This month, James talks to us about his experiences as a co-founder of Lingo Online.
Can you introduce your start-up? What is it, and how did it come about?
Lingo Online is a language app which allows people from across the world to connect with native speakers via live video calls, and practice another language for free. Anytime, anywhere with an internet connection.
I used to live in Spain as an Erasmus student during my years at university. During my stay there (which lasted nine months), I practised speaking Spanish every day and gradually became semi-fluent by the time I returned to the UK. This was great however, it was difficult to keep up my level of Spanish whilst I was living near Manchester.
Over the next few years, I tried maintaining my level of Spanish when I could, however, it proved to be difficult without regular daily exposure. I tried a variety of different language apps, however most of them were either games to learn new words or they allowed you to ‘text chat’ with native speakers; which gets boring after a while and it’s difficult to incorporate that into your daily life – if you’re constantly having to type to people.
I didn’t find these methods very effective for me personally, so I came up with an idea. What if you could randomly connect a native Spanish person with a native English person via live video and allow them to chat with each other; learning from each other at the same time. It’s the best way to learn another language by actually chatting with someone who is native.
That’s the story! From there I had to find a technical co-founder to help bring the idea to life as I don’t know how to code and my skills lie in business, marketing and coming up with new features rather than coding itself. That’s when I approached my friend Tony from the same university as me and he agreed to join me with the project.
Where are you in your start-up journey?
Very early days so far! We nearly have an alpha version of the app, but as with any tech related project, testing is incredibly important to make sure it doesn’t break as soon as you release it. We’re a couple of weeks away from releasing it to our testing group, and once feedback from that group is positive then we’ll plan for the public release.
To date, what has been your businesses biggest triumph?
Recently, we made it as finalists of two startup awards:
“Digital Entrepreneur Awards: Best Use of Mobile and IOT Award”
Once we both heard this great news we were over the moon to have reached the finalist round in not one, but two awards! Its things like this that tops up our motivation to keep going, even when times get tough. I think it’s important as a startup to pause for a second and appreciate any small wins you get along the way.
Are you a co-founder? If so, how have you found it? And do you have any advice for partners working alongside each other on how to make that business relationship work?
Yes, I am. I could not have made it this far without my technical co-founder Tony, as he’s the person actually bringing the idea to life. I focus on the marketing and business side as well as any new features, and Tony focuses on the coding and implementation of the app itself. We work well together as a team and I feel that communication is incredibly important especially in the early stages of a business; as you have to be nimble and have the courage and ability to change your approach at any time to meet your customer’s demands. Without communication – aka deciding which features to include first, which should be paid or free, how to structure any algorithms etc – we would be on different wavelengths and this would likely be detrimental to the whole project.
The advice I would give to any sole founders; if you’re a jack of all trades, that’s great. However, sometimes it can get overwhelming with the amount of multitasking you have to do – if you want to progress. Make sure you have a mentor or someone to talk to for advice and guidance even if it’s a friend or colleague. There’s nothing better than hearing another perspective on your ideas, rather than it just being your own voice!
I’ve found working alongside Tony interesting as it’s always good to have someone else by your side for feedback along the way. I’d recommend choosing a co-founder who has the skills you’re missing and also makes sure there is trust between you both.
How do you manage to balance growing a start-up with having a personal life?
I play it by ear! Sometimes I can be obsessed with working on my start-up at random times such as late at night. Other times I find that my personal life can get in the way so I think it’s important to make choices based on what’s important to you – spending time with family for example before a family member goes on holiday or working on the graphics for your app. In my opinion, priorities change constantly and you have to reassess which elements are more important to focus on every day.
How do you cope with the pressures that come with building a business?
Get sleep. This is most important as it allows you to control your emotions and make decisions more easily. People say that while growing a start-up you only need a few hours of sleep, leaving enough time to work on your business.
I don’t think this is true. I think it’s about priorities; if you spend time watching TV shows or other activities rather than focusing on your business, it will naturally take longer to build a business.
There is no right or wrong way of assigning your time in my opinion; it just depends whether you’d like to go all in time-wise, focusing on your business to grow it faster, or whether you’d still like to enjoy leisure and treat your side business as a part-time thing.
