Nihongo Master – Vegas Startup Teaching Japanese


In our continued effort to highlight some of the various startups found in Las Vegas, we did another interview with Taylor Dondich, the founder of Nihongo Master.

Taylor Dondich, pre-Startup


Tell us a little more about Nihongo Master.
Nihongo Master is an online Japanese learning site that focuses on social interaction to make language learning an engaging activity. Nihongo Master is a bit different from other online language learning platforms in that it’s built with gamification techniques to help drive knowledge retention and study adherence (such as practicing your vocabulary every day). We further engage our learners with creative high quality lessons, a strong mobile experience for on-the-go studying and other features to make us the best language learning experience possible.

What’s the background of the Nihongo Master team?
Nihongo Master is lead by myself, in which I have worked for tech companies of all sizes. I’ve worked at Yahoo as a Senior Engineer where I really built up my tech chops. I’ve also worked for other companies of various sizes such as Groundwork Open Source, Splunk and Federated Media. Since my background is completely tech, I am the architect and main developer for all the custom technology behind Nihongo Master. We have a Japanese language instructor who has an educational background in Asian languages that just blows my mind. You can see his talent in the lessons we offer. We also have an illustrator, native speaker and community manager. All of these individuals are top notch and I couldn’t be happier with our team.

How long have you been in Las Vegas?
I’m a Vegas native! Born and raised, I started off my career actually in Computer Networking back when Novell was still very common. I was working as a Network Engineer for the Four Queens Hotel and Casino when I started writing open source software to make my job easier. It was then that my software gained attraction from a company located in the Bay Area that I started chasing my dream of writing software for a living. I moved to the Bay Area to start my software engineering career and stayed there for about five years, learning the ropes from various companies.

Why did you come (return) to Las Vegas from San Francisco?
Even though the Bay Area is a fantastic place with wonderful hot spots of activity, Las Vegas will always be my home. I have family here and family is just so important to me. Being in the tech industry, the companies I worked for were easy to work remotely and also provide enough time to interact with my family. They say Las Vegas is a rough place to raise a family (I have four kids), but times are changing and the various communities in the Valley are fantastic. When I left Las Vegas, there was no strong tech communities to speak of. When I returned to Vegas, I was astonished to see an explosion of not just tech savvy groups but other creative collectives. I’m glad to be present to see it blossom.

Can you give us some numbers on how many people are using Nihongo Master today?
Nihongo Master first launched as a simple Japanese to English dictionary in February of 2012. At that time, we had a trickle of approximately 20 – 30 visits a day, growing slowly. We did no real marketing as we spent all the time afterwards building the technology that would deliver the full language learning experience. We launched a private beta at the end of August, 2012. This beta required a special invitation code so we could monitor where our users would come from and help us determine what avenues of social marketing would be the most beneficial (different social networks received different invitation codes). When we launched that private beta, we had approximately 150 email sign ups to receive an invite code. Within a few days, we had 300 registered users.

It’s now nearing the end of November and we now have over 1300 registered users. Because Nihongo Master is built from the ground up to be a social experience, we find our community to be extremely active in their daily studies and communication with each other. This is amazing because I would have been happy with 120, based on how many people signed up for our initial beta release.

Why did you start with Japanese instead of some of the more popular languages like spanish?
If you are approaching the idea of creating a tech startup, I believe the number one driving factor is passion. You need to be passionate about what you are building. Nihongo Master stemmed from my passion of learning the Japanese language. Back in the middle of 2011, I was planning a trip to Japan. As such, I wanted to study as much of the language as possible. I tried Rosetta Stone, textbooks, online materials, even phone apps. When I finally did travel to Japan in December, I found my ability to community was still elementary and I knew I had a long way to go. When I returned, I evaluated the tools I used. Each resource had some level of merit but none really delivered the user experience that I felt would be engaging enough for myself. It was from this experience that I knew I wanted to build something that approached language learning in a different way. If I didn’t find it compelling and useful to move forward in my studies, how could I know it’d be effective for others? My passion for Japanese keeps me driving forward in always improving Nihongo Master.

