Career Crashers: Meet the Founders of Toucan: Learn Any Language While You Browse the Web
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As part of our ongoing series featuring exciting startups to work for, Jérémy sat down with the 3 founders of Toucan, a venture-backed tech startup building a unique solution to help millions of people get better at learning languages—and beyond. 🚀
Related: Career Crashers Episode 13: Stacey Ferreira on Dropping Out and Founding Forge
In this episode, we discuss:
00:00 The Problem with Learning Languages
02:10 Toucan’s Solution & Taylor’s Story
04:50 Toucan’s Vision for Education
06:22 Brandon’s & Shaun’s Stories
08:49 Toucan’s Company Culture & Values
21:05 Who Should Consider Working at Toucan?
Connect with Toucan on Twitter:
Check out job openings: https://jointoucan.com/careers And remember, companies like Toucan hire opportunistically, so even if you don’t see a job for you, pitch ’em anyway!
Take the Job Hunt Crash Course at https://crash.co/learn
Full Transcript: – Meet the Founders of Toucan: Learn Any Language While You Browse the Web
Welcome to career Crashers, where we tell the stories of those who are not content to wait around firing rules and hoping for good things to happen. Great careers aren’t found. They’re forged.
It’s time to crash the party.
Have you ever tried to learn any language? If you have, what was your trying to learn a language experience, like? If you’re like most people, you probably got excited, learn a few words, maybe even paid for some tutoring sessions, and then life happened.
Your passion for being able to learn a new language was enough to get you about 25% of the way there more or less, but it didn’t quite fuel you through the harder part, Crossing the Chasm of steady practice and increasingly difficult concepts.
I took 12 years of Spanish in school, but all I remember is Donatella biblioteka. like where is the library, right? And a lot of the ways we’re taught are like quizzes and games and flashcards and like, that’s really not how our brain naturally is able to learn the language, it’s really this contextually immersion piece that we need.
Now, personally, I’ve always been a huge believer in graded exposure, this idea that instead of going full speed into something and then burning out, you gradually expose yourself to more of it. And that increased difficulties. Learning anything and being able to learn any language in this manner makes you far more likely to retain and improve over time, because it sort of flattens the curve known as the dip going up at first and then peaking and then back down to what’s known as the Valley of despair where most people quit, before finally climbing upward again, this time to infinitely greater heights.
That is where you truly master something. The dip phenomenon traps tons of people trying to learn all kinds of things. Being able to learn any language is just one of them, they’re usually something we learn out of pure curiosity rather than a practical reason. So it’s easy to slip out of the habit of practice.
So I sat down with the three co founders of a new company called Toucan, that’s building a Chrome extension to solve this problem. Taylor Neiman is their CEO.
So we’re really one, solving the time off box by layering on top of existing behavior, it’s meeting people where they already are throughout the full day, which we’re super excited about, right? This is the key thesis of Toucan, where we’ve built so many consumer tech products before and know how hard it is to steal time out of people’s very busy days.
And then the other piece of it really is that conceptually emergent, like, you’re we’re layering people on top of Twitter, like dead media, like TechCrunch, whatever sites are using and love and giving them micro doses, micro bits of learning over and over again, like on top of things they’re excited about. So it doesn’t feel like this constant repetition.
So I have was able to learn a ton of language growing up like mentioned Spanish, right, like I took 12 years of Spanish can only say don’t be solid biblioteka. Like That is crazy, I can only say I whereas the library. Also took French in high school, like pretty much got to the point of fluency of I did not have to prepare for any oral exams. Like I just went to the classroom and started jibber jabbering in French, but after graduation, completely lost it.
And then I taught myself Portuguese with like textbooks and YouTube videos when I was in college studied abroad in Portugal. And it’s still the language that I’m like keeping up with but like, I noticed, I had spent too much time trying to learn a language and wasn’t in my brain for whatever reason, like all that time, wasted loss and like, languages are just a human fundamental need for us to communicate it.