Personally, I decide which activities are most important to me – eg, exercise, being with family, travelling etc and work out how I can prioritize tasks that are work-related around these activities. Most of the time it has worked well for me so far, although sometimes it can be difficult to choose which aspect of my life has priority!
Did you pursue investment? If so what advice would you give on pitching? What was your secret weapon?
No, I don’t believe every startup should immediately pursue the investment. At the moment for us at Lingo Online, we don’t yet have a working proof of concept (MVP) so there’s no point in asking for finance before we even know how to get the app working well. Once we’ve tested it and released the beta version, we’ll have feedback and will know how to alter it and develop it to a point where we need additional finance to grow.
By this point, the proof of concept will have been made so we’ll have something to show investors. Plus there will naturally be interest around the app – which serves well to persuade people to actually invest their money into the concept. Without these factors, I think it would be difficult to secure investment.
So, in my opinion, it largely depends on which point in your startup you are currently at. If it’s early wait until the latest possible moment before you seek investment as so much can change, especially if you have a tech startup because changes are made regularly.
When it comes to pitching (although I haven’t had to yet) I believe by only showing a maximum of 10 slides highlighting your uniqueness is the best approach. I wouldn’t go much into how your product works instead, focus on the benefits of your product to your target audience. If questions are raised on how something works, then you can answer but not unless you’re asked in the first place. This keeps it simple and to the point.
If you could name one thing that you wish you knew when you started, what would it be?
How to better distribute my time. I find time management difficult, especially as I’m prone to procrastination all the time!
I use different time management apps to help me see where I’m spending my time. If I started using apps like this earlier on I think I could have been much more productive.
To date, what has been your most important lesson?
If you have any gut feelings or doubts about something related to any part of your business, trust those feelings. They’re most likely right. I found this from my experience so far with ‘assuming’ many things.
Do you have any tips or advice for anyone thinking about starting up their own business, or who have just started their journey?
If you’re looking for a co-founder, it’s best to start with asking your friends first rather than a co-founder network. You’ll already have built trust with your friends and this is the most important factor if you need someone to help you bring your idea to life.
Also, don’t focus on money. If you do, then you’ll lose motivation if your business doesn’t start making money straight away. If you focus on the value that your business can bring to the table, money will follow naturally as people will be willing to pay for that value. This will also mean that even after 3 or 6 months of running your business, even if you’re unprofitable this won’t discourage you as your main focus has been to build value into your business.
One last piece of advice; I hear and see so many people start a business because they like the idea of being a ‘business owner’. This is the wrong attitude in my option. The reason to go into business should either be because you have seen a gap in the market which you can fill, or that you love doing something so much that you could work many hours per week and not feel exhausted from it. Basically when you’re passionate about something then you’re much more likely to succeed – rather than focusing on how much money your latest project will bring you.
What has been the most challenging part of your start-up journey so far?
Managing expectations and time periods. A large amount of time will pass, and initially, you’ll be hyped about it. The trick is to keep this hype going for months after the initial idea, but reminding yourself why you’re doing it.
Also, I’ve found managing work and life balance can be tricky, but it can still be done. All that happens is that if you put less work into your business and spend more time relaxing at weekend and during the week it will take you longer to get tasks done. Doesn’t mean it has to be one or the other. It’s just that you’re extending the amount of time it will take for your business to be a success. It’s ultimately down to you as to how you allocate your time!
What’s next for your business?
We plan to launch the app within the next month (initially to a test group, followed by public release). A lot of testing must be done but then we’ll focus on growth hacking to build the user base as quickly as possible. This is the challenge that I will focus on, while my co-founder will focus on making the changes as adaptations to the app itself as we grow and improve.
I’ve already done a lot of research into network effects and achieving critical mass for our user base, but realistically it’s down to experimentation and working quickly. You have to be as proactive as possible, but then when something happens that’s out of your control, you have to be quick to fix it.
Within the months after launch, new features will be added and changes will be made according to the response we receive from our users. My vision is to see Lingo Online become a worldwide popular app for informal language learning; the same way the Duolingo currently leads the way for learning grammar and vocabulary, I see Lingo Online leading the way for merging live video with language learning.
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