Parsnip

Turns any content into a language lesson.
Batch: 2021 Summer
Status: Unsuccessful

Parsnip

Turns any content into a language lesson.
Batch: 2021 Summer
Status: Unsuccessful

Company

Parsnip turns any content into a language lesson.

Imagine learning another language by reading Harry Potter in French, Haruki Murakami in Japanese, or watching Breaking Bad in German.

My product, Parsnip, is an e-book reader (and later media player) with integrated definitions, conjugations and other references so you don’t need to jump back and forth looking things up. It also tracks the words you’ve seen or looked up and automatically creates and schedules review activities ensuring you don’t forget new words. You get the references you need, when you need them and the reviews ensure that you don’t forget what you’ve read.

This is much better than the alternatives like:
- sticking it in google translate and hoping it’s good enough or
- writing new words down in a notebook and hoping you can find it in a dictionary.

Then adding the words you found to a flashcard app which can’t tell that two cards both have the word ‘run’ on them.

To begin with Parsnip will target intermediate and above language learners. There is currently nothing targeted at them. Initially, Parsnip will use text based content and later expand to include audio, video, and comics.

Founders

During my four years in the US Army I:
- Learned Korean in 63 weeks at the Defense Language Institute,
- Spied on North Korea while stationed in South Korea,
- Was poached from my intelligence collection job, which the Army had spent two years training me for, to do R&D projects. I built a content management system for on the job training certification, and various intelligence analysis tools
- Received a commendation for identifying the source of a major intelligence leak-
- Spent my last two years studying full time while serving full-time
- Graduated Summa Cum Laude with a degree in Computer Science.

In 2005 I was in the Army and had fulfilled my four year contract. I wanted out. But there was a war in Iraq and was told my job was mission critical. Despite being a Korean linguist, my contract would be extended indefinitely. So I forced the Army to kick me out with full benefits.

Because of what I did, my fiancée, who was deployed to Kuwait, was able to come home to me instead of a storage unit. And it continues to pay dividends to this day. In fact, it directly contributed to me being able to go full-time on my startup. But the biggest advantage was showing me how people limit themselves in the name of not rocking the boat and doing what they’re told.

Since I couldn’t leave voluntarily I needed the Army to kick me out. Without consequences. Those consequences ranged from losing my benefits all the way up to execution during wartime.

Enter “adjustment disorder” or failure to adapt. It means that someone is going through a period of high stress making it difficult for them to cope. In the civilian world it’s a description not a diagnosis, but the Army uses it as a catchall way to kick people out. It is mostly used during the initial entry training to get rid of troublemakers and others who can’t cut it. While it must be initiated by a psychiatrist, it is considered an administrative discharge with no consequences.

From the Army’s point of view it’s inconceivable ? for someone to use this to their advantage. Military machismo and, historically, draft dodging makes it impossible for all but the most severe cases to even see a psychiatrist.

To achieve this I needed three things.
1.) A legitimate stressful situation that wouldn’t blow over.
2.) Visibility - a lot of it - so my unit would send me to see a psychiatrist or be seen as unreasonable if they tried to handle it quietly.
3.) Avoiding any negative labels such as “a danger to myself or others”.

Number 1 was easy. I could point to a number of things - my fiancée was unexpectedly deployed to Kuwait with missiles being fired her way, I was her main emotional support, and I would be deployed to Iraq before she was sent home. Numbers 2 & 3 however fell into catch-22 territory.

My solution was to neatly and cleanly cut my uniforms into squares.

In basic training you are taught that your uniform is your most basic piece of equipment. It is both a work uniform and a symbol of your membership in the United States Army. Being on duty is nearly synonymous with being in uniform.

After cutting them up I carefully placed them into a trash bag and reported to my company commander the following morning. I informed him I literally could not report for duty and explained how I was feeling. He seemed sympathetic, but also warned me I could be punished and charged with dereliction of duty and/or destruction of government property if it came out that I was faking it. He then set up an appointment with our behavioral health specialist, an unlicensed entry-level counselor.

I was being glad-handed. While appearing to help me he was trying to contain the situation and set me up to take the blame. I knew several people this happened to in Korea after getting depressed and attempting suicide or similarly self-destructive behavior. Most of them were kicked out with various excuses placing the blame squarely upon themselves. Those that weren’t kicked out were “successfully treated” and “allowed” to return to duty after “unrelated corrective action”.

While waiting by myself in the hallway for my appointment and knowing nothing useful could come from this meeting I set off a fire extinguisher in protest. That did it - I couldn’t be ignored any longer. The next morning I was on a bus to Seoul to meet with a psychiatrist. After talking through my state of mind and my situation he agreed there was nothing they could do and the situation would not improve if left as is. He then submitted a recommendation that I be administratively separated for adjustment disorder.

