What’s in a Word? Mrs. Wordsmith Raises $11 Million to Become the ‘Pixar...


What’s in a Word? Mrs. Wordsmith Raises $11 Million to Become the ‘Pixar of Literacy.’

By Tony Wan     Oct 17, 2018

What’s in a Word? Mrs. Wordsmith Raises $11 Million to Become the ‘Pixar of Literacy.’

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then some investors are betting that pictures of words could be worth millions of dollars. Specifically, $11 million—which is what Mrs. Wordsmith, a London-based education startup, has raised in its Series A round.

The deal was led by Trustbridge Partners, and previous investors Reach Capital and Kindred Venture Capital returned to contribute to this round. To date, Mrs. Wordsmith has raised $14.5 million.

Founded in 2016, Mrs. Wordsmith aims to “teach every child in the world more words,” says its founder and CEO, Sofia Fenichell. “Vocabulary is critical to academic and life success for children.”

Studies have suggested that there is a “relatively linear relationship” between vocabulary acquisition and reading ability, and much has been written (and debated) about the “word gap,” which describes the difference in the number of words that children in rich and poor families hear while growing up. (Although, researchers have largely debunked that the gap is as large as 30 million words.)

With a team of data scientists and a lexicographer, Mrs. Wordsmith has identified 10,000 words that it believes are crucial to helping students build their reading comprehension and writing skills. (Here’s how it narrowed this number down from 1 million English words.) The company also uses machine-learning technology to create a semantic map that labels and organizes the words based on their topical and root relationships.

So far the company has taken a tried-and-true, perhaps even old-school approach: offering an illustrated print dictionary, vocabulary cards and workbooks. Yet the tactic appears to have hit the right nerve, having shipped more than 200,000 units of these products which cost between $56 and $139. The back-of-the-napkin math would suggest that Mrs. Wordsmith has already generated more than $10 million in revenue, although the company declined to comment on its financials. Fenichell only shared that the company “was profitable, until I decided to expand our team.”

What accounts for its popularity? The cheeky pictures that accompany each vocabulary word might be a factor. The company has hired 8 full-time artists who honed their chops in Hollywood through working on movies like “Madagascar” and “Hotel Transylvania” to create colorful depictions of words with a flair of humor, and a mix of sass and pizzazz.

Mrs. Wordsmith illustrations
Mrs. Wordsmith illustrations for “voracious” and “raging.” Source: Mrs. Wordsmith blog.

With a staff of 44 full-time employees that includes former Pixar illustrators and Google machine-learning engineers, Mrs. Wordsmith might be one the most high-production—and expensive—effort to create animated word cards. Fenichell seems fine with that assessment, saying that the investment in her company pales in comparison to the billions of dollars that go into producing movies and games each year. “Kids deserve the same kind of quality of content that they see on Netflix and gaming consoles,” she says.

Mrs. Wordsmith’s print products will largely be phased out next year, with the exception of a “Storyteller’s Dictionary” that will contain 2,000 illustrated words. “The reason why we haven’t launched a digital product yet is because we needed to amass a treasure chest of illustrations and animations,” explains Fenichell. To date, the company has animated about 5,000 vocabulary words, or roughly half of its 10,000-word target.

These visual assets will be re-purposed for a new animated vocabulary game and video that will be released by March 2019, as the company’s product roadmap is now focused on digital and video content, says Fenichell. “Our business model is to become the Pixar of literacy. Invest heavily in digital growth, video and animation. Print products will support our digital framework, rather than leading it.”

Fenichell estimates that roughly 25 percent of her customers are teachers, a number that she hopes to grow as the company plans to deliver its offerings through online education platforms like Apple ClassKit and Google Classroom. Mrs. Wordsmith’s products will also be available through Amazon soon.

Currently, 85 percent of the company’s revenues come from the U.S. market. But where Fenichell says she’s really eyeing is the Chinese market, where there is a voracious appetite for English language-learning products. (Just take a look at Chinese education companies like VIPKID and DaDaABC, both of which have raised hundreds of millions of dollars for their live, online English tutoring services.)

Trustbridge Partners, which invests primarily in companies looking to establish a footing in China, will be tapped to assist in this expansion effort. Fenichell recognizes that “you can’t just slap Hollywood on top of an American product and expect it to work in China.” What Mrs. Wordsmith’s newest and biggest investor brings is to “help us understand Chinese values and Chinese education.” She even went so far to claim: “We want to become Chinese in our soul.”

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