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“Having Little Money, In The Beginning, May Make Life Harder, But It Will Become A Priceless Time To Look Back On”

Words of Wisdom with Alex Iliescu, the CEO and Co-founder of Mondly
I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Iliescu, the CEO and Co-founder of Mondly, one of the top language apps in the world with over 30 million users in 190 countries.

What is your “backstory?”

In 2012, after working in the corporate environment for years, I decided to quit and build apps. I got my brother, Tudor, on board as he has a technical background, and we borrowed 1000 euros from our parents to buy the MacBook we needed to develop our first iPhone app.

The idea to build a language learning app was first and foremost a labor of love; followed by years of research and hard work. Both my brother and I are multilingual and passionate about languages. Having had worked in several European countries, I had to learn different languages from scratch, and I had experienced the challenges of this, and the gaps in the market firsthand.

One of the most significant gaps was the lack of native voice recordings in language software. Listening to native speakers is one of the most critical parts of learning a language, and the other language apps neglected this factor on the market. The integration of native voice recordings into our app was integral to the foundation of Mondly.

I was also witnessing the power and omnipresence of smartphones, and how people were always using them. This combined with the ability to integrate voice recognition, cloud computing and more — all contributed to the early development of Mondly.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

We started small. Small headquarters. Small team. Only the dreams were big. As time passed, the dreams grew bigger and bigger; and the original team flourished into a family. We still had that same small HQ.

Forward to a few months later — We were growing fast and started inviting prospective employees over for interviews, but they’d always be late. Why — I kept wondering. The answer only came later when we moved to a more prominent HQ — where no one was ever late. There was a “Eureka!” moment — when our colleagues admitted they’d easily and repeatedly passed by our small HQ, searching for the “imposing” HQ I had mentioned on the phone.

I guess my serious tone made them expect something a bit bigger than a small house!

Even now after we’ve moved to our much more massive HQ, our earliest colleagues and ourselves have fond memories and still miss that little house where we got our start.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our team and our vision make Mondly stand out.

Our biggest challenge and accomplishment was building an all-star team of young Romanian talent that consistently go head-to-head and continue to win against significantly larger teams from the US, the UK, and Germany.

Our vision fuels our team. Our collective goal is to create solutions to language learning challenges utilizing cutting-edge technology — and get people talking and having meaningful conversations in real life quickly.

This drive for meaningful conversations has led us to lead the industry and build products we couldn’t have envisioned four years ago when we started:

- We started with the release of the 1st voice-enabled language learning chatbot with speech recognition in 30 languages (August 2016)
- Then, we launched MondlyVR, the first virtual reality language learning app with speech recognition for Oculus (February 2017) and Daydream (September 2017)
-Now, we’ve launched MondlyAR — the first augmented reality language learning experience with chatbots and speech recognition (March 2018)

MondlyAR introduces a lifelike avatar that carries human-like conversations and offers instant feedback on your pronunciation. With the power of ARCore, it can virtually teleport all kinds of objects into your living room — creating a new kind of immersive experience. This makes learning fun, and memorable.

With MondlyAR, we are closer than ever before to our vision.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Challenge and empower yourself to move out of your comfort zone. Always respect your employees and listen to and value their input as you move forward together.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

I’m very grateful to our parents who invested in our education but who also encouraged our involvement in sports. They motivated us to do our best and to be good at what we do.

I’m also grateful to my brother, Tudor, my Co-founder. Although we’re brothers and can even be competitive, especially when we play tennis — we compliment and balance each other in business.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Early in 2017, a volunteer from an NGO that was helping with the refugee crisis in Greece approached Mondly. She had been using Mondly to learn Farsi so she could better communicate with the Afghan and Syrian refugees.

The NGO had obtained phones and tablets for 40 families — around 150 refugees. We offered free subscriptions to the Mondly app so they could learn the European language of their choosing. Mondly was a perfect solution for them because we offer courses where students can learn languages from Farsi to most European languages — including English, French, German, Portuguese, Italian, Greek, Swedish and many others.

Last year we also donated nearly 200 apps to the Social Learning Center in Haiti. Students, they are loving the app and making significant progress in their language learning. We are proud of these projects, and there are countless other small schools and organizations worldwide that we continue to support.

Finally, and this is my favorite story as I’ve always dreamed of helping our local University here in Brasov to thrive. Students typically leave Brasov for Bucharest — Romania’s capital city — and ignore that we have a top university here, right in the heart of our country.

So, we decided to help the University of Brasov by investing in its first iMac lab. This was definitely a statement to Romanian people and culture where Apple — the brand — is sometimes perceived as untouchable and more expensive than PCs. Apple can be associated with elitism. We wanted to show them that good things can happen in Romania too in spite of recent political events that have caused some people to lose hope.

Nothing can compare with the joy and pride I felt watching Romania’s future programmers excitingly unbox the iMacs we offered to the University. You don’t forget moments like that.

At Mondly, we are changing the future of education. This was another step in that direction, and we’re already planning our next.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why.

  1. If you believe in your product and vision, don’t feel like you need to accept money from outside investors. Just a few months after launching Mondly, we took part in a pitch contest where the winners would receive an investment of USD 150,000. 450 startups applied, and 50 were selected to pitch at Facebook’s HQ in London. Mondly was one of the 50, and we had five minutes to present. While on the plane, I kept thinking, “I have so much to tell, how can I say it all in 5 minutes.” When I arrived there, I decided to take a few slides out. My pitch was less than 3 minutes. Two days later, I received a call we were chosen to win the investment. All we had to do is accept the terms. Then, USD 150,000 was a HUGE amount. The urge to take the money was big. But the terms were not so great, especially if we were to have the success we imagined. After two weeks of discussions between my brother and me, and negotiations with the investors, we decided to refuse the offer. Fast forward to today — it proved to be one of the best decisions we ever made.
  2. Having little money, in the beginning, may make life harder, but it will become a priceless time to look back on. When you get to manage bigger budgets down the road — you’ll already know how to make the most of every penny.
  3. Nobody says how much fun it is. You hear so many horror stories about starting your own company — but the truth is when you love what you do and work with great people — the hard work and long hours are actually fun and rewarding.
  4. Even if it looks impossible — do it anyway. Early on we decided to head into uncharted waters. It was scary — but also exciting. VR didn’t even exist (for consumers) five years ago. Now, we are leading the industry, and building the future of language learning in VR and AR.
  5. This is most important: Hire talented, good people, treat them right, and they will grow with your company. As I mentioned, we started small with a dedicated team — and we’ve never regretted this. You’ll find talented people right in your city who’ll create products that will make your entire team proud. And they will become your second family in the process. Together, you will do things you haven’t even imagined.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Definitely Elon Musk. After the passing of Steve Jobs, I discovered the incredible achievements/ things he’s working on. I’m fascinated by his relentless drive to achieve the impossible.

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