This interview was featured in Issue 6 of NZ Entrepreneur magazine.
Great businesses are started every day when people act upon an opportunity. Michael Dowse co-founded language education startup Go Vocab, enabling him to explore several languages, as well as a few continents along the way.
1) When did you start Go Vocab and how did the idea come about?
My co-founder Jeremy and I both struggled with learning languages in High School and we knew there had to be a better way. At the beginning of 2011 we quit our jobs to work on Go Vocab full time.
We set out to build a fun and engaging way for high school students to learn vocabulary. Vocabulary is a core building block of learning a new language and an obvious place to start, we’ve since expanded Go Vocab to teach verb conjugations as well.
2) You’re currently based in Santiago, Chile. What led you there and why?
We came to Chile to participate in Startup Chile, a program run by the Chilean Government that offers grants to tech startups like us. The program provides working visas and $40,000 USD in funding. We leapt at the opportunity to work in an environment surrounded by fellow entrepreneurs and also at the chance to test our own product as we learn Spanish.
By moving to a new country we’ve cut free from all the distractions and commitments that build up after staying in one place for a while. It’s easier to focus on developing the business here.
Our goal is to build a business that isn’t tied to a particular place, that serves customers all over the world, and where team members work from anywhere they like.
3) Have you taken any external funding yet and what do you think are the best ways to survive the early stages of a new business financially?
I started building Go Vocab in the evenings while working full time at the end of 2010. After 2 months I had a working product and several teachers who had agreed to trial it. At this point Jeremy and I quit our jobs and after another week of full time work we launched with over 1,000 students from schools around Wellington.
By mid 2011 we had our first revenue and raised a seed round from Southgate Labs. When you have revenue coming in, you are in a much stronger position to raise money. In our case we’re working with a slow sales cycle and we wouldn’t have been able to grow fast enough on revenue alone.
If I were doing it again, I would push even harder to get more revenue, sooner.
4) Some people say it’s essential that you are passionate about the product or service your business produces… would you agree?
It’s important to be passionate about the product, and I’d extend that to say it’s important to use the product/service as much as possible. Initially with Go Vocab we were more excited about the market opportunity and the prospect of building our own business than we were about actually teaching vocabulary. This slowed us down quite a bit, too many decisions were based on intuition, and invalid assumptions.
We overcame this in two ways, firstly by spending time with teachers and students and understanding their perspective, and secondly by learning a language ourselves. The entire Go Vocab team is now learning Spanish and we’re passionate about making Go Vocab the best tool to support language learning in the classroom.
5) What were some of the challenges you had to overcome whilst you were getting established?
With two technical co-founders we struggled to execute well in every area of the business other than software development! I think as a founder it’s important to understand all aspects of the business, even if you’re not directly working on them. We’ve learned a lot of new skills along the way.
On a personal level, asking for help is something I’ve never been good at. I’ve had to learn how to focus my time where it’s most needed and to delegate or ask for help when appropriate.
Our challenge now that we have customers and strong growth is not dropping the ball on anything. It’s really hard to be simultaneously focused on product, sales, marketing and recruiting plus all the distractions that come with running a business.
6) You’ve spent a bit of time at the Kiwi Landing Pad in San Francisco and now at Startup Chile. How does New Zealand compare with support for start-ups and how can New Zealand improve based on your experience in other markets?
New Zealand is doing well on many fronts, we get very good support for startups from the government and regional councils. The business administration aspects of starting a business are also a lot easier in NZ than in Chile or the US.
New Zealand and Chile face similar challenges in building a startup community, both are small, isolated countries. Chileans talk about how their geographic isolation breeds a mental isolation, and I think this applies to New Zealand as well.
Events like Webstock help to bring the world to NZ but it’s hard to get a global perspective without seeing your potential markets first-hand. I would advise all entrepreneurs based in New Zealand to get out there and take advantage of resources such as the Kiwi Landing Pad.
7) Do you believe anyone can learn to be a successful entrepreneur?
I believe that anyone can learn to be an entrepreneur, but I also acknowledge the fact that I have had many advantages. My parents run their own business together and I grew up in an environment that promoted and encouraged entrepreneurism. My father has also worked as a software developer, so I was introduced to technology at a young age. I was making websites for school projects when I was 10!
In saying all of this, I do believe that anyone can set up their own company successfully if they put a lot of effort and time into it, and are passionate about what they are trying to create.
8) What are the three biggest mistakes new entrepreneurs make?
Everyone makes their own mistakes, but after meeting many startup founders around the world I’m beginning to identify some patterns. The best founders intimately understand every aspect of the business and have a self awareness that allows them re-evaluate their core assumptions.
I see a lot of people building marketplaces without a good plan to get users. If you’re building any kind of marketplace, then your solution to the chicken and egg problem is critical and will define your startup.
In our case, too much of our time went into just keeping our existing product running and keeping existing customers happy. Always make sure you are spending time on growing the business.
9) Were there times you doubted yourself in building your business? If so, what advice would you give to those who have periods of doubt about whether or not they’ll make it?
There have definitely been times where I have had doubts, both about Go Vocab in general, and about my abilities to build and maintain it.
Remember that who you are is not tied to what you do. Even if your startup fails, life will go on.
Thankfully I have an amazing team, investors, friends and family who are determined to make Go Vocab succeed.
10) What would your advice be to any NZ’ers reading this, who have an idea for a business but are scared about giving it a go?
Work hard to eliminate as much risk as possible as fast as you can. Building a startup isn’t inherently risky but quitting your job with no product, users or revenue in sight is.
Ideally you should have a product, users and preferably revenue before quitting your job. If that sounds impossible, consider that at Startup Weekend where teams manage to get both users and revenue in only 54 hours.
Most importantly, do not fear failure. So long as you learn from it, failure is a critical step on the path to success.
To find out more about Go Vocab, visit their website at http://govocab.com