David Montiel, founder of Beelinguapp, opens up about he’s learned after building his app with no money, and very little time.
I never thought I would be able to turn an idea into a success story. You hear about these technology startups that start out on kitchen tables or in basements and go on to be phenomenally successful, but they are one in a million.
Yet here I am. It’s been two years since I founded Beelinguapp, and my language learning app is ranked among the top five such apps in the world.
I’m still the sole founder and sole employee of the business, building the venture in my spare time, while holding down a full-time job. It’s been tough, but I’ve learned many lessons along the way.
For all you budding entrepreneurs who want to start and grow a venture with no money, little time, and just a whole lot of determination, here’s how I did it.
1) Do not quit your job
It took me almost a year to build a releasable version of Beelinguapp. This is because I did it in my spare time, taking a few hours in the evenings, at weekends and on lunch breaks to code my app.
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If I’d left my job, I could have done it in two or three months but keeping the day job meant that I still had money coming in, so I wasn’t worrying about making my rent or paying bills. It forced me to prioritise the things that needed to be built now, versus the stuff I could add later. I didn’t have the time or resources to spend weeks on nice-to-haves.
2) Pick an idea that can make money as it grows
Language has never been more important. The world is becoming increasingly globalised. People move around like never before. I knew that a language learning app, which helped users learn intuitively, would be successful.
The great thing about an app is that you can release it into the world and it can start to generate revenue very quickly. You can keep adapting the technology, add things, tweak your concept, but it’s still running on people’s phones, serving ads or taking micro-payments. This is why the business model is useful – Beelinguapp didn’t pay for itself in the early days, but it paid me a little pocket money.
3) Ignore people who tell you it’s hopeless
In 2015, I attended a pitch event where I presented my idea to a famous entrepreneur. This successful businessman heard my idea and told me not to bother, that there were too many competitors in the market, and that if I wanted to build the app I should just do it as a hobby. I was shocked.
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Before that moment, I had received only praise. This was the first time someone had slated my idea. He didn’t understand that Beelinguapp was doing something that none of its rivals were doing. We were putting users’ favourite texts side by side, in their native language and the one they wanted to learn, using a karaoke-style bouncing icon to show which word was being spoken. It’s a powerful way to learn a language
Everyone tells you to listen to people who have been there, done that. I say: ignore the naysayers. As Mark Twain once said, ‘Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.’
4) Don’t let ignorance stand in your way
I have worked at tech giants Google, LinkedIn and eBay. At these organisations, I learned all about lean methodology processes and clever hacks like AB testing (putting two versions out simultaneously and seeing which one performs better). But there are plenty of aspects to building a startup that I didn’t know, or wasn’t even aware I needed. That was a bitter pill to swallow.
So, I bought the book “The Lean Startup” and followed it to the letter, moving from lesson to lesson. After that, I read every startup bible I would lay my hands on, from “Hacking Growth”and “Deep Working” to “Getting Things Done”, and even “Trust Me, I’m Lying”.
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If there was a book that claimed it could help me build a successful software product or improve my time management, I devoured it. I recommend doing the same. Top tip: get these titles on audiobook, as it makes it much easier to get through them quickly. All my time commuting on the train was already taken up with coding.
5) Use other people’s talents
I am an Android developer. That’s my day job. But when it came to building Beelinguapp, there was a lot of technical knowledge that I just didn’t have. So I hired freelancers.
I went to one of the freelancers marketplaces and got myself a couple of web developers to build the backend that the translators would use to translate the texts and record the audios. Of course, none of this is free so…
6) Use other people’s money
Over the past two years, I have invested a lot of my own money into my project. It’s important to have skin in the game, because it convinces other people that you are serious.
If you won’t back yourself, how can you persuade anyone else to put their hand in their pocket? But when I need to pay some freelancers to translate 70 stories into 13 languages, I needed more money than I had.
I created a Kickstarter to raise 12,000 euros, hoping that other people saw the potential of the idea. I was born in Mexico, the business was launched in Germany, and my users are in these countries as well as the UK and US. This helped me to spread the net wide.
Almost 15,000 people backed me, and I raised almost 15,000 euros. Getting lots of early backers was essential here. I got all of my contacts to pledge even 1 euro each. If Kickstarter sees that there are lots of people backing the project, even if it is not a lot of money, it goes high in the rankings.
7) Talk to strangers
My app has been built on feedback. In the early stages of the process, I would go to a bar near my apartment in Berlin and just ask strangers to test my app. I would just approach someone and ask them for five minutes of their time. Within five seconds, it became clear if someone on the table would be willing to help.
I got pretty good at identifying the more approachable people, so I could use my time more efficiently. I would take notes, change the product according to the feedback and come back the next afternoon to do more testing.
8) Hack your growth
“Growth hacking” is a term a lot of people hate. Even I dislike it, to be honest, but I also believe it is misunderstood. It is not some magic trick that will get you 600% more users a day if you implement it. To me it is just creating a great product and making sure people like it so much they are willing to like it, share it, and spend money on it.
Find the moments when users are happy and ask them to rate the app in that moment! Give them free stuff in exchange of sharing the app with their friends. Make the products cheaper for a limited time to give them that small push they needed to actually spend money on the app. If the product is good enough, all of these will work.
9) Don’t reinvent the wheel
I have spent a lot of time researching successful entrepreneurs. Every story is different and everyone took a different path, and yet they all made it. Learning about all these routes to success kept me motivated. I soon identified personality traits and characteristics they all had in common and realised which of those I still had to work on. When you accept that you don’t have to be a genius to be successful, you just have to follow basic rules, it is a huge relief. I didn’t invent any of the growth hacks I used, or the lean startup methodology, I just followed what the books and videos said. No big deal, right?
10) Use every minute you have
I walk a lot – around 90 minutes a day – and I also commute for an hour every day (I’m writing this on a train right now). While I am on the train I send emails, or program the next item on my list of tasks.
While I am walking I listen to audiobooks or podcast or I just think… some of my best ideas occur to me while walking. I keep the Trello app open on my phone and write down every idea that pops into my head immediately, so I don’t forget it. This routine makes me very productive and focused.