Happy Birthday America!
Happy July 4th TripLinguists!
Ah, the day of firework shows, patriotic blankets, barbecue feasts, cold beers and road-trips is back. It’s a hard holiday not to love.
To celebrate America’s 235th birthday, TripLingo is honoring our troops by offering a free download of its Dari app to bolster communications between troops and Afghanis. A printable short version of the app is available as well.
The Dari App helps American Troops:
• Connect with locals in common day-to-day casual situations, build rapport, and gain trust
• Learn local slang/idioms/culture (the way people ACTUALLY talk on the ground
• Master key phrases easily: there are multiple audio files per phrase and each includes the Dari text
• Be prepared in emergency situations to communicate quickly
• Focus on relevant phrases derived from a customized phrase list depending on an individual’s role (medical, special forces, infantry, aircrew, civil affairs, etc.)
American troops aren’t the only one receiving a special gift today. For all TripLinguists and for those who have yet to buy one of our apps, get any TripLingo app, originally $9.99 for just $2.99 as part of our special Fourth of July celebration! Choose from a collection that includes: German, Spanish, Italian, French, and Portuguese.
So if your summer vacation plans involve a trip to the sparkling beaches of mexico, salsa lessons in Brazil, a tour of Versailles or the Black Forest, or a gaggle at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, you know who to call.
Happy 4th everyone!
Who is Team TripLingo?
Over the past three months, I’ve been asked by investors, judging panels, our supporters, and news media about our team. Its one of my favorite questions, partly because I have so much faith in and love for our team. The main reason though is that there are a lot of great things to be said.
As we gear up for our launch this Thursday, I thought I’d take a moment to give you some insight into who we are and give some credit to our team- we’ve shunned the concept of “weekends” for going on three months, have deprived ourselves of sleep and even family time, and generally put everything we have into making a product that we’re all very proud of.
So, without further adieu, allow me to introduce you to Team TripLingo:
Ross jokes that he’s the “adult supervision” for TripLingo. A 20-year tech veteran, he’s been around the block a few times. He founded Media Ocean in 1999, which has the distinction of being the first company to sell a TV advertisement from start to finish in an entirely digital manner. Ross raised and delivered a return on over $16M in Venture Capital, and he loves gin, his awesome wife Jenny, and their son Will, and not necessarily in that order. A geek of the first order, Ross’s knowledge spans tech, business, and Firefly episodes.
Pratik is a nationally recognized software architect and hacker. He speaks at conferences, writes books and articles on technology and hacks code. Pratik holds a master’s from UNC in biomedical engineering and is a Tarheel zealot. He’s lived and worked in New York, London, Singapore, and Hong Kong among other major cities.
An avid hardware and software hacker, he enjoys creating and inventing. He kicks ass and doesn’t take names- he wrote an app for that part. Pratik is obsessed with productivity and efficiency when working, but is laid back when hanging out with friends & family. He enjoys playing and watching sports, listening to music, and grilling some BBQ on a nice day.
WhoisVince you ask? Vince is the smooth-talking “get sh## done” insomniac that will “die on a hill” championing the user experience. A former medal-earning Navy crewman, Vince is fond of Monopoly, his lovely wife Crystal, and their “child” Bailey (who is also our team mascot and my girlfriend- see below). Vince is chock full of insights into how users behave, and whether you notice it or not, Vince exerts a form of mind control on the user through his layouts and the functionality of our app. If you’re at a bar with him, see if you can get a discount by buying him only half of a beer, because that’s all he ever drinks.
Despite his Cincinnati roots and his prominent goatee, James is actually a really nice guy- probably the nicest of all of us. Whenever I describe him to others, I simply say that his work speaks for itself. The man is a design genius- his deep sense of empathy, the passion he has for his work, and his acute aesthetic sense shine through in all the design-y glory of our app, website, and materials. When not driving certain members of our team around town while they are in the back of his truck, James is fond of checking out the work of fellow artists, exploring Atlanta, and working on some of his very cool side projects (like making a beautiful neighbourhood map of Atlanta). Single and ready to mingle, James is one of Atlanta’s most eligible bachelors, and likes brunettes and obviously-crazy blondes.
