Blog @romenrg

Thoughts and experiences; about Software, Internet and Entrepreneurship.

Vocabulary Notebook: From Idea to Reality in One Year

The 8th of September 2012 I started to work intensively in an idea I called Vocabulary Notebook. With that idea I was planning to solve a problem that myself and many other english students experience while learning vocabulary. It has already been a year since then and that idea is now a real platform used by thousands of students and teachers around the world. I must say that I’m quite proud of what we have achieved during this year, both as an entrepreneur and as an engineer. Although I don’t have much free time now, I have forced myself to write this post to summarize what has happened around Vocabulary Notebook during this year, from idea to reality. Since there are so many things that have happened, I’m afraid this post is going to be quite long, but I think that the anniversary deserves it.

In this image we can see the different components of Vocabulary Notebook. The full platform includes Android, iOS and Web Apps both for students and for teachers.

Honestly, in this year I have worked a lot. A lot means an average of 80 hours a week… But this post is not about all the time I have worked and all the things I have learned. This post is about the first year of Vocabulary Notebook. It’s a summary of what have happened this year around our product, from the very beginning to the full platform we have today. I will probably publish another post soon in which I will talk about all I have learned during this year, doing some retrospectives about my decisions and describing all the tasks I have had to accomplish and all the roles I have had to play. But today I want to review what has happened to Vocabulary Notebook during this year in which it has been built.

The Idea

I had the idea of Vocabulary Notebook in my mind since 2011. We were living in Cambridge, UK and besides working remotely I was preparing the CAE Exam in an English School. Our teachers suggested us to use a paper notebook where we could write down all the words (phrasal verbs and idioms) that we were learning everyday; with a sample sentence and a definition. I had tried those notebooks before several times and they always failed for me. After a few days, the vocabulary was always messed. No alphabetical order, no topics order, difficult to edit, uncomfortable to carry… I tried it again, saving several pages for each letter this time, to have some alphabetical order. It failed again. They are uncomfortable. In this case the problem was that I had a lot of white pages in the middle; while editions were still messy and all topics were mixed… I asked my partners in the course and most of them had the same problems.

You could think that the problem is that Vocabulary Notebooks are not useful; that it’s better to do nothing. However, there are several studies [1] that prove the benefits of these notebooks in the Vocabulary Acquisition Process. Significant benefits. The base of the improvement is the personalization of the learning process. If you write your own definitions and sample sentences you tend to remember the word easily afterwards… You understand the word deeply and you won’t forget it easily. And it is true. If you read a definition from a dictionary, you will forget it quickly. If you create your own, first you have to understand the meaning and then you will generate your own definition. You have learned during the process. If you see the word again, you will remember instantly.

Ok, let’s agree on Vocabulary Notebooks. They allow you to learn vocabulary faster and deeper. But they have several problems… And they could be solved with technology. That’s why I started to look for tech tools that could help me to sort my personal vocabulary. I didn’t want a dictionary nor a translator. I wanted to have my personal notebook, where I could create my own definitions and sample sentences, as my teacher wanted; but I wanted to have filters to study by categories, by not-known words, sorting… And after days looking for it, I couldn’t find what I wanted. I was mainly looking for “vocabulary notebook” in google. There were many references on how to create your own vocabulary notebook on paper. But no technology around. One day, when I gave up looking for a tool I went to bed, frustrated. Suddenly, I woke up in the middle of the night again, and decided purchase the domain

That was in September 2011. That day I just bought the domain, wrote some notes about the tool I was going to create and even defined a quick ER scheme of the database that it would have. That was all. I was busy back then working remotely as an Analyst/Programer in an e-learning tool for basic maths for children that we called EMATIC. It was integrated in a larger project called SAVEH, directed by researchers from the University of La Laguna. I was working in that project until January 2012, when I was hired by Arte Consultores Tecnológicos. During that period I was still working in a previous startup called Turawet, which we started in June 2010 and stoped working on by December 2011. We failed to market Turawet and we didn’t put all the effort we should have put in the UI and UX. Moreover we took it more as a hobby than as a real startup. I learned those lessons for Vocabulary Notebook.

As I said, in January 2012 I started working in Arte Consultores Tecnológicos as Analyst / Programmer (Front-end Engineer), mainly dedicated to Stat4you. It was an engaging project, a sort of startup within the company; with many challenges. It was also a busy time. I was learning a lot of new technologies and we also moved to a new house. It wasn’t the time to start with a new personal project.

Let’s do it!

But then, in September 2012 my girl had to go to to mainland Spain to prepare an exam that would allow her to access a job she wanted. I was alone at home for 4 months. That was the time. To avoid loneliness I decided to start with Vocabulary Notebook in my free time.

