As demand for learning English grows, Seattle’s Lana pairs native speakers with students via video

Part of the Lana team from left to right: Cynthia Hannon, chief operating officer; Paul Neville, CEO and co-founder; Tina Tran Neville, co-founder; Makayla Sonstelie; Zhuo Shan; Sarthak Turkhia; Juan Acevedo; and Yash Vig. These team members alone represent four ethnicities and 10 languages spoken. (Lana Photo)

When Tina Tran Neville launched her third startup in October, she wasn’t going to repeat the mistake that sank her second company. A mismatch between the product and market had quickly torpedoed her earlier ed-tech venture.

So last year when she and her husband Paul started Lana, a Seattle-based company that teaches people to speak, read and write English, they started with off-the-shelf technology including Skype and then Zoom to help students and teachers connect. But the videoconferencing tools didn’t work in this application. The prompts and buttons were in English and there were too many of them, overwhelming nascent English speakers who were sometimes new to technology as well.

Neville realized they would need to build their own platform — and they knew what it should look like, using symbols and featuring a digital whiteboard. “It really came from working with real customers first,” she said.

The company partnered with the University of Washington’s Information School, which requires its undergraduates to build a piece of technology with a local organization as a graduation requirement. A team of students spent roughly half a year developing Lana’s videoconferencing interface as their capstone project. Then Lana worked with AWS Activate to launch the platform.

Tina Tran Neville, CEO of ed-tech startup Lana. (Lana Photo)

This time the product and market are aligning. Within two weeks of going live in March, Lana matched 89 students from five Asian countries with teachers in North America. The startup has targeted Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai markets, with plans to expand elsewhere.

Lana partners with other in-country companies offering English instruction that are eager to connect their students with native English speakers. The startup, which has 20 employees, is fine-tuning its technology for matching students and teachers, and hiring more instructors. When it’s ready, a business in Thailand has 500 new users ready to signup.

Neville, who is Lana’s CEO, said there’s an estimated 2 billion foreign students eager to learn English, whether they want to study or work abroad or find a job in their home country with an international company.

Other leading English-instruction companies are based in China, Neville said, and focus on speaking English, but not writing and reading. She said there are U.S. companies offering online learning that includes test prep for SATs and ACTs and academic tutoring.

“We’re squarely focused on English language learning in emerging markets,” Neville said. “That’s a very narrow, strategic focus.”

The program is geared toward students who are middle-school aged to adults. Instruction costs $600 for half a year. One idea is to offer classes for small groups of students in countries where customers are lower income.

To promote and build Lana, Tina and Paul Neville are tapping international connections made during their time as diplomats with the U.S. State Department at various postings abroad. Tina has ties to Vietnam, where she was born and then came to America as a refugee. The couple also runs a premium college preparation service called Transcend Academy, which has served more than 10,000 students in the Washington, D.C.-Maryland-Virginia region.

Tina Neville sees learning English as empowering for students. “This is not just building a big company that will go global,” she said, “we’re impacting people’s lives, even if they never leave their country.”

We caught up with Neville for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answer to our questionnaire.

What does your company do? Lana is an online, English learning platform connecting North American teachers with students around the world. Tapping into the $100 billion online tutoring market, Lana has developed a proprietary video conferencing learning dashboard to match instructors with students, initially focusing on Asian markets. In the global “digital economy,” Lana instructors work part time anywhere in the world for supplemental income. Lana prides itself offering a premium English learning experience with the credibility of a respected U.S.-based enterprise.

Inspiration hit us when: During an October 2018 trip to China to expand our first company’s college admissions service internationally, we discovered an enormous demand for online English learning. We immediately launched Lana to address this demand initially in China, then Southeast Asia, then the rest of the world.

Lana created its own videoconferencing platform to make a simplified interface for customers new to English and technology. (Lana Image)

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: Since Lana’s inception, we have been bootstrapping using the revenues of our first company, Transcend Academy. Due to a recent spike in demand, however, we have initiated our first fundraising round.

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: While we are not the first online English company in Asia (in fact, there’s a unicorn Chinese company called VIPKid recently valued at $3 billion), we are the first serious U.S.-based company offering premium services with certified North American teachers. Our market analysis shows a strong demand for the perceived high quality and confidence that comes with working with U.S.-based companies and American staff. China is just the beginning. We’re also serving Southeast Asia and Latin America, where we forecast massive demand as the acceptance of online education grows.

The smartest move we’ve made so far: Tapping into the UW’s Capstone project to assemble a team of technology development students to help us create proprietary video conferencing software and a teacher-student matching platform. We initially attempted to schedule teachers and students without technology and found it laborious and inefficient.

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: Trying to meet a surge in demand before our technology was ready and before we hired enough teachers. Having too much demand is a good problem to have, so we’re not complaining.

Which leading entrepreneur or executive would you most want working in your corner? We are inspired by the story of Amy Nelson, the founder of The Riveter, who built a nationally acclaimed “female forward” co-working space. We were an early client in their first location in Capitol Hill and have seen it rapidly grow over the past year. Amy is an effective executive and an inspiring leader. She is not only a successful entrepreneur, she is also a rising leader in women empowerment and a strong voice in family-first values (she built her business with four children under the age of 4).

Our favorite team-building activity is: We have had social events, happy hours, meals out and other activities, but honestly the time we are in our groove the most is when we sit around the table and put our heads together to strategize and execute. Our team has great chemistry and we are driven by success.

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: Our hires must have a positive attitude. The top value of our company culture is having fun. If we’re not enjoying ourselves, we’re not as productive as we can be. Sure, we have skilled staff with diverse backgrounds, but more important that anything is the willingness to work with a team with a friendly and positive outlook.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Perseverance is critical. Entrepreneurs will be tested to the limit and only those with grit willing to stick it out through all the challenges will be truly successful. Don’t give up. There’s always a way!

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