Our first pilot

We’ve finally finished our first iteration of the Lingt Editor and couldn’t be more excited to put it in the hands of students and teachers.

The great teachers and administrators at North Kansas City High School (my very own alma mater) have been working closely with us to prepare to pilot at the beginning of next semester with their French classes. It’s been a pleasure to work with such a dedicated and innovative group.

CALL is dead. WALL and MALL live.

CALL, standing for Computer-Assisted Language Learning, has been a favorite buzz word of researchers in the field for over a decade. However, it’s time to bid it farewell for a new set of bombastic acronyms that better reflect the most promising opportunities for educational technology today.

WALL and MALL, representing web and mobile-assisted language learning respectively, should be the new paradigm of education developers and innovators today. Bulky desktop packages and shoddy textbook software supplements will be overtaken by the tremendous advantages that a web and mobile approach can offer. Imagine a global network that spans every country and language and enjoys high usage by students all over the world. Even better, imagine this network is home to billions of culture-rich images, videos, audio, and text. Luckily, this network already exists. It’s called the Internet and we should take full advantage of it.

In addition to the added functionality, connectivity, and mobility they will offer, WALL/MALL-centric products will likely make short work of notoriously expensive desktop language software. Deployment and sales-associated costs will be dramatically lower, and the ease and ubiquity with which web applications can be accessed will allow WALL/MALL companies to more easily attract the truly global language-learning market and drive down costs with scale.

The quickest way to scare off an investor. . .

. . . is to tell them you’re an education company. In parallel with developing our first piece of technology, we’ve been trying to get to know Boston’s startup scene, especially the other great minds working in the education space. Naturally, we’ve run into plenty of investor-types eager to hear what three entrepreneurially-minded MIT grads are up to. An email I recently received from an intestor over at Adams Capital Management exemplifies the usual response:

. . . My condolences on your selection of the Education market. Although the non-financial rewards can be tremendous and the social impact profound, it is an exceedingly hard space in which to make money. . . I sure wouldn’t seek to make my fortune there.

Unfortunately, this pervasive attitude towards the education space can hardly be criticized considering its history. However, I think the general pessimism towards the education market is misplaced for a couple of reasons.

First, this pessimism usually places blame on schools for being extremely difficult to sell to. Blame often targets perceived defects such as overgrown bureaucracy, lack of innovation, and notoriously tight budgets. The buyer-user divide also proves daunting: although teachers are the primary beneficiaries and users of new technology, administrators usually sign off on the line item.

These complaints may very well contain elements of truth, but they are completely naive to the possibility that providers of educational technology are also to blame. Surveying some of the products offered in recent history, there is little question that the rigorous expectations for quality technology in other markets are not enjoyed by the education space. While many companies continue to offer impressive educational software for the home computer, many textbook supplements and other offerings intended for the classroom haven’t been built with the same vigorous dedication and rapid innovation as have mp3 players, cell phones, or graphics software. The bar is low and there is plenty of room for fresh talent.

Second, the average teacher is becoming increasingly likely to have grown up with computers. The often-cited obstacle of technophobia is quickly becoming irrelevant with the new wave of young, tech-savvy educators.

Finally, the increasing ubiquity of high-speed Internet access and home computers is opening doors to how technology can be used to improve the classroom. Whereas integrating computer technology into the classroom has traditionally meant scheduled computer lab hours and some compromises in curriculum, web applications offer the opportunity for boundless media resources, content sharing, collaboration, and a paradigm in which students are expected to participate at home instead of in a canned computer lab session.

The attitude that the education market is impenetrable and stingy is a self-perpetuating stigma. Pessimism dissuades talent from entering the space, which in turn stunts competition and innovation. When we look at education, however, we see opportunity.

We might be on to something

Chris and Scot recalled an experience in their MIT Chinese II class that suggests that at least some teachers out there really want a tool that provides an easy way to assess and train students’ speaking. Lacking anything with which to do such a thing, their teacher, Zhang laoshi, concocted her own, albeit unfortunately complicated, solution. Here’s an outline of her improvisation:

  1. Teacher downloads audio recording software.
  2. Teacher records voice with software.
  3. Teacher sends audio file to students over email or posts it online.
  4. Student downloads audio recording software.
  5. Student listens to part of the teacher’s recording.
  6. Student records voice in response to teacher.
  7. Repeat 5 and 6 until completed.
  8. Student sends audio file to teacher.

Whew. We think our solution is nicer:

  1. Teacher logs in to lingtlanguage.com and uses our editor to build an audio assignment.
  2. Student logs on and completes the assignment.
  3. Teacher logs on and reviews, grades, or comments on student responses.

A problem can’t be any better defined than when the people it affects are already hacking together their own solutions to solve it.

Deferring YCombinator

In what has been our hardest and most mature decision yet, we have decided to defer our interview with early-stage venture fund YCombinator. When we first received our invitation to San Francisco, we knew we were going. Of course we were. This was our in with a substantial part of the Bay Area’s tech and investment community. We follow YCombinator’s online community religiously and have watched friends ship off to San Francisco and enjoy great success with YC’s seed money. Why in the world wouldn’t we interview?

But on reflecting more closely, the initial adrenaline rush seemed to mask the fact that we aren’t ready yet. Moving to San Francisco (a requirement if we were to receive funding) to surround ourselves with like-minded, talented, and young entrepreneurs would have been intoxicating. After sobering up, however, we would still be left with the task of building technology that foreign language teachers want to use. There are plenty of reasons we ultimately decided to defer, but primarily, we want to stay small, focused, and bootstrapped until we have put something into teachers’ hands.

In six months, we’ll have another chance to interview with YCombinator. It will make a lot more sense to take money then, if we haven’t already found another investor. Additionally, we’ll have done some serious development by then and be in a much better position to be accepted.

A first shot at funding

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.

Staying close to teachers

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 feedback@lingtlanguage.com.

All dressed up and nothing to build

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 moreĀ  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.

Technology for classrooms

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.