Part I — How did we get here?
On our way to Taipei. We’ve just found out we’ll be stuck in Pudong Airport in Shanghai for nearly 3 additional hours on top of a scheduled 4:40 layover, due to heavy rains in Taipei. Our arrival time at Taoyuan Airport is now after midnight. We find a good Sichuan restaurant and drink coffee and answer emails in what claims to be a branch of some famous Parisian Cafe. How did we get here? Where are we headed beyond a rain soaked Taipei in the early morning hours?
It’s our third trip to Taiwan in 3 months. I’m headed there with my partner, Erick Kuo, to lead a workshop at a conference on Ed Tech for Chinese language learning. As things turn out I’ll be the only non-Chinese person presenting (or attending!) this conference, the only one presenting in English (I think) and the only non-academic presenting. Fortunately, Melody, our imperturbable curriculum consultant and PhD student at one of Taiwan’s top language teaching institution will be on hand, so no worries. I’m thrilled simply to be part of a nascent enterprise that’s managed to hack into an unfamiliar ecosystem (this is our second such presentation).
Our journey is unique, as is every entrepreneurial one; but there are common threads that wind through it that should be recognizable to all of you. Startups have been described as a process that begins in a fairly elevated, comfortable place (also known as your own head) from which a mostly downhill journey filled with perilous obstacles ensues…until one finds, builds, or otherwise conjures up a way around or across the chasm of dissolving runways, abortive launches, and marketplace or investor rejection to the shore of fruition, profitability and growth.
Truth be told, it’s only the perception of the journey that’s downhill. In actuality, it enters this universe as mere concept reverberating with increasing momentum in our own heads until we feel compelled to act. And when we do, we imagine ourselves setting off on this personal “Everest” expedition from some incredibly high “base camp” well above tree-line. We think “Our idea will massively disrupt an entire industry, relieving customer pain in a clear, simple, cost-effective, scalable way, and improving the lives of millions of future customers who’ve been waiting, hoping, and praying for a technology like ours to come along.”
In fact, what we have is an unproven, untested, idea possessed of many roads to failure and few to success. And lest we forget, none of the roads to success for this idea are marked or even known.
Our long strange entrepreneurial journey – Beginnings
Erick and I own a small digital agency. We’d been doing the same thing for 15 years. Every so often we’d get a little antsy and decide to try something new.
In the late 90s we worked on our first startup together–an E-kiosk for tourists wishing to purchase their favorite NYC food to be delivered to their home, as they waited for their plane out of JFK. Originally asked to provide thin crust pizza by the founder and main shareholder (I owned a specialty bakery at the time), I ended up helping to write the business plan and pitching it to potential investors. My partner Erick designed the interface and the kiosk itself.
I still remember that rainy night after pitching to a Wall Street firm when Jack (the founder) called to say “We’ve got a $3M commitment from ___ and…ya know what — I’m turning them down because their valuation is just $.60/share, the bastards…”. This from a guy who’s product, at that point was our PowerPoint presentation. In the end, Jack managed to secure $250k and had to give up even more stock. We built 2 kiosks and even installed one at the Delta terminal at JFK before running out of runway — kind of ironic. And I did end up with a walk-in full of Katz’ Deli pastrami, that never quite made it up to our fulfillment facility in MA.
We next developed an events service configuration portal a dozen years later, which allowed users to configure up to 21 different event services, view vendors and pricing, contract with vendors, and manage them. When our version proved too clunky and complex, we pivoted to selling prepackaged events for discounted prices, made possible through restricting user choice and passing on some of our referral savings to our clients. We built yet another beautiful website and started getting some action from bridezillas (mainly), who taught us that event planning is an inherently personal, idiosyncratic, and emotional process. Our self-service business model didn’t work because virtually no one wanted to book any event unless they could customize it.
Our initial (not so deep) dive into Language Acquisition
In October, 2015 we got the bug again, this time developing what we were convinced was the world’s most awesome paradigm for online language learning. We called it Language Hero. We believed it would shake up the Language Learning space as the first ever cost-effective method to language speaking proficiency.
Why were so excited by Language Hero? We strongly believe in a communicative method for achieving Second Language Acquisition (SLA). I’d learned Spanish by speaking to clients through an interpreter for 1 1/2 years when I worked as a trial lawyer in Miami. No stress, everything comprehensible, and everything done to further a real communicative purpose (legal representation).
I certainly wasn’t alone. Over thousands of years, millions of people have successfully learned to speak new languages, generally by finding native speakers who knew a little of their language and who were willing to speak slowly and clearly enough, use gestures, etc. until proficiency began to arise naturally. The keys have always been having a need or strong desire to know (becoming a trader in a foreign land or dating someone there, for example), regular exposure to real-life varied, comprehensible conversation, low stress, and plenty of time.
Tutoring or studying abroad with bilingual people is the best way to get this experience, but it’s too expensive for many of us. So, our big idea was this — what if we could make tutoring free to students? If we taught language teachers as well as students and required perhaps 60 hours of tutoring from each as part of their practicum requirement, we’d be able to pay next to nothing for our tutoring costs — in fact, our teachers would paying us for the privilege of teaching, and we could deliver nearly unlimited tutoring to our students for a low price! Win Win, right? Well, not exactly.
After building a website and researching Second Language Acquisition, accreditation for language teaching programs, and the like, we began pitching our friends and relatives. Fortunately, some of them are tough lawyers and business types who aren’t afraid to look you in the eye and tell you that your idea stinks. And that’s pretty much what they did.
The project, they said, was too expensive (teacher training component), too vague & amorphous (the core concept wasn’t clear to them), and too reliant on wishful thinking, like somehow balancing the number of student teachers and students to provide just the right amount of tutoring. Where we saw brilliance, they saw a potential money pit.
So, we bid a hasty retreat from our Himalayan Base Camp and repaired to the foothills and came up with another idea — one that’s stuck so far.