How doing homework for friends inspired a global company

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Media captionHow South Korean businessman Simon Lee set up global translation business Flitto.

It is fair to say that entrepreneur Simon Lee has a flair for languages.

The 32-year-old South Korean speaks no less than six of them - Korean, English, French, Arabic, Mandarin and Japanese.

And he says he plans to learn more.

With such linguistic skills Mr Lee doesn't have much personal need for translation services, but after friends at university in Seoul started asking him for help with their English homework he was inspired to set up just such a company.

Launched in September 2012, his business - Flitto - now has more than five million users around the world, and enjoys revenues of about $2.1m (£1.4m) a year.

Unlike most professional translation companies, it doesn't directly employ translators.

Instead, Flitto invites members of the public who know more than one language to offer their services via its website and mobile phone app.

Today it has one million translators in 170 countries on its books, who offer translations between 17 different languages. They all get paid for each piece of work they do, from which Flitto takes a small percentage.

In the first feature of new six-part series called "The Making of Me", we look back at key stages in Mr Lee's life and the development of his business.

His early life

Due to his father's job with a global company, Mr Lee spent most of his childhood living overseas.

Image copyright Simon Lee
Image caption Simon Lee's family lived in four different foreign countries during his childhood

He was born in Kuwait, where he spent his first four years, before the family then moved to UK.

After three years in the UK, the family relocated again, this time to the US, before moving to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia 24 months later.

Educated in international schools, he was quick to pick up English, French and Arabic, the first three languages Mr Lee added to his native Korean.

"I met all these different people from different countries," he says.

Image copyright Simon Lee
Image caption Simon Lee first learned English while living in the UK

"What I realised is that all human beings are the same you know, but because of the different languages we misunderstand each other."

After seven years in Saudi Arabia, Mr Lee's family moved back to South Korea where he finished high school, and then went to the country's prestigious Korean University.

It was at college that friends of his started to ask him to help them translate their homework into English, which was required as part of their courses.

"So friends would say to me, 'Simon, if you translate this homework into English I'm going to buy you dinner'," he says.

"And more and more friends were asking me to do that, so I didn't have enough time."

Realising the business potential of translation services, Mr Lee started getting other multilingual friends to help out, and his idea for setting up a company was born.

Where did it begin?

Flitto was launched in September 2012, but rather than start the business in South Korea, Mr Lee decided to relocate to London.

He said he chose to do this for two main reasons - he wanted to temporarily get away from his friends who had well paid jobs in corporate South Korea, and because London is such a multi-cultural city.

Image caption Rather than launch Flitto in South Korea, Mr Lee moved to London

He says: "I was starting a business, so I had no money. So what I thought is that [if I stayed in Seoul] I would compare myself with my friends, and that would make me really sad.

"So I just wanted to go some place quiet. And London is the centre of Europe, with lots and lots of different people who speak different languages."

To help get the business up and running, Mr Lee based himself at a shared working space in London run by a start-up support organisation called Techstars. This gave him both mentoring support and funding.

Yet with little funds to advertise, Mr Lee had to come up with a novel way of drawing attention to Flitto's website and app, and attracting both translators and customers.

Image copyright Flitto
Image caption The company operates both a website and mobile phone app

His answer was for Flitto to collate the Twitter and other social media feeds of Western pop stars such as Lady Gaga, and encourage people to translate them into different languages, in exchange for merchandise of the celebrity in question.

It worked, and Flitto soon started to see its business and brand recognition grow, with more and more customers, and a growing number of translators signing up.

Today Flitto, which has its headquarters in Seoul, and has just 34 full-time staff, says it gets 70,000 translation requests per day.

These range from individuals wanting a few lines translated, to businesses requesting bulk work. Each translator - all one million of them - is graded out of five in terms of feedback on the quality of their work.

As an additional revenue stream Flitto's website also has a store section, where people can buy everything from clothing to iPhone cases. And to further drive traffic to the site, it also has an editorial section, which includes stories and photo galleries from around the world.

Mr Lee says the fact that Flitto doesn't directly employ translators means that it can significantly undercut the traditional translation service providers. Its costs start from 10 cents (6p) for 250 characters.

And he says that he does not feel threatened by the growth of online computerized translation services because he does not believe they will ever be as accurate as human beings doing the work.

What mistakes have you made?

Mr Lee says his biggest error was an earlier attempt to set up a similar translation business.

This was back in 2007, when he launched a company called Flyingcane.

Image copyright Flitto
Image caption While Flitto has been a success, an earlier translation business was a failure

He said it was the right idea, just at the wrong time.

"The problem was that there were no smart phones back in 2007," he says.

He said that as a result of this, there was obviously no mobile phone app side to the business, and this meant that the translation work was slower because people couldn't do it as easily when they were on the move.

After Flyingcane failed, Mr Lee then spent a number of years working for a South Korean mobile phone network, before returning to his business idea in 2011, and then launching Flitto in 2012.

In terms of the day-to-day running of the company, Mr Lee says he can be a workaholic, and didn't take a holiday for six years.

In the end, matters came to a head with fellow board members.

He says: "My investors forced me to take a vacation, which I never wanted. They told me 'Simon, you don't look good, you don't look healthy, so we think you need to time to go off for fresh air, and to relax yourself'."

What advice would you give to others?

Mr Lee says that people thinking of setting up their own businesses need to be aware that it can take it out of you.

Image copyright Flitto
Image caption Simon Lee (right) has warned his staff that running a business can be rather stressful

"Whenever my juniors ask me 'Simon do you recommend that I should start my own business?', I say 'no, there is too much stress'."

But despite the inevitable anxiety that running your own company brings, Mr Lee says he recommends that people try it.

"Just stick to your dream and believe in yourself, that's my advice.

"Everyday you feel your heartbeat, that you are actually living your life."

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