Michael Kwan

I write stuff

The story of Get English Right

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Have you ever heard the stories behind successful startups and felt that it’s just so unbelievable that all the parts just seemed to fall into place? I’ve heard quite a few amazing stories (Tony Fernandez, AirAsia; Richard Branson, Virgin Group; Marc Zuckerberg, Facebook) and have always wished that it would be so awesome if I had such a story to tell my friends some day. Well, I do now. My team is obviously not as successful as the examples above but hey, it’s an interesting story and there are some lessons to learn at the end 😛

The story begins with me stumbling upon a free coding bootcamp on Facebook called D-Code Bootcamp. Free workshops, free food, free drinks – why not? I signed up and waited.

Come Friday morning (Day one of three), D-Code started with the standard welcomes and speeches, and we were asked to gather ourselves into groups of up to five people. There was a competition here – build a Google Chrome app with the coding knowledge you’ll learn in D-Code, and win a fully-sponsored trip to Silicon Valley. That sounded pretty darn awesome, but it’d be impossible for me as I’d imagine the winning groups to consist of professional coders. No way I’d stand a chance.

The stage opened up for people who had app ideas, to pair up with groups without a strong idea. A few people took up the offer and presented some really awesome app ideas and found groups after that. They certainly did their homework – those ideas weren’t stitched up overnight. A small idea popped up into my head, and I figured, why not just give it a shot? It’s not a million-dollar idea, I thought, but I was alone and didn’t want to spend the weekend alone… so I stepped on stage, took the mike and addressed the 500 coders in the hall.

(I still can’t believe I actually said this on stage)

“Hi, my name is Michael and I’m not a coder, I work in the media. I’m TOTALLY not interested in going to Silicon Valley, but I have this small idea, so if there are other people here that are as half-motivated as I am, let’s hook up and do something.”

“I consider myself to be a bit of a grammar Nazi and it really annoys me when I see someone write bad English. I’m thinking of building an app that corrects Malaysians’ English through examples, for instance, ‘Hi, you eaten already ah?’, and corrects it to ‘Hi, have you eaten yet?’. It’s a very simple app, and users can use it while they’re waiting for their Facebook page to load.”

“So if there’s anyone here who wants to do this with me, I’m sitting in the front of the hall. My name is Michael, and thank you for your time”

I sat down feeling really, really stupid. There was NO WAY anyone would want to form a group with me, after hearing such a lame-assed pitch like that.

Someone came by, and wanted to form a group with me.

I kid you not.

Evelyn Samuel, a professional trainer, invited me to join her group of educators, who are passionate about English. It was there that I was introduced to Arul Jothi, a university lecturer. It turns out that they banded together out of a common interest, and my little pitch fit really well with them. It was a pleasant surprise to me, and I started getting a little more enthusiastic to see this through.

We sat down and discussed about the app idea, and by the end of the day we settled on our minimum viable product. However none of us were coders, so Arul and I worked on learning more code while Evelyn focused on the content and business plan. After all, that’s the whole point of D-Code, right – to learn coding? It was tough, learning code in one day, but we gave it our best. After all, by the end of Day One, we figured we won’t be running into any more professional coders who had no group to join.

Day Two came, and we ran into a professional coder who had no group to join.

I’m serious!

Brandon Ong, a developer, and Crystal Ng, a designer, had missed Day One and happened to run in to Evelyn when they came on Saturday morning. It turns out that they got to know each other in an event the year before.

We popped the question, and they said yes! Our team was finally complete!

If you’re not already amazed by the coincidences so far, think about this – our group was made out of a founder/leader (me), bizdev/content (Evelyn & Arul), developer (Brandon) and designer (Crystal). We had all the basic components of a startup, joined together through a series of VERY unlikely coincidences. It blows my mind to this day, every time I think about it.

The rest, as you know, is history. We built Get English Right, won the Most Improved Team award, was selected as Top 60 (out of 500) to join the Global Startup Youth and 4th Global Entrepreneurship Summit, and one month later, were announced as among the three final D-Code teams to win a two-week immersion program in Silicon Valley.

I’m sitting here in the YouNoodle office in San Francisco writing this, and I’m still amazed at how it all happened. I did promise some lessons to this story, so here they are:

1. Don’t give up before you start. That’s just subconsciously trying to avoid failure. Embrace failure, they are the best teachers in life. Don’t aim to fail, but don’t run from it either. When you do something, give it one hundred percent – you may fail, but you may also succeed beyond your wildest expectations.

2. Luck only gets your started. You have to grab opportunities as they come by, and work your butt off to make it succeed. Assembling the Manglish Decoders was lucky. Winning the prize took many late nights and a LOT of hard work.

3. Don’t be afraid to learn, and to lean on other people. The world is big, and there are TONS of other people who are smarter than you. Lean on them, and learn from them, whether they are part of your team, or are external influencers. It goes both ways, too – share what you can with other people, and you’ll find someone who’ll share their knowledge with you.

Till next time.


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Michael

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