First, I tried to engage some friends / colleagues with the idea, to be partners and create a company. Difficult task. In my experience it’s not easy to engage Software Engineers in your project, specially if they have jobs and if they are not the target customers of the product you are planning to build. Usually good engineers find jobs quite easily (even in Spain), so they don’t usually have too much time to spend in other projects. If they decide to join a project, it’s quite probable that they are not going to be fully committed. I have the feeling that many Software Engineering like building things, but they hate business. They like building things in their free time and meeting with colleagues to do it. But more as a learning process, not as a business. - “Let’s just start and see what happens” -. Since they tend to do it in the free time, they would spend just some hours a week. I have been there myself. That’s why I know how it works. And I didn’t want that in this case, in this case I was planning to build a serious business. Commitment was needed.

So in the end I decided to do it myself. I would find the way. Fortunately, I managed to convince my friends Axel and Robert to develop the iOS and Android apps respectively, as freelancers. I was lucky. They are great engineers. If you think that Vocabulary Notebook apps for iOS and Android are great, it has a lot to do with them. To build a great product you need a great team. That’s for sure. I was lucky to convince them to collaborate with me.

Lean Startup and other buzzwords / trends that we have embraced

From the very beginning of this new project I was a follower of the “Lean Startup” methodology for Business. As a software engineer I always try to apply Agile Methodologies for Software Development, so in this case I was willing to apply what for me was the equivalent for Business Development. By that time I was enrolled in “The Lean LaunchPad”, the Udacity course of Steve Blank, which turned out to be a really great course for me. I learned a lot from him. To dive deep in the Lean approach, I was reading The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. The last piece seemed to be the Business Model Canvas, but I had been working with it in my previous startup Turawet, so I was already used to it.

Additionally, by that time we were attending a course in Arte Consultores about the same topics, taught by Edei Consultores.

Get out of the building

So I decided to “get out of the building”. First of all, I arranged meetings with several english teachers, in which we used to discuss the way in which Vocabulary is taught, the benefits of Vocabulary Notebooks, the trends in education, such as the personalization of the learning process; and other topics such as using software, smartphones and technology in class. I learned a lot from them. And what is more, they helped me prove that there was a real need when it comes to teaching and learning vocabulary. Teachers didn’t want dictionaries nor translators. They wanted students to create their own definitions and sample sentences. They didn’t want me to introduce features like “import definition from…” or an automatic translation. Most of them were actually encouraging students to keep their own records of personal vocabulary in paper notebooks (either an specific vocabulary notebook or in the general notebook). During the meetings teachers admitted that the paper notebooks approach had several problems for studying vocabulary, but for most of them it was the best approach, because of the personalization that it allowed.

From the beginning I had the feeling that probably students were not willing to pay for a learning tool like Vocabulary Notebook. Many students prefer tools that teach them english. And that’s not what Vocabulary Notebook is intended to do. We wanted to do what teachers wanted. Not only because they are the education experts, but because we wanted them to be our prescriptors. We actually wanted to help teachers teach, instead of being their competitors. There are plenty of applications that teach english. We wanted to be different. Additionally, as an advanced english student I agreed with teachers about the importance of the personalization in the learning process.

The initial idea I had in mind was a web application which was a personal Vocabulary Notebook. Just that. You could be able to add words (optionally adding definitions, sample sentences, translations, types or categories). For me the most important features were sorting (alphabetically and by last modified) and the filters (studying only not-known words or a particular topic easily). Those are the key features I missed the most in a paper notebooks. Moreover, I was fully committed to the personalization of learning. That’s why I wanted Vocabulary Notebook to be an empty notebook (as teachers want). All fields had to be optional. You could write a definition or not… Maybe just a translation, or perhaps just a sample sentence. Up to you. The same would happen with categories. I wanted students to create their own categories. One category could be “animals” but another could be “Monday Exam”; and another could be “Lee’s words” (in case you have a teacher named Lee that every now and then teaches you weird words typical from him).

In my opinion that was a great tool for students like me. Engaged students willing to improve their vocabulary. People tired of the problems of paper notebooks. But I found that many students wanted apps to learn english, not a complementary tool for their learning process. Ok, no hard feelings, there are several well known apps you can use in the market. We were looking for something slightly different. We prefered to follow teachers and engaged students.

Talking about monetization, I was thinking of a freemium model for the smartphone apps and a subscription model for the web application. I liked the subscription model for the cloud accounts. Students should pay a small fee per month or per year to use the web application. But we all agreed that probably students were not going to pay it. Unless their teacher recommend them doing it. This could be a tool schools could offer to all their students, as an innovative resource. But we would have to validate that. With schools. And we would have to offer something else to teachers…

My colleagues (specially Axel) convinced me to start doing smartphone apps. The apps were a part of the full platform I wanted, and as an MVP, cheaper to develop. It wasn’t difficult to convince me. Moreover, by that time apps were trending (still are). I was hearing all day cases of people getting rich with apps. Everybody had (still have) an idea of an app was going to make him/her rich. Why not Vocabulary Notebook? We would upload it to the market and suddenly it would go viral and I would get rich!… So we decided to go for the apps. Actually I don’t regret at all. But I didn’t get rich with the apps. At all. Currently, our main business is the platform for schools (that hasn’t made me rich neither -yet-).

