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Readlang – My Bootstrapped Language Learning Web-App (steveridout.com)
65 points by BenSS on March 22, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 51 comments

I love this story because it shows the true reality, for most people, of starting your own company. It is a long haul of trying and re-trying things and looking at the results. There is a lot of joy when you see the graph move up, and a lot of self doubt when it stagnates or moves the other way.

One thing that rubs me wrong with HN is a general feeling it creates in my gut that my projects isn't valid because It's taken us 5 years to get stable. I feel like the pattern is to take a bunch of people's money, blow through it and then quit when your idea didn't work in 6 months. Then repeat. No point in sticking with something unless it's an instant smash hit.

Steve, I think your idea is pretty solid and there surely must be customers out there like schools that will add large numbers of accounts. If you can build it to where you can sit on the beach doing support then what a great life that could be! All the best to you.

Thanks for the encouragement!

I agree it can be good to stick with an idea you believe in, even if it isn't showing crazy viral growth.

Great writeup and kudos to getting something off the ground. Some back of the envelope calculations.

Let's assume you want to make $100k/year. Which is a pretty decent life in most places.

Right now the numbers are showing about $8.30/paying customer. To hit that target will require ~12,000 more subscribers. Not a crazy number.

But, at the conversion rate of .51% (126/24,717 uniques->paying) that means you'll need to get ~298 million uniques to your site (or 56 million signups). That's tough. Getting the entire population of the U.S. to come check out your site requires a huge marketing budget.

If you can convert all signups into paying customers (currently at 2.7% conversion) that goal becomes much closer. About 19% of all uniques are turning into signups (paid or otherwise). That's pretty good. If all of them were paying that's better than 1/3rd of the way there.

So really, for this to work for 1 full-time person to make $100k, conversions free->paid need to go up significantly, but probably pricing needs to go up as well and/or the tiered structure needs to be rethought.

Thanks for the analysis!

Pushing the conversion rate from signup to paid closer to 100% means crippling the free plan, probably killing the chance of viral growth.

There's definitely room for optimising throughout the funnel though.

Also, I could look into raising the price, offering additional features, etc. An interesting source of revenue could be selling books via the site, although I have a feeling that dealing with publishers would be difficult.

> Pushing the conversion rate from signup to paid closer to 100% means crippling the free plan, probably killing the chance of viral growth.

That's pretty reasonable. Of course pushing the numbers up means fewer people will sign up at all (i.e. not every signup can be converted), so there'll be a trade-off of some kind.

At any rate, it might be worth setting a top-end of what kind of growth you might be able to expect and try and build your business model out that way. Right now the number of uniques you need to come seems a bit high to me. Might be worth modelling out what you could do with 1 million uniques, 10 million, etc. and try and model around that, then go out and try and get those eyeballs to your app. That kind of analysis can help you decide on marketing approaches. 10 million, for example, might require some investment in actual advertising, radio ads, late night tv etc. 1 million might be easier to do for "free" + your time.

Some things that might help get more eyeballs on your site

Once you're satisfied with where the site/product is, you might think about taking a few days and writing to sites like LifeHacker as well as language learning sites, any reddit about languages (e.g. /r/korean) to help kick things off (see below)

Other than time, these can be decent free ways to kick off some growth as well.

note: I've gotten some decent notice through the following in the past just by writing them with some information. Eventually most were able to carry it, and often it spilled over into twitter and drove traffic for a while while the news bounced around the globe. It didn't cost anything and was entirely free.





Also might get coverage in various newspapers tech sections, global news or travel sections.

An assumption of 100k per year is pretty aggressive. He's been willing to do it for 16 months at 1k.

Well let's be honest, unless he's independently wealthy, $62.50/mo is not going to cut it forever. It might be a useful business model exercise to set a goal of what he'd like to live on and build the business around that. $100k/yr is not an outrageous amount of money, but he can set it at whatever is reasonable in his locale.

Correct, I'm certainly not content to carry on at the current level.

$100k/yr would be very nice, although I'd actually be satisfied with considerably less, especially since this has value to me beyond the money - I think it's a cool project which will be useful as a calling card no matter what happens. If I could reach $2000/month sometime this year I'd consider it a success!

Yeah, absolutely!

My wife took a couple years off to work on her startup. It never really went quite where she wanted, but did "ok" (a few thousand regular users). When we decided we needed her back in the workforce, having it on her resume was a source of intense discussion during all of her interviews and was a big part of her landing the job she has now.

