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[Herald Interview] Korean-learning app Mypool sets sights on beating rivals

After growing up in poverty, CEO believes education can change lives

Lee Hyun-jun, CEO of eKYSS (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Lee Hyun-jun, CEO of eKYSS (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Aided by the success of South Korean popular culture, interest in learning the Korean language has ballooned in recent years.

The number of foreign applicants for the state-run Korean proficiency test surpassed 375,000 in 2019, a hundredfold rise over the last decade. American apps such as Duolingo and Rosetta Stone have been popular choices for many foreigners, but a local company hopes to change that.

“We wanted to make an app that teaches Korean by Koreans,” Lee Hyun-jun, CEO of online learning service company eKYSS, said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

The firm launched a global version of its language-learning app Mypool in April after successfully releasing a local version in February. The global version is for non-Koreans learning Korean, and the local version is for Koreans learning other languages.

“What distinguishes Mypool from other services is better content, lower price and smarter learning,” he said.

The monthly subscription fee for the global version of Mypool is $3.90 per month, cheaper than Duolingo or Rosetta Stone. It also provides a combination of video lectures, quizzes and customized services using artificial intelligence technologies that cater to students’ individual levels.

Mypool is the nation’s first subscription-based language learning app.

“We have subscription-based services for movies, music and even books. Why not for language?” he said.

For some other popular local online learning apps, users have to buy pricey tablets to begin classes. But Mypool does not require any extra devices. “With just less than $5 a month, you are ready to start,” he said.

Lee’s personal life taught him the importance of education and inspired him to get into the field.

Both of his birth parents are blind, and his birth mother left him when he was an infant. The only way his father could make a living was by working as a massage therapist.

“I was ashamed and sick of poverty,” he recalled.

Still, he got decent grades and majored in management at Hanyang University.

“From a child, I knew about the importance of education. With education, you can change your life,” he said.

After gaining years of business experience in private education centers in Seoul’s affluent Gangnam area, he launched the nation’s first phone-based online language-learning service in partnership with Samsung Networks in 2007, years before smartphones were launched in Korea.

The business was short-lived, although he knew the era where people would use phones to learn would eventually come.

“We were just too ahead of our time,” he said, recalling how long it took even to send text messages back then.

“But I don’t regret it. I learned from trial and error through the service, which became the forerunner of Mypool.”

After it closed he started a new education business, partnering with churches.

“We rented idle educational centers in large churches during the week at a cheaper price and provided education for students at an affordable price. For poor students, we didn’t receive money,” Lee said.

But as the business began to thrive, he soon had to close up shop after being embroiled in legal disputes that drove his company to bankruptcy.

“But I didn’t give up. I thought I could start over,” he said.

As online learning took off and Korea accelerated its transition to the digital era, he created the online learning firm eKYSS in 2012 and launched Mypool this year after years of development.

Only a few months into the launch, the Mypool service has about 10,000 members on the local version and about 2,000 on the global version. He aims to draw a combined 160,000 users by the end of this year.

The Korean-learning service is now offered to those who speak English, Chinese, Indonesian and Vietnamese. The app will soon be expanded to cater to Spanish, Italian and Japanese speakers.

“I hope to make Mypool a learning hub where anyone can learn without barriers and change their life just as I had been able to.”

By Shin Ji-hye (shinjh@heraldcorp.com)

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