Like I’ve been very, like blessed and being able to travel all around the world. And a lot of it because of I’ve played competitive volleyball my entire life, and experiencing these different cultures and actually saying something to someone else breaks down so many barriers and gives you that point of empathy for other people that I knew I wanted to do something to help people learn any language, and languages education specific, because like, not only could it be a massive business that does a lot of good in the world, which has huge ripple effects for everyone.
We want to be one of five consumer tech products that people use every single day to help learn any language. And what’s interesting about Toucan, we almost become one of those defectors because we’re probably layered on top of one of those other five, right? And so how do we kind of squeeze ourselves in there?
Now Toucan’s vision for education goes far beyond just languages. What they’re building is architecture that can allow anyone to learn any language, and even anything in context.
We are laser focused today, right on languages and even just that has a massive opportunity. But every time we’re building features and our larger like, machine learning side on what we’re calling a learning engine, we’re thinking, how could this potentially apply to other content verticals, whether that’s science, history, math, trivia, really whatever you want to learn, because we really could power all of that.
And so we have that in the back of our mind. That’s really where we want to be. And I think we become like an iconic company, not just expanding the content, vertical, endless possibilities, but also the possibilities on the product vertical side, like okay, to can layers on top of your web browsing activity across every browser.
Now what does Toucan look like layered on top of mobile, it’s the most popular social messaging app browsing activity, they’re like, what is toucan look like in audio, where everyone’s walking around with air pods, or voice with like Alexa at home, or even you’re walking in the physical world with snap spectacles or Google Glass, and you see a subway station sign or restaurant menu, and that triggers micro moments of learning when you learn a language.
Okay, so by now, if you’re wondering, How the hell does she do it all herself? Don’t worry, she doesn’t. Taylor has two amazing co founders right next to her in the trenches.
So Brandon and Sean are two insanely talented individuals. Brandon on the product side and Sean on the engineering side.
My name is Brandon Dietz.
Hey there. I’m Sean.
I’ve been in LA tech for about 10 years or so.
I started programming when I was really just kind of taught myself how to do it, right. Like I was using the Family Computer to like, make an iPhone app.
I remember like building this out and getting downloads all across the world in countries I didn’t even know existed at that time. And just thinking like, this is the coolest thing of all time, like this thing that I built in my bedroom was being used by people all over the world.
Before this, I was at a little company called Riot Games that made League of Legends. I was there early on as a product manager and gotten to help out with man, just about everything, which is the cool part about being at a company that’s that early and scaling that fast is that you have like a front row seat to seeing how a company like that deals with scale and manages scale, right?
Like, this is an MBA and internationalization issues. And like, you know, hardcore tech scaling issues, which was incredible.
Throughout Middle School in high school, I just bought a bunch of iPhone apps, by the end had about 13 live on the App Store. And across that whole experience, he was working with different startups in LA, doing contracting work eventually met Steve Catina, who’s the founder of cray.com.
That’s actually where I met Taylor, we were within the science incubator. Taylor was at another company, it was really quite magical, because Taylor is the best at business development and partnerships.
And at the time, I was always looking to do side projects and getting advice from her. And she was building an app. So we were talking about how to build apps. And then eventually, I joined spear as an engineer. At that point, Taylor, Brandon and I were like, We got about something. And it was just kind of a Dream Teamat that point.
We’ve been in the weeds together in these high growth, very stressful environments, know how each other react to these situations, but also like, we really respect each other’s skill set, we have that work history, and just like our friends at the core of it, but they’re also like really good humans, which is always the best combo.
When you get when you put three super close co founders into one company who have history working together, and scaling and consumer tech startups.
We’ve seen the craziest things you can ever imagine, as well as like really good. And so we can pick and choose from these experiences like what do we want involved in our company, our culture from day one, that and have that insight and like intentionality behind what we’re building.
So even our recruiting process and hiring process, like we do a lot on the culture side, not only do they have to be a really talented individual, but like, are they also a good human and not even a culture fit? Like, are they a culture add to the be trying to get a culture fit, you’re gonna get a lot of the same people.
