Are you learning a new language? Then you probably know the pains of using online translation services. By the time you’ve copied and pasted a piece of text into your translator and then put it back in context, you’ve lost two minutes and broken your flow.
Alex Chernikov created a simple browser extension called Mate when he was 16. Instead of cutting and pasting, Mate translated text in his browser window. After uploading it as an extension on the Chrome Web Store, he went to university and forgot about it for two years. When he checked how it was doing, it had reached 130,000 customers despite zero updates. He decided this was the perfect time to monetize.
After years of maneuvering in a hotly competitive app market, Alex and his cofounder, Andrii, pushed their way to the top of both the Mac and iOS App Stores to make $250,000 last year. Here’s how they went from another no-name translation app to a featured product for iOS.
Developing Huge Solutions at 16
Back in 2012, 16-year-old Alex was in high school in Ukraine learning English in the hopes of studying abroad for university. Like many, he spent hours reading content online he’d run through Google Translate.
“I was reading a lot of blogs, articles, and Wikipedia pages in English to learn,” he says. “I got tired of copying and pasting everything into Google Translate and I felt it would be cool to just double click on words to get the translation.”
While this would have been an idle thought to most, Alex had been coding since he was 13. He created a Google Chrome extension and then uploaded it to the Chrome Web Store. He nearly forgot about it, but then, two years later, he had another peek and was blown away.
“It had magically grown to 130,000 users and I had a whole inbox full of people asking for improvements,” he says.
Despite a large customer base, Alex didn’t monetize Mate at the time. “I had the luxury that I was young and didn’t have commitments,” he says. “I was playing around with other things like game development.”
In 2016, Alex’s funds were running low and his other projects hadn’t panned out. He decided to take advantage of the demand he was seeing for Mate by porting it to other platforms.
“I approached my classmates at my university to make versions for other platforms like Safari and the App Store. We made these versions for other platforms but it still wasn’t making money.”
Most of the classmates who helped him eventually moved on to other things. However, one of them, Andrii, stuck around and went on to become Alex’s cofounder.
“I studied abroad in Ukraine for a semester and we met there,” says Alex. “Andrii is an engineer by background. Today, he’s kind of our all-in-one, DevOps, CTO, and Project Manager. We ended up becoming real cofounders and we started a real company.”
One step at a time, the duo collaborated to create and sell app versions of Mate, monetize users, and experiment with other apps. While the other apps all ended up being scrapped, Mate stuck around and grew into the almost quarter-of-a-million-dollar business it is today.
What is Mate?
Mate is a translator app targeted at expats, language learners, and digital nomads.
Instead of copy-pasting a word into Google Translate, customers double-click any word to translate it right from their browser window. “We integrate nicely on the native level with any website,” says Alex. “When working with a language that’s not your mother tongue, you can save 30-50 interactions per day with our service.”
Mate has an API for the six most common languages on the platform (Alex says they make up 80 percent of all translations). For the rest, Mate uses the Google Translate API.
“I would say the translation quality isn’t much better than Google Translate,” says Alex. “What we sell is good UX. Especially on iOS, our users adore that they can read websites without having to copy-paste. Neither Google nor other apps like DeepL have the integrations we have.”
The majority of Mate’s business is through its browser extensions for Chrome, Opera, Safari, Edge, and Firefox. For browser extensions, Mate runs a freemium model providing their basic text look-up function free of charge.
If you choose to purchase the pro version, you gain access to dozens of extra features geared to help the aspiring language learner. Mate Pro features phonetic transcriptions, articles for nouns, and a phrasebook where you can create lists of words you want to learn.
On the app stores, Mate offers their entire app with all the above features free for seven days before requiring payment.
So far Alex and Andrii have kept the team small. “We have two developers, a CS guy, and two team members for marketing on YouTube and in the App Store,” says Alex.
Growth at Mate has recently declined slightly. Alex says they made $250,000 last year but have only made $35,000 since September of 2021 – he believes this is a temporary drop while they switch to a subscription model.
Playing the Long Game on the App Store
Alex says there have been two major growth milestones at Mate. One was when the team first took App Store rankings seriously. The second was the iOS 15 update.
Their first revenue jump occurred in the spring of 2019 when Alex and Andrii started focusing on app store optimization. Similar to SEO (search engine optimization), app store optimization is a process of targeting keywords in app stores to increase app ranking.
