Alan Kashkash, founder of Linguido tells us about learning new languages during the Covid-19 pandemic.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Alan Kashkash: Thanks for asking. I cannot complain. The IT industry is probably the safest place during this difficult time. I have the possibility to work at home, I haven’t lost anyone, and the oldest members of my family haven’t gone through covid. Though mentally, it’s really difficult as the amount of work is insane and lack of time for seeing friends and family doesn’t help it. I think we’re all looking forward to coming back to normality.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Linguido.
Alan Kashkash: I think I should introduce myself as the founder and CEO of Linguido as that’s who I am for 95% of my time every day. Besides that, I’m an aspiring data scientist specializing mostly in NLP and Deep Learning. Though there is much more to that, my background is very diverse, and I constantly see that even small experiences from the past are contributing to my work now.
From an educational standpoint, I finished Technical School of Photography, earned a Bachelor degree in Finance and Accountancy from Warsaw School of Economics, and here as well currently finish my Master Degree in Big Data Analytics.
As for my professional background, I’ve always been somewhat of a freelancer. Soon after finishing school, I started getting extra money from being a photographer and graphic designer. I also really liked speaking English, and not so long after, I fell in love with teaching it and made it my full-time job for the next three years.
While you’re making enough money to cover all expenses from your own venture, you realize that you’re mature enough to tackle bigger challenges. That’s when I joined my family business. At the time, we just opened a hostel, and it was one hell of a ride – Starting partnerships, renovating unfinished parts of the building, discovering the best pricing models, forecasting sales. Lots of attractions for young business enthusiast 🙂
The hostel was just one of the businesses that I was responsible for during this time. For over 20 years core business of our family business was selling perfumes, and we had big trouble entirely transforming its business model from offline to online. Thanks to the changes that we made: new B2B deals, B2C eCommerce, increased presence on digital channels – online became the biggest source of revenue and helped keep the company on track when pandemics started.
This business experience showed that I’m ready to take on an even bigger challenge. I knew that my knowledge could provide a lot of added value, and I wanted to do things that will make the world a better place. I decided to build my own company. Long story short, Linguido wasn’t my first idea. In pursuit of innovation, I had to examine hundreds of ideas and validate which ones were great and which just mediocre. A big advantage of trying is the knowledge that you accumulate. After connecting the dots of my IT understanding and experience with teaching English, I realized that there is a more engaging way to learn languages than what is currently offered.
I started off by creating a chatbot, but soon enough, I made myself aware that quite often, people don’t know what to talk about with a chatbot. So, I thought that perhaps suggesting some responses may help, and that’s how I came to the idea of interactive stories. I remember the very first scenario for the initial prototype I did on a piece of paper and programmed it in Python. That was a magical time, and you could feel the spirit of innovation around.
How does Linguido innovate?
Alan Kashkash: We are transforming how people learn languages by harnessing the power of smart storytelling. Learning a language is a journey that takes a lot of time, so it’s easy to lose motivation. That’s why we want to make it as exciting and engaging as it can be. At Linguido, we believe that models of engagement known from the entertainment industry can be successfully reused in the education sector.
Users inside of our app get access to lots of interesting stories – most popular books, various articles, and our brand new interactive stories – stories that go in different directions based on the decisions made by the user (similar to what you might experience from Netflix’s Black Mirror). The beauty of learning this way comes from our personalized learning system. We are targeting more advanced users, so we are not telling them what they must learn. Instead, we rather take the approach of listening to them. They read through stories and collect unknown words for which they are instantly getting a translation. Then it’s their call whether they want to add it to flashcards for further memorization or leave it be. We are covering all the education mechanisms while offering an interesting form of spending time.
In addition, one of our greatest innovations, though still in a research phase with a great potential to revolutionize things soon, is a neural network that we’re building. We’ve made a fully-working proof of concept of an AI model which analyzes the text seeking grammatical structures and transforming them into grammatical exercises. Once we finish all the work, English teachers will no longer need to create any exercises as AI will be doing them automatically. It has the potential for being a wonderful breakthrough, and we’re very excited to work on that.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Alan Kashkash: Hmm, the costs are growing, but I wouldn’t say it’s due to pandemics. I would rather blame business growth, though I think as long as these costs are controlled and well spent, there is no need to worry about that 🙂
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Alan Kashkash: Fortunately not. However, we had one difficulty regarding human resources. At the beginning of September, my cofounder and CTO resigned from his role. He worked very hard connecting his full-time job with his role at Linguido, and eventually, it all led to burnout. That put us in question if we as a company are going to exist anymore. Back in those days, it was just the two of us, and I had no clue about the technologies used to build our platform. However, my resigning cofounder had a lot of class and found a replacement for himself with his colleague Maciej who currently holds the position of CTO at Linguido. Things ended happily, but at the time, we were in the middle of talks with a VC which got interested in collaboration with us, and the uncertainty with the replacement of CTO was a valid reason for them to say “no.”
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Alan Kashkash: I don’t think there was a need for evolution. We’ve always been a digital company, and our relations with the customers were digital from the very beginning. Speaking of tools, we’re still in a development phase, so most of the tools that come to my mind are rather the ones for product development.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Alan Kashkash: We did not. In Poland, we had a program focused on enforcing collaboration between businesses and research units. We were thinking of it and had discussions about it, even had a pleasure to meet professors from Warsaw University of Technology who are top-class experts in the field of Machine Learning in Poland. However, the difficult time forced us to postpone efforts for it.
Your final thoughts?
Alan Kashkash: The word “fortunate” appeared quite a few times in this article, and honestly saying I can’t find any better-suited word to describe our situation in the face of a pandemic. I’d like to thank everyone who’s been of help to us during this time.
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