Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Alex, the co-founder and CEO of Gikken /'gɪk ən/. We made a few apps and browser extensions used by 800,000 people every month. We’re (yet) small, profitable, and based in Europe’s most interesting city—Berlin, Germany.
Our flagship product is what we started with—Mate Translate. It’s a translator app that perfectly integrates with iOS, macOS, and all major browsers. Unlike mainstream translators like Google or DeepL, we’re targeting a smaller niche of language enthusiasts who translate really a lot. They want to just double click on a word, without having to copy-paste it into another tab, and then switch back. That’s what we offer—instant translations in any app and on any website without interrupting the workflow. And it saves our users many hours every week.
Besides language learners, we have a mind-blowing number of software engineers from Russia, China, and Ukraine using Mate to get them through English documentation and forums and ultimately get their work done.
Although Mate is our oldest and most popular app, we have also experimented with a bunch of other projects since Gikken’s inception. Artpaper brings artsy wallpapers to your Mac’s desktop. Tokens lets app developers drive up their sales by distributing offer and promo codes. Breaks for Eyes decreases eye strain by reminding you to take regular breaks.
We also tried to go deeper into the language learning market and made Reji. What initially used to be a feature in Mate, we spun it off into a separate app that lets learners build their own vocabulary lists and learn them using different fun modes.
Altogether, 800,000 humans use something Gikken-made every month. Mostly Mate, however. I’m pretty proud that so many people love Mate, however, I’m sober about the fact that our revenue figures aren’t as impressive as the user base because it’s mostly free users.
We’re making around $18,000 a month with it being higher in school months and lower during the summer months. You may ask, “Why so little if you have so many users?” and that’d be a totally valid question that I’m also asking myself. Monetizing our existing user base better is our top 1 priority for the next year.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Gikken’s foundation was laid in 2011 or so. I don’t remember the exact year but I was in high school. I was amidst my most active English learning years. I was trying to read as many articles, blogs, essays, etc in English as possible. At some point, an idea that it’d be great to double click on words to get them translated right there struck me. It was the early days of Google Chrome that wasn’t the most popular browser yet. And, I think it already could translate pages entirely, but it was totally useless for me because when I can understand 80% of the text, why would I translate it entirely? It’s also terrible for mastering a language. Guessing the meanings of words from the context works better for memorizing new vocabulary. The more effort your brain takes, the stronger neural connections are.
So, physiology aside, I wanted a fast way to translate single words I didn’t understand or double-check sentences. The previous flow involved copying it, switching to a new tab with Google Translate opened there, translating it, and then switching back. Terribly inefficient and annoying when you have to do it 10 times per article, 100 times per day.
Five years later, I was joined by my university classmate and together we built a proper business with Instant Translate in the foundation. Also, we rebranded Instant to Mate Translate.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I made the first version of Mate Translate (then Instant Translate) most bluntly—just coded it visualizing the final result in my head. And it was my approach to making software for quite a long time. I would just jump at it right away—” designing” with HTML and CSS. It’s far from perfect but it worked okay in the times when I was working alone and didn’t bother much about ROI. I could afford to spend a month on building a feature and then just discard it if someone would say it was shit or I didn’t like it.
Describe the process of launching the business.
When I made Instant Translate, I was still a kid. Those years were pretty turbulent for me as I graduated from high school, enrolled in a university in a different city, and was learning a lot of stuff in general that people normally learn when they’re 18 or so. So, for 3 or 4 years after IT was conceived, it was just there for me. I didn’t have a witty strategy to turn it into a multi-million dollar business. I would implement a few features when I wanted to, redesign it all of a sudden if it seemed like a fun thing to do.
My decisions weren’t far-sighted or exceptionally thoughtful. I was dreaming of creating a game at that time. So I was spending most of my time trying to code the next Minecraft (because I was into pixel-art simple games). I even released one! Instant Translate was making me some money which was enough to make living, especially since I was still receiving help from my parents.
It all changed when I moved to Vienna, Austria. Either it’s the surged cost of life or the fact that I grew older (19), but all of a sudden I realized that I need to turn Instant Translate into a business. My rookie thinking was that to make more money, I needed more apps. Not only the Chrome extension but apps for every major platform. So I started asking around my network to find developers that would help me fulfill this dream. And I found them. I don’t know whether I was very eloquent or they were too young and maximalist but they all agreed to help me make Instant Translate for Mac, iOS, Android, and Windows on a revenue-share basis. I didn’t have a solid plan on how to sell it, but I pitched them with something like, “We’ll be making good money with it, and you’ll get 40% of it.” Every developer would get 40% of the revenue that their app would generate.
