PlaySay's Vision & Commandments

by Ryan Meinzer


PlaySay's Vision & Commandments

Vision

To advance cultural awareness and international fellowship through language. 

PlaySay's vision has remained the same since the company's founding on April 4th of 2008. When all else fails, remember your vision because that's where the passion lies. 

Commandments

PlaySay's Vision & Commandments

  • Thou shalt not assume desire to learn will bring users back
  • Thou shalt not assume game mechanics will bring users back
  • Thou shalt not recreate the social graph
  • Engagement 1st, Learning 2nd

Our commandments have adopted according to our learnings. We religiously reevaluate our products on a weekly basis to ensure our commandments are upheld. Our latest product, "PlaySay Survival" upholds our vision and commandments more than ever. 

Sign up for beta access to PlaySay's biggest product yet! http://signup.playsay.com

 


PlaySay - From Tokyo, to Philadelphia, to DC, to San Francisco

by Ryan Meinzer


PlaySay - From Tokyo, to Philadelphia, to DC, to San Francisco

That's a lot of moving! In this post I'll briefly outline why the company moved around so much. 

Tokyo

This is where the company was founded April 4th, 2008 with the initial seed investment from the Director of PayPal, Japan. See PlaySay's Love Story, How it All Began. Tokyo is my favorite city in the world, without doubt (and I've been to 21+ countries). 

PlaySay - From Tokyo, to Philadelphia, to DC, to San Francisco

PlaySay's 2008 office in Tokyo (my room).

By 2010 I decided to move PlaySay Inc. out of Japan mainly because of Japan's:

  • high risk adverseness
  • lack of startup climate
  • high small business regulations and red tape
  • two decades of economic stagnation and a rapidly shrinking and aging population
  • scarcity of venture capital
  • 2nd most expensive city to live in the world

I wasn't surprised to read that Japan recently ranked lowest among worldwide advanced economies for attitudes towards entrepreneurship (source). Most know Japan as the land of innovation, but I can assure you it's surely not in small business, software, entrepreneurship, etc. (just maybe skateboarding). 

Philadelphia

I've spent more years in Philadelphia than any other place in my life. I love Philly. Once we decided to leave Japan, San Francisco was first on my list. Unfortunately, I couldn't even come close to affording San Francisco. Philadelphia was a no-brainer at that point.

PlaySay - From Tokyo, to Philadelphia, to DC, to San Francisco

PlaySay's 2010 team in Philadelphia in our free office space from the GoodCompany Ventures program.

By this point we had captured 18% of our initial target market (proven product-market fit) and had a 60% return on investment (proven sales funnel). Taking advantage of the economic downturn, I gathered over eight highly qualified individuals (most were MBA's) to work on a commission basis. The objective was to scale our proven product/model into eight new languages over the course of three months. We did it! 

To our dismay, we could not successfully replicate the success of the model in these other markets we scaled into. We did, however pivot our product for a much more attractive opportunity in the language learning space (see our Lily product in this post). With this and more, we closed venture financing from the most active venture capitalists in the education space of the USA. They strongly encouraged us to move to DC. 

DC

We obliged our investors and decided to move to DC for the following main reasons:

  • was next door to our investors
  • highly stable economy relative to other US cities
  • ~$15M in R&D spent locally by federal government (a big potential customer for us in particular at that time)
  • 24th best startup ecosystem of the world
  • constant influx of well-educated and multi-cultured people

PlaySay - From Tokyo, to Philadelphia, to DC, to San Francisco

Here's us in our 2011 DC office and that goofy social gaming advisor of ours, Sameer.

By July we recieved a second follow-on investment from our investors. We launched as a TechCrunch Disrupt Finalist in September of 2011. By November we received another follow-on investment from our investors. We were actively in search for cheap all-star developers willing to work for equity (sound familiar, startups?!) and were finding it very difficult to find such in DC. After all, it's the city with the highest income of the USA. Also, by the end of 2011 we were no longer pursuing the government as a potential customer. We were no longer seeing too much value in having our company in DC. 

