Mayel de Borniol: Nomadic by Blood, Bootstrapping Entrepreneur by Choice
Mayel de Borniol believes in three things: wear no suit, eat no super-size meals, and follow no career that doesn’t let you pursue your passions. His idea to co-found Babelverse, an on-demand voice translation service powered by humans, sprang from his adventures volunteering in Greece in 2010. The company has big goals for the future, aiming to “do to language barriers what the aeroplane did to geographical barriers”. It certainly seems that Babelverse is on its way to such success. The company has worked with collaborators and interpreters in more than 100 countries, with interpreters covering over 1000 language pairs. I chatted with Mayel over Skype about his entrepreneurial and glomadic ventures, and he dropped me some great tips on tech, inspirational leaders, and more during our conversation.
Me: Thanks for taking the time to interview with us!
Mayel: Sure thing!
Me: I just want to start off by asking where exactly are you from? Or do you consider yourself a man with no origins, just a glomad from birth? ;D
Mayel: I have started calling myself a glomad only recently, but probably have always been one. I grew up with hippy parents who lived a nomadic lifestyle (in the more old-fashioned sense of the word, traveling with horses and teepees!). So I was born in the very old city (with fortified walls!) of Carcassone in southern France, but never actually lived there. And though I spent a few years in Paris in my late teens, I haven’t lived in France in about 6 years.
The epiphany for me was one day at a party, there was a group of French people who I hadn’t met before. Everyone was speaking English as this was in London, and at one point late into the night I joined a conversation they were having in French. They were very surprised that I spoke their language. My accent in English hadn’t given them a clue, and even my French accent was not convincing. So I ended up showing them my ID. But the only one I had on me was a resident ID card from Chile.
The next day I thought that over and realized that it didn’t bother me. In fact, I was totally fine with that. Thus, the idea of calling myself a “glomad” came about.
Me: Wow, teepees and all, eh? And that’s quite a long time to spend living as an expat! Do you feel that your parents’ attitude toward a more nomadic lifestyle influenced you to live such a lifestyle too?
Mayel: Good question. I guess, as most teenagers do, I didn’t want to live like they did. Thus my getting involved in technology, of all things, and then moving to Paris! But over the years I probably have come to reconcile these approaches and value systems. They may seem like opposites to some, but I think there are huge benefits in combining them. Just look at the huge trend in remote and flexible jobs (or people who go from gig to gig), and in what some call the “sharing economy” or “collaborative consumption.” And I know bringing up Steve Jobs is a cliché, but he may be the ultimate example of a “billion dollar hippy,” as one documentary called him.
Me: Are there any other tech/glomad types you look up to?
Mayel: Andrew Hyde, who founded Startup Weekend, later took some time off to live as a glomad and travel extensively. He wrote a book calledThis book is about travel.
Me: Hey, thanks for the tip! I’ll have to look into him.
Given that people from your home country didn’t recognize you that day as “one of their own,” do you ever feel a bit “homeless” or lonely, constantly living between countries, between residencies?
Mayel: Do I feel lonely? If it wasn’t for technology (social media, photo sharing, instant messaging, Skype, etc) moving from place to place could probably get quite lonely. Of course, meeting new people and making new friends is a great part of being a glomad, and if you lost touch as soon as you moved away that would be very sad. But we are so well connected now, no matter how far away geographically.
Of course, nothing beats meeting in person for a pint or two! So the secret is to befriend other glomads, and your paths will cross more often than you think
When I meet an old friend, we often count how many countries it’s been.
Me: I have that kind of relationship with a few friends, too. It’s a little sad to leave them each time but it’s such an adventure every time I see them, because it’s always in someplace new.
Mayel: Yeah, and there are always so many new stories to tell and hear!
Me: Omg, yes!
So I’m really interested in the places you’ve lived over the past few years and how you’ve been able to support yourself in the lifestyle, from the tech tools you use, to… Everything!
Are you up for a rapid-fire series of questions? Just type the first thing that comes to mind.
Me: Okay.. So… Tech tools.
iPhone or Android?
Mayel: iPhone. My last Android ended up under a hammer. I was holding it.
Me: External battery or high powered devices that support themselves?
Mayel: I wish they could power themselves, of course. But external battery.
Me: iPhone, point-and-shoots, or larger DSLRs?
Mayel: The best camera is the one you have on you. iPhone.
Santiago or Buenos Aires
(A contention we have going among the citibuddies team)
Mayel: BA, weón!
There’s no contest
Me: Che, qué hablas?!
You are talking to the wrong person! Santiago has my heart
Mayel: Si, hablo español.
