[Interview] Real-Time English Conversation with a Character at Minischool

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Mr. Wook Jeong’s first startup ended up in a failure. The service was called ‘Touchring,’ an internet telephone service which he devoted 5 years. He had to helplessly watch his office being seized. Barely getting into shape after the failure, he settled down in the then-developing Kakao. Doing what he was capable of, Mr. Jeong contributed to the development of Voicetalk. After enjoying working for some time, Mr. Jeong decided to go for his second startup, Minischool – he calls it ‘inevitable destiny.’

Normally people don’t give a second look at what they have failed. What led you back to startup?

When I joined Kakao, I thought I would quit after a year or so. But back then, Kakao was in its development stage with an original vision and a fresh atmosphere. So I continued working for about 2 years without thinking about starting my own company. I have two daughters of six and seven. One day, I felt exhausted playing with my girls, so I played Cocomong for them. They wouldn’t stop watching it for hours. Upon observation, I thought it would be great if Cocomong would make a stand and start speaking to my children in English. I am a developer, and what was there to stop me? I began this whole thing for fun.

How did the kids react?

I had the character on display and controlled it with the mouse. They were immersed in it. So I tried to make it even more interesting by adding objects in the background. It became a hobby since then, and I started spending more and more time on it. In the beginning, I was in the same room with my daughters, and later on hid myself and controlled the character from another room. The degree of engagement increased substantially.

And then?

Suddenly I thought, “this is going to be super fun,” but at the same time I needed an excuse not to quit my job. Something I created out of fun might have been interesting to my kids, but I was convinced that additional market research might prove the lack of business value. I needed verification to give up on the plan. I created a simple demo, circulated to kindergartens and afterschool teachers for feedbacks, and also conducted a demo class with a batch of children and a real English teacher. The common reaction was that this was an education content that children love. I had no way out – I still dreamed of establishing a ‘very good company’ like Kakao.

How did you recruit the current members on what you ‘began for fun’?

Most of them are members from Touchring. Director Mr. Jonggu Ahn, who was Child Business Project Manager at ChangTam (창의와 탐구 유아사업기획총괄), was also a coworker back at Touchring. I was capable of developing the product I wanted, but I felt the need of an education expert. After asking around, I heard Mr. Ahn was in the education business, and paid a visit.

How coincidental, in the education sector?

But the first thing I heard from Mr. Ahn after I mentioned ‘online education’ was a big no. His business back then was running an education facility for talented children, and for that reason he was naturally very conservative with regards to online education without in-person interaction. All I got out of our meeting was a sincere 3-hour-long nagging. Nevertheless, I thought my explanation was insufficient, so I called him out again. I asked him to be patient and listen until the end about what I was trying to do, and then give me his realistic opinion. I played the video clip of the demo classes and talked him through the idea. He spent 30 minutes thinking about it on the spot, and quit his job the following day. That was even before I quit Kakao. Technically speaking, the first employee of our company is not me, but Mr. Ahn. I made the service product; checked the marketability; and now I had a team. Did I have any option? I wrote a memorandum to my wife – saying that this will be the final time.

I assume it wouldn’t have been easy for a team once failed to gather again.

Looking back, I think the failure was on the developing team. However, the whole process of forming the team and working together was a bliss. Everyone has his or her own reason for joining, but I think the past experiences accounts for a lot.

During the demo class, what kind of feedback did you get from the scene?

Teachers say it takes around 3 full months for a child to form a relationship with a teacher that is intimate enough to start a conversation. But in our demo class, it only took 5 minutes for a child to speak to the character. Both parents and teachers were surprised. There was no doubt about the degree of intimacy and engagement our service provides, which brings us to think about the following question: whether the service is also a useful tool for teachers. The response was positive. Individual teachers did not have to prepare the contents themselves and still they would conduct classes successfully. Furthermore, the teachers were also excited about the heightened engagement from the students. The kindergartens were convinced that the service was going to work given the proper instructions to the teachers with regards to utilizing the services.

At Minischool, teachers control the characters through webcam chatting. What is the core technology?

The base technology is WebRTC. The technology is generally included in OSs which can operate Chrome Browser. We currently support PC and a web version, and plan to expand to supporting Android and a mobile version. There are two platforms in general: the ‘content editor’ and the ‘player’ which teachers will be using while they conduct classes. It’s as simple as putting animation in PowerPoint slides. You can set orders like the character’s movements and screen changes. If you know how to make PowerPoint slides, the operation is not that difficult.

