Need Writing Help? Grammarly Goes Beyond Spell Check to Offer Serious Edits
After Ukrainian engineers Max Lytvyn and Alex Shevchenko sold their first company, MyDropBox, they were left with a great team but no product. So they gave their employees a challenge: solve the most interesting problem you can think of.
All of their engineers were English language learners, so “without thinking about market or monetization, they decided they wanted to build the most accurate language and spelling checker possible,” says Brad Hoover, the CEO of Grammarly, the startup that resulted from Lyvtyn and Shevchenko’s challenge. “The project managers were also the use case.
Once it was built, they decided to see if they could create a business around it.
Though the team was based in Ukraine, they reached out to American university professors to determine if there was a way to make it into a useful product, not just for English language learners, but also for English students, job seekers, and professionals.
Armed with advice from professors and linguists, the team created early versions of the Grammarly Editor, a tool that now checks documents for more than 250 errors rules, from misuse of quantifiers to faulty parallelism and unbalanced or misplaced punctuation. It also checks for spelling and plagiarism, and when it finds it, suggests proper citations already formatted based on the style the writer is using.
The point, though, Hoover says, isn’t to catchy lazy writers, but to make their writing more accurate.
Despite all the mistakes its products can catch, Grammarly isn’t out to replace standard copyeditors. “We’re not positioning Grammarly as a replacement for humans, but helping humans with contextual spelling and grammar mistakes so they can focus on higher-level content and structure,” Hoover says.
The company also created a free version called Grammarly Lite, so anyone who needs a second set of eyes can upload a document and get some basic grammar help, like corrections on punctuation, contextual spelling mistakes (their vs. there, for example), article use, capitalization and more.
Grammarly Editor comes in two forms—a Microsoft Word plug in and a web app —and requires a subscription that covers both. Individual subscribers can pay an annual fee of $139.95, or opt to pay monthly fees of $29.85, or quarterly fees of $59.95.
Though Grammarly is certainly a useful tool for businesses, the company is targeting consumers. A small piece of their overall business also comes from 300 institutional clients, mostly universities, the biggest being University of Phoenix.
Grammarly anticipated that some customers might be reluctant to pay again for features—spell and grammar checking—that are included in software they’ve already purchased. Part of the reason for the free product is to show potential users that the spell checker in Microsoft Word or Google Docs just can’t catch everything.
“It’s significantly more accurate,” Hoover says. “Because we have been working on it for five years and have a ton of computational power, it’s an order of magnitude of more errors. Our ultimate goal is to continue to improve long term so that we could check at the level of an average human proofreader.”
The company tries to prove its case with the free product, but the paid version can do quite a bit more. For example, it sends users newsletters outlining their most common mistakes, so they can learn from them.
Microsoft declined to comment.
To test it out, I made an error-ridden test document and plugged it into Word and the paid version of Grammarly. Word caught several complex errors—loose instead of lose, subject-verb agreement, capitalization of proper nouns, and others. Grammarly caught the same ones, but also suggested I rethink some passive voice, mistaken pluralization, superfluous commas, and a split infinitive.
“The free product makes you look good,” Hoover says. “The paid product makes you look great. If you have day-to-day content that you would want to check, you would use our free product. If you have something more important—a job application, a final paper, a sales proposal—then you might run it through our paid product.”
Grammarly is built to check all kinds of writing. Job applicants, for example, have different needs than lawyers, who have different needs than reporters or seventh graders working on an essay for English class, so users can designate the kind of writing they’re doing to get appropriate edits. “Our algorithm is able to detect the type of writing automatically, but it double checks with users to be accurate,” Hoover says.
Hoover took over as CEO in 2011. At the time, he was relying on help from others to clean up his writing. “I’d run out of patience from friends and family,” he says. “I happened to come across Grammarly’s software. I was blown away by the quality, and the quality of the team.”
Hoover reached out to the founders just as they were looking for a partner to help them create a long-term plan to build the business. He spent the first year in Toronto and Kiev, then started Grammarly’s San Francisco office.
A few years later, Grammarly has more than 3 million users, both paid and unpaid, and 70 team members between their Kiev and San Francisco offices. Grammarly is profitable. And since its inception in Ukraine, Grammarly hasn’t taken any money from investors—at first, because they couldn’t find any—now, because they don’t need to.
“Back when we started there weren’t a lot of people who had interest in this space. [Lytvyn and Shevchenko] funded that in the early days, and once we got the cash flow to break even, we didn’t need to worry about it anymore,” Hoover says.