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What if there were a way to access a live translator with the click of a button? It sounds like magic, but the mobile app Jeenie does just that.
Launched in 2018 by four-time founder Kirsten Brecht Baker, the service allows users to connect with live interpreters on-demand from their device, whether they’re traveling abroad or working with clients who speak another language. It’s a need that Brecht Baker understood firsthand during a business trip to Japan.
“As I was having business meetings, one after the other, I felt like I was missing so much of these conversations,” she says. “In Japan, and other Asian countries where I traveled, writing down the address in my typical Latin alphabet is not the way — you can’t hand that to a taxi cab driver and expect them to be able to get where you are going.”
Soon after, she flew to Germany to meet with her parents, where her mother, who is bilingual in German and English, was able to guide her through the language barriers. It was the stark difference that made Brecht Baker realize the true value of a live interpreter.
“All of a sudden, all the things that have been challenges were easy. I could take a taxi anywhere I wanted. I could get on the right bus without messing that up. I could sit at a restaurant actually ordering what I wanted and not taking a guess and hope for the best. I could relate to people in a way where we were having conversations,” Brecht Baker says. “I came back from that and said, you know, it’s not just language that’s necessary in the workplace right now. It’s really the ability to have immediate access to live, bilingual language wherever they are.”
In January 2019, Brecht Baker launched the app with English, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese language assistance, expanding to more than 40 languages today. Users have the ability to connect with a live interpreter on their device who can translate the language for them. The app follows a gig economy model like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb, where people with language competencies can sign up for the app to earn income as an interpreter.
The company’s target market has shifted dramatically since it was founded. Originally targeted at the traveling and tourism industry, Jeenie has pivoted to serve a segment of the healthcare market. Other language services exist for this sector, but the established players work mostly with major hospital systems. This leaves the smaller healthcare providers, such as general medicine doctors and urgent care clinics, without easy access to language support.
“We realized there was a huge SME (small and medium-sized enterprise) healthcare market that wasn’t being served, so we decided in the end of last year, we were getting in to the healthcare business and take it very seriously,” says Brecht Baker. “We recruited interpreters with three to five years of medical interpreting experience. In January of this year, we launched Jeenie for healthcare.”
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Coincidentally, that was when COVID-19 made its impact across the globe, making the need for language support even greater. “The increase of patient activity because of COVID led to an increase in need for language interpreting in healthcare offices,” Brecht Baker says. “Now our business is increasing 40% over the last four months because of the increase patient activity. And because of social distancing, in-person interpreters are no longer an option for hospitals and doctors.”
This shift may have been an unexpected pivot for the app, but Brecht Baker stresses the importance for startups to balance specific goals with flexibility.
“Try your very best to be laser-focused on what you do today and tomorrow, while continuing to be open to what the product actually becomes because where you land with your product or market is nowhere where you originally started,” says Brecht Baker. “Yet, if you allow yourself to be distracted by all the opportunities and directions, you never get anything done. So, it’s a really balancing act between knowing exactly what you want to do and remaining open.”