It took us almost a year to make all those apps. For my 60% stake of revenue, I’d handle design and leverage Chrome extension’s already massive user base to get traction for the newly-released app. When Instant Translate for Android and Windows went live, it didn’t look like a success. My “we need more apps to make more money” strategy failed.
It held through for one year. Gradually, the guys understood what kind of snake oil I had involved them in. According to my “genius” scheme, I was entitled to 100% of the Chrome extension’s revenue because I was the only person working on it, which was enough to make a living. Around 1.5 years after I convinced them to join me, Android and Windows devs left.
I was left with the Mac/iOS developer, who later became my full-time co-founder. Uncoincidentally, the Mac app was the only one that was generating some turnover besides the Chrome extension. Together, we incorporated in Vienna as Twopeople Software. We abandoned my weird rev-sharing scheme and started functioning as a proper company with salaries, dividends, expenses, etc.
I remember it was a very hard period for me when I was trying to wrestle Austrian bureaucracy and understand what is VAT, how to do accounting, submit taxes, etc. In the first year as a company, we filed $15,000 in revenue. In 2020, we’ve gone past the $220k milestone.
You may be wondering what the heck is Twopeople Software. It’s the predecessor of Gikken. We started when I was living in Vienna, Austria, and my co-founder, Andrii, in Kyiv, Ukraine. In 2019, we both moved to Berlin, Germany to conceive Gikken. As it turned out, Twopeople Software was a bad name. People were always asking whether we were two people. Rightfully, we were two people at the time but it was upsetting for me because my ambitions were way bigger than being a two-person company forever. So, we picked a new name for reincorporation in Germany.
Gikken comes from the Japanese word Jikken—to experiment. We replaced J with G as in “geek”. Roughly speaking, Gikken means experimenting geeks. I love that it’s short and memorable.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
When asked something like this, I like to say that 98% of our efforts fail. It’s just 2% that brings us forward.
Merging Mate’s Safari extension with the Mac app has been the most successful thing we’ve done in Gikken’s history so far. Revenue-wise. Together with a bunch of App Store optimizations (like SEO but in the App Store), it helped us 10x Mate for Mac’s sales and quadruple Gikken’s revenue in 2019.
I’m really proud of how fast we jumped on the bandwagon of Mac App Store distributed Safari extensions. The thing is that in the spring of 2019 Apple forced everyone to distribute their Safari extensions exclusively through the App Store. We quickly rewrote Mate for Safari and built it into the already existing Mac app. We contacted Apple humbly bragging that we’re the best and the fastest, and they generously rewarded us with a stellar write-up that is still floating around the Mac App Store worldwide. De-facto, we became the best and the most popular translator app in the Mac App Store.
It’s a significantly smaller market than iOS App Store. It’s less interesting to behemoths like iTranslate, DeepL, and Google. But, it’s a great stepping stone for us. However, now we’re feeling we’ve hit the ceiling. Fine-tuning our App Store page doesn’t help us to bring in more sales from App Store’s organic traffic. So, we’re focusing on ramping up our revenue from Mate’s browser extensions.
We tried doing cold pitching app blogs with major updates and new app launches. It rarely worked. Even when it did, it was pretty useless. In our experience, media coverage is good for the ego and minor brags. It normally gives you a one-day spike and then traffic wears off almost instantly. We stopped doing it as the time wasted on picking who to pitch and emailing them can be spent wiser. We already have our own Twitter audience and emails that we can efficiently leverage for a launch.
We also tried ads. It never worked. The only traffic sources that work well for us now are Google Search and App Store Search. They’re free, stable, and predictable.
We are active on Twitter to keep in touch with our fans. I’m a big fan (pun intended) of the 1,000 True Fans concept. All in all, we are maintaining a very friendly and down-to-earth tone. I hate the bureaucratic, soulless attitude many software companies are pursuing. Our products are made by people, for people. You can see by whom, read our story, understand whether you want to buy something from us or not. Understandably, most people just buy Mate, Tokens, Artpaper, or any other app of ours to carry out one specific task. But, some people manage to forge a deeper connection with Gikken. They buy all our apps, they’re genuinely interested in what’s going on with us, what’s next for their beloved apps. They become our biggest ambassadors who keep recommending us to other people.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We have 600,000 people using Mate’s browser extensions now. We’re selling premium features for a $9.99 one-off. How much do you think we’re making off of that medium city-sized audience? I’m pretty sure you didn’t guess it correctly. The correct answer is as little as $1,800. Most of our revenue comes from Mate’s iOS and Mac apps, sold for $15 and $30 respectively.
