It all began with a video game.
More specifically, it began with Grand Theft Auto III, the free-roaming, criminal-sim that Mateusz Mach would play for hours at his parents’ house in Lebork, Poland. “I just wondered how it was made,” Mach tells Red Herring. “Then I learnt the basics of HTML in primary school. Then I learnt PHP, then Objective-C, and Java.”
Yes, primary school. Mach only just turned 18 – he had his high school prom on Sunday – but he’s become one of Poland’s hottest tech entrepreneurs thanks to an app he designed, that’s not even what he first imagined it was.
Five began last year as a way for Mach to communicate with his friends, pinging them hand gestures and images “a bit like emojis.” He had seen Yo, the super-simple app that allowed people just to send the word ‘Yo’ to each other, win $1 million of investment in 2014. “Honestly speaking, I thought, ‘Why can’t I do that?’”
Mach started the app, planned for released on the Apple Watch, alone. But he soon found a local investor, who put $5,000 into the project. Having found two programmers and graphic designers he unveiled Five last summer. It didn’t go as expected.
“After two weeks of the premiere I got feedback,” he says. “But not from young society but from the deaf community. And it was really crazy because I hadn’t realized what deaf people go through.”
Mach wrote a message to his investor: “’We have a problem here,’ I said. But he saw the potential, and he realized that with this startup we have a huge prospect to build a product that will be useful.”
More useful that Mach could have imagined. According to the UN and World Health Organization, 80% of deaf people worldwide have issues reading and writing even the simplest of messages. They have no internal voice, and struggle to match the connotation of words with their descriptions. Therefore learning foreign languages can be an incredibly uphill task.
Not for long, Mach hopes. Enthused by Five’s reception but short on cash, he messaged “just about every investor in Poland” looking for capital. This Monday he found it, in the shape of $150,000 from Poznan-based European Venture Investment Group (EVIG).
Winning trust, as an 18-year-old boy, was one of the toughest parts. “At every meeting I wore my baseball cap,” he says. “And it was a problem, but after a while it turned out we had a huge chance to convince investors.”
Tooled with a six-figure injection, Mach is emboldened by an interview with Alibaba’s Jack Ma, who said that investment is identified with trust. “I know that the investors trust me now,” he says.
His first move has been to employ an International Sign Language (ISL) interpreter, who is helping Five create 800 signals in the next six months. Then the app will be presented to the United Nations in New York.
“We want people to learn sign language easily,” says Mach. “It is quite difficult to find a school with sign language interpreters. It is really hard when you have an accident with someone in your family and you can’t communicate with them.”
But Five wants to make money too. The first 200 signs, Mach adds, will be free. But the whole 800 will cost “around $3-4.”
And Mach’s next focus? School. He’s planning to study economics at the Abu Dhabi wing of New York University, then continue somewhere in Europe. “I think it’s great I have found help from older entrepreneurs in Poland,” he says. “But I still feel like a young guy who likes hip-hop.”