San Francisco

Location, location, location! As I formerly mentioned, I was eager to move PlaySay to San Francisco since our initial departure from Tokyo. We found two incredibly talented and affordable developers that were eager to work for us in San Francisco. They were both happy to forego a high salary in exchange for more company equity. We adamantly moved the company to San Francisco because: 

  • #1 startup ecosystem of the world!
  • access to better mentors and advisors
  • access to better talent
  • access to more funding options

PlaySay - From Tokyo, to Philadelphia, to DC, to San Francisco

Here's our new 2012 sunny office in San Francisco (SoMa) - we even have a foosball table!

We cut our burn (i.e. monthly spend) in half since we moved to San Francisco. Our team chemistry and productivity has never been better! As our friend Greg says, "We're living the dream!"

Sign up for beta access to PlaySay's biggest product yet! http://signup.playsay.com


Customer Development - How I Could Have Saved Years and $250k

by Ryan Meinzer


Customer Development - How I Could Have Saved Years and $250k

One of my favorite quotes is Nike's, "Just do it". It applies so much to entrepreneurship. Ideas are really a dime a dozen, stop talking and just do it! 

Customer Development argues that there's a slight caveat to the 'just do it' mantra. I now full-heartedly agree. I believe many startups are irresponsibly spending investment $ to recursively 'just do it' - we were one of them. 

It's irresponsible to 'just do it' without questioning your core business assumptions and validating them in a scientific manner. Sure, getting a product out is a great test of its viability. However, spending a bunch of money to discover what works isn't near as smart as using that money to scale what you've proven to work. Customer Development involves four steps (I'll expound upon the first two) for scientifically increasing your odds of success in finding a product-market fit for executing a repeatable and scalable business model. 

Customer Discovery

The first critical mistake that many make is to use marketing research to support that their product solves a discrete customer problem rather than validating that it does from the customers themselves. You don't need to have the product built to get a "yes" or "no" from customers (strangers, not your friends!) that a) they have the problem, b) they feel your solution solves that problem, and c) they will buy your solution.

If any of the answers to the aforementioned three questions are "no", do the infamous pivot! Celebrate. You learned in a week what would have taken you well over a month by building, releasing, not getting traction, and even looking bad. Brilliant. 

Customer Development - How I Could Have Saved Years and $250k

This is us celebrating our recent pivot to our new product, "PlaySay Survival". Sign up for beta access!

Customer Validation

Once you substantially get three yes's from the aforementioned questions, make that beautiful baby of yours. Do it, however, in the minimum viable product (MVP) method. Confirm your customers (beta or public) love your product as much as you do and are buying it. Next, your marketing assumptions need to be validated by having a demonstrable funnel that converts to additional sales. Simply put, a dollar in must equal more than a dollar out. 

Customer Development - How I Could Have Saved Years and $250k

Kevin O'Learly, "Here’s how I think of my money – as soldiers – I send them out to war everyday. I want them to take prisoners and come home, so there’s more of them."

In this phase you must finally prove that your market is scaleable to the point of profitability. At PlaySay, we hit a dead end at the scaling point with our first product - digital vocabulary flashcards. We captured 18% of our initial target market (proven product-market fit) and had a 60% return on investment (proven sales funnel). However, we could not successfully replicate the model in other markets we attempted to scale into.

Customer Creation

You're well ahead of most startups if you're at this point. Celebrate! It will not be hard for you to get major investment to scale your business to acquire a critical mass of customers and likely make some serious green. 

Company Building

Now that you've scaled your market, scale your business and operations. At this point you'll surely be more than 5 guys with C-level titles and will appropriately have a COO, CTO, CFO, CMO, etc.

