Smigin’s Susan O’Brien: ‘The key to building a global brand is authenticity’

28 Jun 2017

Susan O’Brien will speak at the upcoming Inspirefest event in Dublin. Image: Smigin

Finding herself lost in translation was the catalyst that pushed Susan O’Brien to build a language technology company with users in 175 countries.

Susan O’Brien, founder and CEO of Smigin and an upcoming speaker at Inspirefest 2017, is a born entrepreneur.

When she was four years of age, she wanted to be the Queen of England, attracted by all the jewels and power. “When it was tactfully explained to me that said role might not be possible, I turned my attention to jumble sales instead.”

‘Nobody wants to listen to a sales pitch, so it’s important to be authentic and tell a real story, a human story’

This instinctive pivot would make any entrepreneur proud, and this spirit of entrepreneurship still carries true for O’Brien.

Her knowledge of the technology start-up world, of what it takes to build a company from scratch, and her ability to tell that story has seen her work published in the US and Ireland, and she recently became a contributing writer for HuffPost.

New York City-based Smigin offers users a suite of products, including an iOS/Android app for travellers and a browser-based, language-learning platform available in multiple languages.

A graduate of University College Cork (UCC), O’Brien is co-chair of the Irish International Business Network, NYC and executive director of LEAP (Leadership and Executive Acceleration Program), which is aimed at empowering Irish and Irish-American young women.

Inspiration will find you

Like most entrepreneurs, O’Brien’s journey to establish Smigin began with an unexpected experience.

“I studied languages in UCC and subsequently lived and worked in seven countries, working in the fields of business development, sales and marketing. While the companies I worked in and the products I represented varied, my role was similar in all: establish or grow international channels of distribution to increase revenues for the company. I had early experience in digital as the internet was really just coming of age and the power of digital distribution was beginning to be understood and leveraged.”

She spent about 15 years working with companies in more than 30 countries, where she gained an innate knowledge of global markets.

“I’ve held executive positions in both public and private companies in the US and Europe, and have worked for some of Ireland’s leading entrepreneurs.

“The last role I had prior to starting Smigin was working for Denis O’Brien in Portugal. I was recruited by his company in the Algarve and flew to Portugal for a two-day interview, having never set foot in the country prior to that. I returned to the US the next day, handed in my notice and relocated three weeks later.

“I mistakenly assumed I’d have no problem picking up the language, as languages were ‘my thing’ – however, that was not the case. Portuguese is a tough language, and all of the language products I tried insisted on teaching me stuff that I didn’t want or need to learn. The company hired a tutor for me and on the first day, this sweet Portuguese lady insisted on teaching me how to say: ‘I have four brothers and I like cats’. That was enough! I figured that there had to be a better way to learn a language and so, the seed for Smigin was sown.

“The year in Portugal was a great experience. I learned a lot from Denis and to be honest, it was a bit of an inspiration to work for such a hugely successful entrepreneur and I think it was that, that pushed me to move back to NYC a year later to start the business.”

Build it and they will come

O’Brien derived inspiration from her her tongue-tied experience in Portugal, using it as the catalyst for founding Smigin.

“Smigin is a mobile app for people who travel but don’t speak the language, which applied to me at the time. So, like many other entrepreneurs, I was solving my own problem. The Smigin app allows people to build useful, everyday phrases in multiple languages, so they don’t need to learn useless words they will never use, and instead can start having real conversations abroad instantly.

“When you’ve lived the need yourself and are desperately trying to learn the basics of another language, you can recognise a nonsensical product at 10 paces. Personally, I never saw the benefit of learning phrases like: ‘The boy is under the ball’ – this is actually a phrase taught by one of the leading language-learning products on the market. Instead, I wanted to be able to learn real-life language – stuff like being able to order a coffee or a glass of wine and not feel like the idiot tourist in the room engaging in charades in an attempt to communicate.”

O’Brien said that growing a global brand has been a lot of hard work, but also a lot of fun.

“We have users in 175 countries globally. Some days, we’d monitor the app downloads and would have to check a map to see where exactly these downloads were coming from. For example, the day we had a slew of downloads from São Tomé and Príncipe – turns out it’s a Portuguese colony off the coast of Africa. We’d never even heard of this place but they were all avidly downloading Smigin in their thousands.

“To build something from scratch and see people all around the world download, use and enjoy it offers the whole team a sense of pride and fulfilment that is hard to replicate.”

O’Brien said that the most important consideration when setting out to build something is authenticity. “Know what you are doing and why. Believe in it and then tell anyone who will listen. In the early stages of growing a start-up, you have to leverage every opportunity and you have to tell your story.

“Nobody wants to listen to a sales pitch, so it’s important to be authentic and tell a real story, a human story. If people can relate to your story, then chances are they can relate to your product. From that point on, it depends on just how good that product is. If it works, people will talk about it for all the right reasons.”

Another consideration that no founder can avoid is fundraising.

“Fundraising is tough and takes twice as long – if not longer – than you initially anticipated.

“The most important lesson I’ve learned is to estimate your costs and then add a buffer. For example, you need to raise enough money to fund your runway for 12 months. Estimate your costs for 12 months and then add another three months of cost on top of that. It always takes longer than you think and running out of cash is not fun.”

In a New York minute

O’Brien is part of a growing cluster of Irish start-ups that are choosing New York over Silicon Valley to begin their global path of conquest.

“I have a theory about the New York City start-up scene. New York is not used to ranking second place for anything, but in terms of the start-up ecosystem in the US, it certainly ranks second to Silicon Valley, or at least that is perceived to be the case. As a result of this, New York tries harder; there are more networks, more connectivity for entrepreneurs, more educational programmes, more peer-to-peer exchange opportunities and more focus on helping to improve the overall ecosystem for entrepreneurs than there appears to be in Silicon Valley.

“This certainly wasn’t the case just a few years ago. You could argue in favour of either location but, in short, any Irish entrepreneur would be well served if she or he landed in New York City with a start-up dream and some ambition,” O’Brien recommends.

She said it is encouraging to see a clamour for more women-led start-ups but, at the end of the day, success depends on hard work and focus.

“Given the lack of female entrepreneurs and particularly female entrepreneurs in tech, there are – thankfully – a lot of support systems in place to help, encourage and promote female entrepreneurs. It’s important to offer support facilities and networks to encourage and support women-led startups as they are desperately under-represented, but it’s also important to not focus solely on the negatives.

“Yes, there are challenges and yes, there are obstacles, and in some instances – raising money, for example – yes, it can be tougher as a female entrepreneur, but I see some women use that at times as an excuse or a war cry.

“At some point, you just have to decide to get on with it. Are you going to do it, or are you going to talk about it?”

Success is not determined by gender, O’Brien concludes.

“If you choose the start-up journey you have to accept that there will be all kinds of bumps in the road – if you don’t, you’re deluded!

“But, male or female, if you want it badly enough and work towards your goal, none of them will be enough to stop you.”

Susan O’Brien will be speaking at Inspirefest, Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Book now to join us from 6 to 8 July in Dublin.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years