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“The EU startup scene is already very competitive with the US”: Interview with co-founder of language learning startup busuu, Bernhard Niesner

Today we interviewed Bernhard Niesner. He is the co-founder and CEO of the Madrid-based language learning community, busuu.

The busuu website can be used 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.

If you are wondering where the funny name comes from, busuu is a language spoken in Cameroon. According to an ethnological study conducted in the eighties, apparently only eight people are able to speak this language in the world.

When did you and your co-founder have the idea for busuu and what made you sure it was the right one?

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 about 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 busuu.com – a language learning method which is completely flexible, entertaining and available at an affordable price.

How did you finance the startup phase of busuu?

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?

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.

Secondly, 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 spending, and from the beginning we had a very lean and effective cost structure.

Looking back, what would you do differently in the startup stage?

To be honest, I wouldn’t change anything, because even though we obviously made 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 startup experience.

What makes busuu unique, or better than other services out there?

busuu.com 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/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.

Wherewould you like to see your business in 3 years?

busuu.com 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?

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?

Setting up a healthy food chain in Spain; probably I would have been bankrupt after 6 months as I believe that Spaniards will stick forever to their tapas bars.

What are your thoughts on the startup scene within the European Union – do you think it will ever become competitive in relation to the US-scene?

I believe that the EU startup scene is already very competitive with the US and some very successful startups 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 startups, in order to give them the same chances as similar startups with the same idea in the US.

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Thomas Ohr
Thomas Ohr
Thomas Ohr is the "Editor in Chief" of EU-Startups.com and started the blog in October 2010. He is excited about Europe's future, passionate about new business ideas and lives in Barcelona (Spain).
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