We’re entering interesting times. In 2021, both I and my co-founder got more mature and stopped shying away from Mate. In the previous years, we were trying to use Mate as a cash cow to sponsor our endeavors for trying to invent the next big thing. We were terribly defocused. We were failing one project after another, while there’s been Mate all the time that is loved and paid for by thousands of people. It’s validated and it has a large market. There are 500M English learners in China alone, for example.
Starting from this year, we’ll fully focus on Mate Translate. We’ll shut down unsuccessful apps. We want Mate to be the go-to translator app if not for everyone but at least for language enthusiasts and expats. They translate the most and appreciate our speed and integrations. So, when someone will be buying a new iPhone in 2025, we want to download Mate without hesitation along with WhatsApp and Instagram.
Some of the short term plans include increasing our revenue from the browser extensions. The tricky part is that people aren’t used to paying for extensions. On top of that, most of our extension audience is from markets that are less used to paying for software in general, like Russia and China. 50% of our Mate extension users are from these two countries. Thus, we have to come up with a more indirect way to make money.
One idea that we’re poking at now is cross-promotions. Mastering a language is a tangled ball of courses, apps, textbooks, movies, etc. Even if someone’s using Mate to learn, say, Spanish, it’s not the only tool they’re using. They might also be using Duolingo, go to an offline course, watch Casa del Papel on Netflix, and many more. We want to partner up with relevant services and cross-promote them to our audience as other tools a person might find useful to help them succeed with their language learning.
I don’t want any of our products to get bloated with ugly ads. So, it’s a subtle balance that we need to keep here—making more money while keeping our products extremely well-designed, simple, and fast. Offering discounts on other services is a win-win for us and our users, and it can be embedded into Mate unobtrusively. I can’t be sure whether it will work or not, but that’s what we’re busy with now.
Ramping up our non-App Store revenue is also vital for the business. I very much don’t like the fact that we’re so dependent on Apple now. 80% of our money comes from the App Store now. Basically, they can kill us at any moment with just a move of a finger. It’s happened before that they built something into macOS/iOS and then pulled apps by third-party developers. It happened with the predecessors of Screen Time, for example. This year, they released their own full-page translator for Safari. I see no reason why they might not pull other translator apps from the App Store in a few years claiming, “it’s for user’s convenience.” Anyway, I take diversifying our sales sources very seriously. And, we must finally leverage what we’ve had in reserve for so long—our browser users.
We’re also working on promoting Mate more to language schools. We see it as an efficient way to become even more established in the language learning market. Our plan now is to befriend teachers. If you’ve ever been to language school, teachers do recommend quite a lot of complementary materials so students can keep learning at home. It’s good for the students because they get more validated stuff to speed up their language learning. It’s good for teachers because it’s their job to help students succeed. It’s good for services that teachers refer to because they get new users.
We’re now in touch with a few teachers who randomly found and loved so much that now they recommend Mate to all their students. Viral marketing is hard to kickstart but once it’s up, it’s the best customer acquisition channel, in my opinion. None of your ads, blog posts, or witty tweets can ever match up a recommendation from a buddy.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
When I started, my only skill was making nice software—coding and designing it. I didn’t know how to get more people to use my apps, retain them, decide what to do next, or even how to decide whether I need to implement an idea I came up with or not. I’d just jump at the idea right away if it seemed interesting enough. No matter whether it’d take me a day or a month to implement. If it’d be taking too long and I’d get bored along the way, I’d just abandon it. My actions were curiosity-driven. There was no business thinking or strategy behind it. I’ve noticed all entrepreneurs with an engineering background in their early days are very prone to it.
My interest now is not to explore a new technology or implement a feature I find nice, but to grow the company. Get more people to use my products. Let more people work on our amazing products. And, I should happily say that I’m even more excited about it than about the old days when my primary goal was to make a perfect product.
Since 2016, we have tried to launch a handful of new products. We shut down some of them. Some of them never took off but are still alive because of the low maintenance they require, like Reji, for example. However, in 2021, we’re aiming at shutting down what’s not vital to laser-focus on making Mate the best consumer translator app and streamlining its business model.
I’m grateful for every project we have ever worked on because all of them taught me so many things.
Reji taught me how to talk with customers. I did dozens of interviews to learn more about how people learn new vocabulary. In hindsight, I understand that I asked the right questions but didn’t want to hear the obvious—language learners are conservative and they don’t need yet another app. They’re ok with their notebooks. I had such a gut feeling when I was doing those interviews but I was trying to convince myself that our idea was great. How can we drop it when we’ve done so much already? Well, the faster you drop it, the less it’ll hurt. Now, I know it.