Y chileno un poco.
This may be tough: London or Paris?
Mayel: Oh hmm… I’m nostalgic about Paris, but not in a hurry to live there again. (But love visiting!) London is a great metropolis.
Me: I see, I see.
Mayel: Virgin Atlantic.
Me: Best way to book travel plans?
Me: What makes FlightFox so special?
Mayel: It’s powered by people! Much better than algorithms
And it finds you rates about 20% off the price that you may find elsewhere.
Me: Yes! I’ll have to try it out.
Best tool for budgeting a bootstrapped startup?
Mayel: Ha… Low tech. Ask yourself: is it absolutely necessary? Or is it a strategic investment that will pay for itself and more? Otherwise, skip it!
Though I’d recommend Indinero if your entity US based.
Though they need to work on supporting glomadic startups with multiple currencies, etc!
Me: Nice, simple questions to decide how to spend money. That’s perfect.
I can imagine Babelverse would need that
So few companies really support glomadic companies’ needs, it’s crazy.
Mayel: Yes, this is one of my major pet peeves!
Also, video streaming checking your IP, payments systems that require a SSN, etc., etc. #firstworldproblems
Me: Haha! Absolutely, what a headache.
So I know Babelverse is your main squeeze right now, but I’ve read that Babelverse is not your first startup initiative.
So before we talk about how amazing Babelverse is, tell me about your previous ventures.
How would you describe them in one sentence?
Mayel: Well, my “career” started by me quitting my first job at a consulting firm after two weeks, with no real plan. It just wasn’t for me, so I started out as a freelancer.
Me: Two weeks? Must be a record!
Mayel: They made me wear suits!
Then my first startup was Podemus, which started out as a basic directory of podcasts and evolved into an online media search engine, aggregator, blog platform, hosting service…
Me: A jack of all trades. And suits, really?!
Mayel: At the consulting firm, sure.
Me: Now I can see why two weeks was plenty there.
After Podemus, anything else?
Mayel: Yeah, watching the people on Podemus produce content, that seemed much more fun than just being the platform. So I createdhttp://lelab.tv with some friends. It was totally bootstrapped, and while we didn’t find investors to keep going, it was an awesome few months! I only wish crowd funding existed back then…
Me: When were you working on lelab.tv?
Mayel: The first half of 2007.
That was in Paris.
Me: Ah okay. Yes, crowd funding would have been helpful back then!
I read on your site that at one point during your LeLab venture you were actually working at McDonald’s to cover rent and “noodles.”
Mayel: Right, it wasn’t an easy period but it was oh so fun. That only lasted two weeks, though. This time I was fired for refused to upgrade people to “super size!”
Me: I see you have a strong personal ethics system. No suits, no Super Size meals!
Even for those two weeks, how did working at McDonald’s play into your motivation level while starting LeLab.TV?
I don’t know how McDonald’s customers are in Europe, but here in the States they’re pretty demoralizing.
Customers in all stores, for that matter.
Mayel: Hmm, the customers weren’t the worse part, really. Working there really didn’t fit with my ethics. And I hated eating their free employee burgers, even if that helped my finances! The reason I went to work there rather than just taking on freelancing was because rather than adding another project to think and worry about, those hours would free up my mind to brainstorm and figure things out for LeLab.
Me: I can see that.
Super interesting story.
Alright, so now tell me a little about Babelverse, your current startup.
Why did you and your co-founder, Josef, decide to found the company?
Mayel: Well after LeLab, I finally had free time, and so I really wanted to travel, but without any money. I tried getting a job abroad with some NGOs and finally ended up going to Greece with an archeology institute. Kinda as a sabbatical.
And because I spoke three languages, I assumed learning another would come easy. But Greek turned out to be quite challenging…
Me: Hahaha, I’d imagine.
Mayel: During that time I met Josef via couchsurfing.org and, coming from England, he had the same problem.
Being techies, we tried every voice translation app and all the other “solutions” we could get our hands on, but none of them actually worked well.
By that point our Greek was good enough to “get by.” You know, ordering in restaurants, taking cabs, etc. The typical tourist situations.
But we were locals. We needed to communicate with clients, colleagues, landlords, doctors, etc. We also wanted to socialize and make friends with locals, and not only expats (as many expats do).
Me: Right, of course.
Mayel: So what we’d do without really giving it a second thought in those situations was bring along a Greek friend who spoke English to help us out. Or sometimes we’d call them up on the phone and put them on speaker.
And one day, the idea just materialized. What if we could have a worldwide network of friends who spoke the language whom we could call upon at any time?!
