As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Walsh Costigan, founder of Lexody. She is originally from Austin, Texas and currently lives in NYC. Walsh has always been entrepreneurial — from selling candy on her school bus as a child to now founding her own company out of a need she saw in her own life.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I am a life-long language learner and have dabbled in over ten languages. After a semester abroad in Paris, I became very proficient in French. Once I returned to the states, I wanted to find a way to keep my conversational fluency. So, I started a student organization at my college that matches international students and Americans who were studying foreign languages. To my surprise, hundreds of students signed up each semester. Although all of the students were taking language classes, the students felt that there was missed opportunity to use the language and engage in conversation.
International students were having trouble making American friends, mainly because most of the English as Second Language (ESL) classes were with other international students. I ran this program for three years until I graduated, and saw the need for opportunities to practice languages conversationally.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
The most exciting thing is Lexody’s reverse social dynamic. As a non-English speaker on Lexody, you are highly desirable as friends. It may be difficult as a Spanish or Arabic speaker to make friends in a foreign country due to communication barriers. Then you join Lexody and realize that hundreds of people are looking to learn from you, talk with you because they love your language and your culture. Lexody is not only great for educational purposes but it also indeed help people bridge the cultural gap and understand each other better.
Can you tell us about your “Idea That Might Change The World”?
Lexody’s idea is affordable language immersion in your city, with cool people just like you. Millennials want experiences. They do not want to learn a language on an app — they want to meet in person and experience the language and culture. They want to travel and talk to people. Classes and apps are a great start to any language journey, but what happens when you finish all the lessons? Currently, there is no ‘next step.’ This is where Lexody fills the gap.
Lexody is a language-learning social network. You can find native speakers of any language in your city, and they are also learning your native language. You can chat with each other, and meet up at one of Lexody’s suggested meeting places. You will spend 30 minutes speaking in each language, which allows both users to immerse into a natural conversation.
Lexody makes languages cool again.
How do you think this will change the world?
33% of US college students take a foreign language, but only 1% of college graduates feel confident in holding a conversation in a foreign language. Unfortunately, conversational skills are one of the most in-demand skills. There is a massive gap in the language-learning industry — real-life immersion.
Although Lexody does not teach any languages, it provides a platform for users to practice the language that they are learning. Lexody offers a fun environment for immerse in any language. It not only helps people to reach conversational goals but also helps bridge cultural gaps and build relationships with friends from all over the world.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
When I first arrived in Paris, I couldn’t understand anything, although I studied French for seven years. Textbook French is not the same French that is spoken. It was difficult for me to make friends, and any Parisians I’ve met wanted to practice their English with me.
After six months, my French picked up. I was thinking and dreaming in French, and obtained a level of fluency that I could never have developed in a classroom.
After I returned home, I paid a woman who speaks fluent French $10 an hour to hang out with me and chat. As a college student, those interactions started to drain my bank, so I looked for other ways where monetary values aren’t involved.
So I started the language exchange program and realized how in-demand the service is. Hundreds of students signed up each semester. People want in-person conversations and real-time feedback. They want to hang out with others their age. This was the ‘ah-ha’ moment.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
Lexody has a massive adoption in New York City and other US cities! However, I would love to launch Lexody internationally. We see substantial organic traffic and waitlist signups in Asia, South America, and the Middle East. I need to raise more money to expand internationally.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
Life is sales. I was excited to leave my high-paying sales position and start Lexody. Sales can be draining, and every month you start back at 0 again. Only what you close that month matters. I quickly realized that life is sales — from partnerships to investors to employees and that being a good salesperson is the best trait you can have as an entrepreneur.
It’s a numbers game. As Lady Gaga shares, there can be 100 people in a room, but it takes just one person to see the real value. If you are doing something that hasn’t been done before, not many people will understand it. Don’t be deterred- keep talking to people, and keep talking to your users.
Being an entrepreneur is lonely. No one talks about how lonely it can be as a founder. Your idea is like a child-no one will care about it as much as you do. As an entrepreneur, you also tend to internalize everything and try to put a positive face to the world. It’s essential to create a group of Founder Friends with companies around the same stage as you. Just being able to talk with other founders, or to pick their brains, is immensely valuable.
Only hire as a contractor first. I am not a fan of the interviewing process — I would instead give someone a project and watch how they work and think. Although interviews are necessary, short observation times are invaluable. Hiring is hard, and the most valuable traits (grit and perseverance) aren’t apparent in an interview.
Listen to your users, not investors. I know this will get some criticism, but I believe both parties have conflicting goals for your company. I made mistakes early on where I was focusing too much on ‘how do you make large amounts of money immediately,’ but the initiatives weren’t in-line with what users wanted. To my surprise, once I stopped focusing on initiatives that aligned with investor demands, users started reaching out to me and saying things like ‘I would pay more for this feature,’ or ‘I would pay more per month than you’re charging now.’ Think about how many times you have reached out to a company and say you’d pay more. I have never done that. If you build something people love, the money will follow eventually. I wish someone would have told me that early on — I would have saved a lot of time and money I spent on useless builds and initiatives.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
If I had $1 million, I would first invest in Lexody.
Next, I would invest in experience and the travel sectors. Younger generations value experiences more than owning a house, and have increasing expendable budgets.
Lastly, VR will gain more widespread adoption in the next 5–10 years, especially once Oculus release the newly affordable headsets. I believe VR and workforce training are going to be the first sectors of VR to take off.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
My favorite saying is that a founder needs to Hire, Inspire, Retain, and Never run out of money.
I am not afraid of scrapping a project that isn’t adopted by users, no matter how much sunk-costs have gone into it. And most of all, I am a natural salesperson at all. I will keep emailing and contacting people. It’s all a numbers game, and eventually, you will succeed. It’s about perseverance and the ability to keep going.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
I believe that intelligence is just dedication over time. With enough time, you can learn and accomplish anything, as long as you think that you can.
I also have a very high-risk tolerance, which I credit to my ability to keep going even when things get difficult.
Most importantly, take care of your body. Regular exercise, sleep, and nutrition keep your machine (body) ready for anything.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?
The growing language-learning industry is valued at over $350 billion, but every company focuses on beginner learner. There’s a huge gap for intermediate-advanced learners and an even larger gap for people who are merely trying to maintain a language. For example, American born Chinese is one of our largest demographics. They want to preserve their native language, but typically only chat with their parents in Chinese. Lexody fills this gap, and we have more demand than we can build for.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.