Most entrepreneurs would kill for five minutes of face time with Mark Cuban or any celebrity on Shark Tank, for that matter. But after appearing on that ABC reality TV show, all co-founders Ryan Frankel and Kunal Sarda could think about was pivoting their emergency translation app, VerbalizeIt, to a B2B startup.
Conceived after an ill-fated trip to Beijing in which Frankel caught a stomach bug and couldn't communicate with a pharmacist, VerbalizeIt addresses language barriers in emergency situations, a pain point Frankel felt "quite literally," he jokes. In July 2012, when the Shark Tank segment was filmed, Frankel and Sarda, classmates at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, were busy building their app at Techstars, the startup accelerator program in Boulder, Colorado.
On the show, VerbalizeIt was an app that put cell-phone users in touch with one of 19,000 translators worldwide who are fluent in English and 11 other languages. But in the past year, the app has evolved into a readily accessible translation platform for small to midsize companies (and some big ones, including Estée Lauder).
After the Shark Tank appearance, the co-founders realized that most people don't travel enough to merit using the consumer-facing app, and that they would use it only once or twice at most. However, the translation services industry, which has increased at an annualized rate of 2.4 percent to $3.2 billion in the past five years, according to IBIS World, presented a lucrative opportunity.
Three months after the taping, the co-founders reneged on their deal with Kevin O'Leary, who had offered $250,000 for a 20 percent stake in VerbalizeIt. Instead, they took $1.5 million from several Techstar mentors at a higher valuation. The following year, VerbalizeIt released a platform that lets business leaders connect in real time with translators to update their websites, mobile apps, documents, and marketing collateral. "If you're a website and making 100,000 updates a day, there's a technological way to do that," says Frankel. "If it's 2 a.m., and you want to work through our platform, you can do that, too."
The self-serve model removes the need for project managers, resulting in "a significant cost savings that we can pass along to the customer," says Frankel. To keep quality high, translators are paired with companies in industries they understand. Customers are charged on a pay-as-you-go basis, so there's no minimum requirement for the number of words translated, and it's actually affordable.
"There's a good reason that our clients are frustrated with the status quo in the industry," says Frankel of his competitors, which include stalwarts such as Transperfect and Lionsbridge. "If you're not spending hundreds of millions on translation, those companies aren't taking your call. We want to grow with these companies. They only have about $5,000 worth of translation they need done today. A year from now, they'll be much larger organizations."