Interview with Bernhard Niesner (


Today we made an interview with Bernhard Niesner. He is the co-founder and CEO of the language learning community The website can be used completely for free! However, you have the option to pay a minimal monthly fee to become a Premium Member. With that Premium Membership you gain access to additional functionalities and more material. The language learning startup is based in Spain (Madrid) and was founded by Bernhard Niesner and his co-founder Adrian Hilti. If you are wondering where the funny name comes from: busuu is a language spoken in Cameroon – based on an ethnological study conducted in the 80ies, apparently only eight people are able to speak this language. When have you or your partner had the idea for busuu and what made you sure it was the right one?

Bernhard Niesner: In 2007, both of us (Adrian Hilti and myself) were doing an MBA at IE Business School here in Madrid. As we were living in Spain, we had to improve our Spanish and we were wondering why this is still such a complicated, time-consuming and expensive process. On top, at that time facebook was growing quickly in Spain so we thought how to use technology in order to improve the way people learn new languages. So as part of our final project within the MBA we developed – a language learning method which is completely flexible, entertaining and available at an affordable price. How did you finance the startup-phase of busuu?

Bernhard Niesner: We raised the first money in 2008 from “friends and family”. Then we made our first financing round in February 2010 with an Austrian Business Angel. What were the main stumbling blocks of your first year as an entrepreneur?

Bernhard Niesner: First of all to get the right people on board. It is very difficult for a start-up to convince excellent people to join if you don’t even have a website, a proper office and let alone a good reputation. But we were very lucky with our recruitment choices and the first employees are still on board. Second, we had to be very careful with our financial resources as we were “boot-strapped” for more than 2 years. We started to monetize our website 1 year after the launch so we had quite some time without any income. But this period also taught us to be very cautious with our spendings and from the beginning we had a very lean and effective cost structure. Looking back, what would you do differently in the startup-stage?

Bernhard Niesner: To be honest – I wouldn’t change anything because even if we obviously committed mistakes, they always helped us to reflect on our position and to move again in the right direction. So I believe that making mistakes is an essential part of the start-up experience. What makes busuu unique or better as other services out there?

Bernhard Niesner: is completely flexible in terms of timing and place for learning languages. As opposed to traditional language schools, our users can study when and from wherever they want. On top, we offer language classes for only 9,99 EUR/month which is much cheaper than other language learning methods. Additionally, our system uses our technology to make the learning process “intelligent” – we track the learning progress on an individual basis and make recommendations which are unique to each user. Where do you like to see your business ( in 3 years?

Bernhard Niesner: will be a key reference for language learning both for final consumers as well as within the institutional segment (companies, universities, schools etc.). We will offer language classes for all languages probably for around 20+ languages covering all sorts of language learning methodologies (online, mobile, live classes etc.). What would you do for a living, if you had not started a business?

Bernhard Niesner: Probably working as a Consultant doing night shifts in front of an xls – so similar to what I am doing now but at least now I am having a lot of fun while doing it! 😉 What was your worst business idea yet?

Bernhard Niesner: Setting up a healthy food chain in Spain – probably I would be bankrupt after 6 months as I believe that Spaniards will stick forever to their tapas bars.. What are your thoughts on the start-up-scene within the European Union: Do you think it will ever become competitive in relation to the US-scene?

Bernhard Niesner: I believe that the EU start-up scene is already very competitive and very successful start-ups have evolved recently. I rather think that the financing industry in the EU needs to change. European VCs need to be quicker, less bureaucratic and more risk taking in early stage-start-ups in order to give them the same chances like similar start-ups with the same idea in the US.


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