People talk about knowing the entire SDLC as important for jobs, but running your own thing means that the software life-cycle is a really small piece of what you do and those additional skills are very valuable in the workplace.

edit btw, last night I thought about asking you if you'd consider adding a donation button on the free tier. People may be intermittent users, think it's useful, but not want to commit to the paid tier, so they give you a donation instead?

It could be a way to transition somebody up to the paid tier later if they're regular donators. Maybe keep track, and if somebody donates a certain number of times, or a certain amount of money, offer them a discount for a year or something.

If someone wanted to donate, it's easy to sign up for the $4.99 plan and immediately cancel auto-renewals.

I doubt there would be enough donations of less than $4.99 to make it worth adding the option.

Great job Steve! Very encouraging and inspirational to read your post. I am usually a passive reader and mostly a consumer when it comes to blogs or stackoverflow/quora. Today I felt to post a comment because it really hit close. I too was doing very similar to what you wrote about. I have been building and managing http://www.marathimitra.com/ - an Indian language learning website for over last 10 years. I did make an attempt to make a business of out it for 18 months (from 2012 through 2013) but was unsuccessful and then went back to a full-time coding job. During those 18 months, I too did almost similar hacks, initiatives and improvements that you mention: mailchimp, paypal subscriptions, UI improvements and more. In the end I just was too tired of doing everything myself. I did bootstrap it myself and all along the 18 months and many more years before that I was the sole designer, programmer, project manager, content aggregator, marketing and sales person. It took a toll on me.

The big lesson I learned is that it is extremely important to have a co-founder. It would have been awesome if I had another person working with me equally invested as me with different skill set and that could have allowed me to last even longer and kept me going.

I wish you good luck and many best wishes.

Thanks for sharing a great story. Best.

Thanks. I often wish I'd had a cofounder from the start, right now it's difficult to give away a big enough stake away to someone else to make it worth their while. For now I'm still hoping that sometime this year I'll be able to grow revenues to a point where i can make a living, and that would open the possibility to start hiring contractors to do some extra work, e.g. Design, marketing, support.

Well done for continuing your project for so long, I'm sure you must have learned a lot.

I'm also running a bootstrapped language-learning site, but focused on Mandarin Chinese (http://www.fastchinese.org/). It's interesting how similar my experience has been. It's tempting to start blogging and do a write-up of my experience like this one, but I'm not ready to take on the overheads that blogging brings with it.

I think one thing that makes language learning difficult is that users are almost guaranteed to eventually churn. Either they reach a level where they have no further need for online learning, or they give up/lose interest.

It's a particularly difficult space right now, as VC-backed ventures like Duolingo have set expectations of irrational business models ($0 pricing/advertising) and are taking a lot of the oxygen out.

I think the future looks a bit brighter. Duolingo as it currently exists seems very far from being sustainable. I see 4 ways that the Duolingos' of the world might go (the "translation services" model is a bit unrealistic, in my view):

1. They'll start charging and become the next Rosetta Stone.

2. Rosetta Stone will acquire them. Probably the most likely outcome given the prominence of Duolingo, the extent that it must be impacting on RS, and the upside to RS if they did acquire Duolingo.

3. They'll fizzle out. According to CrunchBase they've raised ~$40MM and have 12 employees. Their marketing budget must be quite massive, and their headcount is likely to grow.

4. They'll become ad-supported, which would probably make them sustainable but not nearly profitable enough that it would make their investors happy.

I'd recommend writing a blog post, mainly because I want to read it, but it's true it takes time. I'm normally very bad at keeping up a blog, and I took 3 full days off to research and write this one. I'd be nice to stick to a schedule of writing a shorter post every week or two, but I'm not sure I'd stick to it.

I heard Louis Von Ahn (Duolingo ) say that they spent $0 on advertising, which sounds great - users love it so much that it spreads completely organically. But in reality they must spend a lot on all the blogging, social networking, and community management - which sounds a lot like marketing to me.

I'm also a bit skeptical about Duolingo's ability to sustain itself selling translations, but I think it's possible, and the product is really great so I'm rooting for them.

Although it's scary to be in the same space as Duolingo, I don't see them as direct competition at the moment, since Duolingo requires users to be much more active in either completing exercises or translating everything, whereas Readlang is centered around the more passive activity of reading. In fact people regularly recommend Readlang on the Duolingo forums as a complementary tool.

