Babbel.com, our humble sponsor, recently acquired and joined forces with the online social networking site Friendsabroad.com. We caught up with Friendsabroad founder Simon Murdoch to talk a bit about this phenomenon of online language learning and the internet biz in the wake of the crunch.
Babbel Blog: Please talk about Doyouspeak.com and Friendsabroad.com. What are they, how long have they been around and how did you come up with them?
Simon Murdoch: My personal background is in the internet business, and I’ve been a VC investor and and an angel investor in the internet businesses. Then around 2004 I decided I wanted to get involved in language and technology, so I actually set up Friendsabroad in 2004. The idea was for it to be a pure language exchange, and helping people to connect, to talk to each other with emails, and then text chats, and then we added a skype integration of sorts. Doyouspeak is a separate website that we launched in the beginning of this year, January 2008, which is more purely targeted at English, it’s an online English school. So a completely different model than the Friendsabroad system.
What was your particular interest in language learning?
Like other English and Americans I’ve always been aware that we don’t speak as many languages as others around Europe, so I wanted to do something to make it more motivational, really, using technology. Mostly those of us who learn languages do it in a very dry way, at school or from books or even from CD-ROMs or tapes, and it’s not as interactive and interesting as when you meet real people, so we set up Friendsabroad with the view that by meeting people and interacting with people it would make it much more motivational, and therefore more engaging. There are a lot of people on the site, and it does keep your interest going.
How many languages are on there? What are some of the more popular ones?
It’s like on Babbel – EFIGS – English, French, Italian, German, Spanish. But we do have over eighty languages on there and there are people doing unusual things. Unusual mixtures. Japanese people talking to Portuguese people for example.
Online language learning has lately become a bit of a phenomenon. But in general, what do you think could be better in that world?
The thing that makes online language learning interesting from different points of view is that it’s an enormous market, there’s a huge amount of people that want to improve their language skills, in many countries. It’s fun to connect with people across language barriers and borders. One of the things I’ve found a challenge is: How do you do something that people are willing to pay for? Because most of us when we learn languages we do it at school and we don’t pay for it. I saw a survey a little while ago, one of the questions was, what would make you learn a language, and a number of people said they would learn a language if it’s free.
What could be done to improve it? I think the challenge is – you can make the content very interesting. And you can make the process interesting by connecting people.
What other things does Friendsabroad have in store for the future?
Well we’ve just had this deal where we’re still operating the site but we’re encouraging people to move over to Babbel, so we’re not doing any further developments. We’re handing the baton over to Babbel.
What advantages – or disadvantages — do Babbel.com and Friendsabroad.com, have in comparison to their competitors?
I think – I know it’s supposed to be global, but — one of the advantages we have in Europe is more experience with people who speak other languages. People are so used to doing business across borders, Germany in particular is very impressive with this. So I think having a European focus helps with having the right attitude.
I think compared to competitors, one of the challenges in Europe is that the US has access to funding. One of Babbel’s main competitors in the States has raised six million dollars, and it’s a lot easier to raise venture capital and angel investment in America. I guess that means we need to be smarter over here and produce a better product to be successful.
Do you really think though the ability to raise more money is based on producing a better or worse product ? I mean, when you’re comparing Europe and the United States? Is there a different culture for the funding of online projects?
I mean it’s relatively easy, especially on the west coast of the states, to raise money for online projects. I think in any of these projects the thing is to delight your customer, and the good thing about Babbel is that the content is fresh and interesting, it’s really like that in any service, whether it’s offline or online, the important thing is to have the users think what you’re doing is great.
What advice would you have then for startups these days in Europe or America? Especially now with the economy fraught as it is?
I think the economy is challenging… and it means that we’re back to basics, you might say. The important thing is to find a service for which customers are willing to pay the right amount of money . Even in the States I think financing is harder to come by than it was before the crunch, and so any business that wants to survive and thrive has to do a great job for customers. My key piece of advice for any startup is that they concentrate on their business model.
So you worked with Bookpages.com before you sold it to Amazon.co.uk and then continued to work there. What was the difference between working at these two companies?
The key difference was – I was relatively young when I started Bookpages – they’re quite English, if you like, and it was interesting when they became part of Amazon. Amazon was an ambitious American company. I think they perfectly named the company. The name (Amazon) is a very generic name because the aim was to provide a site where you could go for anything. It didn’t have “book” in the name. It had connotations of greatness. And now they sell just about anything online to many countries in the world. And Bookpages only sold books in the UK. So that American ambition was very interesting!
Now if I were to compare Bookpages to Friendsabroad – an interesting comparison in terms of setting up a business – Bookpages was unusual in the sense that it had successful businesses to emulate, Amazon, etc. And even now the model of selling products online, commerce, where you’re selling physical products and delivering to people, is a very well established business model. There are many successful commerce categories in many different categories.
Now compare that with Friendsabroad, where there wasn’t a company to emulate and copy, if you like, and one of the things we have found challenging is finding out how to do something that would be a good business model for us, something that’s at a level where customers want to pay. So … I think that experience has been quite different.
What about Doyouspeak.com? How is that different from Friendsabroad?
It’s better but it still proves an interesting challenge, because people are still not used to the idea that you can have a physical teacher through the internet. But that model is still better than Friendsabroad.com where people are not so keen to pay for a social community. I mean, people are used to things like Facebook being completely free, paid for by advertising. We didn’t actually charge for that social community, and I don’t think we could have anyway.
Are people responding well to Doyouspeak.com?
Yeah, we have teachers in the UK and students mainly around Europe and a few in South America. The students like the service, it’s good having a “real English teacher”. The calls are easy to do, we have an online classroom, on the screen etc., so the whole service works really well.
Lastly, have you ever tried to learn a language online?
What are you studying right now?
I’m doing a bit of French here and there. I also have a face-to-face teacher here in England. And I use language exchange things like Friendsabroad.com to get in contact with people and get motivated. I have tried over the years to learn from books and CD-ROMs and I don’t seem to gain anything that way. It’s much better to have a teacher and exchange partners.