By | November 23, 2023
Build a profitable language learning app from scratch, UAE-based Russian expat shows how

When Russian-born 37-year-old Dmitrii Basalkin started a mobile app six years ago in Hong Kong, he hoped to get non-English speakers to learn the basic level of the language by using the tool. Now the UAE residents’ app is used by millions to learn all levels of Spanish, French, Japanese and Arabic.

“I had devoted myself to language learning because it is a big effort, and it is a challenge that I can now solve for others. I also think that language learning is an excellent field to apply artificial intelligence (AI) and implement improvements,” he said when asked why he chose the field.

Basalkin, who has split his time between his new home in Dubai and his company in Abu Dhabi since 2021, is proud to not only gain 30,000 paid customers in the first year of Bright AI’s launch in 2017, but also to be able to turn the business profitable in the same year.

750,000 paid customers, 25 million users

With currently 750,000 paid customers and 25 million users worldwide, Basalkin revealed that the multilingual learning application earned over Dh30 million in revenue in 2022 alone, but he attributed this success to the fact that this was not his first experience in entrepreneurship.

“Our early success was made possible by combining my co-founders’ and my previous experience with various educational start-ups from 2011 to 2017. In 2011, I entered the language learning industry and joined a start-up, where I ran monetization and user acquisition,” he added .

“From 2011 to 2014, the startup’s user base grew from 100,000 to 5 million and I helped develop web and mobile apps. Since I left the company in 2014, language learning has been a constant interest of mine, and two years later, motivated to give it a try, I founded my own company in 2017.”

What prepared you for entrepreneurship?

In his youth, Basalkin said he worked a few internships in consulting, and this laid the foundation for understanding how a business works and how it can be run. “It was these early experiences that helped me perceive all companies as a system in a whole.

“I learned the importance of business processes, how to build and adapt them to changes. Also, this encouraged me to become an entrepreneur. So I’m lucky: my first real job was running my own business in 2010; it was a platform for advertising in online games.”

Funding language learning app from scratch

“These experiences as an entrepreneur contributed significantly to the development of my business skills. It was a revelation that a belief in a business idea and self-confidence can open many doors, and that people can be very open to those who have a purpose in life and can convey it.”

For the language learning app, initial product development in 2017 cost Dh200,000, which Basalkin said was funded from his savings. Business registration cost Dh30,000, and initial marketing cost Dh100,000, he said, while the initial profits were reinvested into the app to add more customers.

“We then had to analyze countries where it might make sense to establish a headquarters to further develop the business and deploy AI in the app. We chose the United Arab Emirates to settle down because of the government’s focus on technology,” he added. – We want to contribute to it.

I had dedicated myself to language learning because it is a big effort, and it is a challenge that I can now solve for others

– Dmitrii Basalkin

How did becoming an entrepreneur change you?

Basalkin admitted that becoming an entrepreneur primarily meant changing his work style, while also teaching him the hard lesson of finding a balance between being a manager and finding time for non-work activities and his family life.

“As I learn to get better results with less effort, my focus has shifted from ‘work harder’ to ‘work smarter’. I’m still mastering the art of prioritizing and saying ‘no’. Learning to say no to tasks, ideas and projects help maintain focus on the goal and conserve resources,” he said.

Being disciplined and learning to put mundane tasks to bed is a constant lesson for Basalkin, he shared. “Delegation has become a critical skill, and I now spend less than 20 percent of my time on operational management, allowing me to focus on key strategic aspects of the business.

“Although a 40-50 hour work week is my norm, it has decreased from 5 years ago when the app started. Now I add physical activities like the gym or boxing as part of my working hours. With the flexibility that my company offers, I work remotely some of the time and explore new countries with my wife.”

Challenges or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?

One of the biggest challenges Basalkin recalls facing was a sharp decline in the growth rate of the app in the middle of the 2020 pandemic. “It took us more than four months to make the necessary product improvements and figure out new marketing tactics to change the trend back to positive.

“Entrepreneurial journey is always about ups and downs, and it’s never a straight line from A to B. Still, one lesson I learned that can be used by my fellow entrepreneurs is to keep your eyes on increasing revenue from clients and to start with sales as soon as possible,” he added.

“A lot of people are blinded by aesthetics, which is actually secondary to their revenue stream but very demanding in terms of resources. They invest their time and money in unnecessary things that don’t bring them closer to sales, and eventual decline is only a matter of time. “

Any strategies when it comes to personal savings?

1. Learn to earn first, save second, invest third

Basalkin said he is “deeply convinced” that learning how to make money comes before understanding how to save, and only after that it becomes important to consider how to spend and invest. This is a key motto he lives by. “I think people often take these steps in the wrong order.

“What’s the use of investing if you don’t master earning and saving and therefore have no starting capital? Revenue always comes first; it’s a lesson I’ve learned well. My first goal was to raise capital through profits and dividends from my business, he explained.

“Once that was achieved, the third part of the financial formula – spending – became much more important. I prefer to keep daily expenses under control and reinvest in my own business or in property in the UAE. Most of my personal investments are in real estate, where I see great potential for growth.”

2. Save for specific goals, control impulsive spending

Basalkin went on to describe how he grew up in a family with an average income. “My parents taught me to save for key goals and how to control impulsive urges by staying focused. Thanks to these lessons, I launched the app without external funding. This still benefits my business as it grows.

“My father opened one of the first computer stores in our town in the early 1990s, which gave me access to computer technology much earlier than my peers. So I spent a lot of time with computers and there was no option for me to start a business other than in the technology field,” he says.

Entrepreneur tip: “Prioritize, categorize each business opportunity, invest accordingly”

When asked for his final thoughts or any tips he would give other entrepreneurs, Basalkin explained how it’s always important to distinguish between business opportunities that are fleeting, only lasting a few months, and the significant ones that can span decades.

“Every opportunity is limited in time. Immediate opportunities require quick and confident action, but they can bring you zero results. So in this game of low probabilities and high rewards, evaluate potential results and go after opportunities that promise 10 times the result.

“On the other hand, long-term opportunities require more strategic decision-making and investment to secure future gains, but progress is steady and yields more linear results. Financial discipline is critical in both the short and long term. Even with increasing sales and net profit, it is important not to lose control of expenses, salaries and investments in new, unproven opportunities.”

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