Original author here. Great to see it appear on Hacker News, please feel free to ask questions!

I just checked it out for a few minutes and signed up. It looks very nice (lots of attention to detail, I can tell). I'm a native English speaker actively learning Spanish, living in Buenos Aires since November. I'm at the point where vocabulary seems like a bottleneck for me, so readlang may be a good fit.

Since reading/vocab is just one part of language learning (in addition to grammar, speaking, listening, etc), it seems like Readlang could fill this gap that other tools have (verbling, duolingo, etc). See if you can get the attention of some other bloggers in the language learning community, like Benny (?) the Irish polyglot guy (fluentin3months), or even Tim Ferriss. If they blog about it, you'll probably get some good traffic.

I didn't see thai support . Any chance you will add that ?

I've just added Thai support, although because it doesn't use spaces to separate words, it works a bit differently to the other languages - you need to select each word or phrase at the individual character level. The same applies to Japanese and Chinese.

Also, I don't have word frequency lists for Thai so prioritisation of words by usefulness is missing.

Despite these shortcomings, I hope you find it useful!

Really nice story. I find it inspiring. Just keep up with the great job! I think it could grow really big.

P.S. I find it really inspiring, so much that I'll add it to my weekly newsletter which I send on Sundays (shameless plug: http://startupitis.com/).

Cool, just signed up - look forward to seeing it! :-)

I thought you were on to something with creating a product for language professors for a second. I have been thinking about making a product for the language space. If I did it would be targeted towards the teachers and language teaching institutions. Like someone commented, there will be eventual churn on the consumer side. The teacher's job is to teach students language, how well they do that is another conversation, so when you sell to a teacher it seems more likely they'll continue using the product for as long as they are teaching.

You may be right. But on the flip side:

- I think churn on Readlang has the potential to be lower than more traditional courses, since it's impossible to exhaust the supply of novels and other reading materials, and reading is a habit that lasts a lifetime. Granted, you may not need the help of Readlang beyond a certain level, but I think that level is extremely high, and could take years or decades to reach.

- I have a fairly strong personal bias in favor of self study over teacher directed study. There are great teachers and I don't mean to diminish the work they do, but I believe that to learn effectively requires self motivation. (Good quote from Gibbon that Feynman uses in his Lectures on Physics: "But the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.")

- Selling to students forces me to make the product better for reading and studying, which should be the primary goal. Selling to teachers will put an emphasis on features like the teacher admin panel that aren't directly useful to the student. (Analogous to Enterprise software, which sucks because it sells based on features useful to the administrators and not the employees that end up using it)

- If it's sufficiently good for independent learning, teachers will want to share it with their students anyway, in fact they already are, so they are still a useful marketing channel.

I'm not ruling it out in the long term, but for now, I'm sticking with individuals.

I was thinking about making a similar product (http://ciaocards.com/), so it's very interesting to see such a thorough post on your journey with your app. When I was evaluating my idea I was mostly worried about a small revenue (B2C, hard to market, not crucial when learning languages) which I see unfortunately is the case here. I wish you getting more traction and customers!

You probably made a wise choice!

Nice landing page. I'm curious if you had a good solution for getting highlights from user's Kindle accounts. I looked into it briefly and found I could only access the highlights via a HTML page, but perhaps I missed something and there's a better way. If they provided an API that would be awesome!

Nope, I haven't found anything better so far. I have a prototype which I use for myself and I use scraping to get the highlights, but that's far from ideal - not everyone will enter their password for Amazon in a third party application (I wouldn't do it, for one).

No API, but someone has bundled up the scraping into a gem for you: https://github.com/speric/kindle-highlights

Very cool, thanks.

Language learning is hard work, and most people fail quickly at it once they realize it'll be several hundred hours before they'll be at a useful level. That's probably why it's so hard to make money with a product primarily tailored to the needs of intermediate and advanced learners. Learner attrition means that most people attracted by the idea of language learning don't make it that far.

I've tried Readlang briefly and thought the look of the site was much nicer than the clunky interface sported by LingQ, but I still didn't feel ready to make free reading a major part of my study as a ~B1+ self-learner of Spanish. Most texts for natives, even children's books like Harry Potter, are still very slow/difficult to read at my current level.

Import tools are nice, but the content I stumble on is often too hard for me to read efficiently. What I really need is help finding stuff I like that is only ~5% unknown words so I can read more fluidly/enjoyably. I'm not sure how to tackle the problem, but if you can crack the content discovery nut it will make the tool more accessible to lower level language students at the "widest" portion of the language learning funnel.

