YongoPal, UW Business Plan Winner, Looks to Cash In on Video Language Lessons—and Some Lessons of Its Own
With the end of May comes another brood of promising young companies born of the University of Washington’s business plan competition. After many months of hard work, coaching, and pitching, they’re ready to strike out on their own. This year’s group of semi-finalist companies was particularly diverse, representing the fields of consumer Internet, materials, energy, mobile payments, imaging, medical devices, and health diagnostics.
In the end, the $25,000 grand prize went to YongoPal, an online video-based language learning startup led by co-founders Darien Brown and Jon Hickey. Here at Xconomy, we’d like to extend our congratulations to this company as well as the other finalists and prize winners: Empowering Engineering Technologies, Febris, Emergent Detection, Native Roots, GreenStone International, Snovision, WISErg, and EnVitrum.
YongoPal has been around for just over a year, and comprises five people; Daron Hall, Kyung Hee Yun, and Brian Suchland joined the company in addition to the two founders. The idea is to connect university students in South Korea with their peers in the U.S. via online video chat—via laptop or desktop and webcam—so they can practice conversational English with native speakers. The Korean students pay an hourly fee, most of which goes to the U.S. students. Why Korea? Private English education for adults (including college students) is an $8 billion market there—far more than in any other country.
Earlier today, I spoke with Brown, YongoPal’s co-founder and CEO, to hear more about the company, and his team’s experience in the UW competition. Here’s an edited transcript of our chat:
Xconomy: Tell us a little about your background. How did you get into this?
Darien Brown: I studied history and, briefly, secondary education at Whitworth University. In the fall of 2005, I spent a semester in Daegu, South Korea, at Keimyung University. It was a lot of fun. As an international student, something I realized early on was that a big reason the school wanted to bring in English-speaking students was for the benefit of their own students. We lived in immersion dorms where the students weren’t allowed to speak Korean. Then I spent my first year in Seattle in 2007-08, working as an office assistant. For a while after that, I worked in inside sales at [e-learning company] Giant Campus.
X: So what was the genesis of YongoPal?
DB: In Korea, my American friends and I ended up being hooked up with jobs having conversations with other students for pay. We would meet up with other students on campus or at coffee shops off campus and have conversations for $40 an hour. It was the going rate for having a conversation with an English speaker. In February 2008, I decided I should give this a try online. I had a friend in Korea, and he met up with me on Skype. People were paying to have [video] conversations. But I stopped offering these conversations because it was really time consuming, and we realized we couldn’t … Next Page »