Tokens taught me that even if prospective customers are signaling that they’re very excited for your product and want to give you their money, you never have to be blindsided by it. If the market is too small, don’t ignore it. Don’t go there unless there’s another non-monetary goal you’re pursuing. It turned out that Tokens has a tiny total addressable market. We were blindsided by how ecstatic the developer community was and heavily invested in it—spent 10 months of full-time work on it. It didn’t pay off.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I think my favorite service is Upwork. I don’t like it as a product. I hate their chat. However, it’s an irreplaceable thing that helped us streamline a bunch of things.
Mate’s key markets aren’t English-speaking because folks in English-speaking countries don’t care about translating stuff that much. So, it’s vital for Mate to be localized to other languages. For us, it means that when we’re working on an update, we can’t just push it out to the App Store as soon as we’ve finished coding. We need to send new strings (in most updates, we do change or add a new copy) to someone and get it back localized. Anticipating a question from many—no, we don’t dogfood it because Mate is a machine translator, though, and they’re still not perfect.
To preserve our friendly and humane tone of voice, we seek help from professional translators. So, we tried many things for localization—using our community and get it done for free, using services where you can just upload strings and get them translated by an anonymous translator for a pretty reasonable price. However, it could never keep up with the quality we wanted. Plus, the pain of dealing with new contractors every time was feasible.
At some point, we hired 20 translators into different languages on Upwork and kept ongoing contracts with them. It took us just once getting them acquainted with our products
Upwork is a streamlining goldmine for us. It’s unimaginable how fast and easy we can test something out without having to write agreements, handle payments, etc. For example, recently, we wanted to offload our email support to someone who could do it more regularly and write friendlier and more thoughtful responses. It was a major focus and motivation killer for me—going through the same tickets every day. We managed to find a superb lady within just one week. She’s helping 6h a week now, and we don’t have to waste time on sending money or checking her hours. It’s all covered.
Surely, there’s a bunch of other services that power Gikken behind the scenes. I love all of them, too, as it also took us a lot of experiments to get to what we’re using today.
We store all our intel on Notion. May it be roadmaps, goals, internal tutorials, article drafts, or strategy notes—it’s all there, available for everyone on the team. If it’s something super confidential, I write it in my private Apple Notes and share it with my co-founder on a private Slack channel. And yes, we use Slack for communication. It’s okay. Not great, not terrible. Nicer than the Telegram chaos than we had a few years ago. Nothing that I can’t imagine my life without, either. I keep my Slack notifications off for deeper focus.
Our servers run on DigitalOcean. You may call it old-school, but it works for us. We’re quite conservative with the tools that we are using. I would never switch to AWS or any other service just because it’s trendier. If something we’re using is getting the job done and it’s acceptably efficient, I won’t look at other solutions. As a small team, every one of us has dozens of tasks, so it’s literally impossible to spend a week or even a few days learning a new technology unless our current one is getting too painful to use.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I certainly prefer reading over podcasts when it comes to learning. It’s easier for me to take notes and search through written materials when I want to find something later on.
Here are a few books that have influenced my career the most so far:
The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick. It has influenced how I design our products a lot. Very often, if a user doesn’t like something about your product, they would come up with a solution they think would fix it, and suggest it to you. And I know many developers who would just take it and spend many weeks on implementation, and it would turn out that it wouldn’t fix anything. Now, I never ask questions that can be answered with yes or no.
Rob described the art of asking questions when you can go way deeper into understanding what people really want, combine it with your insights to crank out the best product. That’s what you should always do because users never have your level of insight—hence, their suggestions will almost always be half-baked compared to what you can come up with using your internal knowledge.
Sprint by Jake Knapp. It explains a great way of testing product ideas very fast using design sprint, within just one week. Although we have never run an entire design sprint at Gikken, we have faithfully adopted Jake’s approach to doing user interviews. It helped us improve the UX of our apps big time. Paired with the Mom Test, it can be an ultimate guide to talking with users.
Radical Candor by Kim Scott. We’ve had a series of unsuccessful hires. New people brought us barely any value. Mistakes were both strategic and managerial. In 2020, we grew to a 4-person company and shrank back to 2 people. I understood dozens of things that Kim described in her book first-hand last year. If you’re an entrepreneur, you have to manage people, and this book is an absolute must-read if you want to do it effectively and not be an asshole.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Be patient. Don't be distracted by "overnight" success stories. It's just sheer luck. Something that worked for 0.001% of people. In most cases, it takes 10+ years to get to anything that one considers success, no matter be it millions of users, dollars, or armies of fans. Have a goal but enjoy the career stage you're currently in. Every stage is uniquely interesting and useful, and won't repeat itself.
Where can we go to learn more?
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