From Upstart to Startup of the Year, Our 2013 Milestones and Failures

This post originally appeared in Forbes

Good ideas are a dime a dozen. Our successes this year resulted from a delicate balance of ideas, experimentation and execution. Rinse. Wash. Repeat.

As we close out 2013 and look back on a year filled with milestones, it’s important to remember that milestones are preceded by failures (sometimes many!). Determining what transformed these “learning experiences” into successes has been the key to our growth from a startup to a well-respected and disruptive language translation company.

We started 2013 with an “innovative” translation app and ended with the first ever self-service translation platform. Within every small triumph we found corresponding perils and walked away with invaluable lessons learned.

Milestone 1: Launching in New York

New York City and “startup” have not always been synonymous. The reality is that New York is now one of the top startup hubs in the nation (check out his map) with more than 260,000 people in the tech startup space. As a language translation company we saw a natural fit in the Big Apple, which is home to thousands of international businesses and citizens representing more 800 spoken languages.

Failed Idea – Believing that we could change the world from our desk chairs. There are plenty of examples of companies young and old that have grown quickly and succeed early (hello SnapChat). What often gets lost in all of the buzz around their growth and success is that they literally or figuratively put their product in the hands of early adopters and looked for feedback. We certainly did this during TechStars (and continue to do so today) but when we first moved to New York, we thought we could gain early adopters through email and social media and neglected the most important part of New York City—it’s proximity to our target customer-base.

Lesson Learned – If you’re a young company in New York City and not pounding the pavement, you’re likely missing something. Today we take full advantage of our proximity to thousands of corporate translation clients, multilingual individuals who represent both travelling customers and translators, and the media. Initially, we didn’t know where to start but getting involved in the Made in NYC and Young Entrepreneurs Council communities helped us channel our energies in productive directions. Beginning with our Valentine’s Day campaign, extending into the development of our new translation platform, we spent more time outside of the office talking with customers to build the best product suited for globally minded customers.

Milestone 2: Appearing on Shark Tank

People often remember our episode on the season finale of Shark Tank. Robert Herjavec, Kevin O’Leary and Mark Cuban ended up in a heated bidding war for a stake in our company. Appearing on national T.V. was certainly a huge milestone, but we suffered from the fact that when we had filmed the episode a year earlier, we were solely focused on one product offering, instead of what is today a robust full-service translation platform. We struggled to explain to interested viewers how our business had evolved since filming a year earlier. Our larger milestone actually came in the form of a full write-up of our translation services in the New York Times that clearly conveyed everything we had to offer.

Failed Idea – Refer a friend. Referrals work for some companies better than others. When Dropbox first offered their users 500 megabytes of storage space for every referral that signed up they saw a significant spike in users. Human-powered translation is different. Until a user sees the product in action or uses it, it’s difficult to convey the experience of having a professional interpreter on the line. In preparation for the influx of signups after Shark Tank, we tried to mirror traditional referral programs and had minimal impact. Our approach should have been more nuanced.

Lesson Learned – Messaging matters, a lot. Truly refined messaging, particularly for new users, is critical to conveying that you offer more than just a one-dimensional service. Every email, word on our website, social post and press quote needs to take into account that a reader may not understand the full breadth and depth of your offerings. We had dozens of people come to us requesting Spanish translation because they wanted to sell to countries in South America. We then shed light on the fact that if they were interested in emerging markets like Brazil (or India and China for that matter) they would need to have multiple languages at their disposal. In short, ensure everyone who comes in contact with your company sees value right away while simultaneously conveying your company’s entire scope of offerings.

Milestone 3: Winning Startup of the Year Honors

Recently we were honored to win the Travel Startup of the Year Award at PhoCusWright, the world’s largest travel conference. We thought it would be worthwhile to document how we prepared, what happened on stage, and what happened after our experience of presenting to Fortune 500 employees.

Failed Idea – Hashtags are overrated. We decided that in addition to using the #phocuswright hashtag we were going to generate our own Twitter conversation #vipcw. Although it didn’t take much time, the returns were minimal at best and we likely wasted time trying to generate our own Twitter conversation (or participating in the larger conversation for that matter) when we could have dedicated even more resources to the being out on the conference floor meeting people.

Lesson Learned – Face to face connections still matter more than anything. Many of the companies that expressed interest in a client or partnership relationship with us were companies with whom we have been speaking for months, but never had a chance to meet in person. Doing so at the conference solidified some great relationships. Moreover, meeting in-person with many new companies further supported our relationship building efforts for months to come.

L02q Gj Se Uzz Vrbg9 T Dv N8s Zton Cs67ns W5v Gl7i Tly (200x300)

Ryan Frankel is CEO of VerbalizeIt, a 2012 Wharton MBA and TechStars alumnus, winner of the PhoCusWright Startup of the Year Award, former private equity investor for Goldman Sachs and an endurance athletics enthusiast. You can reach him via e-mail at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *