This afternoon I had the pleasure of talking about a new language app called Phrase Mates at the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies. When you walk into the VCET, you encounter glass rooms instead of cubicles, ping pong tables in the meeting rooms, and a bright kitchen with all the tea and coffee amenities you could ask for in place of the classic water cooler. It’s exactly the kind of place you’d expect to see the dozens of cutting edge entrepreneurs engaging in their work. After settling in with a cup of tea, I had the chance to chat with one of the entrepreneurs, Marc Bolh, CEO of Ascendo, Inc, to learn about the new app he will be releasing that has the power to change the way we use languages to create global connections.
Marc exudes a calm but firm air and opts for a checkered shirt that matches the business casual atmosphere of the workplace. He pulls out his iPhone to show me VidaLingua, the language app preceding the one he is about to release, Phrase Mates.
“VidaLingua has 8.3 million downloads as of 2015,” he said, scrolling through the reinvented dictionary and phrasebook designed to help travelers communicate with people in foreign countries. “For my new app, though, I wanted to create something where learning a foreign language could be the medium for people to connect from anywhere in the world.”
I was curious about how he developed such a strong interest in a language learning community, and he spoke freely about his background which has carved out the path for the development of Phrase Mates.
Marc was born to a native French father and a Swedish mother whose mutual language was English. He grew up in the US and didn’t initially learn his parents’ native tongue, but is now a speaker of both. He noted how his grandparents were the ones who primarily taught him to speak, and he was able to be part of an exchange program in France at the age of fifteen that allowed him the opportunity to learn French fluently. From the beginning, multilingualism and multiculturalism was a natural part of his life.
He received a communicative science MBA in France from Insead University and lived in Paris for twelve years where he became a successful regional sales director for a company with ties in a multitude of countries such as Israel, Greece, and the Netherlands.
Nonetheless, the company went into decline. In alignment with French laws, it was mandatory for the company to give its workers three months of paid work where it was mandatory for them to show up even though there was no more company work to be done. It was during this period of spare time that Marc began to dip his feet into working with an online language community. Not only did he begin to learn Italian, he also reached out to people who were working on language sites to offer his help for free. Out of all the people he contacted, one man from Turkey responded. Marc did free work for him even after he had already established himself in a new job. After six months, however, the site began to see revenue that went from a few hundred dollars a month to thousands and the owner was able to split his earnings with Marc.
When Marc moved to San Diego, he continued to help the owner of the language site. After the internet bubble in 2002, Marc’s work with the man in Turkey branched into an app business and he released apps that included the best selling fitness, password, and money manager for Blackberry. He also had a language app, but thinking it wouldn’t be as lucrative as the others it remained the smallest for a long time.
“About three years ago,” Marc told me, “I began soul searching and came to the conclusion that I should be spending my time doing something I’m truly passionate about.” He paused and then added with a small smile, “Make sure you put that in there.” Marc knew that he was passionate about languages, and he felt that doing something that could help others connect through languages would be incredibly satisfying.
“To be honest, I didn’t know where to start and I don’t consider myself to know much about languages,” he said, despite having mastered multiple. There were a few things, however, that he realised about most people who are interested in learning a new language: they generally aren’t driven to learn a language for the intellectual sake of it. They are driven to learn because they have the desire to travel and meet new people from other cultures. Marc realised that learners like learning words to connect with others, but don’t love reference tools.
With these thoughts in mind during a long Vermont winter, he conceived the idea to make a tool that would put users in the middle of the app, with language as the medium to make connections. What he came up with is Phrase Mates, the app for Android he will be soon releasing. The slogan is “Learn a language, make a friend,” and encourages connections between people that are mutual and natural. Phrase Mates comes preinstalled with a vast database of over four million phrases ranging from standard to downright quirky, spanning a handful of languages such as English, German, Japanese, and more. The user can search for phrases by language and interest, for instance, someone learning Italian who is passionate about art could search Italian+art. This would allow the user to not only see a list of phrases about art in Italian, but also make relationships with Italian speakers who share the user’s interest. People can ask native speakers to translate phrases and contribute some of their own, so the database will always be growing. Boasting the described features and many more, Phrase Mates creates the perfect platform for a language learning community to contribute share, and make meaningful global connection.
There are numerous social media sites out there on the internet and countless language apps, but nothing in existence to my knowledge blends the two so seamlessly. I decided to ask Marc about what kind of motives aside from learning a language that people people might have to use Phrase Mates. He listed three main reasons he felt people would want to use his app.
The first was to find and have fun with people who share a mutual interest. People would have a unique opportunity to not only learn about a topic from a cultural lens that may be different from their own, but also experience first hand the ways in which we are the same. Marc also imagines people using Phrase Mates for professional reasons and believes it could be a powerful tool for the emerging world of the digitally connected work environment. The last reason he mentioned, was for love interests.
“I advocate this because my wife and I met each other through mutual interests that included each other's native language,” Marc said, adding “I think intercultural relationships are going to be a huge part of the future.”
His wife, Natalie Mathew Bolh, is a professor of economics at UVM and her employment was the reason they had moved to Burlington.
“The move from San Diego to here was a bit of a shock to me at first, and I miss the sun,” Marc confessed.
I wondered how Marc operated as a CEO of a company out of Burlington, which I endearingly call a quaint city. It turns out, Marc runs a “distributed company” which means that there is no office. His employees, all fifteen of them, are free to work for his company from anywhere in the world, using online tools such as Google Docs, Slack, and Skype as their virtually shared work space.
“There are a lot of advantages,” Marc says, “such as not being confined by location to hire people. I can hire the best person for the job from anywhere in the world.” He described other advantages as well, such as an absence of the usual distractions and drama that he saw plague the traditional workplace of the corporate sales company he worked in for ten years. He finds that the distributed company format promotes efficiency and responsibility, and allows room for little ambiguity or misinterpretation. There is also less wasted time in trivial meetings, which Marc felt to be the vain of his existence during his corporate life.
“My employees and I still want to have a human connection with each other, though, which can be difficult,” Marc said. To fill the gap of in-person interactions, he makes sure to Skype with each employee once a week and utilizes tools such as Slack as a space where him and his employees can post achievements, announcements, and goals.
With more than a tad of apprehension, Marc revealed that the ultimate goal of his company involves much more than just meeting deadlines and garnering revenue. “For lack of a better way to put it,” he said hesitantly, “I hope that my app can help move us towards world peace.”
A bold statement for sure, whimsical in nature yet heavy with implications that could leave one skeptical. Before elaborating any further, Marc pulled out his phone to show me the languages included in his app again, this time specifically pointing out one language: Farsi, the most widely spoken language in the Middle East.
“There’s no financial gain for us to add Farsi to the app,” he said, “and it’s a small gesture but I think it’s an important one.”
The fear, tension, and instability associated with the Middle East is perhaps the most severe and tragic example of the effects of cultural misunderstanding that exists today. Marc believes that social media plays a crucial role in helping to break down barriers by putting people from nearly every culture in connection with each other.
“It’s a critical opportunity that we as global citizens have to move towards cultural understanding, world peace, and political stabilization,” Marc said, “and my hope is that I’m able to make a contribution through my language apps.”
He is quick to act on new opportunities for his mission. After the recent reconciliation between the US and Cuba, Marc and his team added Cuban expressions to Phrase Mates in support of the new relationships that can now grow freely between the people of these two countries.
“I’m also planning a peace march,” Marc said, as humble as he was confident. After reaching his target of engendering one million new intercultural connections through his app, he hopes to facilitate an event where people will walk down the streets holding a photo of the friend they have made from another culture.
Marc’s powerful, compassionate vision and his focus to actualise it has and will continue to make him a distinguished entrepreneur. When I asked him what his advice would be for aspiring entrepreneurs, he paused and I could see a plethora of answers circling in his mind.
“Just do it,” he finally said, “and by “it” I mean develop a product or service that you are passionate about providing to people.”