Entrepreneur Jane Wu, Com'12

The young entrepreneur, 2012 Valedictorian for the Next 36, and co-founder/Chief Happiness Officer for Penyo Pal joins us to answer some questions.

Jane Wu, Com'12Where did the original idea for Penyo Pal come from?

Serendipity! All four co-founders were extremely passionate about education and using technology to improve educational accessibility.  We were reminiscing about our younger days when we tried (very unsuccessfully I might add) to learn Mandarin and/or French in school because it was overwhelming and often just plain boring.  After talking to a few kids, we realized this problem still had not improved so we set out to solve it.  We noticed kids now spend hours every week playing games on their phones or iPads, and wondered how powerful it would be to channel even a tiny fraction of that time into something just as fun but more educational.  This led to the idea of Penyo Pal, where we combine language, technology and play to create games and interactive stories that change the way kids learn language.

How did you make the leap from concept to reality?

We spent a lot of time trying to cram our brains with as much linguistics research we could, talking to teachers, parents and kids, and researching available options. When we started seeing trends in the problems they were facing with second language learning, we knew it was an issue that needed innovation.

How did you get the team together that you needed to turn Penyo Pal into a real product?

I met my co-founders through the Next 36 program where we quickly bonded over late nights in musty parents' basements and lengthy Skype chats. As we grew over the following months of the business, we were lucky to get some really brilliant people to join us. At Penyo Pal, people definitely come first.  We're lucky to have attracted some incredible teammates because we're solving a tough problem – education – and it naturally interests sharp minds, who have a HUGE influence on the outcome. We also have a work-hard, play-hard culture with regular team board game nights and Penyo pool parties.

What was the most exciting leap forward you made during the process of developing Penyo Pal?

Our public launch in the Silicon Valley will probably always hold a special part in my heart.  Not only were selected out of 300 start-ups, but we were the youngest and the only Canadian one, and we got to pitch our business onstage at Launch EDU in Mountain View, California.  It was surreal sharing the stage with start-ups that had raised over $10 M in capital or delivered TED talks.  The icing on the cake was walking away with the award of "Best Overall New Start-up."

What's been your biggest setback so far?

We're still very young so I'm sure I will certainly have more to add soon.  I would say that the biggest challenge for us was finding focus and prioritizing the precious hours each day to move our venture in the right direction forward. Another big issue has been finding balance and remembering the necessities such as sleep and exercise. Part of the thrill of being an early-stage entrepreneur is building a company from the ground up and being involved in all facets of the business.  The challenge though is that this translates into lots of late nights and early mornings working on bringing ideas to fruition.

Who's your entrepreneurial mentor or hero and why?

Wow, this is a really tough one...I have too many!  Caterina Fake of Flickr inspires me because she found opportunity amidst failure (Flickr was a small piece she salvaged from a failed MMORPG that ran out of funding). In terms of people I'm lucky enough to have met, Sarah Prevette of Sprouter and BetaKit has been an incredible mentor through my entrepreneurial journey.  She always encourages me to think big, and then think bigger, and she's followed her own advice with growing her business from a 2-person Toronto start-up to a network connecting entrepreneurs around the world.

And finally, just what are the duties and responsibilities of a Chief Happiness Officer?

I think I have one of the coolest jobs a new grad could hope for.  As Happiness Officer I make sure everyone playing with Penyo Pal is having a great time and find new players to share the experience with.  This means I have the privilege of spending lots of time with our users and partners, and incorporating their feedback into improving Penyo Pal.  However, the reality is that, in a start-up, you're guaranteed to be a Jack or Jill of all trades, and also spend a lot of time answering customer emails, reading language research papers, pitching investors for funding and quality testing our new games (but how many people get to play games on the job?).

Thank you, Jane!