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Disruptive Women: A Conversation With Susan O'Brien, Founder of Smigin

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Innovations and provocative ideas come and go. And some can truly disrupt the status quo. I'll talk with women building companies in a digital economy and forging a new entrepreneurial landscape.

About Smigin
Smigin is a new service that teaches conversational language using games and videos. Pronounced "smidgen," the new mobile language learning app allows users to build phrases by selecting sentence fragments from three drop-down boxes and instantly receive accurate translations. The app went live in the Apple app store on Monday, Feb. 17 with French and Spanish. The startup grew from a need that international executive Susan O'Brien identified while working in non-English speaking countries. Here she met travelers who wanted to engage in local conversations but didn't have the time to learn a new language the traditional way. She decided to create a product to cater to their global and mobile lifestyles with an emphasis fast and easy.

Susan, tell me about the "self-study language learning industry" and how Smigin is disrupting the space?
The self-study language industry has been around for a long time and is going through some innovative changes - more mobile and web based platforms, less CD and classroom study. However, many products are simply different versions of the same concept - insisting that users learn a multitude of grammar and structure before embarking on conversations. Smigin looks at speaking a language in an entirely different way is created for the mobile platform. You don't need to know endless grammar to be able to engage effectively in everyday conversations. We're putting the user back in control, by allowing them to build the phrase they want, when the need it, and we help them say it. The user can customize the learning experience and our interface is designed on interactive gaming mechanisms. We use video to show the user how to pronounce phrases and sentence and they can play it over and over.

Who were your early champions and mentors and how did they support you and Smigin?
One of our early angel investors in NYC was David Verklin, a veteran ad and media executive. David wrote that first check when Smigin was just a mad idea and a bunch of screenshot concepts. Plenty people offer advice, but having someone like that believe in you and write a check speaks volumes. It changes the game - you don't want to let them down!

What has been your biggest highlight to date, and your biggest challenge since starting Smigin?
The biggest highlight for the team has been getting featured on the Italian App Store. It changed our numbers overnight and was an early indication that what we were building was resonating with people - tens of thousands of them! The biggest challenge is building a startup with very little cash. We have to justify every dollar spent.

Smigin is currently a free download app. Do you have a plan in place for revenue growth?

Later this year we will introduce a monetization plan on a per-language basis. The app will be free to download and users will have the chance to trial the product initially before deciding to unlock the entire experience through an in-app purchase. They can upgrade to a variety of subscription options, including plans for one month, six months and one year.

Are you seeking venture capital or additional angel investment for Smigin, or is it premature to take on the pressure for a return on investment?
We are building out a product that is not currently revenue-generating. We do need to raise a little more money initially to allow us to continue product development. We're raising a small seed round currently which will allow us to add multiple languages and expand our distribution by the end of 2014.

Do you think women have to fight harder to attract investment?
No. Investors will make a decision based on the entrepreneur, the product and the opportunity and it's up to the entrepreneur, regardless of sex, to sell that vision. That said it's definitely still a male dominated industry. Venture Capitalists are typically male, as are the majority of entrepreneurs in the tech industry, but this should not put women at a disadvantage.

You've met with Apple and Google. What was that experience like and what were the takeaways?
I'd be lying if I didn't say it was pretty cool to meet with both Apple and Google given that we are a really early-stage start up. Both were very positive about Smigin, and offered advice on our product development plans. We're not yet live on Android (Google's platform), but we're working towards that launch end of 2014 and Google has offered to help us optimize that user experience.

Did you set out to become an entrepreneur and would you consider yourself a techie?
Smigin was created as a direct result of a need I experienced while living and working in foreign countries. It was less about becoming an entrepreneur and more about wanting to create a better language learning product. I just felt that I had to do it. I'm definitely not a 'techie'. The whole process has been a huge learning curve and I surround myself with really smart people who speak the language of 'tech' and can help me make informed decisions.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Growing up my parents always encouraged my siblings and me to try stuff. If it didn't work out they would say "go back to the drawing board" and start again. It is said that many novelists don't have the entire plot figured out when they begin writing a new book. The same can be true for starting a business - you don't have to have all the answers initially, just the passion for the product and the tenacity to see it through.

Do you have any advice for aspiring female entrepreneurs?
Don't make excuses. If you want to start a company, just get on with it and remember, it's all about the execution. Do your research, know your numbers, surround yourself with smart people and keep doing the next thing. It's easy to get stuck or feel overwhelmed along the way, but if you keep focusing on the next thing you'll get there.

What's your business plans for 2015?
We'll expand our distribution to other platforms (Android), and add multiple languages including the major Asian languages. The Smigin app also works in reverse so each time we add a new language, for example Italian, that Italian market can now build phrases in English, or any other language on the Smigin platform.

Who inspires you today?
Women building sustainable, innovative businesses inspire me. In the tech world, you don't meet a lot of female peers, so when you do it's usually an interesting conversation and you end up swapping 'war stories'. The startup world brings plenty of setbacks along the way, so every time you meet someone who is doing it successfully, it's another reminder that you can do it too, and that's enough to keep you going until the next challenge comes along!

For more information go to Smigin.com