To be the only woman on Team TripLingo, you’ve got to have cojones. Katie puts up with our antics with a smile, keeps us honest, and generally lifts the mood with her cheeriness. She’s fond of early morning meetings, lunch dates, and working her marketing magic. The only people that like Katie more than us is Starbucks. She is all about her dream of being involved in startups, changing the world, and simply rocking out! A travel lover like the rest of us, she’s conversational in Russian, Spanish, and marketing.
Our resident student-preneur, Dan hails from Venezuela and spends most of his time holed up in corners of the Georgia Tech campus working on school projects until the wee hours of the morning. He literally had to sign a waiver swearing he wouldn’t commit suicide in order to undertake his current course load. A speaker of Spanish, Hebrew, French, and of course English, Dan’s youthful enthusiasm and ridiculous work ethic make him a cherished, if elusive, member of our team, though he’s looking forward to coming on full-time during the summer.
The most adored member of our team, Bailey’s enthusiasm and unconditional love are cherished assets. While she can be a bit demanding in relation to her desire to take walks outside, Team TripLingo is more than happy to take turns and accommodate her. She is fond of belly-rubs, Stella Artois, getting dressed up, running around frantically looking for a little love, and dog food. Her acute sense of direction means that she gets a little giddy when pulling into our HQ parking lot, but that’s only appropriate given our own giddiness to get some Bailey time.
Apparently You Have to Sleep (Sometimes)
Here at TripLingo, we love what we do. We love our product, we enjoy working with each other, and we’re quite ambitious. Which means that we work a LOT of hours.
For the past 10 days, up until Thursday, we were at the office until nearly 5am EVERY night, then back in early in the morning. I ended up sleeping in my car one night when I got locked out at 5am, I actually overslept an early morning meeting (sorry Chip!), and generally speaking we’ve been pretty sleep deprived.
Finally on Thursday we got to take a deep sigh of relief once we’d submitted all of our V1 apps to the appstore, and we hit the town for some celebrations. Phew. Now we’re back at it, but it was quite a little sprint there.
All that working and all that not-sleeping adds up though, and it means that sometimes a power nap is necessary. In fact, we joke that if you haven’t slept on the couch then you’re not a real member of the team ;)
James and I are always at the ready with our camera, as soon as the eyes shut so too does the lens shut on our camera. Here are a few choice pictures (I saved the best for last!):
Ross sleeping at 12:10am on April 26th:
Katie sleeping at 1:35am on April 25th:
Vince took a nap at 3:45am on April 27th, but as soon as my camera made the “click” sound he jumped off the couch! Vince sleeps the least out of all of us, so I was quite disappointed to miss capturing this rare and magic moment (akin to snapping a picture of BigFoot in the wild!):
After some coaxing, Vince agreed to “pose” in the position we caught him in, just so we could have one of him “sleeping”:
And my favorite pictures are of Pratik sleeping. At 2:57pm on April 24th, poor Pratik needed a little power nap, and of course I caught him in the action… BUT…
Feeling a little mischievous, I collected some beer cans from the recycling bin and set to work:
And voila! By 3:11pm the deed is done, and we now find ourselves in possession of some potentially useful pieces of blackmail!
I actually can’t find a picture of James, Dan or myself sleeping on the couch, though I certainly remember James taking a catnap or two there. And for me, I’ve spent at least 3 nights sleeping on that couch, though noone’s been around to snap pictures. Shouldn’t be long though ;)
Maintaining a second configuration of the app incurs direct, significant costs in development and support
[ HUGE understatement.. & we’ll have an app per language. ay dios mio ] -v
We took a stroll to the 17th St. bridge today for some photographs. (James on videography)
My Favorite Vietnamese Joke
Today I thought I’d share my favorite Vietnamese joke that I used during my 18 months in Vietnam. Check out the video below for the joke!
