Founder Interviews: Philip Seifi of LinguaLift and Pona

Learn how Philip Seifi used content marketing to grow his company to $20k MRR.

Davis Baer: What’s your background, and what are you working on?
Philip Seifi: I’m Philip Seifi, a nomad entrepreneur. I was born in Russia, but lived in and have traveled to over 80 countries since.

I’ve been involved in startups for close to a decade. During that time, I grew the LinguaLift language learning platform to $20k MRR without outside investment, worked on edtech projects with top universities in the UK, and mentored young entrepreneurs across the globe.

After learning that my local bakery throws away hundreds of portions of bread every day, I decided to do something about it.

My solution, an app called Pona, helps you find delicious unsold food discounted at restaurants around you. So you eat well for less, and your favourite eateries reduce waste and increase revenues.

We’re launching in Silicon Valley this autumn.

What motivated you to get started with your company?
LinguaLift grew out of a language learning game I developed in high school, for my own use. Inspired by the positive feedback from my classmates, and after winning a prestigious serious games award, I put the game up for sale online. It quickly led to a steady stream of passive income of around $400/month — a substantial sum of money for a high school student in the Czech Republic, where I lived at the time.

One of the game’s early users was Ollie Capehorn, who was himself based in the UK, and ran an online directory for Japanese language self-learners at the time. Ollie offered to help expand my game into a more holistic language learning platform, and went on to co-found LinguaLift with me two years later.

What went into building the initial product?
I was passionate about design, programming, and psychology throughout my childhood, and did freelance gigs here and there starting in my early teens. I used the language learning game as an opportunity to experiment with some new motion design ideas, master the object-oriented features of ActionScript 3.0, and explore learning methods based on the latest scientific research.

The initial development took about a month, including sketching and brainstorming during my Physics class (got to thank my teacher, Monsieur Rahma, for turning a blind eye!). It then took many years to get the product to where it is now, although it didn’t feel like a massive undertaking, as it evolved in many incremental steps based on user feedback.

The project soon started to make enough money to support my basic expenses out of high school, although I continued to freelance on the side for some time.

How did you attract users and grow your company?
I started a Japanese language learning blog around the same time as I released the game. It felt like an echo chamber at first, but gave me an opportunity to practice my written English, and post-by-post grew into one of the leading publications in this space, with over 100,000 monthly readers. The blog remains the main source of traffic for LinguaLift.

In the early days of the blog, reaching new readers was easy, or at least very enjoyable. There was a vibrant community of Japanese learners who’d blog about their progress, link to each other, write helpful comments and so on. I miss those days. Today, most people have moved to social media, and the only blogs still running are all trying to sell you something.

Over the years, we’ve probably tried every marketing tactic and growth hack out there, from the usual online channels, to provocative posters at university campuses and sponsorships of language learning conferences. I must thank Marta Krzeminska here, who joined our team a few years into the project with a never-ending stream of ideas and genuine passion for language learning.

The channel that worked the best for us in the end, and that led to most of our growth, was YouTube affiliates. It’s something incredible when an influencer in a small niche (such as anime, or even Japanese candy reviews) makes a 15 min video, mentions your product in passing, and your inbox starts to overflow with emails saying that “a good friend” recommended your website :-)

Unfortunately, even channels with millions of subscribers sooner or later exhaust the portion of their audience that is interested in what you have to offer, and it’s very difficult to replicate the success with new influencers. There’s a lot of serendipity involved, and it can take many months of emails, real-life meetings, and arguments with the influencer’s agent to get them on board.

What’s your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
Over the years, we’ve tried countless pricing points, and switched our payment processor several times. It was quite the roller coaster.

The original learning game was distributed as shareware, and I’m ashamed to say it had DRM, with all its pitfalls.

You’d pay for it via PayPal, get a long string of gibberish, paste it in the game, and off you go. That is, until my shareware service provider went out of business, and all the codes suddenly stopped working. My now co-founder Ollie even emailed me to complain about this nonsense while he was still a customer!

That was my first lesson to be careful when choosing a third party authentication service, and certainly not the last. A few years later, Recurly suffered a database failure and lost nearly all our customer credit card details, forcing us to switch to Stripe, and deal with our first PR disaster.

The online platform was first launched under a freemium model, with a one-off access fee for bonus features. As new freemium language resources started to pop up left and right that year, including the investor darling Duolingo, we quickly realized it’s not a viable model for a bootstrapped business like ours.

We switched to a subscription model, before SaaS was even cool, and over the following years steadily increased the price, adding features that catered to premium users (such as chat-based tutoring and study coaching) and differentiating ourselves from the countless free services.

At the end of the day, my advice is to pick third party APIs very carefully, and never be afraid to increase your prices.

What are your goals for the future?
It has been a great eight years working in edtech, but I’m now ready to move onto my next project, one that can improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

Most of our customers in the past have been privileged American teenagers from well-off families, and later rich international students in the UK. I’m really looking forward to another eight years, but this time working on a project in a more socially impactful space.

Our new sustainability app, Pona, helps restaurants reduce food waste, and gives frugal buyers access to delicious food they couldn’t normally afford. We’re almost ready for launch, and you can follow our progress on Instagram and Twitter.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and obstacles you’ve overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
There was a time in the early days of the project when we tried to build everything that popped into our heads, or that our users mentioned in their feedback. We launched a dictionary, then a travel guide, then a social network for Japanese language learners… a month couldn’t go by without a new launch. It was fun, but eventually, all our time was being spent supporting these side projects.

There came a moment when I took a deep breath, and removed 90% of our websites and product features. It was one of the most difficult decisions of my life. Files went in the bin, domains redirected, angry customers came screaming about their favourite resources gone.

I see this day as the real birth of our business.

We suddenly had all the free time in the world to focus on the core of our product that people were actually willing to pay for, and stable growth followed soon after.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
There are a few character traits and habits that probably helped me a great deal. Some came to me naturally. Others, I’ve worked on throughout my life.

First, I’ve realized early on that I have no control over external events and other people. I don’t waste time worrying about what I can’t change, and instead focus on improving myself and making the most of what life gives me.

Second, I always pick my fights. You expend limited resources on divisive conversations — might as well save them for an audience that will listen, subjects that matter, and circumstances in which they will not undermine your wider goals.

Third, although I value attention to detail, I avoid perfectionism. Perfectionism never leads to perfection, because it never stops perfecting. It’s also a barrier to experimentation, as if you perform perfectly every time, in every detail, you can’t discover and improve.

Last but not least, I try to always do my best, and act as an owner of the task at hand. Even if my involvement it temporary, or its importance trivial. It’s simply the best way to learn.

What’s your advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
My advice is to look out of your comfort zone, and beyond the current zeitgeist.

The best way to learn about business is to draw inspiration from fields that have nothing to do with it, and learn from observations that have remained constant for centuries.

To paraphrase Paul Graham of Y Combinator, it’s hard to predict the future, but we can be sure it’ll be like the past in caring nothing for present fads.

Read Chaos, read Marcus Aurelius, read The Alchemist… Seek wisdom in the poetry of Omar Khayyam and Mitsuo Aida. Go watch a play for once…

That said, I do not completely discount all business literature. There are at least a few gems every entrepreneur should read, including High Output Management by Intel co-founder Andy Grove and The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz from a16z.

Where can we go to learn more?
You can find me at Philip Seifi, Twitter, and Medium, where I occasionally share my thoughts on startups, and life in general.

If you have any questions about bootstrapping, edtech, and managing remote international teams, please comment below!

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