Thus “Project Babelfish,” later renamed Babelverse, kicked off.
Me: It’s a crazy idea. Ambitious, but very much needed.
Mayel: Yes, “crazy” is what we often hear, especially in the early days. But a surprising amount of people think it’s crazy enough that it just could work! And they’re crazy enough to want to help make it happen
Me: And after you founded the team, you’ve been bootstrapping the company until Babelverse officially launched.
You even lived and worked in a 15-square-meter garden shed in London to keep costs low?
Tell me about some of the places you lived during this time.
Mayel: Yes, the first place we headed to was Santiago de Chile because of the opportunity offered by the Startup Chile programme.
Me: It’s a great program.
(See how cool Santiago is?)
Mayel: It was a great environment to figure out the details of how to make Babelverse actually work. We were surrounded by hundreds of people from different parts of the world, with different cultures and languages.
We received great feedback and advice from them, and it was interesting to observe their struggles with the language barrier.
After that we lived in Buenos Aires for a while. In Palermo Hollywood.
BA has since been in my top cities list
Me: Swanky area
You know, I’m doubting your taste in cities right now
Were there any other extreme measures your team took while bootstrapping Babelverse?
Yeah, after that we had to survive on credit cards for six months while working on our products to start to get revenue and raising investment at the same time.
That involved a lot of couch surfing and crashing with friends, and indeed three months living and working in a small garden shed in London.
That ended when we were able to get one-way flights to San Francisco (with a stopover in NY to get an award at TechCrunch Disrupt #humblebrag) and finally got some funding after one month of crashing with friends there.
Me: Nice! And Congrats!
Mayel: Even then, though, and still now, we continue functioning in “bootstrap mode,” keeping our costs very low.
For example, people keep asking where we’re based, and where our offices are.
Me: Right, right.
Mayel: The answer is everywhere. Most of our team are glomads, and they work remotely from different places around the world. Often a different place every day. (We started posting photos with the hashtag #todaysoffice to make those people with their fancy offices jealous!)
Me: I like!
I think the office-types are a bit more than jealous
So what pushed you to jump into this, to take a chance on this idea and give up a higher quality of life for a chance of success with Babelverse?
Mayel: Well first we need to wake them up from their zombie state!
Me: That will be difficult.
Mayel: Here’s my answer
Mayel: I didn’t say courage
It’s probably somewhere in the middle…
Mayel: BTW, I have one thing to add to the tool tips
Mayel: If you get TripIt Pro, you can get a free http://www.regus.com membership, which gives you access to “business lounges” in cities around the world. Great for when you have an important conference call or need a break from the loud, coffee-drinking hipsters…
Me: The hipsters don’t talk anymore, they just Instagram their thoughts.
So if not courage exactly, then what?
Mayel: The thought goes something like “why not? This seems interesting/fun! What do I have to lose, anyway? It will be an ADVENTURE!…” *packs suitcase*
Me: Exactly, what do you have to lose?
Very, very true.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs or people hesitant to leave their desk jobs and travel?
Mayel: Hmm. I’m not somebody who likes taking advice, so I try to avoid giving it…
But I’ll give you a thought exercise:
Ask yourself, if you won the lottery tomorrow (assume a huge amount that means you no longer have to work), what’s the first thing you’d do? And what would you do when you got bored with that? Etc.
And then figure out ways to do those things without the millions!
Me: Simple, oh yes
Okay, Mayel, thank you so much for this interesting conversation.
Is there anything you’d like to add before we head off Skype?
Mayel: I feel like at the end of an awkward date, where only one person did all the talking!
I’d love to hear your story (and those of other glomads), perhaps as a guest post or interview for http://glomads.org #shamelessplug
Me: Haha! I would love to write something up.
Do you help run glomads.org?
Mayel: I set it up.
You know I came up with term, right?
Me: Who says citibuddies didn’t coin the term? ;D
Well let me get back to you soon with a little pitch for something I’d like to write for glomads.org.
It’d be fun.
Me: Also, Mr. Inventor of the Term “Glomad,” please tell Skype to stop auto-correcting the word.
Mayel: Yeah, we need to get into the dictionaries!
Me: Alright Mayel, thank you so much, again, for interviewing with us.
Babelverse is incredible; I’m so excited to see how it grows in the future.
Mayel: It was a pleasure
Me: No, thank you! Enjoy the rest of your day, now.
Mayel: Ciao! Time for a beer.
Me: For me, time for lunch
Mayel: Bon appétit.
This post was originally part of a series of interviews with glomads on the citibudies blog, global travelers who find ways to do what they love in unknown places around the world.