To get out of the building I created a questionnaire in which I had many different questions to ask students, such as the way they used to study english and vocabulary. I had also created mockups of all the screens. And I printed them. I pretended the mockups to be my MVP. I started visiting many friends that study english and many teachers as well. I asked them the questions in my questionnaire and I also did usability tests with them using the paper mockups I had. I got a lot of feedback. I changed a lot the UI to make it fit their needs. I also asked them about pricing, and I realized that even though there were several students that liked the tool, many of them were not willing to pay for it. Actually, most of them confessed that they never pay for software - You can always get the same thing for free! -. However, one of the questions I was asking was “What if your teacher recommends this app? Will you buy it?” In those cases around 70 percent of students replied that they would pay at least the unlimited version of the smartphone / tablet app. A few would even pay the subscription for the web application and the cloud accounts. Teachers were the key. By then I was convinced that I had to do something teachers like. And I was thinking of a way in which schools could pay for it, instead of students.

With all this feedback we decided to keep developing the apps. I was pretty sure that teachers would like the app (many of them had already told me that) and then, teachers would convince students to buy it. However, I still prefered the subscription model offered by the web app. Not only because we would be getting money every month / year; but also because I knew from my meetings with teachers that in many schools they don’t allow students to use smartphones in class, but they have laptops or tablets instead. And then, since I wanted that students could use their Vocabulary Notebook everytime and everywhere, I would need cloud accounts and a syncing mechanism for their multiple devices. - But let’s do the apps first -.

Now we have a plan

By October I had started preparing a submission for the Entrepreneurial Awards “Fyde CajaCanarias” although almost everyone told me that it was worthless. - “They are looking for other type of projects, you won’t get any prize” -. I did it anyway. I described my business model using a Lean approach. I also did some quick forecasts, both from app purchases and school’s monthly / yearly subscriptions. I also talked about costs. But what I didn’t do was talking about the expenses or incomes I was going to have 5 years from then in the month of March, as traditional Business Plans state and as banks and other traditional people whant you to do it. I just showed my pricing strategy, the market I had, competitors and, as I said before, I even had some simple forecast for the first years.

By November, a few days before the deadline for the submission, I managed to convince my boss at Arte Consultores, Carlos, to sign the project with me for the Contest. After talking thoroughly about the project, he did.

Suddenly everything goes faster than expected

From then on, everything started to move much faster. During the first week of December the organization of the contest contacted me to tell me that I was among the 4 finalists. I couldn’t believe it! Neither the rest of the team. For the final I did a presentation in front of the jury and we got the second price in the contest! That was a great step forward.

A few days after that I submitted the project to the IV edition of Tenerfie Invierte, which is some sort of startup accelerator program run by Cabildo de Tenerife, which ends in a Investment Forum. In the meantime I managed to convince two Technical Architects I knew to invest in my project too, besides Carlos and myself. They agreed. At the end we were going to create a company… After talking with a lot of people, the name was going to be Langproving. There were very bad proposals too. I remember one that was “Underslang”… Now it sound horrible to me.

I contacted many professors of Software Engineering at University of La Laguna (those that had taught me when I was studying there). I was planning to hire people for our company. Suddenly I was a headhunter. I had several interviews with last-year students and in the end I had an agreement to hire three of the best ones. As I have already said, one of the best things I managed to create this year was a great team.

The 2nd of January we officially constituted the company. I was the CEO and I had parteners which were going to be both advisors and investors. People with a lot of experience in business that were going to help me to build a new business. We had some money, so we hired our first 3 employees. We also had money to pay my colleagues Axel and Robert for their work developing the iOS and Android apps.

I was going to keep working at Arte Consultores until we were reaching the break even, because I was the only one not being paid in our new company. - I was the entrepreneur -. So in those days I was working 40 hours a week in Arte Consultores (approximately from 7:00 to 15:00 from Monday to Friday) and then, from 16:00 to the end of the day I was going to be working on Vocabulary Notebook, with Esaú, Carlos and Victor, that were working part-time in the afternoons. Sometimes I had to meet Robert and Axel, as well as doing paperwork, meeting teachers, replying customers… Etc. I worked long days and full weekends. Average: 80 hours. As I said before.

The new team was supposed to be working in the web application and in the API. That was long project. But we were also developing the mobile apps at the same time. We launched them by the end of February, coinciding with the awards ceremony in which we were going to get a Second Prize from Fyde-Cajacanarias; and also coinciding with the final of Tenerife Invierte (we had been chosen among the 8 finalist in that contest too).