What’s your favorite joke in a foreign language?
Team TripLingo: 11 Ways We’re Lean & 1 Way We Aren’t
These days, being “lean” is all the rage in startup circles. And for good reason. In a nutshell, the goal of a lean startup is to quickly build a product that customers actually want, not one YOU think they want. Others have written insightful articles on the topic, so instead of regurgitating their excellent points, instead, I thought I’d give you insight into how TripLingo utilizes lean startup principles.
Team TripLingo’s Lean Machine: 11 Ways We’re Lean, and 1 We’re “Not”
Hustle is a word I learned from Gary Vaynerchuck. It’s a combination of hard work, opportunism, and refusal to take “no” as an answer. It’s about finding opportunities and going after them with all you have. No excuses, just effing do it. And if there’s any word that embodies lean, its “hustle”. Here are a few examples of our hustle:
Hustle Rule #1: Never accept a ‘No’.
Our team met at StartAtlanta. It was sold out by the time I tried to register and they told me I couldn’t go. I emailed them 4 times, begging to be let in. I would get coffee, take registrations, clean the toilets, anything! 45 minutes before it started, I got an email that said they had given me the last spot, despite the waiting list, because I’d been so persistent. At the event, my idea was chosen, a team was formed, and we won the event to gain access to Startup Riot.
Hustle Rule #2: Just Ask.
At StartupRiot, we wanted to all wear blue shirts so we could be easily identified. They were $350. After negotiating with the manager, we got them for $200. Not cheap, but that $200 investment was a part of what helped us stand out at StartupRiot and ultimately beat out 49 other startups for the top prize. This resulted in us getting coverage on CNN along with $15,000 in prizes. Worth it.
Hustle Rule #3: Be proactive.
My top choice to be an advisor to TripLingo is a luminary. I emailed him months ago, asking him to be our advisor. No response. Emailed again a few weeks later. No response. Emailed again a few weeks later except this time, I politely told him that until I was explicitly told to “go away”, I’d continue to keep him (ahem) updated on the situation. I’m not sure if that was the kicker, but he finally responded, lauding my persistence.
We had a great phone call and hopefully there will be something to show for it, but either way it was great getting to talk to someone I greatly admire in the travel space, and at the very least we won’t regret for not trying.
Hustle Rule #4: Negotiate.
After we won StartAtlanta, we needed a space to work together. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution was going to write an article about us, so I proposed a simple deal: give us discounted rent for space and we’ll have our picture taken at your coworking location and get you mentioned in the AJC. Win-win for both of us, and helped us save some precious cash that could be put to other uses.
2. Be economical, not cheap.
Running a business can be expensive, no matter how lean you are. Incorporation fees alone can cost hundreds of dollars, not to mention legal fees, any IP protection you need, hosting, software (like PivotalTracker, HipChat ,Kissmetrics, etc.), payroll expenses, and on and on. But being lean isn’t about not spending money- it’s about spending money effectively.
Spend money where it’s necessary. In terms of costs, there are lots of ways to minimize cash out the door. For example some law firms accept delayed payments or will take a small equity stake in returned for reduced legal fees. When you’re early on in your venture, many service providers will offer limited free services as you ramp up, with the expectation that you’ll use them when you grow to an appropriate size. Don’t be afraid to ask or negotiate.
Also- many services provide “free” plans that you can use at first (most notably MailChimp), and every now and then you’ll get lucky enough to stumble across an Appsumo deal that knocks your socks off.
Beyond just services, our culture and the way we work together is precious and deserving of effort and investment. So sometimes we spend money on beer, or food, or once even on Karaoke. Are these costs absolutely necessary? No. But we put in a lot of hours, and these are the kind of things that keep us close as a team and realize our dream of doing something awesome and having fun at the same time.
3. Outsource non-core and time-consuming tasks.
We’ve got a weapons-grade team, and given the time I’m confident we could build just about anything. But we don’t have the time, and some things others can do more cheaply or more quickly.