That’s what happens over and over again, right? And so from us, it’s like, how do we get addition and like new opinions and different types of people part of who can and what we’re building, which then allows us to recruit even more amazing people.
I’ve never heard anybody phrase it quite that way. I’m not just a culture fit, but a culture add. That’s so important, Taylor, because you’re exactly right. Like you want people, you want to be able to shape the culture like it’s, it would be unrealistic to claim that new hires don’t aren’t going to impact the culture.
For sure. And every new person you add doesn’t like change it completely. So like are they adding? And what way in what positive manners? Do they bring, like extra value to everyone?
I think all three of us have this understanding or belief that it products, as much as we had this idea we brought to the table, the future of to Canada is absolutely going to be defined by the people at its company products inherently are reflections of the development teams that worked on them.
Which means that the people that we hire the diversity of those perspectives and opinions and and and life experiences are what’s going to create that tapestry of what toolkit will become. And so for us, we also know that that good decisions don’t come from a homogenous, like an echo chamber, we we’ve seen companies in which that echo chamber was fatal.
And so for us, we want people that can, you know, productively disagree, that can have a different perspective on these that can give us so much insight into a world that we had no idea because that’s not only how do you solve problems, but also you discover opportunities.
I just love Toucan’s approach to culture building and helping people learn any language. There’s so intentional about it. And they’ve actually got three defined company values on which they base all of their decisions.
One is around wonder. Like having people really like, take the time to have like, mother like children, like think when it could be like, like, that creativity to be like that spark of joy, like, how do we furnish that within? As a team within the product for our users? Like, how do we get people to talk about wonder, one of them.
The other one is around empathy, like having empathy for end users, but also internally, as we’re communicating with one another, like, team having hard conversations, but as long as we’re coming from a place of empathy, really trying to understand the other person’s point of view, like, really helps in having those like hard conversations.
And the other piece is growth mindset. Like they’re always willing to learn improve better selves, like, how can we teach wanting to do that, as a team organization, no matter how big we get, or how successful we get.
Everyone needs to have that foundation of you have to like, be curious, like part of the Wonder part, you have to have empathy and kindness, because you’re just not fun to work with. If you’re not the world, I’m sure it’s littered with companies that hired the super smart, excellent jerk that just drove the rest of the team mad. And then the you have to be able to get stuff done, which is like the impact side.
No matter what problem you’re trying to solve in the world, there’s a massive value in empathy, right. And I think that’s something that it’s you can team demonstrates really well as like, we’re solving a really difficult technical problem, and also a product that hasn’t really been built before. But we’re doing it with massive amounts of respect for others, like our team as well as our customers, which is really exciting.
I’ve heard from from a lot of very respected product people that empathy is actually like, the number one trait that you can have in building a good product, because it is what allows you to build for the user in a more effective way.
And Brandon is one of the most empathetic people in the world. Like, and I’m so excited that he’s leading our product. Like he’s just so good. And also just such a good human. Fun fact, I call him the unicorn of product people. Just because once you work with Brandon, it’s like, it’s impossible to work with another product person. I mean, yeah, Brandon is just so good.
Right Games was an absolute crucible of that. There is this understanding amongst product managers, where if we brought in someone you sit right in for an interview, we actually had a lot of product PMS fail out of the interview, because we just looked at each other, like a development team here would rip them apart. Because our development teams are so independent, we give them so much free rein, or and we give them so much agency to be able to build what they want, say what they want and do what they want.
And if you have a product manager that’s not able to listen, and not able to form teams and not able to lead from as like a servant of the team. And to like not be able to have that level of empathy. At the end, they think they’re gonna come in like, well, I’m a big shot Product Manager, you’re gonna do it because I told you so, like, you’re gonna get crushed.
And so I think I had years and years of being in some of these high velocity high pressure teams in which that was the expectation, the thing and you you learned very quickly when you were kind of going off the rails on there.