Does Minischool produce its own teaching materials?

We tried. But customers in the education sector – the parents – are sensitive to brand names. Regardless of how cost-efficient you are, they won’t choose an unverified service. For that reason, we partnered with Blue Rabbit, a children’s book publisher, and bought the license of a collection called “Touch Talk English.” We digitalized the collection to use it in our business.

You might expect a great synergy effect by partnering with big names like Pororo or Cocomong.

We’ve had this conversation within the team. We considered whether we should first seek a character partnership and launch the service afterwards. The conclusion we reached was to first consolidate our own brand and then seek for a character partnership. The risk of being buried was too high. Furthermore, most prominent characters already have ties with the education sector, so it’s kind of difficult to generate creativity. After giving considerable thoughts to the matter, we decided to play the game with our original character.

How do you employ teachers?

As of now, we have part-time teachers from 5 pm to 10 pm to fill the afterschool timeslot. The teacher pool is one of our strengths. Even with the best contents, it is impossible to carry out a quality class without the instructor’s proper instructions. We first considered employing native-speaking teachers. There were obvious upsides to this plan: lower wages to spend and a 24-hour operation of the service. The problem was that native teachers have difficulties communicating with children who are unfamiliar with English. Since our service targeted young children, we put heavy weight on the emotional aspects. As a result, we decided to employ Korean teachers who can fully understand children who are not familiar with English. Most of our teachers are former school teachers. This is the reason behind the relatively high price of our service (₩70,000~90,000 per month) compared to other webcam English services (₩20,000~30,000 per month).

To be honest, I did not imagine your company to be at the stage of launching your service, given you received investment from K Cube Ventures.

In fact, the actual service development did not begin until after the investment. I think factors like my previous startup experience and working experience from Kakao; Mr. Ahn’s specialty in education; and the regathering of the old team were appreciated.

Who are your competitors?

There are various education services which utilizes characters. But there is none except ours which provides a real-time conversation between the teacher and the student by allowing a remote control over the character by the teacher. In this aspect, there is no competitor that provides a similar service. At the same time, if we consider the position where you crave for selection by parents with limited time and money, all the online English education and visiting education companies are our competitors. Our strength is providing educational experience and entertainment experience at the same time – a “learning through play” experience as we call it. In this area, it is crucial to induce students to speak a word of English – our character Koory can do this in 5 minutes.

Do you have any plans to expand to subjects other than English?

Certainly. The reason we chose English to begin with was not simply because it had the highest preference among parents, but also because it was the subject in which you can expect the most synergy out of a conversational communication. We can expand to mathematics, philosophical children’s story, logical compositions, and science. For instance, Koory will explain a situation and ask humanistic questions like “what would you do under these circumstances?” or “why did he think like that?” Our service is a teaching method. We can serve anything in this platform, and that is the ultimate service model we pursue – a platform for anyone who wishes to utilize our characters to make his or her own original contents, and conduct a class out of it.

Any lessons learned by starting your second startup?

Starting a company is always challenging. Every time there is a new crossroads. I think, rather than saying that I learned a lesson, now I know a gist of what I should do and what I should not do. Before, I didn’t know how to handle investment money. Now I certainly know where and where not to spend the them.

Finally, please share your short-term and long-term goals.

We’re just at the beginning. The short-term objective is to make our service more accessible. One of the means we’re working on is the mobile service. Right now, we only provide our service through PC, but I believe mobile devices with cameras and voice recognition technology will become the core of our service. Then there’s one plus one lesson. For example, a student in Seoul will be able to take classes with a student in Daegu. This will save cost on the customer’s side, and also create a more interactive and effective class environment. Enhancing the accessibility through lowering the cost and improving technology, that is our first objective.

As for long-term goal, we plan to expand our service to more subjects, and to make a platform out of our service. We will provide quality education methods and tools, and allow teachers and students to interact on the platform we provide. We’ll keep up the steam. Please keep an eye on us.

Inspired by Platum

Image source: Platum

Max is an LL.M. Candidate at Georgetown University Law Center. He is interested in the social impacts made by startup companies, and longs to contribute to the betterment of emerging companies. Max can be reached at hankuhm.lee@techforkorea.com.

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