We don’t oustource any front-facing tasks, but there have been several pieces of internal software that we’ve needed to build in order to make some of our operations scalable. It may cost $300, but if it moves our schedule up a week or two then it’s absolutely worth it. Time is precious. We use Elance.
4. Talk to everyone.
A core assumption of customer development is that your customers know best. To find out what they know, you’ve got to talk to them.
I assume everyone is a potential customer. If you’ve been unfortunate enough to encounter me at any kind of social event in the past several months, then you know I’ve asked your opinion of TripLingo. If I’ve seen you in the past month, you’ve been handed an iPod touch and asked to check it out, while I (ahem) casually observe from the corner of my eye.
As a team, we’ve gotten a ton of insights from the collective wisdom of our friends and everyone we’ve encountered. Even competitors. Talk is cheap, and in this case that’s a good thing: you can afford it. Talk to everyone.
5. Get interns.
As a startup, your to-do list might not fit in a 100-page book. There are way more things to do than people to do them, so the more people the better (to an extent). Not only are interns great because they add valuable human resources, but you can also find interns that will gladly work for the sheer interesting-ness and fun of working on something they enjoy. And if you can’t pay them, that’s OK.
I think the key here is giving them a small piece of work that they ‘own’. This applies to anyone, including interns. Give them real responsibility, give them a good environment, let them be part of an exciting new venture, and give them something to put on their résumé. Have something they can believe in. In return, you’ll gain valuable help and be able to execute on your plans much more quickly.
6. Learn, learn, learn.
Just like you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, there’s no sense making mistakes that have been made before or ignoring innovations you yourself didn’t come up with. Thanks to the internet, there is more knowledge available out there than you could ever possibly digest. That’s awesome: may the best man win.
Learn everything you possibly can: learn about startups, marketing, technology, business, development, etc. Most importantly, learn your market and competitors inside out- they’re often attacking a very similar problem and they’re probably smart folks, so don’t be an idiot: stand on their shoulders to see even farther.
There’s also a TON of great content out there from folks like: VentureHacks, Seth Godin, VC blogs (Fred Wilson, Mark Suster, Dave McClure, Brad Feld, Eric Ries). (Note: We didn’t include these because they’re affiliated with the Lean Startup Challenge- we actually read them daily!)
7. Get sponsors.
You know how much it costs to hold a local startup event (like we’re holding Wednesday!)? For 20 people, space, pizza, and beer, it’s about: $150. But if you’ve got a beer and space sponsor, now it’s just $40.
Find local companies that are willing to help out local startups. The difference between having a sponsor and not is simply asking.
8. Pick the right programming language.
A key component of being lean is choosing a software stack that lets you focus on the core of your product, rather than wasting time setting up the internal infrastructure and other reinventing the wheel tasks. Another key is choosing a software stack that lets you iterate and deploy quickly. Two products we use and love are TestFlightApp.com and Appcelerator’s Titanium.
Using Appcelerator’s Titanium makes it much easier to have reusable code in our mobile development. We can use the same code with a few tweaks to build iOS and Android version. Titanium has a lot of built in modules and uses the native UI elements as well. We’re not starting from scratch every time we need to add in various functionalities or deploy to new features.
9. Rapid prototyping.
Currently, the TripLingo app is on version 21. No biggie, except for the fact that we’ve officially been a company for less than 45 days.
We build, we deploy, and we test. Think, debate, do, iterate.
If instead of rapid iteration we had just gone into a room and said: “OK, these are the features we want, these are the specs, now build it,” then the app would be nothing like it is today. Almost every screen you’ll see in the TripLingo app has been substantially modified from the original version, and each time for the better. The only way to do this is to quickly deploy and test the concepts as you build them.
Besides our app, we’re on Version 3 of our website. Its OK, but we can do better. To that end, Version 4 is coming next week (after a weekend hackathon Friday/Saturday). Every time we’ve launched, it hasn’t been perfect. There may have even been (gasp) typos. But constantly pushing stuff live is one of the best protectors against creating crappy stuff to begin with.
