Bernhard Niesner

November 14, 2023

“Actually, we were too early with Busuu. We had built the whole foundation, the whole company on a web platform. But, with the first iPhone every- thing changed. In 2010, we realized we had to shift to ‘mobile first’. It took us two years. Two years in which we couldn’t launch a new product.

Every shortcut we took, we had to go back. We had to rebuild the whole  platform again from scratch.

Just at that point a new competitor came out. Duolingo was already mobile-first, had raised an enormous amount of money and weren’t charging anything for their product. We saw the wave coming but couldn’t fight it. Then, on top of that, in the middle of the process of adapting the platform, we had to move our Spanish team to London. Why? We wanted to scale as quickly as possible, backed by a financing round of three and a half million euros, led by PROfounders Capital with some private investors.

So, we grew from 10 to 50 employees within a few months, six to seven new people in the office every month. At the same time, I made the mistake of not paying enough attention to our core values during the hiring process. Then in 2013, a follow-on fundraising round didn’t go through and we only had three months of “runway” left. Ten of the  50 team members had to leave immediately to get us at least halfway back on track.

But, because many of the team members were not connected to the company’s culture, there were some who spread bad vibes. I should have let them go immediately. Instead, the bad mood spread to more and more employees.

For a while, it was considered “cool” to quit. Within a few weeks, another 30 people left. Those were the darkest hours.

I sat in this huge office, alone, thinking, seven years of work, everything lost. I swore to myself: If I get the chance to build up this company again, a strong foundation of values are necessary: trust, effectiveness, ambition, curiosity and happiness – you could even wake me up in the middle of the night, and I could recite them to you. We all know these values, have operationalized them and applied them to behaviors. For example: Deliver on your promise, celebrate your team, become a better version of yourself. This value framework ultimately led to success.

During this near-death experience, we first had to find someone to take over the App development. After all, instead of going bankrupt, we suddenly were profitable. And a new version of the product came much faster than expected. Immediately, our numbers went up again.

Six months later, we got € 6 million from McGraw Hill Education (a U.S. educational publisher, note). Everything I had promised came true. I’ve always been resilient, played competitive sports, but one thing I took away from that time for myself was:

When the going gets tough,  the tough gets going.

You’re always going to have to struggle as an entrepreneur. That never stops. If something doesn’t go the way you think it will – that’s just part of it.

You can’t waste your energy getting angry. You have to accept it. I think it’s a mistake to believe that at some point the sun will shine and you’ll sail off into a comfortable entrepreneurial life. No, the next storm is bound to arrive.”

Bernhard Niesner