Thursday 19 April 2018

Irish-owned 'Smigin' language app woos US investors

Executive Vice President and Chief Creative Officer of R/GA Nick Law
Executive Vice President and Chief Creative Officer of R/GA Nick Law

Brian Byrne

It's dubbed the gateway drug you've never heard of.

Smigin founder and linguist Susan O'Brien, born on the Old Kinsale Road in the depths of rural Cork, was sick and tired of trying to pick up new languages by learning things like 'I have four brothers' and 'I like cats'.

Despite moving to Italy after graduating with a BA in languages from University College Cork in 1994, she admits she still struggled to communicate with the locals.

"Even though I majored in Italian, there had been just one hour of conversation studies a week. It wasn't what the focus was on."

Three years ago, O'Brien dropped everything - including her 15-year career in sales and business development, plus €75,000 of her own money - all because she figured there had to be an easier way to teach someone how to ask for a cup of coffee in Paris or Milan.

Thus Smigin, dubbed by O'Brien as the "gateway drug" for disenfranchised English, Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese students, was conceived.

The mobile phone application has been downloaded 65,000 times in more than 70 countries since launching on the iPhone last year.

It allows users to build everyday phrases in three steps, hear the phrase spoken by a native speaker, see it written phonetically, and then save it for the next time they need it.

Speaking from New York's lofty Upper West Side, Susan O'Brien explains how the application overcomes inevitable grammar issues.

"It uses a simple rule called modal terms. It's these key terms, like 'Can I?', 'I would like to', or 'I want to', things you would say every day.

"All you need to do is stick on a verb, and then a noun. You never need to conjugate the verb, or worry about the scary grammar stuff people tend to freak out about."

O'Brien, whose eight-strong team can track the phrases users create, said that in reality, what people want to say in another language is often quite surprising.

"After we launched in Italy, which meant Italians could learn phrases in English, about 70pc of the phrases were 'I want to buy cigarettes', 'Can I buy cigarettes?' and 'I have to buy cigarettes'."

Six months ago, she got a call from an executive at Google, who wondered why the app hadn't been developed for its Android platform - and agreed to provide her with technical advice on how to make that happen.

She has since raised another €190,000 from angel investors in the US, and the Android version is due for launch next month. All of the money was raised Stateside.

Dublin has Google Docks - yet O'Brien contends that it isn't as attractive for young entrepreneurs with good ideas, but no money.

"The appetite for risk is just very different here. Back home they'd look for a 36-page business plan; here they'll actually sit in front of you and let you pitch to them."

One of those people was Nick Law, the global chief creative officer of US ad agency R/GA, who conceived Nike's world-famous running app.

Next, O'Brien wants to target the Asian market. To do that, she's taken on two Irish graduates, who interned for Smigin while living in New York on temporary J-1 visas.

"It's a €30bn industry, and less than €2bn of that is in the US. I'd like a slice of that," she says.

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