Tarjimly is an early-stage non-profit organization that is helping to connect refugees and aid workers in real-time with crowdsourced translators. Based in the Bay Area, its lean team, is part of Y Combinator’s latest batch of promising startups.
Cofounders Atif Javed and Aziz Alghunaim, close friends since they met as prefreshmen at MIT, wanted to do something to create a significant impact on the worldwide refugee crises. They realized one of the biggest problems for refugees was communication. Not only did refugees need help communicating with aid workers and those around them, but also in translating vital documents like medical records. Aid agencies and NGOs sometimes hire translators to help with this, but this can prove very expensive, and any given translator can only serve one person at a time. Moreover, refugees need translation services all the time, even when aid workers or translators aren’t around, and existing digital solutions like Google Translate are simply not sophisticated enough for such translation purposes.
Tarjimly works to solve all of these key problems. The service connects those in need of translation services to crowdsourced volunteer translators, who now have an easy, tangible way to help refugees around the world. Tarjimly already has a community of 2800+ volunteer translators, 800+ refugees, and 600+ aid workers. The service is currently available through Facebook Messenger, but the team is working on building its own platform since customers have expressed a desire to use a separate channel for such communication. Whenever a refugee or an aid worker is in need for interpretation services, they can request a translator for the desired language through the Tarjimly chatbot. The service then uses proprietary algorithms to figure out which volunteers are most likely to be available to help, based on parameters such as their geographic location (and thus time of day), online activity (for example, whether they are currently active on Messenger), etc, and pings several of them until someone responds to the request. Their algorithms have become so good at identifying the best people for the job in real-time that the average time between a request and a response is just 60 seconds! For reference, it sometimes takes a ridesharing app longer to connect to a driver in Boston. Parties on both ends can then interact anonymously with each other via text or voice and can transmit photos, videos, and documents to each other over the platform. Users can also rate their experience after the interaction, which can help weed out any fake volunteers.
Since Tarjimly is still very young, it has relied on grants and philanthropic donations for financial support so far. But going forward, the team wants to set up a business model that will allow them to be self-sufficient. The founders are currently considering three alternatives for revenue generation:
- Charge NGOs and Aid Agencies to use service – Perhaps the most intuitive revenue generation method is to charge NGOs and aid agencies to use Tarjimly’s services. There are, however, quite a few barriers to implementing this. Firstly, aid organizations could be difficult to penetrate since many of the organizations prefer to use vendors they already know and trust. Additionally, many such organizations have had bad experiences with clunky, unsophisticated tech products, and are not inclined to be the first adopters of new technology. Finally, since the service available to refugees free of cost, aid agencies can get around paying for Tarjimly by having refugees initiate the translation requests.
- Upsell data to Governments and Organizations – Another way to capture value could be to make the translation services free but to sell the data generated from these interactions to aid agencies and/or governments. Tarjimly could consolidate information regarding how many refugees are being tended to every day, what topics are top of their mind, what services they seek the most, etc, from usage patterns. Such information could be extremely valuable to these organizations in understanding their impact, gaps in their reach, and efficiency of fieldworker deployment. While there may be some privacy issues to be navigated in this model, most consumers of the web have become accustomed to this method of data collection.
- Charge translators – Tarjimly wonders whether its translators would pay to volunteer. This does sound like an unrealistic proposition for most platform businesses trying to build a network. However, since Tarjimly’s translators are people who are actively volunteering their time to help a cause, and since they will know that their money is helping keep the platform up and running, Tarjimly’s founders think their translators may have a higher willingness to pay compared to customers of other platforms.
Based on the aforementioned considerations, my personal view is that Tarjimly should charge NGOs and aid agencies for using their services through a subscription model (instead of SaaS). Aid agencies currently pay an average of $80/hr for translators, costs that could be reduced by over 60% if they switch to Tarjimly. Also, charging a yearly subscription fee would give Tarjimly revenue certainty, making them less sensitive to the fluctuations in usage through the year and less prone to disintermediation. Lastly, since the service is so reliant on having a large network of active translators, it is best to avoid charging these volunteers so as not to alienate the more price sensitive members of the community.
Many resources become available to the world when language barriers are removed. And thus while Tarjimly has started with its core translation product, its founders are already thinking about additional services that could be offered through their platform, making their core product stickier while further helping those in need.
In terms of leveraging digital technology for the public good, Tarjimly is certainly a breath of fresh air. While there is a long road ahead of this young startup, the opportunities are also large and profound. Here’s to hoping Tarjimly phenomenal success!
- Personal correspondence with Co-founder Atif Javed on March 23, 2018.