Garden shed to blogosphere glory: on the road with translation startup Babelverse

Babelverse NEXT Berlin 2012
Babelverse NEXT Berlin 2012

Josef Dunne and Mayel de Borniol

If there are two entrepreneurs that embody the grand adventure of starting a company, it’s Josef Dunne and Mayel de Borniol from Babelverse.

The pair, almost entirely bootstrapped and currently based out of a 15 square metre shed slash office on a family property in London, are taking the web conference circuit by storm. They most recently won the People’as Choice Award at TechCrunch Disrupt NYC and are now in talks to secure their first major investor.

Babelverse aims to provide a realtime, universal translation platform (web and mobile), with an initial product officially released at this year’s The Next Web in Amsterdam. The service relies on a crowd-sourced base of interpreters, paid according to experience, who are automatically matched up with translation requests.

Babelverse TC Disrupt NYC

Translating Obama’s State of the Nation – in every single language

It all started at Startup Weekend Athens in 2010. After living in Paris for seven years and working on a few startups, de Borniol decided he wanted to travel. Dunne, working for a web agency in London, felt the same. Both ended up in Greece.

That meeting led to Babelverse and, soon after, a $40,000 grant (no equity strings attached) to spend six months in Chile as part of the first round of that government’s pioneering incubator Startup Chile.

An apartment in Buenos Aires came next and a media stunt stroke of genius: Why not offer to live translate US president Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Nation address into up to 6,796 languages (ie all of them)? The press releases duly went out and TechCrunch and CNN were among those to pick the story up. Meanwhile, in Buenos Aires, Dunne, de Bornial and their designer (based in Greece) did an all-nighter to pull it off. “We were like – ‘make it live, make it live!” Dunne recalls.

Breaking down the language barrier in times of need

An earlier opportunity to test out the service came during the March 2011 tsunami in Japan. Babelverse offered free interpretation for the likes of aid teams and reporters in Japan who didn’t speak any Japanese. “We see the opportunities where solving the language barrier would really help and we just get on with it and make it,” Dunne says. “It gets easier every time.”

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Babelverse – speaking your language

All this makes for a good story but belies the hard work it must take. It’s clear that some capital – say about $US2 million – is needed to grow the team and to really start scaling up. “We have a straightforward business model compared to many startups,” de Borniol adds. Right from day one of the official launch at the Next Web, people have been paying for Babelverse’s services (and Babelverse have been paying their interpretors). “We could start selling today, we do, we are, but all this takes time and we’re only two.” While the pair have already received funding offers, none so far have been the right match.

So why exactly are they so disruptive? “Anyone who speaks two languages fluently can come and do it,” de Borniol explains. This is essential for Babelverse to be able to offer rare languages and translation combinations – Macedonian to Mandarin, say. “For that, we’d have to find a student or a housewife or just somebody who has free time and speaks those languages.”

Babelverse has in place a three-tier system: trainee, experienced and professional. Total beginners can access training videos with simple jobs, then move to “experienced” and start getting paid (at fair rates). Qualified professionals are able to charge a premium rate and user ratings help with quality control. “We still have to be inclusive of the professionals, it’s very important that we respect what they do,” Dunne says.

If they can nail that kind of crowd-sourced universality, it’ll give Babelverse an edge over completely automated translation services such as SayHi and Google Translate Conversation Mode – probably Babelverse’s most serious competition long-term.

There’s another key long-term difference. Babelverse creates jobs. Dunne and de Borniol don’t say much about that point but Babelverse seems to have the kind of micro-enterprise potential shared by another one of our startup favourites, Gidsy.

While it’s still early days, there’s plenty to like about these guys. They’ve got a simple, bold idea and a great story to tell, have a proven ability to make the most of media opportunities and global networks (the latter is essential to their business model), and aim to create a positive social impact. If Babelverse manages to bring the right investor on board, this year could be the start of something big.

Babelverse NEXT Berlin 2012

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For more on the Startup Weekend programme and similar initiatives, check out our complete guide to European startup summer events