Posted on by Ulrike & Peter Rettig with Ugur Cirak

SpeakMates: From Online to Offline Language Practice - A Founder Interview

Speakmates.com logoAs longtime advocates of online language learning and practice, we have also experienced the benefits and advantages of offline language practice.

A few years ago, after retiring, we adjusted our travel habits a bit: We would rent an apartment in a European city that we wanted to explore a little further.

In some cities we stayed for at least a week, in others for a month or longer.

We did so in Rome, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, Seville, Oslo, Stockholm, and Copenhagen in 2017.

Readers of our previous blog posts know that we often combined these stays with learning or practicing new foreign languages.

We had no language issues in Paris and Berlin, as we both speak French and German quite fluently.

Italian, Spanish, Swedish and Danish, however were new languages that we started learning more recently.

During our one-month stays in Barcelona and Seville, we were able to set up language exchanges with locals.

It took some work and coordination to arrange face to face meetings for our language practice . We would have loved to participate in Spanish language meetups, but could not find any.

A short time ago we came across a new website, SpeakMates.com, an offline language practice platform, still in its Beta stage. It helps language learners and native speakers find each other to meet in small groups.

We spoke with SpeakMates' founder Ugur Cirak and were intrigued by his story.

Here are his answers to some of our questions:

What gave you the idea for SpeakMates.com?

I worked as a Corporate Finance person for about 20 years. Last year I decided to quit my job and move to Japan.

Why Japan? Because my wife is Japanese. We had met in Pennsylvania, got married in Kyoto, and lived in Istanbul for 15 years.

We decided that the moment had come to spend some time in Japan. So we moved to Japan about a year and a half ago.

Initially I spent a lot of time traveling around the country, learning about the technology and startup ecosystem of Japan.

I always had a dream of having my own company, so my eyes were open for any opportunity.

We live in Sapporo which is the capital city of Japan’s Northern Island of Hokkaido. Friends socialzing in Café

When we moved there, I realized there was not much going on with startups, so I decided to organize “Startup Sapporo Meetups” through meetup.com.

Ever since then, I've been organizing this meetup. And thanks to it, I've been able to make many friends.

One of the Japanese participants has been organizing English speaking meetups as a hobby every week for the last six years, and I was invited to one of his meetups.

There were four Japanese participants, one (American) native speaker, my friend and myself.

My friend would facilitate the discussion while the native speaker and the Japanese participants would exchange ideas and talk about a topic.

I realized that this meetup was very effective in several ways:

  • it provided real, face to face communication and language practice ;
  • it was possible to learn from peers as well as from the native speaker;
  • it was inexpensive since the cost was shared;
  • it had a very relaxed and cozy atmosphere since it was held in a café;
  • having known each other for some time, the group had become a small but powerful community.

I thought that this context for language learning could be scaled through the internet and that a world-wide community could be possible. This is how I got the idea for SpeakMates.

Who would most benefit from SpeakMates?

Speakmates sign up landing pageAnyone who wants to improve or brush up her or his language speaking abilities could make use of SpeakMates to find like-minded people and good Mentors (see sign up landing page left).

Since SpeakMates is a meeting point to find OFFLINE language meetups. It is also a great way to make new friends in your neighborhood.

Our current customers include students, office workers, businessmen, professional women, housewives, and seniors.

Some of them have been abroad as expatriates and would like to keep and practice their language skills.

Others have never been abroad and are trying to improve their speaking abilities for future travel plans.

Everyone has her or his own story of coming to a meetup. I've been holding English meetups myself and it is really fun to meet all these people from very different backgrounds.

What are your specific goals for SpeakMates?

I would like to help people who are able to speak a language fluently to make money wherever they may be. The added benefit for Mentors is that this way they can also make friends in their neighborhood.

There is no License or Certification requirements to become a Mentor since we are trying to provide a real-world communication environment.

You don't get to speak only with people who have teaching licenses in the streets, right? 

Moreover, I would love to see SpeakMates become known as a worldwide venue where local language enthusiasts, learners and native speakers can meet and practice.

How is Speakmates.com different from meetup.com?

Meetup.com is a great company. I personally used it for some time and I'm still a member.

On the other hand, meetup.com is a very broad site, with many different categories other than language.

SpeakMates.com is kind of a language-specific meetup.com. Being language specific brings a lot of advantages.

For example, we provide predefined topics and topic materials for language meetups, blog posts about language learning, some fun tools to improve vocabulary such as songs and lyrics, etc.

We are working on additional features to streamline fun sharing of language-related pictures, texts, videos, audios and more.

We are all about languages, and offline language practice meetups are our core-value proposition.

In which countries do you see the most opportunities for SpeakMates?

Currently we have meetups in Tokyo, Sapporo, and Istanbul, Speakmates meetup paneland have registered Mentors from Japan, France, Slovenia, Turkey and South Korea.

We only have a history of three months with our Beta product release, but we're already seeing registrations from many different countries without specific marketing efforts.

This encourages us to scale up to more countries once we complete our Beta period.

Which languages have been most popular so far?

Although we're trying to promote all languages equally, the most popular meetups are in English.

From time to time, there are some meetups created in German, Japanese and Turkish as well.

We're hoping that as our brand builds we will be a hub for all languages.

What feedback are you getting from your Mentors and Mates?

We're trying to get as much feedback as possible from both sides.

We've already made some changes to our Beta version based on feedback from Mentors and Mates (our term for the learners).

For example, we made pricing, meeting duration and group size more flexible. Such meetup parameters can now be decided by Mentors.

We fine tuned our cancellation policy based on the feedback of some participants.

But generally speaking, we're getting very positive reactions to our idea and initial product.

What are your plans for developing SpeakMates?

This is a long journey and we're just at the beginning. Currently we are financing ourselves and trying to test the product-market fit.

As we see more traction in our platform, we're planning to raise funds and increase our capabilities by building a larger team.

We have product, marketing and scaling road maps and we continuously listen to our Mentors and Mates.

All this is making our road maps even better.

What are some of the site features that you are working on?

Currently we are working on adding the review feature to our site where both Mentors and Mates will be able to make public and private ratings and reviews for those who were in the same meetup. This is important for us as it will help to create and keep a safe and great community.

We're also working on making an online payment option available. Currently the only payment option is cash.

Another feature we're excited about is the “Activity Stream”: It will allow both Mentors and Mates to share language related pictures, texts, videos or audios in their timeline, follow each other and create useful content to stimulate language learning and practice.

We're planning some other features as well such as live chat, online practice, dynamic decision for the language level of the meetup and more.

What are your biggest challenges for the future?

We would love to create a great community for language practice.

So I think this is our biggest challenge; creating a great community and keeping it great.

If you are a native speaker or want to practice a new language, check out Speakmates.com. Maybe Speakmates can help you organize and/or become part of a new language meetup in your community.

Bios: Ugur Cirak is the Founder of SpeakMates.com, an Offline Language Practice platform that helps language mentors and people who want to practice speaking a Language find each other and meet in small groups in cozy locations. Before founding SpeakMates.com Ugur worked as corporate finance professional in multinational companies for 20 years. He is married with two children and speaks Turkish, English and intermediate level Japanese. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Ulrike & Peter Rettig are co-founders of Gamesforlanguage.com. They are lifelong language learners, growing up in several European countries before moving to Canada and the United States. You can follow them on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.