We received an email yesterday saying that, after submitting an application several weeks ago, we’ve been invited to San Francisco to interview with the early-stage venture firm YCombinator.
YCombinator has funded several MIT friends that have gone on to build successful startups, and we’re flattered to have been hand-selected from such a talented pool of ambitious, smart geeks. Interviews are in three weeks and we’ll know that day whether or not we’re in. Acceptance means enough money to get us through several months of development and, more importantly, introductions to the west coast’s serious tech investors.
The biggest trap MIT startups fall into is that of falling in love with their technology when all along they should have been trading love letters with their customers. Building cool web applications is a blast, but we think building something that people find useful is even better.
The last post described our initial teacher interviews. We don’t want to lose that attitude as we grow and become dizzy with actual development. If you’re a foreign language teacher or student, we always want to hear from you. What’s your biggest headache? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We had our mission, our team, and an identity, but what now? What do we build? We had a million ideas, all which we wanted to start today. We took a few deep breaths and decided how we were going to figure out what foreign language teachers actually wanted: ask them. And we were going to start by asking the ones we already knew from MIT and high school.
In the early days (i.e. two months ago), we presented our ideas as if they were Rorschach inkblots. We described our general notions of what we thought would be useful and more often than not, they would concoct their own vision and share it with us as we vigorously took notes. Sometimes, just simply asking teachers to describe their biggest headache yielded a wonderful discussion on how we could could provide some technological Tylenol.
So, what did teachers identify as their biggest headache? Several pain-points stuck out, but the one that recurred with the greatest frequency went something like this:
My students leave my class unable to speak the language. They can read and write well enough, but it’s frustrating to think they wouldn’t be able to survive in the native country if they were dropped there tomorrow. I’d like to engage students in more individual oral exercises, but I simply lack the time and resources to do so.
We forced ourselves to shelve our long list of ideas and focus one-hundred percent on one that addressed this pain. We put our heads down, fingers to the keyboard, and got started.
In starting a company, the founders have to take care in how they perceive themselves. After taking the plunge and committing to building a company (or any project for that matter), your legs can often feel like they’re pumping too hard to stop and allow for any change of course – your original self-perception will drive how you present yourself, what kind of people you attract, and how others perceive you. Agility and the ability to quickly adapt are prerequisite to success, but we knew that our orginal conception of our goals was vitally important to the direction and ultimate success of our coming sprint.
We knew what we were good at: computers and the web. We knew what we were interested in: language, travel, diverse cultures. And we knew how we wanted to combine the two: by building web-based technology that helps people learn languages. But how best to do that?
We had plenty of experience studying language: French, Chinese, Spanish, Turkish, Tibetan, and Uyghur between the three of us. How could we scratch our own itch? We realized that for all our self-study, we never learned foreign languages better than in a classroom, motivated and guided by a good teacher. Excited, we realized that Lingt wasn’t a web company or a software company. We wanted to work closely with teachers and build technology that made that cherished classroom experience even better for both students and teachers. We were an education company.