Another thing I've noticed is that Readlang seems very "quiet". Other platforms like Duolingo and LingQ have active user forums where people can share their experiences and problems. It'd be nice to have a discussion place to swap suggestions, get encouragement, and (most important) see testimonials/success stories.

Anyway, good luck. I hope the product is still around when I'm more advanced and ready to make reading a bigger part of my study.

Thanks, you make some good points.

Good beginner content is a big problem, I agree that recommending a stream of content with ~5% unknown words would be very cool. On the other hand, being a small indie developer, maybe it's better that I concentrate the smaller niche of advanced learners since I'm then not directly competing with Duolingo and other highly funded sites.

I would like Readlang to be more social, but haven't got around to it yet. I thought about adding disqus comments as a quick solution but they aren't ideal, requiring you to log in a second time.

It's probably more sensible for me to polish and optimise the current feature set first before adding social features.

there is language immersion tool for that: http://www.everydaylanguagelearner.com/2012/05/09/why-i-inst...

They have the public library section where the texts are automatically given difficulty ratings (B1 etc). You could start by reading the A2 texts and working your way up?

Leaving aside the fact that many language learners in the US don't know anything about the CEFR scale (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages), the CEFR categories are very broad and vaguely defined especially once you get past the core 1000 words or so that everybody learns at the beginning. I know that my own fluency is very uneven from one area to the next. More granular, accurate, and personalized classification of texts based on absolute difficulty and similarity to texts I've already read would be very helpful.

Oh ok. I only mentioned it because you used the CEFR in your own comment. :/

Wow, pretty detailed stuff. I suspect I may have saved myself a lot of grief if I had seen more articles like this when I quit my job a few years back. I have spent more time than he has and earnt less money!!!

Hi Steve,

I also have a language learning startup at http://www.nihongomaster.com which is targeted purely for Japanese learners. Your post is an interesting read because I've gone through all the phases you've detailed. It's a uphill battle but overall a great experience.

I emailed you so we can keep in touch. I think entrepreneurs in the language learning space can help each other out and encourage each other to succeed.

Nice work, Steve!

It's great to see someone making money with this; I have a similar project for Japanese + English[1] which is more of a hobby site right now, but I'll start following readlang.com more closely.

[1] http://macaronics.com/

Well, as you see it's not an earth shattering amount, but thanks!

Just checked out your site. Looks cool and shares some similarities with Readlang. Intrigued by the crowd sourced translation engine - is there anywhere I can read about that?

"Well, as you see it's not an earth shattering amount, but thanks!"

I'm still encouraged that you managed to get any revenues, so kudos for that.

"Just checked out your site. Looks cool and shares some similarities with Readlang. Intrigued by the crowd sourced translation engine - is there anywhere I can read about that?"

I do have a lot of data, and I'm still working through the best way to leverage it and make it accessible.

I'd be happy to talk to you further, offline, so please feel free to email me through the contact form.

Nice work steve! Be sure to follow up with any pricing changes and their effect.

Is there a tl;dr for that post? On skimming it, the story sounded so harrowing, I'm not sure whether you are planning on keeping the site open or not. Bottom line: Is it still worth signing up?

It's definitely staying open! Even though it's not making much, it's not costing much to run either and is profitable, so there's no reason to shut it down.

Also, it hasn't been harrowing! I've saved up enough money to live comfortably in Madrid, which is a lot cheaper than my old home of London. I'm learning a lot and really enjoying building this site, which I still think could have a bright future.

tl;dr Despite the lack of revenue, Readlang and I are doing just fine :-)

Well gosh that's a long blogpost. If I were you I would have split it up in to several posts, by theme or something. ;)

Haha, the next one will be shorter I promise! :)

Actually it's a very good read. I'll glad you kept it as one post. Sorry I didn't manage to read it earlier!

Why not add advertising, you could possibly add in-context ads, and google adsense ads, and make some extra cash.

ok, I was going to email you, but I'll post a couple of suggestions here so others can agree or disagree.

You've got just shy of 5000 users, but how active are they? How many daily/weekly/monthly active users do you have?

If you've got a decent number of active users then those are people that can potentially become paying users. So ditch the unlimited free version. Yes - ditch it.