There are other reasons why Japanese was a good choice for a langauge to start with. First off, it’s a bit of a niche market. If you are going to try and be disruptive in a market, would you rather throw your rock in a puddle or a olympic sized pool? There’s a slew of Spanish learning resources online. With Japanese, that number is reduced dramatically which means you can gain visibility faster. You can compete faster with this smaller set of competitors and continue to build your feature set. Second, those who wish to learn Japanese tend to have a lot of similar interests, such as Japanese animation (anime). It’s because of these similar interests that you can customize a good deal of content towards these interest to further engage your community.

All of the technology that was built for Nihongo Master can be used to teach other languages. When each new feature is built, we ask ourselves how this can be applied to other languages in the future. Once we have established Japanese as a language we’ve fully tackled, we’ll be ready to approach other languages such as Spanish, German and French. Our long-term goal would be to provide freely available learning resources for languages that are in danger of becoming extinct. Google approached this problem with their Endangered Languages Project (http://www.endangeredlanguages.com/). It’s a fantastic project that describes the languages that are endangered and their origins. We would love to provide the learning materials to keep these languages alive.

Does Nihongo Master teach to both speak and write in Japanese?
Nihongo Master starts the absolute beginners with the basics of learning the different writing systems of Japanese. When we introduce these writing systems, not only do we teach you how to write each character through stroke animations, but we have native speaker audio recordings to assist you in pronunciation. You can even record your own voice and have it playback next to the native speaker to ensure your pronunciation is correct. As you progress through more difficult lessons that introduce grammar, you’ll always hear pronunciations and entire dialog and get a chance to record your voice. Furthermore,when we introduce Kanji, another more complex writing system, we show you how to write each character as well. This differs greatly from other Japanese learning solutions such as Rosetta Stone, which focuses primarily on listening and speaking. As we continue to develop, we will be introducing even more features that will further assist our learners in vocal and written communication with other learners.

How is Nihongo Master funded?
We are currently bootstrapping everything. Guy Kawasaki said something along the lines of, “If you bootstrap, you’ll always find a way.” Because of our choice to not chase funding, every decision we make has a strong financial impact. We haven’t turned on our revenue stream yet so every dollar counts like it’s five. Each financial choice has huge impact which makes that choice both stressful and exciting. Further down the road, if we do find an investment group that is just as passionate about changing the way people learn languages and want to work with us, we would love to talk. However, we never want to make that an absolute dependency for our growth.

What benefits have you seen from starting your company in Las Vegas?
The VegasTech community has always been extremely positive. People are very communicative regarding feedback. Because the Vegas tech community is smaller than the equivalent groups in the Bay Area, it’s easier to approach and feel more whole. Being smaller is not a negative in aspect. It seems the Vegas Tech community is more passionate and colorful which helps induce your own creativity. Costs of operations are also obviously cheaper and the ability to find coworking spots such as /usr/lib is fantastic. We don’t believe in offices (another cost drain) so having spots where you can mingle at a whim is invaluable.

What do you think is most needed in the Vegas Tech community?
More growth in supporting industries! If you visit Downtown, you’ll see some growth in eating establishments, bars and other entertainment venues. However, I would love to not only see additional growth of these businesses but others such as bookstores, family orientated businesses (daycares, etc). They’re not directly tech but work to support people in tech.

Do you have any advice for startup entrepreneurs?
Let passion be your driver. If it’s something you aren’t going to use, you may find yourself burn out. Don’t approach it as a path to get rich quick. It’s not. It’s a lot of hard work so make it a labor of love and something to cherish.

In what ways can the Vegas Tech community support Nihongo Master?
If anyone is interested in what we’re doing to disrupt the language learning marketplace and make something to be proud of, contact us! We want passionate people who are ready to make positive change in the World