Where Einstein Meets Edison

Student to Founder Series: Interview with Busuu’s Founder Bernhard Niesner

Student to Founder Series: Interview with Busuu’s Founder Bernhard Niesner

Jan 4, 2011

“Why the hell is language learning so difficult? How can we combine social networking to ease the learning process?” With these questions, the idea for busuu.com was born. Busuu is a social network for learning languages. It combines interactive online courses in seven languages with direct interaction via an integrated video-chat application and peer-to-peer text corrections. In just two-and-a-half years of operation, busuu has grown to over 1 million users. Two viral campaigns later, it has attracted the attention of two famous publishing companies. While moving to newer offices, co-founder Bernhard Niesner shared his thoughts on growing and marketing his busuu’s unique web community.

MITER: We can’t help but start with the million-dollar question, How did you grow to 1 million users in just 2.5 years?

BN: Haha..good question! Well, first of all we focused a lot on the product. The platform had to work quite well before we could start shouting about it out to the world. Afterwards, we got in touch with many important bloggers who helped us spread the word to their readers. In the end, bloggers/journalists need interesting content and our idea was/is quite original. Then we incentivized our community to help us grow busuu.com. People could get access to special travel courses once they invited 10 of their friends, etc. We also started using Google AdWords which also helped to drive a lot of traffic. (Obviously, you need some cash, although you can start with a pretty limited budget.)

We have seen several “tipping points” in the growth of our community. Once we reached 100,000 users, we definitely saw more traction. The same happened with 500,000 and now we see it even more. We also use our Facebook fanpage quite actively to stimulate our existing community and also attract new users.

We also did a viral campaign to rescue a nearly extinct whistled language (Silbo Gomera, from the Canary Islands, see www.busuu.com/silbo). This gave us quite a bit of publicity and we even won a Silver Lion for it at the Cannes International Advertising Festival.

MITER: Now, to go back to the beginning, How did you identify the problem and opportunity? What steps did you take to make your idea a reality?

BN: Well, at that time both my co-founder Adrian and I were studying towards our MBA degrees at IE Business School in Spain. At the same time, Facebook entered very strongly into Spain and we were wondering: 1) Why is language learning still so difficult, and 2) How can we combine technology in order to ease that process? These questions led to the idea for busuu.

We first developed a business plan for busuu as our final project for the MBA. Over two months, we dedicated nearly all our time to developing busuu.com. When we figured out that this project could be a real business idea, we just went for it and founded the company with private capital shortly after graduation.

MITER: How did you reshape your initial idea and what advice can you give other entrepreneurs?

BN: The current busuu website looks very different from our original idea. We have continually refined our idea over two years, by taking into account feedback we receive from the busuu.com community. We receive over 300 emails a day and we review each one carefully. Adrian and I worked like crazy during busuu’s first two years, all without much financial gain. I believe a startup’s success lies in hard work, because the implementation is more important than the initial idea.

MITER: Tell us about how you found your co-founder and how you decided to launch busuu together.

BN: We actually met at a networking event at IE (although we were in the same graduation year, we didn’t have too much contact before) and shortly after decided to launch the project together. I believe that complementary skills are crucial for the success of a startup. My partner has an engineering background while I studied international business and came from the strategy consulting world. Right from the beginning, we split up tasks: Adrian took care of technical development, while I took care of everything else–marketing, finance, sales, etc.

MITER: Did you incubate busuu at IE business school? What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who are still in school?

BN: Yes, we did it as part of our MBA final project, also called “Venture Lab” within IE. I would recommend to everyone still in school to take the utmost advantage of this time to develop your business idea. Later on, in a daily job, it’s much more difficult to break out of a routine. Also, I’d recommend sharing your idea with as many people as possible in order to gather relevant feedback. The chance that someone might “steal” your idea is quite limited and in any case, strong competition will appear shortly. In the end, it is more about the implementation than the idea.

We also did our first usability test with people from the MBA school and received a lot of helpful feedback. We had test users from over 50 different countries, which perfectly represented our international target group for busuu.com. On top of this, the first 100 fans of busuu.com were nearly all from our MBA school. We received a lot of support from our colleagues, who helped us quickly spread the word on busuu through their own networks.

Some additional advice for entrepreneurs still in school: It’s really important that your founding team complement each other’s skills. Now that I have started teaching a Web 2.0 class at IE, I’m observing too many projects where people who like each other stick together. This doesn’t create a team with the skill-set needed to launch a startup.

MITER: You are now launching a new campaign to rescue the Busuu language. Tell us more!

BN: You have to know that busuu.com has its name from the language Busuu, spoken in Cameroon by only 8 people. So in order to rescue this language from extinction, we sent a film team to the jungle in Cameroon. There, we found the surviving 8 Busuu natives and created this music video with them:
Save Busuu – The Busuu song – (English Version)
Additionally, we created a special page where people can sing their own songs in Busuu, record it, and share it with their friends on Facebook.

More than half of the 6,500 languages in the world are on the verge of extinction—so we are recording history and raising attention to nearly extinct languages in this world.