I landed in Colorado December 21st, one month past the original end of my contract, with a full honorable discharge.

Progress

Since I started last May I have done a couple dozen user interviews including interviewing the creator of a competing product, ReadLang, who’s now a software engineer at Duolingo. I have launched the marketing website. And I'm working on publicly launching my prototype. It will be live before YC interviews happen.

I am using the prototype myself and demoing it to friends and family. Code-wise it amounts to ~25K lines of code in Python and Typescript. The majority being the parser/analyzer library and the remainder being the web app. I have also modeled the data for the knowledge base and done UI mockups for the core screens.

I’ve been working on it since May 2020 about half-time and in December I started working on it full-time.

Idea

I noticed the enormous amount of time language learners spend doing things that don’t improve their language skill. For example, I planned to turn a Japanese textbook into flashcards so I could study it systematically. Adapting materials like this is extremely common in Reddit’s r/languagelearning and other forums I frequent. It’s also a favorite of language learning blogs because it generates so much traffic and debate. But it would’ve taken more than 3 months of 40 hour weeks to finish. This was such a stupidly excessive waste of time I was dumbfounded. Parsnip came directly from focusing on user selected content and streamlining or automating everything else.

I also realized user directed learning would naturally target intermediate and above learners, a completely untapped market segment. One inaccessible to competitors because they are all based on explicitly teaching predefined content. Expert systems and formal language theory have taught us that isn’t scalable.

I have domain experience in both teaching and learning. I taught English in Japan and mathematics and computer science in grad school. 20 years ago I learned Korean to a high level at the Defense Language Institute in 63 weeks. Over those same 20 years I have failed to get beyond intermediate in Japanese despite it being one of my core hobbies.

I’m making Parsnip because it’s what I wish I had. And I’m tired of seeing the half-baked side projects and unusable monstrosities people have come up with.

My approach is the antithesis of the command and control approach of academia and other apps. The user picks the content they want to study and my app does all of the grunt work, organizing references, keeping track of words studied, looking up words, etc. Additionally I focus on using the language to achieve concrete goals. I.e. I’ve read 2 books in Japanese, watched 4 episodes of this show and learned 3 songs.

Currently the best solution is to hire a tutor to help you. Failing that, people do it by hand with a pen, notebook, and dictionary. These are expensive and arduous. Language apps don’t make any effort on user selected content, which my interviewees often mention. They also talk about trying various approaches such as guides published by self-proclaimed language gurus or seeking out side-project projects such as ReadLang, Rikai-chan, Yomitori or Learning with Texts to make the process less painful. At best these address one or two obvious pain points, such as making defining words easier. But as mentioned above they are all toy solutions that are difficult to set up, have a poor UI, and have no support.

DuoLingo, Babbel, Busuu, RosettaStone, Chatterbug and Anki are some of my name brand competitors. We are in the same market but our approaches are so different we won’t directly compete.

Even though DuoLingo has become the first $1Bn company in the market there is no market leader. The top 15 language learning apps only have 42% market share. It’s a free-for-all until someone achieves product-market fit. And as mentioned previously there is no one that targets intermediate and advanced language learners.

LingQ is my closest competitor. They started with learning vocabulary from native books and articles. But I don’t fear them, they’ve been around since 2007 and seem content being a niche product. Also, I feel like they launched too early when the content and technology was lacking. Which led to them continuously adding “me too” features. In the end making them look like every other language learning app plus a small gimmick.

Voxy is the company I fear most; they are solidly executing on the principles I am aiming for. If they were to drastically change their target market it could be troublesome but for institutional and corporate English as a second language (ESL). Fortunately their chief educational officer is completely dismissive of independent language learning and student choice.

1
The gold standard for learning a language would be to have a full-time personal language tutor constantly with you as you lived in the language. This person would not translate for you, they would give you the minimum amount of new information needed to understand the situation and respond accordingly. They would also constantly put you in situations to use things you’ve already learned or review them with you based on detailed notes of what you’ve been taught. Only on very rare occasions would they sit down with you and give you a traditional lecture, analyze sentences or discuss grammar. Sound familiar? That’s exactly what parents do, excluding explicitly tracking your progress.

Instead you are taught in large classes a few times a week where a generic textbook is used to teach you topics that SHOULD be useful to a large number of people while learning the words that SHOULD come up during those topics. No consideration is given to you or your goals. Even worse, in order to maintain order lockstep progression you are actively discouraged from deviating from the syllabus.

