environment at work. He thinks that for someone to be at their most productive and efficient, they’ll be working at about 15% efficiency. “You can spend 2 months of thinking about something and then there will be this golden hour where it all just clicks. The product we have now would take about 3 months to build, but it’s taken us 10 years to figure out exactly what we should be building”. The frustration must be crippling, but the constant iterations are surely absolutely necessary to get to the world-leading status they’re at now.

EdTech

Ed has spoken previously about the contradictory aspects of marrying a social purpose with commerciality. Within memory, what might be the most effective memory technique might not be the most popular or fun (e.g. never-ending active recall and repetition). We spoke about how EdTech has penetrated relatively thinly in the last decade and has been quite a slow-moving sector. Ed rationalised this: ‘I suppose it’s because education itself takes a long time. You’re working with an inherent conservatism of those in education, and also that it might take you a year or two to learn a language, which only might pay off when you visit the country in decades to come”. Another thought is that the consumer path is restricted, and the target audience of those in education might not have phones, money or time.

Ed says casually, “at some point, one thing I want to have a go at is reinventing the school system”.  One disruptor is an online coding programme in the US called Lambda School. Their commercial model is an income-share agreement to take a small portion of your earnings over your lifetime after having completed the course. Students pay nothing while attending, and the education they receive guarantees a higher income than if they hadn’t received it. Ed thinks that the UK education system would do well to adopt a similar model, and although it’s only a small nuance from the student-loan model we currently adopt, the student is never in debt, and we know debt to be a huge cause of anxiety later on.

Some life lessons

Looking ahead, Ed is thinking about how Memrise can contribute to the only question he thinks anyone should be answering, “what to do about climate change?”, perhaps taking the form of ecological or environmental education. Referencing a recent conversation I had with DAME about B-corps, Ed agrees on the “potential potency of corporate virtue signalling becoming the determinant of user behaviour. It’s a bit crazy that the only form that exists today is the Fairtrade logo”.

I carried out this conversation while in between jobs, and Ed was incredibly envious of my wandering, pseudo-Socratic interviews and the richness of uninterrupted focus. He leaves me with a list of things he’s kept to do when he’s unemployed, and advises everyone to make their own.

  • Swim the Hellespont
  • Produce a rap album
  • Find all the waitresses I’ve fallen in love with
  • Buy wedding presents for all my friends
  • Learn advanced photoshop and animation
  • Read all the books I’ve bought
  • Learn cities in advance of going to them – e.g. learn a map of the city then go there
  • Travel to South America
  • Memorise all of Shakespeare (apparently easy, for him and for anyone…)
  • Go and watch live court cases
  • Go to industry wine tasting events
  • Interview people about what’s going on (YES!)
  • Follow a friend round for an entire day in a lab-coat e.g. be in their house as they wake up, follow them into meetings

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