What Customer Development Is Not

It's not a surefire method for success, it's simply a method to highly increase your chances for success. Through the method you'll likely discover what you won't want to discover. It's incumbent upon you to adopt accordingly. Persistence is critical but knowing when to walk away [adopt] is as important.

Sign up for beta access to PlaySay's biggest product yet! http://signup.playsay.com

p.s. my favorite software as a service (SaaS) for customer development is Ben's LeanLaunchLab


The 5 Products From the Most Exciting Year of my Life

by Ryan Meinzer


The 5 Products From the Most Exciting Year of my Life

2011 was the most exciting year of my life. Wow. I was blessed to raise venture capital (VC) from the most active venture capitalists in the education space of the USA which enabled me to assemble a phenomenal team. We launched as a TechCrunch Disrupt Finalist in September.

We learned more from the launch of the below five products in one year (2011) than I had learned in the first three years of the company. For the quick read, skip over everything but the pictures/videos under Solution and brief thereof. 

#1: Lily - March 2011

Problem

It's difficult to find an easy, casual, way to learn Spanish on the go and to continually stay motivated in doing so. In developing markets there is a 50% smartphone penetration but in emerging markets it's typical lower than 20% (source). One thing all cell phone users have in common is that they all are capable of text messaging (SMS). Did you know that the average teen in the USA sends over 3,000 texts per month - once every 10 minutes (source)?!

Solution

The 5 Products From the Most Exciting Year of my Life

See a pdf of Lily in action here

Lily was a Spanish teacher in your pocket. Through interactive text (SMS) messages, she proactively quizzed you in Spanish, translated anything you wanted from/into Spanish and called you to pronounce any Spanish word(s). As Lily was an intelligent robot (many thought she was a real person!), she employed adaptive learning (the less you knew something the more often she would ask it).

Results

We organically brought in over 30 users a day on average with less than a 10% weekly churn rate. The business model economics were broken, however. Sending a text legitimately (via Short Code, not Long Code) cost us $.02, receiving cost us $.02 (through Twilio). Our customer development resulted in finding that users weren't willing to pay more than $2/month for the service. We'd have to charge around $5/month to even break even as the average user exchanged eight text messages per day. 

The 5 Products From the Most Exciting Year of my Life

p.s. we also built Lily for Facebook (video) but never launched it
as we weren't confident enough in it's prospects

#2: iPhone Apps - May 2011

Problem

It takes a lot of time to make the paper flashcards for the vocabulary one needs to learn for their weekly quizzes/tests in their foreign language classes. Even if one did make paper flashcards, they wouldn't have them at all times. Paper flashcards don't have audio either. 

Solution

The 5 Products From the Most Exciting Year of my Life

Watch a video of the iPhone Apps in action here

A smartphone application that has the specific vocabulary of your language learning textbook with the ability to quiz yourself in a flashcard-type fashion with both text and audio support. Your learning is optimized through adaptive learning (the less you know an item the more often it shows). 

Results

We launched applications for the respective foreign language textbook titles in our partnerships with esteemed publishers. The nine applications that we launched are still live (find them here) and are continually in the top 25 charts of various countries around the world. Students that are aware of the applications typically purchase them and find them very useful. The two main reasons why we are not seeing as much success (i.e. revenue) as we'd like are 1) for awareness, we're reliant on the publishers to market such apps in-print (...we're still waiting for that) and 2) users lose engagement in rote study through flashcards. 1) will be resolved by the publisher's in-print promotion and 2) will hopefully be resolved in our next app update that will employ game mechanics to increase (at least short-term) engagement.

#3: (De)Construct - September 2011 (launched as a TechCrunch Disrupt Finalist)

Problem

Learner's lack of sustained engagement. Current language learning solutions are effective, if you use them. None of them, however, have proven to keep a language learner engaged. Did you know that less than 5% of Rosetta Stone's users continue past the first level? The average user time spent on a Rosetta Stone product is 2.5 hours over 6 months - you don't need to be a polyglot to know that's not even close to enough to learn (or even sustain one's knowledge of) a foreign language (source).

