Grammarly is going up in the world.

The Ukrainian startup has been so successful in helping English speakers to check their writing that they have moved to a new office on the 14th floor of Kyiv’s central posh Gulliver business center and mall.

Programmed by Ukrainian techies, Grammarly uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to help improve people’s writing, from basic spelling, grammar and style, to more advanced suggestions on tone and context-specific language. This makes it a reliable proofreader.

Ukrainians have been designing this tool since 2009, and now their startup is reaping the rewards, bringing a handy tool to 10 million people worldwide who use Grammarly every day across browsers, word processors, and phones. The service checks over 250 grammar, spelling and punctuation rules.

And with digital communication becoming more and more important for professional and personal success, Grammarly expects demand for its product to continue to grow.

“People now judge us by how we talk digitally,” Grammarly co-founder Dmytro Lider said in an interview with the Kyiv Post. “And we talk a lot, while having less time to brush up all the text, as we’re sending lots of emails at an incredible frequency every day.”

Grammarly co-founder Dmytro Lider talks with the Kyiv Post. (Oleg Petrasiuk)

Global success

Grammarly now has a 150-person team working in Ukraine and across the ocean in the United States. But nine years ago it was just three friends, Max Lytvyn, Alex Shevchenko, and Lider, who constantly had to write in English, which was not their native language.

At the time, the three had been already working on a smart idea to empower computers to check academic works for plagiarism, MyDropBox. They partnered with some U.S. universities, and all went well. But they noticed there was one main reason why people tended to copy another person’s text entirely — it’s hard to put thoughts in writing, and not everyone can do it well. But because emailing, texting, writing research papers and reports have become so widespread in the digital age, most people have to be able to communicate well in writing.

“Taking that picture from your head and putting it in language takes talent, skills — especially when one has to do it in a foreign language,” Lider said, noting that it used to be “a challenge” for him to communicate in English all the time.

The three partners decided to find a way to help out those with similar problems, and natural thought that “technologies might come in handy.”

Thus, Grammarly was born. The idea, of course, has evolved along the way. The application was first targeted at academics, but just a year later the circle of potential customers was expanded to anyone on the internet who wanted to make their writing flawless. And once the consumer product was up and running, the startup was able to process much more data, which with machine learning meant they could improve the product even faster.

The team started with 10 Ukrainians. Now the company employs 150, more than half of whom work from the Kyiv office; the rest are in San Francisco and New York.

Grammarly has been profitable since early on, according to the company, although the service used to provide something closer to a simple spell checker.

Today it’s much more — a digital writer assistant that helps “communicate more clearly, effectively and also error-free” and works with Microsoft Office files, browsers, phones. Co-founder Lider says people typically use Grammarly to improve the quality of their emails, text messages, blogs, and books, “making them accurate, compelling, and easy to understand.”

Grammarly learns from the vast amount of writing it processes, and it adjusts its recommendations based on usage. The service can also automatically detect what type of English the client wants to use, American or British, and fixes mistakes accordingly.

And the product is evolving even now, improving through analyzing a massive number of texts; adding new features and launching its service across various text-focused online platforms, such as Google Docs.

Grammarly may even end up as a service that not only checks what users write, but will improve how they say it — by processing audio, the service could one day help with pronunciation, Lider said.

“The grand vision is to help people connect and understand each other, using artificial intelligence,” Lider told the Kyiv Post. “We’ve always had the idea of helping people become overall better communicators.”

Rapid growth

Only three years ago Grammarly had 1 million daily users. But in 2015 the team switched to a freemium business model, and it has seen quick growth since then.

Part of the service became free, giving users an ability to use the basic spelling and punctuation checker without paying. For more sophisticated services — such as genre-specific writing checks, tone, consistency and a plagiarism detector — one still has to pay. This version costs from $29.99 monthly to $139.95 yearly.

But globally, the freemium subscription model has brought the company nine more million active daily users by now, with more than half of them coming from English-speaking countries.

Meanwhile, Grammarly still works with universities and enterprises, catering to over 1,000 of them, including to Dell, NASA, Microsoft, Cisco.

The growth was achieved with no external funding — Grammarly was bootstrapped from 2009 until 2017, using money the founders got after selling their first company MyDropBox. But, according to Lider, “things sometimes felt too slow” and needed to accelerate.

“The world is accelerating; you need to move faster to be helpful to your users and stay relevant and competitive,” he said. “Moving faster is the nature of the tech business. Building and growing a tech company means constantly adapting.”

Grammarly needed money, and it was right time to ask for investment — the startup had “enough traction,” Lider said.

“Showing good figures, we were able to pick investors, structure the deal on our terms.”

Grammarly was able to raise $110 million in its first institutional funding round, looking to “speed up, move faster,” expand, and ramp up hiring across its three offices. General Catalyst led the growth equity round, with participation from Breyer Capital, IVP, SignalFire and Spark Capital. The founders remained majority owners, and only one investor made it to the board of directors, which means the co-founders “fully control decision-making.”

As a result, little has changed at the company.

“It’s easier to say what hasn’t changed: values, culture, goals,” Lider said.

“Having this extra (financial) cushion and support from investors also allows us to focus more on the future and strategic things,” Lider said. “Over the last two years, the level of detail has changed, and so has the scale of thinking about plans.”

Grammarly employees work in the company’s new Kyiv office on the 14th floor of Kyiv’s central Gulliver business center. (Oleg Petrasiuk)

Ukrainian team

Over the years, the co-founders’ roles at the startup have also evolved. They started small, and the three of them used to do everything. But soon they had to hire more staff and delegate. This was when they had to rely on other Ukrainians.

Having a strong local team has allowed Grammarly to build a large-scale and complex product with a relatively small number of people, Lider said.

As Grammarly was born in Ukraine and does much of its work here, Lider says it feels right to dedicate more time and efforts to improving the local tech community.

He sees Ukraine’s market as having a lot of human potential — current estimates are that the country has over 100,000 programmers.

“We’d just like to make sure the quantity converts into quality,” Lider said.

That will require investment in education, so Grammarly helps Lviv Catholic University with its bachelor’s and master’s degree curricula, funds scholarships, and sends its people to deliver guest lectures. It also brings international and local specialists to lecture at Grammarly’s local office. The goal, according to Lider, is to help the community grow professionally and strengthen the reputation of the country as a technical hub. He hopes that these efforts can help Ukraine develop as a leader in AI and natural language processing in Eastern Europe.

“We’re part of this community,” he said. “And so we benefit directly from its development. As Ukrainians and as a company with Ukrainian roots, we’re taking shared responsibility for that. We want to give something back to the community we come from.”

For now, he says the local information technology market is primarily driven by software outsourcing rather than product building.

“I’m far from thinking it’s good or bad — it’s natural. Both outsourcing and product startups are vital for the development of a healthy ecosystem,” Lider said. “But I see a lot of movement, talent, and passion in technical entrepreneurship and product development in Ukraine in recent years — it’s taking off.”

And while Ukraine is experiencing political and economic instability, Lider doesn’t think this will act as a brake on the tech sector. In fact, Grammarly might have never existed had it not been built in Ukraine in hard times, as there is so much room for growth, and motivation to work for success.

“We’re happy to be here — we see the situation as more of an opportunity,” Lider said.

“Essentially, Grammarly is a product of Ukrainian society. We prefer to work with what we have, look for opportunities, and think about how to leverage them. We’re trying to do our work well. We’re focusing on that.”

The Kyiv Post’s technology coverage is sponsored by Ciklum and NIX Solutions. The content is independent of the donors.

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