20 QUESTIONS: Bernhard Niesner, Busuu

The founder of the online language learning network says he wishes he'd moved his company from Madrid to London sooner and argues we should fund healthcare instead of the military.

by Rachel Savage
Last Updated: 08 May 2014

1. IF YOU HAD DONE SOMETHING ELSE WHAT WOULD IT HAVE BEEN?

If I hadn’t taken the decision to do an MBA and become an entrepreneur I’d probably still be miserable as a management consultant.

2. WHAT ELSE WOULD YOU NAME YOUR BUSINESS?

My co-founder initially named it Lingling.li (li is the domain for Lichtenstein). I can’t think of a more horrible name for a business, so I’m very glad we decided to scrap that. We are super happy with our name, because Busuu is a language from Cameroon spoken by eight people. There are 8,000 languages and 3,000 are about to become extinct.

3. IF YOU COULD BE BASED IN ANOTHER CITY WHERE WOULD IT BE?

We started the company in Madrid and after five years trying to scale we moved to London in 2012 with a big moving van of 200 boxes. It’s not very recommendable to be honest - that’s why I don’t want to move cities again.

4. WHEN YOU STARTED, HOW DID YOU RAISE MONEY?

Our families supported us, we had our own capital and we also didn’t take salaries for two years. Then we raised money from an Austrian business angel in 2010.

5. WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR MOST IMPORTANT DECISION SO FAR?

Coming to London. It has tremendously changed our business and accelerated our growth. We have scaled from 10 to over 40 employees. It was really tough for us to find top talent in Madrid. It’s a much smaller eco system of startups

6. WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST MISTAKE?

We were bootstrapped for too long. When we had 20 million users we only had 10 people. We were super efficient but maybe too efficient. With hindsight, we probably should’ve raised money from an institutional investor and accelerated growth earlier.

7. WHAT IDEA DO YOU WISH YOU HAD COME UP WITH?

The internet. It’s such a tremendous invention, which has shaped our lives in all sorts of ways. It’s opened up opportunities for billions of people around the world.

8. HOW DO YOU HANDLE STRESS?

Playing with my five month old daughter, which is just a fantastic way to think of something else completely. I love playing the piano - it cools me down a bit.

9. WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB?

I was a summer intern at Unilever in England when I was 16 or 17, working in a chemical lab doing a study about viscosity of ice cream. At that time, I didn’t have much idea what viscosity was. I had a great time and ate a lot of ice cream.

10. WHAT WAS YOUR WORST JOB?

In Austria you have obligatory military or civil service. I chose military. My worst job was watching the Austrian border for three months, which basically consisted of watching a tree for 12 hours a day when it was minus 10 degrees.

11. WHAT WAS YOUR BEST JOB?

I’m a visiting professor at IE Business School in Madrid, teaching digital marketing. I really enjoy passing on knowledge and challenging my own hypotheses. When I was in Madrid it was easier, I did several electives a year. I’m hoping to do it again when I have more time.

12. IF YOU WERE ON THE APPRENTICE WOULD YOUR TEAM BE NAMED?

Honestly, I’ve never watched The Apprentice. Team Busuu. If I can get free PR for my company, I’d rather take advantage of it.

13. WHAT COMPANY WOULD YOU INVEST IN RIGHT NOW?

A lot of companies in health technology are trying to revolutionise the way we deal with health, to a more proactive rather than reactive approach. The really interesting startups now quantify your health and give you the opportunity to correct certain behaviour. I think that will probably save the world a lot in healthcare costs.

14. APART FROM PROPERTY, WHAT IS THE MOST EXPENSIVE THING YOU’VE BOUGHT?

Probably my old car, which wasn’t even that fancy. I have no very expensive hobbies.

15. SUIT OR JEANS?

Jeans, maybe combined with a suit jacket. I think last time I wore a suit was at my wedding.

16. FLEXIBLE WORKING OR OFFICE HOURS?

We definitely prefer people to come into the office, because there’s such a tremendous value in having people in the same room. In a startup you’re normally competing against companies that have more money, more resources, so to compete you have to do more than your competitors. Obviously, we’re flexible if people want to come in early or stay late.

17. WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE THING ABOUT THE OFFICE?

We have a very nice kitchen, a very social, open space. People like the fact they can chill out and hang out there.

18. WHAT APP CAN’T YOU LIVE WITHOUT?

GoogleMaps. Especially now I’m in New York and I have several meetings across the city. I’d be incredibly lost not knowing where to go.

19. WHO IS YOUR BUSINESS IDOL?

Richard Branson. He has not only achieved tremendous business success, he also overcame a failure. He always has this amazing smile on him, so it always seems like he’s having an incredibly good time. He does philanthropic things as well. That’s a super combination


20. IF YOU WERE PRIME MINSTER FOR THE DAY, WHAT WOULD YOU CHANGE?

Recently becoming a father, and my daughter being born in the UK, I believe the healthcare system in the UK can still be improved. You can’t solve it in a day, but if you cut down military expenses and put the money into healthcare it would really help.

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