10. Test on the “Dumbest” People You Know.
Ever watched your grandma navigate a website? Its excruciating. But get her to use your website and you’ll learn a lot. There’s a high correlation between an app with a fluid UI and an app that is idiot-proof. And by “dumbest” people you know, I mean the people that are the least tech-savvy.
Sometimes, potential members in your target market might not be avid readers of TechCrunch or an iPhone power-user. What are they looking at when they use it? What do they click on first? Second? What questions do they have? What do they miss?
These people help make sure you don’t overlook issues because your own tech-savvyness blinds you to how others use your app:
11. Get Data.
Data isn’t just useful for investor presentations and due diligence- it can help drive forward product development. Understanding your market, competitors, and the technological landscape requires data- no matter how brilliant you are, you simply can’t understand the needs of your customers on your own. Even anecdotes aren’t enough. You need data.
Many people ignore competitor/market research because of time, but this is stuff you need to figure out before you even commit a bunch of time. I’ve written before about how to go about this, but its absolutely important. Know it so well you can use the figures casually in conversation. You’ll need to, because your investors and partners are going to want to know that you’ve got a firm grasp on the market, the pain, and how your solution fits in.
Not all data exists or is available, and sometimes you have to make your own. For example, I was telling investors that the name “TripLingo” is a giant advantage. Most people agree with that, but how do you quantify it?
I used AskYourTargetMarket.com to do a survey. I told the 50 respondents to pretend they were going on a trip to Mexico. (They had no idea I was affiliated with TripLingo.) I then gave them a list of 15 possible choices, which were the names of 15 competitors. I asked them to pick which one they would choose.
When I got the answers back, TripLingo had the highest rating other than the fictionally named “Spanish!” app. The survey was useful because going forward I had cold, hard facts to back up my assertion that TripLingo is a fantastic name. It wasn’t just me making the point.
1 Way We AREN’T Lean: Minimum Viable Product
Being lean is a way of approaching problems and issues- not a religion with clear laws. And since the nature of startups is to navigate uncharted waters, all advice in this domain must be taken with a grain of salt.
One of the tenants of the lean startup is to launch ASAP with an MVP (minimum viable product). And for this, we’ve ignored the advice while still embracing the principle. After all, we’re launching our app less than 70 days after we started.
Right now, we have a working version of TripLingo. It functions, looks great, is useful, and it’s awesome. When people play with it, they don’t just look at it and say “cool”, they actually sit around and use it for 10 minutes. Then they want to keep it.
BUT. We only get one launch, and our goal is nothing less than a chorus of “WOW!”s. Our launch is when we will get the most initial exposure, and especially in the App store, getting negative reviews early on can severely tarnish your brand. Anything less than a super-polished and awesomely functional V1 isn’t going to cut it.
That’s not to say that we’re constantly adding features. In fact, we cut off the addition of new features 2 weeks ago, and we’ve got a prioritized list of features for our Version 2.
But the point is- as we’ve judged it, rather than release something that lacks polish, we’re waiting to launch with a product that functions flawlessly and offers a user experience as-yet-unseen amongst language apps.
In the spirit of learning- what do you think? What’s missing, what doesn’t belong?
Jesse, Founder & CEO
[P.S. I’ve now edited this post 6 times. See what I mean about iterating?]
The Guardian: Current Language Apps Suck
Don’t we know it. I’ve been using and checking out language-learning apps for over 6 months now. If you heard me pitch at StartAtlanta, Startup Riot, or the Southeast Venture Conference, you’ve heard me say it: current apps are unwieldy, impractical, have poor content, are overly expensive, and so on.
Obviously, I’ve got some skin in this game, so you’d be forgiven if you doubted my words. I have to say, it’s great to see an independent verification of our vision. Below I’ve outlined what the Guardian had to say intermixed with my commentary.
