Vu Van assembled an incredible team of artificial intelligence and machine learning specialists to help build a way to help people with their pronunciation when learning a new language, based on their native tongue. Her startup, ELSA, has big ambitions to change how people learn language, and she’s been using ingenious methods of spreading the word about her startup since day one.
Elliott Adams: I know you were in Stanford’s StartX program when you were in our first batch of the pre-accelerator program that I ran in San Francisco, but I wasn’t sure of when you started raising money. Did you bootstrap for a while?
Vu Van: When I started out, I bootstrapped for a few months. That was when I hired some people and paid out of my own pocket, but I didn't pay myself. I used my own money to pay for them for a few months. Then, I decided to raise angel funds by the friends and family round, so we called it a pre-seed. We raised about $250k then.
We used that money to pay others. I still didn't pay myself. I used that money to pay for others, until I needed to raise money again. So, I raised the another round about nine months after the pre-seed. That's when I started paying myself.
EA: I know when you were in Startup Next, you were getting a ton of users on board. How you were growing your user base at first?
VV: Before we released the product, we had a landing page, and we had about 7,000 people sign up on the waiting list within a week. I think that was the initial traction of the database that we had. