The Story of TripLingo

For nearly two years ending in 2010, I lived, worked, and travelled in 10 different countries throughout Asia. When I arrived in Vietnam, it didn’t take long to learn that without any language skills it was going to be rough. I’m not sure if you’ve ever asked where the restroom is using only your hands, but it’s just a tad bit embarrassing. That’s just the start: lacking language skills, my plans were easily thwarted and I often found myself frustrated. Perhaps worst of all, I had no sense for the culture I was now living in.

Something had to be done. Yet after an exhaustive search for options in app stores, bookstores, and websites, it became quickly apparent that each option had some fatal flaw. They were either ridiculously expensive, or they tried to teach me phrases that I would never use, or they were simply impractical and difficult to use.

“I’m not sure you’ve asked where the restroom is using only your hands, but it’s just a tad bit embarrassing.”

Finding no suitable approaches, I was forced to do things the old fashioned way. I found two local tutors whom I met with each day during lunch and created my own digital flashcards. I finally started to see some progress.

The importance and usefulness of knowing a bit of the local lingo was driven home to me one day in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. I was walking around and was approached by a fruit seller — pretty standard.

Usually in this situation, the traveler ends up in “No Mode” - they say “no” over and over, and eventually either erupt in frustration or ignore the person — an unfortunate scenario for both parties. I know it’s unpleasant for the traveler — you’re traveling to enjoy the culture, not clash with it. I can only imagine how the other person feels. No one likes being talked down to and ignored.

But this time, when the fruit seller approached, I simply smiled and said “No rồi” (pronounced ‘naw zoi’) — “I’m full already”. A huge grin came over her face, she laughed, and said something back which I didn’t understand. It didn’t matter; in just two short syllables I’d avoided an awkward situation, engaged positively with the local culture, and had a memorable experience myself.

CEO Jesse Maddox in Hanoi, Vietnam, 2010.

As I picked up more useful phrases, something magical started to happen. My work colleagues appreciated my effort and the interest I showed in their culture. Taxi drivers suddenly became friendly and my fares magically started decreasing. At every turn, locals got more than a chuckle out of my attempts to communicate. Getting around town became much easier and much more enjoyable.

Most importantly, I was able to start connecting with people and the culture. We may not have been able to discuss Socrates with each other and we didn’t necessarily share the same interests, but I found myself in countless situations where I was able to share a few words, an idea, or a laugh with people.

With such poor resources available to the millions of other travelers like myself, my thoughts swirled around ideas and possibilities that would eventually result in TripLingo, and over the next year TripLingo began to take shape.

“As I picked up more useful phrases, something magical started to happen. My work colleagues appreciated my effort and the interest I showed in their culture.”

Fast forward to January of 2011. In what can only be considered an extremely fortunate series of events, after returning from abroad I stumbled into the other co-founders of TripLingo at a local event. Our newly-formed team shared my passion for making travel and language learning awesome, and they also brought a formidable set up of technical and design talent that would allow us to turn our vision into reality. In short order, we raised some angel funding, built out our V1, and finally launched our TripLingo for five languages on the Apple Appstore on May 5, 2011 — Cinco de Mayo.

Throughout 2011 and 2012 we added over a dozen new languages, including a free version in Dari for American troops in Afghanistan. We built on our vision by adding essential new features, additional languages and began to form partnerships in the travel industry. Our work was noticed, and we began to be recognized by organizations like PhoCusWright and being named by Business Insider as one of the “11 Groundbreaking Inventions of 2011.”

Beginning in 2013, we began to focus more on serving enterprise customers and travel agencies. One of my proudest moments was receiving the “Business Travel Innovation of the Year” award from the Global Business Travel Association on stage in front of 7,000 travel professionals. We were humbled to receive the award, which helped us in our efforts to serve enterprise travelers.

The “Business Travel Innovation of the Year” at the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), 2012.

Since then, we’ve grown to support dozens of major enterprises and their travelers with the release of a major overhaul of the app in 2014. We’ve established partnerships with dozens of leading Travel Management Companies who have become critical partners that we’re proud to support. We’re also thrilled and humbled by the fact that hundreds of thousands of travelers have benefited from our work.

Over the past several years, literally hundreds of individuals across thousands of hours have contributed to making TripLingo what it is today. We’re honored to have the support of an amazing team, investors, advisors, and partners across the globe. And we’re just getting started. We’re excited to continue the journey, and thrilled to have you along for the ride.

Warm regards,