NYC Startup Fluent City Raised $2.5M To Teach You Culture



Do you identify as a student of life? What happens to these students when they eventually have to leave the classroom?  Fluent City steps in so that the learning can continue. With classes on a myriad of topics including French, wine, poetry and art, there’s no shortage of ways you can expand your horizon.  With fellow adult learners you’ll be challenged to push yourself without the pressures of maintaining a GPA. With the opportunity to make up missed classes and optimized class sizes is the perfect opportunity to get a second chance at education in a flexible environment.

AlleyWatch spoke with CEO James Rohrbach about Fluent City’s progress and its most recent round of funding.

Who were your investors and how much did you raise?

We raised a $2.5 million seed round. Our primary investors were Lerner Group Investments, and Spindrift Equities, with participation from many of the leaders in EdTech, including Learn Capital, New Ground Ventures, 1776 Ventures, and the founders of EdTech powers 2U, General Assembly, and Noodle.

Tell us about your product or service.

Fluent City is a modern day culture school. We teach courses to adults in the topics you need to know to be a well-rounded human being today: art and design, food and drink, languages, travel and culture.

What inspired you to start the company?

I have always been passionate about the mission of enriching people’s lives and expanding their worlds through the Liberal Arts and cultural education. Almost 10 years ago I started my first company with that aim (Gulliver, “Trip Advisor for College Study Abroad programs,” acquired by Noodle Education in 2010).  And I feel particular urgency around this mission today, given both the dismal reputation of the Liberal Arts and the rapidly rising close-mindedness evident in our contemporary politics.

With regard to Fluent City, I’m not the founder. When I discovered Fluent City, it was already a lucrative business offering language classes in several cities. I was inspired by our students – insatiably curious, globally-minded explorers who were hungry to learn new things from and with others. I saw a powerful opportunity to expand Fluent City’s mission and offerings by moving beyond language to other domains, and in doing so begin the process of reinvigorating the Liberal Arts for our time.

James Rohrbach

James Rohrbach

How is it different?

Fluent City is unlike any other New York experience. On one end of the spectrum you have traditional lifelong learning classes – pottery, etc. – that tend to be run by individual subject matter experts and small local businesses only focused on their particular topic and community.  On the other you have these global immersive events that really define today’s Experience Economy.  We merge those two worlds, providing experiences that merge education, entertainment, and hospitality in a way that is totally new and unique.  Our pop-up events and month-long immersions are led by influential creative and local experts, and they happen all throughout the city–from downtown warehouses to artist studios.  This blend results not just in a difference of degree, but of kind – similar to how immersive theater experiences like Sleep No More have created an entirely new genre of performing arts.

What market you are targeting and how big is it?

We do not have a demographic target market beyond “adults.”  But we do have a strong psychographic customer focus: people who value learning, want more of it in their lives, and are keen to spend their disposable time and income on experiences rather
than things. Remember when you were in college and your life was full of learning every day? Or when you first moved to the city and you were so excited about all the things you were going to see and do? And now you go to the same watering holes, have lived in New York of X years and never even been to X cultural institution (everyone has one!), etc. This yearning for more texture to life is a global mega-trend driven by everything from the recession to sustainability ethics to pop psychology. Our goal is to be the worldwide leader in serving this need by building a brand and consistently best-in-class product set that become synonymous with the very idea of self-enrichment.

What’s your business model?

We were old school before it became cool again in startups. We sell a real product (our courses) to real customers (individuals and organizations) at a real margin.

What type of classes have garnered the most interest?

Our language classes have been consistently popular, especially Spanish and French.  We’ve had more than 23,000 students come through our doors.  We don’t anticipate that changing as we expand – we deliver the best courses out there in terms of both student experience and outcomes (we have written more than 10 proprietary textbooks at this point) at a great price point.

In terms of our new immersions, they just launched last Thursday September 8 so it’s too early to say but we expect all three of them to be very popular. Who doesn’t love cocktails, want to make their home look more beautiful, or have an amazing, insider time on their next trip to Paris?!

What was the funding process like?

Good!  We were a very unique deal – we already had strong product-market fit and real economics without having raised any capital.  Pretty rare for a seed deal. And our vision of reinvigorating the Liberal Arts for this century really resonated with investors. The combination of those factors meant that we were able to line up really terrific, aligned capital partners.

What are the biggest challenges that you faced while raising capital?

As is often the case, our greatest strength – being an unusual deal – was also occasionally a weakness.  Some investors didn’t get it.  But you know the deal – that serves as a pretty natural filter for vision alignment – so those investors that did get it have turned out to be really terrific partners for our business.

What factors about your business led your investors to write the check?

Real business with real customer traction (and rave reviews), disrupting a very big market, and doing so with a strong sense of mission. Several of our investors have also previously invested in my other ventures, and have seen my consistent passion for solving this problem over the past decade.

What are the milestones you plan to achieve in the next six months?

See our new immersions thrive, roll out new ones, bring them to our other markets beyond NYC (DC, Boston, and Philadelphia), continue to accelerate the growth of our language business.

What advice can you offer companies in New York that do not have a fresh injection of capital in the bank?

Manage your finances. You may be a founder with a specific spike in Product, Engineering, Sales, etc.  But if you run a startup you are first and foremost a business owner, and your most fundamental responsibility is to keep that business alive. This gets lost all too often in the startup & funding hype.

Where do you see the company going now over the near term?

In addition to the above, we see Fluent City becoming a must-do for all New Yorkers. We plan to expand our classes even more in the future and continue to fine-tune our courses and curriculums to grow with our students and their interests

What’s your favorite restaurant in the city?

Okonomi in Williamsburg. Go for the traditional Ichiju sansai breakfast.

About the author: AlleyWatch

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