The Guardian Says: “There has been an explosion in the use of smartphones. Around 270m handsets were sold in 2010, while CNN Fortune has forecast that sales could exceed 500m in 2011.“
This market is definitely huge. According to Gartner, by Christmas 1 in 2 Americans will have smartphones and in just the next four years app sales are projected to grow from $6B to $58B. That’s worth repeating: in 4 years, app sales will grow from $6,000,000,000 to $58,000,000,000. The smartphone adoption curve is one of the fastest in history beating color TV, the VCR, and even DVD. This growth is unprecedented in history.
The Guardian Says: “Apps have enormous potential for language learning because they allow for multisensory learning on the move: for learners to use nuggets of time in a queue or on public transport.”
This quote makes a great point. When I was living in Vietnam, the flashcards I made for my iPod Touch were used in elevators, taxis, during meals, whenever. Squeezing in those spare bits of study makes it easy to learn despite a hectic schedule. Plus, it’s the natural way to learn by using “spaced repetition”.
Essentially, spaced repetition means reviewing words you have difficulty at shorter intervals compared to words you are more comfortable. We’ll present a fuller account of spaced repetition soon, but for now the Wikipedia article ought to do.
The Guardian Says: “But when Paul Sweeney of digital learning consultancy Eduworlds Knowledge and I surveyed language learning apps recently, we were disappointed at what we found. We liked some of the features we found… [but] our list of negative attributes is longer: too many translations, not enough sound or pictures, a huge number of ugly and pointless flashcard apps, and reference books dumped into apps (in one case we spotted images scanned directly from the book). There was over-reliance on multiple choice and true/false questions.”
Too true. It’s sad to say but the innovation we’ve seen in other categories of apps is glaringly absent from language-learning apps.
It doesn’t count as innovation if you simply import a physical phrasebook into an app. It doesn’t count as innovation if you simply import a dictionary and add audio files. Innovation is the application of new ideas, processes, and applications. Its not replicating the existing model in a new format.
Bringing innovation to language learning, particularly for travelers, is at the core of how we operate. We believe it’s not enough just to create yet another digital phrase list, nor is acceptable to offer mediocre content. Expect another post on this topic, but the Guardian is pretty spot-on in their analysis.
The Guardian Says: “The basic rules of user-interface design were often ignored and we found poor navigation, ugly design and bugs.”
Score another for the Guardian. The design of the language apps out there is simply atrocious. One of our core values at TripLingo, universally shared amongst the team, is profound emphasis on design and the user experience. That’s why we iterate constantly during testing, that’s why we get in passionate discussions every day about what might seem like minutiae, and that’s why we’re confident that TripLingo is not merely a step above other language learning apps- its 5 steps above.
Key to delivering an outstanding user experience is
1) Constant testing and iteration,
2) Brutal honesty with ourselves, and
3) An unwillingness to accept anything less than perfect. A flawless experience isn’t enough: we want a “WOW!”
The Guardian Says: “We found little exploitation of the smartphone’s “superpowers” such as its touch screen, motion sensors, location detector, calendar notification and connections with other users. We saw little of the ingenuity of apps such as Instapaper…”
Don’t worry, Guardian: we’re on it! We want to not just exploit the smartphone feature set but help push them forward.
The Guardian Says: “These problems are not just restricted to mobile apps, as I found when helping judge the English-Speaking Union's President’s Award for innovation and design in technology for English learning materials. We found similar shortcomings in many of the web or CD-ROM-based entries.”
Ugh, I know, right? That’s why our web version will deliver an experience unlike anything else that is out there, at a price that is actually affordable. How disappointing it must be to spend hundreds of dollars and get something that looks like it’s 1996. Language-learners of the world unite: You deserve better!
The Guardian Says: I also think the sector would benefit from newcomers with fresh perspectives who could find ways of engaging learners with materials that match the design and ingenuity of the gaming industry.
Well there you have it, folks. We need fresh perspectives to find ways of engaging learners. We need design excellence. We need technical ingenuity. Check, check, and check.
We can’t wait til our launch in April. At that point this Guardian article will need a major update. Until then, sit tight, follow us on Twitter, and make sure to sign up to get some exciting updates soon via email.