Solution

PlaySay will sustain language learner's engagement through a language learning layer on Facebook, the most engaging platform of the world. Users will furthermore remain engaged as the language learning solution revolves around communication - what they're learning a foreign language for in the first place. This was the world's first method of learning a foreign language by communicating in that language through pictures. 

Facebook became your new classroom, your friends became your new classmates, and your checkins, status updates, comments and pictures became your new daily course material. 

Your friends' interests were leveraged for learning. 

Results

Albeit incredibly innovative, our initial application's user interface (UI) was too complicated. Less than 30% of users completed a 'construction' after starting one and less than 15% ultimately posted it on their/friend's walls. Even worse, our application gave a false promise to the users by telling them they'd be able to communicate in the foreign language (through pictures) however they wanted. In fact, users could effectively only compose (and post to Facebook) a few basic sentences with slight variations in the language they were learning. Our system also didn't allow viewers of these posts to respond. Although 30% of users clicked their friend's public 'constructions', hardly anyone responded with another 'construction'. This meant that all communication was one-way, which is not communication at all. Oops.

We then rolled out a section in the app that involved a series of levels with questions that a user would answer through the 'construct' methodology. This greatly improved 'construct' completion to 90% (from 30%). It also increased time in app from a few minutes to over 10 minutes, with 60% of users completing level after level (less than a 40% average churn per leve). Although 30% of users were weekly active users (WAU's), hardly any were monthly active users (MAU's) and even more of a negligible amount were daily active users (DAU's).

By far, the section of the application that had the highest usage and engagement was the third section that we rolled out that involved a series of simple True/False questions of your friends' interests. Simple is always better. Users' average time in this section surpassed their time spent in the aforementioned 'construct' and 'questions' sections.

To our dismay, our k-factor (growth factor) for all sections of the app was actually negative as we were losing users much faster than we were gaining them. 

#4: Journeys - November 2011

Problem

Learner's lack of sustained engagement (see Problem in product #3 above).

Solution

The 5 Products From the Most Exciting Year of my Life

See a video of Journeys in action here

We still felt that leveraging Facebook's Open Graph was a key to solve the engagement problem for language learning. Rather than an overcomplicated method of communicating in a foreign language through pictures, we attempted to revolve a language learning platform around 'journeys' through actual Facebook users' pictures throughout the world. Such journeys would serve as the story/lesson and the respective pictures and related vocabulary as the learning material. 

Results

Engagement was much higher in this product than our (De)Construct product, but not anything to be proud of. Our largest improvement was when we implemented the 'passport' dashboard that employed game mechanics such as levels, unlocks, badges, etc. This decreased churn by 10%, increased time in the app from 1.5 minutes to 5.5 minutes and doubled users weekly rate of return (i.e. weekly retention). Unfortunately, user growth remained stagnant for over a month no matter what viral tactics we attempted to integrate.

#5: Tagalang - December 2011

Problem

Yet again, learner's lack of sustained engagement (see Problem in product #3 above).

Solution

The 5 Products From the Most Exciting Year of my Life

See a video of Tagalang in action here

Although this product was never publicly launched, it attempted to teach users vocabulary by leveraging Facebook's most popular/engaging feature - pictures. Similar to the ESP Game, friends (and/or strangers) were paired to tag vocabulary items of a picture. Our twist was to leverage Facebook's Open Graph to have the picture be one of interest to both users. Furthermore, we collected the exact coordinates of the discrete vocabulary items users would tag. We used translation software in the backend to translate all input in real-time to allow users to play regardless of their native language or language of learning. Triple validation algorithms were employed to validate input and to collect a valuable data asset. 

Results

Alpha users we tested this with in private loved it. A competitor heard about the product through the grapevine and even approached us to acquire the game. We believe this product has legs but have not released it for the sake of focusing on our next product that we believe has much more potential. We learned from the success of Tagalang's simplicity and are surely incorporating those learnings into our next product, "PlaySay Survival". 