I love that so much. Okay, what are some of the ways in which you guys are building the culture, like team building activities, or however you think about that?
So this piece is really fun for us. Because like, I think ideas are a dime a dozen, like you, there’s so many ideas out there. But it really comes down to team and execution and like, team is one of our amazing, like, competitive advantages. So like, how do we build a culture around that, right? from very simple things of like, we have our daily team stand up.
But at the end of it, we have a little Toucan, which I have somewhere on my desk, but we pass it off to whoever had it the day before, gets to give public kudos to whoever they want on the team, kind of like virtually throw it over to them. And then they choose for slack icon to a tip. Yeah, that whole day. The next day, they can pass off whoever they want, like really promoting like, okay, like, thank you, but in public and recognition piece.
And then even more fun things like Fridays, there is and one of our engineers has like taking on this role. Like, he creates a theme, ask the question like, what is your favorite Thanksgiving like dish? Or like, Where do you want to go on vacation? Everyone changes their last name to whatever they answer is. A lot of entropy because you’re like, Who is this? Who am I trying to message right now?
But it’s such a fun way to get to know everyone and then at stand up people kind of explain why they changed their name to what they did. In addition to that, like, we have optional on Wednesday nights, like game nights, we’ve been playing Among Us the past few weeks, because we really like it as a team.
And then Airbnb experiences, they have virtual ones going on. So we’ve been doing one of those every month. And then also as a team, like very optional, too. But we have 10am meditations. And I think what’s key for this is like, this isn’t just top down. It’s something that we test. And then if the team likes it, one of our team members really leads. And so each of these different initiatives are led by someone on our team.
Did you set out to build a really fun company to help people learn any language? Because that’s what it sounds like.
I mean, if you’re building your dream company, you just naturally get to do that, right? Like, why wouldn’t we build an amazing culture or take the time to do that and help people learn any language, and that like hiring so hard for so many teams and companies.
Like, but it’s people that make you when they’re like investing time and taking that time and intentionality to do that, not only is a good business decision, but also if I was spending 10, 20 years building this iconic company, I want to work in this place, too. You know, like I’m also an employee, even though I’m co founder CEO.
That’s a great outlook to have. Okay, now, let’s dive into that a little bit more. What do you encourage people to think about when considering Toucan, which. help you learn any language, as a place to work?
This is a great question, because I think it hits on like, not only the massive potential, like, as a stockholder themselves, like could be a very lucrative opportunity, right?
It’s a lot of the the the hype of high growth tech companies in general, like, hopefully, your stock options will be worth something. But I think our kind of a key shift to is like, making sure we’re taking care of our employees as humans also, like having that cultural side because so much of work in life is blended.
And it’s one of the reasons why when we gave up our office to go fully remote, we didn’t just keep our benefits the same. Because now we were saving so much money on not having to pay rent on our office space, or pay for food, or coffee or snacks. Like we still wanted that money going to our employees, there’s no reason why benefits shouldn’t be updated that way, right to make their lives better.
And so we took the time to go do that. We created a Notion Docker ally, you might have seen it too, but it’s like amazing beautiful, and I think it’s a testament to like, not just having it to help recruit new employees, but like, really getting the team to use them, like, Hey, this is gonna help your life because you’re a human first. And you’re like doing work also to add value, but like you need to take care of yourself along the way.
One of the things I learned early on is that relationships are really important. Right? With your coworkers, family, obviously, friends, like all of these things, relationships are key. And tech is such a small world. And like, my relationship with Steve is incredibly valuable, like such an incredible mentor for me.
Like, I have massive respect for everybody at Pray, massive respect for everybody at Fair, like, all these really valuable relationships. And I see that for me at Toucan too, right. And I think like, that’s one thing that excites me so much is just like, the relationships that we’re building, the whole team is really cohesive, and we work super well together, right?
Like, Brandon on the product tailor on business. Like, even at the very beginning, it was very strong collaboration across all three, right. And that created an environment for me to be able to go into program, like in a very effective way.