“You start with low-competition keywords and work to unlock increased access to better keywords with higher traffic,” says Alex. “You can also try to unlock higher conversion rates with compelling screenshots and app reviews.”
The second jump was when Apple announced Safari browser extensions for iOS in September of 2021.
Mate was already immensely popular on the Mac App Store, topping the rankings in two years. Ranking on the iOS App Store was much harder. Alex says this is because the iOS store is extremely competitive.
“We tried very hard to rank in the iOS App Store and it just wasn’t working,” he says. “That was until iOS 15.”
The iOS 15 update was the moment the Mate team had been waiting for. “Browser integration is what 90 percent of our customers come for,” says Alex. “We have dozens of integrations with services like Netflix and most of our customers use Chrome and Safari. Before the iOS 15 update, people had to click three times in Safari on their phones to translate anything.”
The Mate team immediately ported their Safari extension from Mac to iOS and released the update on the same day that iOS 15 launched. Sales soared. However, getting those sales wasn’t entirely an overnight stroke of luck – Mate had been playing a long game with their content marketing to prepare.
“We were 100 percent certain that once browser extensions dropped on iOS, all the blogs about software would make listicles about the 10 best Safari extensions for iOS,” says Alex. “We wrote a blog titled 10 Best Safari Extensions ahead of time. Once the actual extensions dropped we became the first result for iOS Safari extensions.”
Publishing the first listicle ahead of the new release didn’t just get Mate to the top of Google search results, it also provided huge backlink opportunities.
“Once one listicle is made, other sites usually make their own listicles by taking your listicle and shuffling the order,” says Alex. “Because so many sites copied that article, we appeared all over the web with a ton of backlinks.”
While Alex can’t prove it, he also thinks some people at Apple may have pushed internally to give Mate more exposure. The two founders had been speaking with them for some time.
“We always knew Apple would get an iOS browser extension feature eventually,” says Alex. “We’d previously shown Mate to people at Apple like the head of Safari extensions and let them test it. We never asked directly, but we think our app was shown around internally and that greatly helped us to get all those features.”
Could Google Ever Take Down Mate?
As for competition, Alex thinks that there is little to worry about from their most obvious competitor, Google Translate.
“It’s too small a niche,” he says. “Google Translate is a side-tech they use on YouTube to help translate and monetize ads. I don’t think they ever intend to make money with it besides selling the API.”
Alex believes Mate is on the verge of a third major pivot: They plan to upgrade their tech, start switching to subscriptions, and begin selling B2B.
“The idea is that after one year we get rolling subscriptions,” he says. “Another thing that we want to experiment with is B2B sales. I’ve noticed we have many people in customer support roles using our product. These are people at large businesses like Apple, Booking.com, and Shopify. I want to come to bigger companies and sell them 1,000 subscriptions at a time.”
Advice for Communication Tech Founders
If Alex had to do it all over again, he would have stayed focused on Mate from the start instead of his other projects.
“One of the best things I learned is that you need to stay focused on one thing. We spent a couple of years working on other apps and none of them ended up being worth the time spent. A year ago we got rid of all of them and focused completely on Mate.”
Another piece of advice he has for founders is to be wary of creating solutions specifically for the language learning niche.
“We position ourselves as a communication tool not a language learning tool,” Alex says. “People who learn languages are usually learning them to move to another country for work or study. In both cases, customers are generally young and don’t have much they’re willing to spend. You can’t charge a lot.”
Alex’s last piece of advice is for engineers:
Sixty to seventy percent of success is how you sell, promote, and market.
“You don’t need to go down the rabbit hole of working on your product too much. Sixty to seventy percent of success is how you sell, promote, and market. Thirty percent of it is the product. I made this mistake myself when I was younger. I recommend reading a book called Traction by the DuckDuckGo founder. It says you need to spend 50 percent of your time building and 50 percent marketing.”
Big tech doesn’t necessarily trample everyone out of the market. Alex’s story shows there are still many small problems that big businesses are unwilling to spend the time or resources to fix. However, they are still profitable at a small scale and many big tech companies will even help promote these solutions if they make their platform more desirable. Make that simple fix and see if anyone else likes it.
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