Irish American startup Smigin grew from a need that international executive Susan O’Brien identified while she was working in non English speaking countries. How could she develop a product that people could use for the basics of getting by while traveling and working abroad.

“The Smigin product has been in development for the past two years. People simply don’t have the time to devote to sitting in front of computers or laptops. They want to dip in and out of mobile products while on the go.”

Since launching in late February on the App Store, thousands of people have downloaded the first version of the Smigin app. In the first week in the App Store Smigin broke the TOP 10 for App Store search terms ‘learn Spanish’ or ‘learn French’. This was a great early achievement for Susan and her team as some of the other companies on that TOP 10 list have multiple millions of dollars in Venture Capital funding. 

What is the opportunity for Smigin?

The self-taught language-learning industry is a highly fragmented global $32bn industry. There is no clear global leader. Existing products fall short of meeting the needs of today’s mobile-first, time-crunched consumer. Most solutions are too rigid, focusing primarily on grammar and structure. Most are also simply not fun or easy to use. The result is significant user dissatisfaction and low levels of user engagement. The self-taught language market, estimated at $32b globally, is projected to grow exponentially in the years ahead due to three overarching factors: a global economy with shrinking borders, a burgeoning independent travel industry, and better mobile devices. There are 1billion people learning English globally, which is projected to double in the next 10 years, and 50m people learning Mandarin (this is projected to double in the next 5 years, and is the fastest growing language in the USA). The language industry in EU member states alone is €8.4b and expected to rise to €20b by 2015. 

What's the biggest challenge you've faced so far?

Doing this with very little cash. We have a mantra internally that is said with great frequency: “this struggle is real!” and building a company, a brand, a product with very little cash is definitely a struggle! You have to justify every dollar spent. We ask two questions before spending any money: “Do we need this right now? , and “can we get it at a better price?” 

What's been the most important lesson?

Hire and incentivize the best people and build the best possible team. Startups talk constantly of the pressures of raising capital, but less so of the challenge to find world class ‘human capital’. Attracting, hiring and retaining the right people, and aligning them behind one singular vision for the company makes the difference between surviving and thriving. When people are passionate about what they are doing, they don’t go home until it’s done right. We wouldn’t be where we are today without the small team of people committed to making it happen. 

How can you scale?

With each new language we add to the Smigin app we open up a new market. We can drive adoption in new markets as the Smigin app also works in reverse – a user in the USA can build phrases in Spanish, and a user in Spain can build phrases in English. The app is relevant to English speakers traveling to Spain, and to Spanish people traveling to English speaking territories. So when we add a language like Brazilian Portuguese, it is also available in the Brazilian App Store in reverse – offering English as a language of choice. Beyond that we want to get Smigin in front of key influencers or big brand names in the travel industry. The app works, we just need to get it in front of the right people in order to scale. 

Who do you think are your customers?

Smigin users are people who travel internationally either for business or leisure. No matter where you go there is a basic need for conversation. We’re trying to make that possible for people who don’t have the time to learn the traditional way. Language is social, people like to interact with other people, and no one wants to sound like an idiot abroad. 

What are your plans for 2014?

Our goal is to continue to add new languages to the Smigin app so that we can better serve the needs of international travelers. The more languages we add, the more relevant, and useful, our product becomes. 

Advice for other starters?

1. Network like crazy. Many people are intimidated by the idea of ‘networking’ but in reality it’s just talking to people. Step out of your comfort zone, leave your apartment, go to the event and say hello to a bunch of people that you don’t know. Every time you make a new connection you are building a foundation of personal or professional relationships that extend much farther than you could ever reach on your own.

2. Be brave. Keep doing the next thing. For a startup, especially in the early stages, it’s all about execution. With a small team and limited resources, it can get overwhelming, but you’ve got to stay focused and just do the next thing.