The founder of Bilingua, a language exchange and learning companion app, connecting learners based on similar interests or personalities.
By Sharyn Collins
Hello Guillaume. You now work in the field of languages and language learning, but I know that you started off studying nuclear engineering in Japan, could you tell me how that came about?
Well, I did my first master in general engineering, in France (Ecole Centrale de Lyon). As a student, my first passions were in science, particle physics and foreign languages. This brought me to Japan about ten years ago, for a second master in nuclear engineering, where I did research on PIXE spectroscopy to analyze matter. It was during this time that I fell in love with tech and entrepreneurship and so in parallel with my studies I learnt to code and worked during my evenings and weekends to launch my first venture which was a music website and community. It was a perfect occasion to test myself in tech, leadership and entrepreneurship, to see if I could assemble a team of passionate contributors under a common vision. This first experience in tech and remote work, leading a team of 30 contributors in Europe, helped a lot to structure the current culture at Creatella and Bilingua. After a few positions in Tokyo, and being passionate about learning, I went back to a school desk to do my MBA at INSEAD, a 1-year programme across 3 campuses (Paris, Singapore, Abu Dhabi). This was the starting point of Bilingua and Creatella (the Venture Builder supporting it).
How did you come up with the idea for Bilingua?
Bilingua was born out of the pain I experienced trying to learn languages! Living in Japan, learning Japanese was relatively easy. However I met a wall when trying to learn Korean, to converse with my fellow schoolmates. Unable to really feel immersed and practice it daily, I could never overcome a low threshold. I tried many language exchange services but none worked for me; without a good quality match between partners, a guided learning path, or a gamified experienced I, like most people, stopped after a few weeks.
What problem does it solve?
Many students and young professionals want to build up on their language studies at school and achieve fluency in a second or third language, either for their career or simply for exploration. But the only way currently is to invest a lot of time and money in order to live abroad or go to language schools. Bilingua brings a new option, a mutual language exchange and tutorship app that allows users to practise casually with natives and become fluent at a fraction of the usual cost. We match pairs of people wanting to learn each other’s language. For example, if I’m native in French and want to practice my Chinese, I’ll be matched with Chinese people who wants to practice their French.
How is it different from your competitors?
There are 3 cornerstones. First we put the right people together based on their personality and interests to ensure they’ll have exciting conversations and things to share. Second, we provide learning content and guidance to offer users a tailored learning programme, with an in-chat bot “Shiro”, topic cards, news etc. Third, we make it fun by keeping our users engaged with games, friendly competition and advanced gamification. Most features are still in development, and we’re excited to listen to the feedback from our users!
How is it succeeding?
The launch in February 2017 was a success, bringing 30,000 users in the first few months. Bilingua was selected by Google as a featured beta app, which was a fantastic recognition for the hard work from our tech team. We’re still in our early stage but we’ll continue doing our best for our users!
What barriers and problems have you encountered? How have you overcome them?
We need a lot of users from around the world for our users to successfully find other users to have language exchanges. The more users we have from around the world, the more options users have, in terms of native language speakers. Throughout the past few months, we have been creative in acquiring new users with referrals and unpaid marketing, but it’s very difficult nowadays to attract a critical mass of users without an extensive marketing budget.
What’s your business model?
Bilingua will remain a free app for normal usage and we will not degrade the experience for unpaid users, like too many apps on the market tend to do. We will offer additional services (video call, unlimited translations…) for subscribed users. In addition, we will also offer tutorship for students who want a certified teacher to learn from.
How do you ensure the safety and security of users?
For now, we have integrated standard features from social networks. We also ask a lot of information from our users during onboarding, to help ensure the quality of the community. Next year, machine learning will be key to further raise this quality and match high quality profiles together. Also, we’ll develop a “closed group” feature for professors to bring their students online in a secure closed environment.
What have you learned from launching Bilingua? What was unexpected?
One of the key things we’ve learned is that quality can still drive user acquisition without marketing outreach. In our age it’s very difficult and expensive to capture users’ attention and get them to download an app, and most strategies revolve around extensive marketing spending, as discussed earlier. But quality can still bring strong retention and a high viral coefficient, as well as increased visibility thanks to awards such as being featured by Google. As for what was unexpected, we were happily surprised by the reaction of users towards Shiro, our cute mascot and chat bot. We still have a long way to go to make it a true AI, but we’ve received very positive feedback so far.
What do you think it takes to succeed in this market?
In order to become a major player in this market, you have to achieve very high quality in terms of design, product development and its functions, but also achieve high quality community and content. Most of the leading learning apps have already integrated some level of gamification, but few really leverage machine learning in order to boost the quality of their content and community.
What would you advise a company looking to launch an app?
Start small, but learn and grow fast. I would advise people to start humble and get down to the basics: what are the foundations you know you control 100% and can succeed at? From there, the organisation should be built layer by layer. If you’ve already mastered the layer below, you have a much higher chance of succeeding at the next one. Don’t try to master recruitment, tech development, design quality, revenue model, organization design etc. at the same time. In our case the first essential layers were the organization design and vision, to then attract the best developers to build a simple app etc., which allowed us to learn and grow fast in the right direction. For others, to ensure the essential layers it might mean finding a partner to ensure the tech quality while you focus on the business side for example.
Are you looking for partners? What opportunities do you have? How can they get in touch?
Yes! We are particularly looking for partnerships around learning material, for example with academics and researchers. Partnerships with other language learning startups could also benefit everyone. In general, we are always open to collaboration that can help extend the language learning market and technologies. Partners can get in touch at [email protected] and [email protected]
You’re a busy man. You seem to have your fingers in a lot of pies. Do you ever feel overwhelmed?
We could say that, but I actually place myself voluntarily in such a situation. If I don’t try to reach or overcome my limits, I feel guilty for having wasted potential work capacity. Personally, the key is to have a good balance of output and recovery time, and have a safety margin so as not to burn out. I do get overwhelmed once in a while, and balance it out with efficient recovery (personal relations, feeling of accomplishment, sleep, entertainment) to run the distance.
Entrepreneurs are often advised to focus on one thing at a time. Is this something you would echo?
It’s a great question. In my opinion, the optimal is between both extremes, and requires good knowledge of oneself. The fact of spanning different industries and skillsets helps to uncover opportunities you can’t see if you restrict yourself (cf Elon Musk’s “expert generalist”). On the other hand spreading yourself too thin can lead to failures for all ventures. I believe the key is to only do what you can do properly and fully bring to success and to reserve enough of your passion and focus for each of your ventures. For some, this might mean they should focus on one venture at a time, for others this might mean a few different ventures.
Thank You Guillaume and we wish you every success for the future.