We kept working hard, and by March we started to have customers all around the world using the iOS and Android apps, some even paying for the unlimited version. It is such a great satisfaction to see people from so many different parts of the world downloading and even paying for your product, that it cannot be easily described. Even when the total amount you are getting is less than 100 €. But it is not about the amount. It’s about someone that you don’t know in India or New Zealand paying for your product.

We released the apps with a freemium model. Everybody could download the apps for free and use them up to 10 words, just to try them. Then, they would have to purchase it (through an in-app purchase), in order to have unlimited words in their devices. At this stage there are many stories that I could talk about… They go from changing the prices of the apps in different countries and getting metrics to compare the results; to releasing bugs to production and receiving a lot of emails from customers… Late nights replying emails, changing the UI to get users use hidden features or increase conversions, and many other stories.

The teacher dashboard

On the other hand, from the feedback we had from students and teachers we were trying to improve the pack we were going to offer to schools. Since teachers were going to be our prescriptors, we had to offer something else to them. And it was when we started developing the teacher dashboard. Now teachers were able to see the top not-known words, which were the words that students of a particular class didn’t know (marked as not-known in their notebooks). We also provided other features such as the top important words for students, the top used categories… And also general stats about the class (number of words per student, number of tests, average scores…). Moreover, we included a “suggestions” feature. Teachers were now able to send lists of words to their students, but since we wanted to keep the notebooks personal for students, students would be able to accept or reject the words the teacher was sending. And teachers will be able to see who accepts a word, who rejects it and even able to see those students who had those words already in their notebooks (advanced students).

These features soon proved to be really useful for teachers. We were offering a full pack to schools that not only included cloud accounts for students (thus providing access to their notebooks from any device, using the iOS and Android apps as well as the web application). We were now offering accounts for teachers with very valuable feedback for them too. Moreover, we were offering technical support and training courses for teachers and students. Actually, that’s what we do now. The school only pays a monthly / yearly fee per student. The teacher accounts, technical support and training courses are included without any extra charge.

Present: selling and improving

We now offer 3 different products with regards to Vocabulary Notebook. There are iOS and Android apps for students (with a cheap single payment, but are limited to just one device); we also offer cloud accounts for students (multiple devices and words stored in our cloud) and finally we offer the full pack for schools (including cloud accounts for students, accounts for teachers, support and training courses).

Until now we have had more than 12 000 app downloads (combining the App Store and Google Play). From those downloads, we have had many users that have purchased the “mobile unlimited” version (premium). And we even have several cloud users too. Moreover, we have schools and universities from different countries already using the Full Platform and we are conducting some experiments with two universities to prove the benefits of Vocabulary Notebook for Vocabulary Acquisition.

We are in a crucial moment, right now. We have just arrived to the market and we are trying to get to many other schools to use our platform so we can reach the break even as soon as possible.

We have also won another prize in August, 2013. The Second Prize “Tenerife Innova” from Cabildo de Tenerife. We also got a grant from the Gobierno de Canarias, with some funding from the European Union, although we haven’t received the money yet. But prizes and awards, as well as new customers, help us to keep working hard on Vocaulary Notebook.

In July 2013 I left Arte Consultores to advocate myself exclusively to Langproving, and specially to our main product: Vocaulary Notebook. I hadn’t done that before because I needed the money to pay my personal expenses, but by July I needed more time to market the Full Pack for schools. It required all my time, actually. Fortunately, by that time I had someone that could pay my expenses (althoug one day she will reproach this to me)… So from then on, until now, I’m working around 70 hours a week; but exclusively dedicated to Langproving. It’s a lot of time, but I’m focused on just one company. And I really love that company.

So… This is the summary of this first year of Vocabulary Notebook. A lot has happened. For me it has been a massive experience. I have learned a lot. And I don’t know what will happen a year from now. It’s impossible to know it. All I can say is that now we have a clear Business Model and that we have learned a lot about our product and about our customers. We have a great product. But above all, what we have is a great team. I’m really lucky to have great people around me, that’s what allowed Vocabulary Notebook to become reality.

Thanks to my great team: Fermín Gutiérrez Hernández, Carlos Peña Dorta, Robert Corujo Rodríguez, Axel Hernández Ferrera, Esaú Suárez Ramos, Carlos García-Ramos de Lorenzo Cáceres, José Manuel Alonso Delgado and Victor Mora Afonso.

Thanks to all the people that have helped us too… From teachers to english students, advisors, friends… And above all, thank you Mónica Gutiérrez Barrios, love of my life; thank you for your patience, understanding, help and love. You are my fuel for this adventure.

I’m only sure about one thing regarding this amazing year… I will never, ever, forget it. No matter what happens from now on; it has been a great experience and I would do it again, definitely.

[1] Studies about Vocabulary Notebooks