By Warren Freisner
OK, so I’m at an age where most people are thinking about whether they’ve built up enough retirement money to buy that Condo in Florida. The very last thing on their mind is “can we make it over to that Buffer workshop at Wix.” In fact, they’d probably have no clue what Buffer or Wix is.
Yet, there I was two weeks ago with my marketing partner taking the “A” train to 23rd St to listen to one of the founders of Buffer talk about social media strategies, and listen to mostly 20-30-somethings peppering him with questions about their startups and providing plenty of spot on insights of their own.
It’s certainly a new beginning for my partner Erick and I, owners of a graphic and web design firm, Clear Light Interactive Group, where things were definitely not looking up. The demand for the fully custom – award winning – websites we used to design had dwindled, as template-based sites now rule,, and the startups we once branded and worked with on their first products and trade show booths had mostly become bigger and more bureaucratic and therefore the work more prosaic.
Then last year a technical screw-up by a real estate management office led to a lost opportunity to score an affordable apartment my partner and I had applied to. He was so pissed and depressed he started talking about doing something totally different. Just starting a new business from scratch.
That’s how Language Hero was born. It drew upon my own experience studying Mandarin and retaining next to nothing. After looking at how language learning websites and chat apps were basically built to fail at producing language-speaking proficiency, we decided we could do better.
Just briefly, about Language Hero: It’s a language-learning app built around smart AI-fueled video chat. It lets learners, who don’t speak a word of each other’s language, create their own conversations on real-life topics, in a relaxed and casual environment. Because all the material is translated it’s comprehensible, and, because we use AI to review user click patterns, and provide fresh, relevant content, users can move the conversation into new topics of interest or dive deep into existing ones. This keeps them engaged.
We do this to follow second language acquisition principles, which state that you acquire a new language naturally by hearing (or reading) a lot of conversation you understand in a low stress environment, where real communication – not language exercises – is the goal, and where enough new comprehensible words and phrases are provided. You don’t learn to speak well through grammar, canned dialogs, or vocabulary memorization. You learn though real-life speaking and listening. That’s what we aim to provide.
So, we worked on a product, pitch, Business Plan, website, etc. But we weren’t connected with the right people, we had little background in finance, we needed mentoring in so many areas. So, when we saw the opportunity to get into a NYC-subsidized accelerator called 2020Startups we didn’t hesitate for a moment, we just dove right in.
It’s been an amazing experience thus far. While the workshops and personal sessions with Mark Gold, the 2020 Manager, have been incredibly helpful, as anyone who’s been through this process will tell you, it’s the high-octane-fueled conversations and interactions with a bunch of brilliant, mostly young fellow entrepreneurs that’s really made the difference for us. In fact, we’ve been able to add one of the 2020 Q4 stars, Evgenii Podkovyrov, to our team as both a financial advisor and AI resource provider and mentor.
The other thing about being in an accelerator is that, it forces you to confront your own weaknesses. In Tibetan Buddhism, they say that a good teacher is the one who points out your faults. And this is equally the case with startups. You think you’ve got a great idea and your product is clearly superior until someone points out that it’s impossible to monetize, lacks virality, or that acquisition cost exceeds any revenue it might produce. The last thing you need as a startup is an echo chamber filled with admiring friends. The feedback we’ve gotten from fellow 2020 participants has helped us immensely.
Lastly, when you’re at an accelerator there’s kind of a “shame” factor. At an accelerator you don’t want to be treading water or plodding along. As the name implies, you want to be pushing forward faster, testing out new strategies, looking for collaborators, influencers, mentors, investors, and just basically reaching out to anyone who can help, especially your 2020 buds. And you certainly want to crush it on Demo Day, when you actually have a chance to impress investors and elevate your company’s profile.