And now as I’m like transitioning more towards management and CTO responsibilities, it’s really about how do I create that environment? for our team to do that, right? How do I create the environment for our team to feel like, they can have creative freedom, and really, like grow in their roles?
How do you think about what kinds of people he would love to see working out to can and what kinds of traits or what kinds of people, your company is probably not a good fit for?
So almost describe these people as somewhat of a unicorn, like, who are insanely skilled and talented in their field, right? Like, they are so good at what they do. But that’s they’re also kind, humble, good humans, like the amount of people that we’ve interviewed that are amazingly talented, but also massive apples is like out of this world.
And like, you can really tell during an interview when references, and really being able to weed those people out. And I think that’s an important piece for us. Because, as I mentioned, like, people, we look at them as culture as, like, if you’re throwing a bad apple into the mix, it’s gonna sour everything for everyone. And that’s like, really important, especially when you’re so early.
Taking a weekend to build a project or taking a week to build a project really speaks volumes. And like anytime I get to talk to people about their projects, and see that they’re excited about it, and like, hear their vision for it. Like, that’s what really gets me excited.
I have been in so many organizations that just look at the logos on your resume. And like, as I see those people getting hired around, they’re like, what, why? And then you see other people that don’t necessarily have those logos, or those experiences on a resume, but they just get things done. There’s so eager to learn.
They’re so scrappy, and they’re, they’re asking for help asking questions. There’s, like that humble aspect, but like, such a high velocity of like getting up to speed that like, totally willing to invest the time they’ll help them because they’re eager themselves to get there.
You want to invest in people help them grow. And actually, like even give them the opportunity to even be part of that experience and journey as well.
It is kind of easier now today to just build something than ever before build it for one person, a little fear your, your grandparent, your brother, your sister, your few buddies, that thing will get a kick out of it.
Just make something. Show that it’s like practice what it means to to see a problem or see an opportunity and capitalize on not only you definitely have to have all your hard skills and right, from a product manager that might be you know how to use JIRA, you know how to organize backlogs, you kind of have an idea of prioritization techniques, project management techniques.
As a designer, you have to be able to do some decent levels of graphic design and and you know, user experience flows and gray boxes. But once you get past that technical foundation, so much of it is how well and elegantly do you solve problems? And how well do you think about problem solving? Right?
And so, you know, practice, like make something, make a web page, make an app, make a doodle make anything that can convey and, and speak to other people, which is honestly this is such an exciting time and technology in which if the tools becoming more and more accessible, power becomes more accessible and not power and like a dominant form, but power in an expressive form input form, it becomes so much more accessible and easy to use.
And you as an individual developer of any stripe, can have such a larger impact as on your own that you did, you know, years ago. If you get one or two people and you kind of create a team you can create something that even if it’s like not perfect, it’ll you still are able to demonstrate a lot of those skills, one of those bits, which is what I really look for in portfolios in projects, as much as I am looking for like, Hey, does this look like it flows well and under this thing, I deeply want to know what your thought process was.
How did you go about it? What did you learn? Did you understand what we tried to solve? What failed? Oh, man, I could have someone that has failed 100 times that is ideal. Because we also need people that can have a healthy relationship with failure. So like that is you don’t figure this stuff out.
We’re so good unless you just go straight forward at a problem and I basically hit a wall and he thought it was a door. Like it that’s that’s just like a thing that is super key.
I think like, actually be very clear with yourself that you’re capable for a lot more than you initially think, is incredibly important. And also communicating that out to the world and like asking for what you really think that you deserve or asking. asking for advice or asking for help.
Like all of those things are really critical. And just being really honest about like, what what is possible for yourself is like a really amazing stuff. And I think it just opens up like a lot of possibilities.
We are going to be growing significantly over the next few months and helping people learn any language. Go to JoinToucan.com. You can go to the careers page in the footer. Find me on Twitter, just @Taylor_Nieman and we’d love to hear from you.
Like what you hear? Go to crash.co and join the career revolution. Do you want to share your own career crash story? Send it directly to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.