2
It is impossible to explicitly teach everything needed to learn a language. Similarly fluency isn’t a single concept. A perfect demonstration of this is Wired’s 5 levels series of videos where an expert explains a concept from their field to five different audiences ranging from elementary school students to graduate students in their field. My fluency in English doesn’t extend to technical conversations between surgeons, or even plumbers. I simply wouldn’t have the background needed.

Instead I believe that thoroughly understanding authentic native media, such as articles, books, songs, etc, in context and in their entirety is the best way to develop these topical fluencies. It has the added advantage of becoming a concrete and objectively meaningful achievement afterwards. As opposed to language classes and apps where the only goal is to “learn the language” and the only achievements possible are subjective fluency tests.

3
The internet, the current Kpop boom, the anime boom of the 90’s and 00’s, and Netflix have expanded access to authentic foreign language materials such as books, shows, games, forums, etc. so much that it should be possible to teach yourself a language with support and guidance.

The current plan is a standard subscription model. At $100-$150/year/user and my current burn rate I could hire my first employee, have a modest marketing budget and be ramen profitable with around 2,000 users. Fluent Forever, Giphy for flashcards, was able to break 25,000 users in its first 18 months.

Looking at concrete numbers in the larger market there are between 300 million (Duolingo total users) - 2 billion (total language learners worldwide) potential users. There is large potential for multiple $1Bn businesses in this space. Stepping back to Babbel, since Duolingo has a freemium model, they still have revenue >$100M and have sold more than 10M subscriptions.

In the future I plan to sell premium content such as ebooks bundles, which would contain the native language edition, audiobook, and the translated edition. For publishers/localizers this would be a residual revenue stream with almost no added work on their part. For users it would simplify the process of obtaining legal copies of foreign language books while providing a consolation prize to users whose eyes are larger than their skills. However I am much less sure about the potential size of these products.

Before launching my prototype I recruited people for interviews and other feedback directly from Reddit and other forums I’m a part of while experimenting with posting to social media. So far I’ve talked with dozens of people on Reddit and other forums and interviewed around two dozen people individually over Zoom and chat.

While beta testing I will engage with people on forums, create content and do other audience building activities creating a foundation for later search engine optimization (SEO) to improve organic reach. An example might be “A vocabulary analysis of popular fiction books.” I can look at the number of unique words vs the total words in the first Harry Potter, then discuss how many new words would you need to read for each additional book in the series.

Once the beta wraps up I plan to do a full scale launch starting with a kickstarter. Building awareness and anticipation through social media along with Facebook and Google Ads.

Equity

I own 100% of the company. However, my close friend for over a decade, Ashley believes strongly in this idea and is a marketing expert. I’m trying to convince her to join me as a co-founder, and getting into YC would address her largest obstacle.

Over the last year she has spent many hours helping me shift my communication style, understand marketing fundamentals, and modern engagement tactics/strategies. She has more than 10 years experience in television, promotions, and advertising. She also has a wide network of connections in television, broadcasting and publishing.

Others

- Using Apple Pencil to teach penmanship and alphabets/characters for foreign languages.
- Bilingual e-books: Automatic alignment and creation of parallel texts for foreign language reading practice. I’d like to make a marketplace for these in Parsnip.
- Enhanced Accessibility tools for language learning: Make universal extensions (kennel extensions) for operating systems which allow looking up word meanings at the text to rasterization level.
- “Subtitled” comics: Using optical character recognition and pattern matching on comics automatically.
- Khan Academy for languages
- Flash cards that understand the content to make learning easier. Using granular “knowledge components” (instead of mapping words to text like in Parsnip mapping photosynthesis to text) in a knowledge hierarchy to improve flashcards, textbooks and studying.

I believe one of the first uses of music was to teach language to children. It combines everything needed not just how to say the words, but also correct pronunciation, cadence and emphasis. It even incorporates movement and to heighten memory.

Curious

I’m applying to YC because I miss the talent, ambition and accountability I had with my teams in the valley. It's very hard to reach great without those things or on your own. Plus, I need resources to make that happen. Bootstrapping could eventually clear the financial hurdles, but the mentorship, network and reputation that come along with Y Combinator all take too long to build on your own. It would probably take me 10 years to do on my own what I could do in 2 years working with YC.

Also the more users I talk to and research I do the more urgently I feel the need to show people what’s possible. In the beginning I just wanted to bootstrap and work on something that helped at least a few people. I was trying to be realistic and temper expectations, after all everyone thinks they want to change the world. I realized I don’t care about creating a successful business, I care about showing everyone there’s a better way.

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Neat. I didn’t know I was on this site.