April 11, 2013
While many language learning sites offer a variety of languages, Nihongo – with its anime-inspired design and red and white colors – is devoted to Japanese. In fact, “Nihongo” – or 日本語 – means “Japanese,” in Japanese.
Founder Taylor Dondich, a Las Vegas native and former Yahoo employee, set out to create a fun and social site where learning happens through competition and collaboration with other Japanese enthusiasts.
But Japanese is a first step. In the future, Dondich hopes to expand into other languages and even provide instruction in endangered languages, doing a small part to save some of the world’s culture.
Below, Dondich shares some of the lessons he’s learned about entrepreneurship and persistence (that’s 不屈 in Japanese).
Tech Cocktail: What’s the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn so far?
Taylor Dondich: As a single-founder startup, you soon realize what your shortcomings are. I am a software engineer by trade so making the technology for Nihongo Master was my comfort zone. Once the tech was built, new hurdles showed their faces including customer development, effective marketing, and business operations. You realize you have to be quick on your feet and open to learning to do things not in your comfort zone and do them quickly.
Tech Cocktail: How do you keep your team motivated at the office?
Dondich: There are going to be times in your startup’s initial life where you may feel like you aren’t making any progress. This can be a morale killer for yourself and your team. Put systems in place that show interesting growth metrics that help to show your team and yourself the traction you are gaining. For us, looking at an analytics graph doesn’t show us how many dollars we are making. It shows us how many people we are affecting with our product.
Tech Cocktail: What common startup advice do you completely disagree with?
Dondich: When I discussed my technology startup with other individuals, I was met with the advice of, “You should get investors.” What that tells me is you want to start with a false sense of security because you already have money in the bank but nothing driving it. There are a lot of upsides and downsides to looking towards investment capital initially. However, I believe that if it’s my money on the line right away, it’s going to push me to make stronger decisions as well as be more agile to initial storms.
Tech Cocktail: What’s the best entrepreneurship book you’ve read and why?
Dondich: The Art of the Start, by Guy Kawasaki. Guy has a fantastic ability to get you motivated by reading just a few lines from any of his books. The biggest lesson I took from this book in particular was to just do it. Make it happen. Don’t spend too much time writing a business plan, which will be completely invalid in a month’s time. Don’t try to plan for every possible contingency. If you spend too much time preparing for failures, you’ll never get the chance to succeed.
Tech Cocktail: If you had an extra $1,000 to spend on marketing, what would you do?
Dondich: I really believe that building a community around your company is one of the top priorities you have to keep in mind. Having our users feel like they are part of the movement makes them evangelists of your goal. Community evangelists are much more valuable to you than another Google ad or radio spot. For example, any time a user subscribes with us, we send them a t-shirt. These t-shirts aren’t cheap quality and we get extremely positive feedback when they receive it. They feel like they belong and they’re more likely to bring others to us as well.
With an extra $1,000 in our marketing budget, we’d go on a spree of purchasing additional “swag” such as buttons and t-shirts. We would then send these items to community groups around the world who might be interested in what we’re trying to do.
Tech Cocktail: What do you wish someone had told you about startup life?
Dondich: That it’s like riding the world scariest rollercoaster blindfolded. There’s a lot of ups and downs and a lot of the time you aren’t going to know what’s going to happen on the next turn. There are moments of extreme joy and absolute terror. It’s a wild ride and sometimes you may want to get off. However, when looking at the big picture, you realize it’s an experience that you will never want to forget.
Tech Cocktail: What personality trait has served you the best as an entrepreneur?
Dondich: I am an extremely positive person. The smallest achievements in our product make me feel like Superman and I want to share it with the world. I have a perpetual motion machine that produces excitement in me and it constantly drives me to succeed.
Tech Cocktail: If your startup were an animal, which one would it be and why?
Dondich: A liger. Have you seen Napolen Dynamite? Well, ligers are real. Ligers are a hybrid of a male lion and a tigress. I like to think of this as diverse. Don’t just try to be one thing and stick with it. Understand the many aspects and angles your startup can offer.
Tech Cocktail: If your startup were a cocktail, which one would it be and why?
Dondich: The simple martini. It’s classic and stands the test of time. The core of the drink is simplistic in nature. You can serve it in a variety of interesting cocktail glasses; however, if you deviate from the core, then you are messing with perfection.
In your startup, understand your core trait. What is your number one value proposition? Now, dress her up and take her to the ball.
Nihongo Master is a showcased startup at this week’s Tech Cocktail Week mixer in Las Vegas.
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