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How Busuu.Com Went From MBA Class Project To 25 Million Users!

IE Business School MBA and co-founder of Busuu.com Bernhard Niesner takes us through the evolution of the language learning platform since it started in 2007

By  Ifeatu Nnaobi

Fri Oct 19 2012

Busuu.com is a company that started out as an MBA class project in 2007 but has grown into an established online community for language learning, with over 25 million users. 
This Tuesday, about 30 prospective business school students and a number of graduates from IE Business School, along with a few start-up enthusiasts gathered to hear one of the co-founders of Busuu share their remarkable success story.
Bernhard Niesner had just flown in from Madrid, and although he was hotfoot from Turkey the week before (where he broke his finger) he made a superb presentation and enthused everyone about the world of start-ups. 
The Beginning
Bernhard worked with Roland Berger as a consultant for two years but wanted to do something entrepreneurial and so headed to IE Business School. His partner, Adrian Hilti, worked as a software architect for IT company Shockfish and then as a business analyst with management consultancy Arthur D Little prior to IE. The two met during a seminar that Bernhard had ditched case study work to attend - they sat next to each other and instantly hit it off. 
Bernard and Adrian had the idea to build a platform where people who wanted to learn languages could do so easily while interacting with each other. They worked on their idea as part of their MBA final project. Theirs was the only project not selected for 'bootcamp' support from IE's Venture Lab, but this didn’t stop them. IE provided the perfect test environment for their business. They used the opportunity of being at an international business school to run usability tests and received helpful feedback from their colleagues. They also used IE computer labs and rooms for as long as they could before they eventually rented their own office in Madrid and hired their first staff member. 
Take-off Phase
Many of Adrian and Bernhard’s friends were applying for jobs at heavyweights like Goldman Sachs and McKinsey but the duo stayed in Spain for the sand and the Sangria, and because they felt Spain was the right place for them to bootstrap their business. There were surrounded by competitors who were raising huge amounts in capital but this didn’t phase the Busuu team. They strongly believe that it’s about execution and not capital. Bernhard said, “people have the same good idea and you can’t stop this but you can focus on how you execute your idea”.
They focused on getting Busuu more exposure through bloggers, and video campaigns. One of their video ads won the Silver Lion award in the International Advertising Festival in Cannes. The campaign was about saving a nearly-extinct whistled language, Silbo Gomero, which is spoken in the Canary Islands. Partly as a result of the campaign, UNESCO recognized that Silbo Gomero needed to be preserved, and declared it as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
The company also shot another video which told the story of why language learning is important. It told the story of Busuu which is actually a language only spoken by about eight people in Cameroon. This time, the campaign caught the attention of CNN. 
The Busuu team spent time gathering feedback from customers about what language-learning features they would like. They didn't charge customers for the first year.  Bernhard mentioned a user who has learned six languages through Busuu and had corrected over 100,000 texts by other users. This particular lady had printed her own Busuu flyers to personally distribute and had proclaimed herself a Busuu ambassador!
There were also retired language teachers who spent time on the site correcting people’s texts. Bernhard said these kinds of ambassadors were key: “They made us feel like we were working for something positive. Listen to them and make sure they are happy with the product”. 
Where is the company today? 
Busuu currently offers 12 languages including Arabic, Polish, Chinese, Brazilian Portuguese, and Russian. and receives up to 200,000 daily visits.
Bernhard put the market into context with some interesting stats. More and more people in emerging markets are learning second languages to improve their financial situation. There are currently one billion people in the world learning English and this figure is projected to rise by 2020. There are approximately 100 million people learning Chinese worldwide. 
Busuu recently moved their entire team to London and they are looking for a cool office in Shoreditch. Someone in the audience asked why they hadn’t moved to either Silicon Valley or Berlin and Bernhard answered that there wasn’t much else to do in Silicon Valley other than drink coffee and how much Starbucks could one possibly drink? He felt that Berlin had a great tech scene but it was very much focused on the German and European markets. 
In Bernhard’s opinion, being in London means you can tap into the significant talent of both IT and language education gurus. Spain didn’t provide the right amount of tech experts who also spoke English. 
Up to the day before the event, they had managed to avoid raising unnecessary amounts of capital and had survived on less than GB £1m in funding.
For the future they are considering partnerships with big education brands to give users more confidence. They will keep working on adding new languages and improving the user experience of their languages courses. They are also working on maintaining and improving their mobile apps. In emerging markets, people may not have PCs but they access the internet via their smartphones and other tablet devices. 
Bernhard believes there is a huge potential for Busuu to grow in emerging economies but of course the challenge is converting many of the users into paying customers. There is a still a culture of people paying for services in cash, and  few facilities for electronic payments.
So, what gets Bernhard up each morning? 
"Premium conversion emails" wake up the team each morning. Depending on the figures, they know whether to smile or not when they get to the office.
Other than that, “it's a positive business to be in. Building a company with the potential to change people’s lives”, he said. Bernhard ended the presentation by sharing some of his top tips for running a startup. Here are some of them: 
  • Funding does not mean success therefore bootstrap as long as you can and focus on building a sustainable business model before you approach investors
  • Choose your investors as carefully as you would choose your spouse. Reach out to the ones who will be a great fit for the company and only ask for the right amount of investment need
  • Don’t worry about people copying your idea. Unless you go to the Samwer brothers, there’s no need to be scared!
  • Adapt your projections as often as the business needs it. Busuu had projected to have only 2 million users at this point
  • PR is a long term investment and not all marketing strategies generate the same result so you need to be very clear about your objectives
  • Hire an A team, work hard and enjoy the fight

Read more stories about students, alumni and programmes at IE Business School here