You are in a foreign country. You don't speak the language. Something awful happens. "I was in China," says Ryan Frankel, co-founder of PalmLing, a startup out of University City aimed at providing real time concierge level translation assistance to travelers at a modest daily cost. "I thought I could eat anything on the menu, but the next morning I was in a world of pain. It was a serious situation. I don't speak Mandarin. I staggered to the pharmacy. At that point, I would have given anything to have someone there capable of communicating on my behalf."
That was the lightbulb moment for Frankel, who connected with business partner Kunal Sarda back at Wharton
, where both were pursuing MBA degrees. "We are helping international travelers navigate the complexities of a language barrier," says Frankel. A PalmLing subscriber calls an access number 24 hours a day and gets connected real time with a live translator who can do the talking on the traveler's behalf to a pharmacist or taxi driver, for example.
PalmLing has just launched a Kickstarter campaign
to raise $25,000, which will be used to create a PalmLing mobile app. Right now, all it takes to get connected to a translator is a standard mobile phone and an access code.
The human capital intensive business requires live translators to sign up. Travelers can book PalmLing for periods of 10, 20 or 60 days, at a variable cost of $1.50 to 4.00 per day, depending on the length of the package.
"We went from zero to 1,300 translators in the last month without any advertising," remarks Frankel, who counts stay at home moms, retirees and ex-military among the legion of live assistants who get paid anywhere from $15 to 25 an hour. "We offer PalmLing for Hindi, Mandarin, and all Spanish speaking countries," says Frankel, who estimates coverage of about 200 million trips annually with those three languages alone. Frankel adds that those 1,300 employees were acquired at nearly zero cost.
Frankel and Sarda are also seeking partnerships with businesses to acquire customers in three core stages of travel: before the trip on sites like Orbitz and TripAdvisor, en route at the airport or in the airline magazine, and at the destination, working with hotels, transportation providers and local mobile phone companies.
: Ryan Frankel, PalmLing
: Sue Spolan