Sign up for beta access to PlaySay's biggest product yet! http://signup.playsay.com


PlaySay's Love Story, How it All Began

by Ryan Meinzer


PlaySay's Love Story, How it All Began

I fell in love with Japanese girls the first time I traveled there in High School in 2000. Since then I decided I wanted a business career in Japan, so that's where I started my 'dream job' fresh out of college in 2008 with a Japanese marketing firm called IMP, Inc. Above you'll see me (back-left) as the only white guy, aside from a tall European client who was the President of Bourjois at the time. Good times. 

Here's the story in a nutshell: Within months of starting my aforementioned 'dream job', I developed digital vocabulary flashcards to learn Japanese on my iPod, learned Japanese faster than my friends that were in full-time Japanese language school, randomly ran in to the Director of PayPal, Japan at a bar a few months later, showed him my product and impressed him with my Japanese skills, he told me within weeks to quit my job and start a company with his seed investment, which I of course did. 

The Extended Story

The Problem

No one in the office spoke more than a lick of English, I needed to learn Japanese fast. I'll explain how I got the job in a later post. Although I had studied Japanese in college, I couldn't hold a conversation past "hello" and "my name is" (slim shady). I didn't have time to go to Japanese class or to study in front of a computer (I worked from sunup to sundown in that company - typical for a Japanese salaryman). I was never good at learning visually (e.g. paper flashcards, textbooks, etc.). I was unpleasantly suprised to find no solution that could help me learn the Japanese content I needed to learn (e.g. business words) through audio on a mobile device. So I made a solution for myself.

The Solution

I created digital audio vocabulary flashcards that worked on my iPod (this was before the days of smartphone applications in Japan). Initially I used my own voice for recording. Since my Japanese pronunciation sucked, I eventually hired professional voice talent to record the hundreds of words in Japanese and English that I had collected in a notebook from my daily life. I worked with a developer to create a program that imported an excel file of these words along with wav files of their respective Japanese and English Counterparts, to export hundreds of individual mp3s for each vocabulary word on my iPod.

The Business

All my friends (most in full-time Japanese language school) asked how I was learning Japanese so fast. I gave a few my product, they loved it. Their friends asked me for it, I gave it to them. I was soon barraged with requests, so I decided to learn how to code a website (I didn't know a thing about websites!) to start selling my product online. I started making more from the sales than I was from my full time job.

The Investment

At a bar I randomly ran in to the Director of PayPal, Japan. I saw him giving his business card to someone and interrupted him (in Japanese). I gave him my pitch, he asked how my Japanese was so good, I showed him my product. Within weeks he convinced me to quit my job and to start a company out of my product with his seed investment. I gladly accepted. 

The Product/Market Fit

I discovered that there were 22,000 English speakers in the USA that needed to pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), that had a very structured (and published) series of levels with specific vocabulary lists for each. I hired translators to translate the Japanese vocabulary lists into English, then hired the voice talent to record the words, then created digital vocabulary flashcards for this market. Particularly with great Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Search Enging Marketing (SEM) and with Google Adwords, I was able to capture sales from 18% of that initial target market with a 60% return on investment (ROI). I knew I had something, it was time to scale. 

PlaySay's Love Story, How it All Began

This man, "Ichimi-san", believed in me and hired me straight out of college to head the International Business efforts of his marketing company, IMP, Inc. God bless him, PlaySay would not exist if it wasn't for him. 

PlaySay's Love Story, How it All Began
Here I am in 2008 with my new Japanese girlfriend, Eimi, celebrating my first day at IMP, Inc. Of course a girl was involved with the beginning of PlaySay. Why else would I be so intrigued to learn Japanese?! I kid, but truth be told, the girls of Japan were instrumental for maintaining my engagement in learning the language.

Sign up for PlaySay's Beta here! http://signup.playsay.com