Look at your weekly active users and see how many words they each translate. Presumably there is some kind of distribution, where 80% of users translate <100 words per week, then you have some power users that translate 1000 per week. Start with them and start telling them they need to pay to keep using Readlang once they have translated 80% of the words that they usually translate. A nice pop-up with a simple call-to-action asking them to pay. A:B test the pop-up message. You've then got dynamic pricing that is based on individuals' use habits.

Start with the power users and work backwards towards your regular users. See what happens as you get closer towards the 100 words/week guys.

If completely removing the free option is too aggressive for you, maybe once they reach the word limit they can dismiss the "pay to continue" pop-up but then it comes back every 5 words they translate after that. Try both strategies - experiment - see what works best.

You've only made $1k so far. I don't think there is any harm in being a bit more aggressive. You've build a good product - now is the time to test monetisation rather than adding features.

On the CRM side, you have done a little bit with Mailchimp, and that the reminders are opt-in. Make them opt-out.

Ditch Mailchimp. Make a $50 investment in customer.io - that will allow you to do CRM against 5000 users. Hit them with one email to all (which will use up half your 10k email allowance) with the most compelling email you can draft. Then use your remaining 5k emails to hit those that responded to your first email regularly and based on their actions (customer.io is really good when you get that right). /edit - just noticed extra emails on customer.io are really cheap so it's the user number limitation you really pay for. In that case send as many emails as you need to do some very active CRM experimentation for a whole month.

Reminds users that they have a text they have just started but not looked at again. Remind them they need to do flashcards everyday etc etc

Remember - if nobody complains about the price of your product, it's probably too cheap.

Lastly, make an iPhone app that works offline and allows translation of single words via an offline dictionary and includes the flash-cards which then syncs with your account when back online. I'd pay for that! ;)

Thanks for the advice!

Rough number of users signing in at the moment:

~110 / day ~360 / week ~900 / month

Google Analytics RETURNING visitors per month:

~1000 returning uniques ~3800 returning visits 28 min avg visit duration

I'll have a serious think about your pricing advice. I'm plan on increasing the price but removing the free plan scares me. I'm sure it will increase revenue in short term, but don't you think it would seriously harm growth? My current user base was formed largely due to people blogging and sharing on forums and social media. Isn't there a risk this would dry up without a very usable free plan?

I completely agree about sending more emails. It's been on my todo list for a while, I already have Amazon SES set up so I'm planning to roll my own solution to send lifecycle emails to boost engagement. ($50 / month sounds too much, although now I'm tempted to try the free plan just to get an idea of what I'd be missing.)

iPhone app - one thing at a time! I want to polish and optimise the current site first, but I agree an iOS app would be awesome.

Note: Readlang works well on mobiles as a web-app, on both Android and iOS you can bookmark it as a "homescreen app" and it then runs in full screen mode similar to a native app.

Yep - agree it works well on iPads. I find the iPhone a little too small to do good select on the text for translations, but on an iPad mini it was great.

wrt to CRM. Try to consider the $50 as an investment. You only need to add X paying subscribers in one month to get a ROI. If you get them, then anything after that is profit. If you don't, then you have learned a nice lesson for only $50.

wrt to pricing - just experiment - take my least aggressive suggestion - allow users to dismiss the notice. Or if you can, split test it.

I think one of the other commenters here is right - you can probably build more of a sense of community around it. Perhaps it can be the place where people really recommend good books for language learners. You already have the voting etc. That then maybe leads you in to the publisher deals, which I don't think would be as difficult as you imagine.

also, what about a bit of gamification? It seems to have worked for Memrise and Duolingo. League tables, badges etc?

Can you elaborate a bit on why it would be important for an iPhone app to be able to work offline? Is it just because you want it to be fast, or is there some other reason?

2 reasons - speed and offline. I use Wordlens as my day-to-day translation app, because it is offline so faster than Google Translate when out and about (not on WiFi).

2nd I travel alot - so I'm often not able to access a data connection, or I'm on a plane, or I'm on the London Underground. This is probably not uncommon for people that are learning languages. Even when on a train 3G connection is pretty inconsistent. Commuting is when I'm most likely to use Readlang. I'd say the captive audience on London Underground everyday is worth it alone.

I've already discussed this offline with OP, so I know that part of the issue is that you can never get the sentence translating power of Google Translate offline, but single word translations (plus the flashcards) might be possible.

You only have to look at the Duolingo community to see how eagerly anticipated the offline ability was. Same for Memrise.

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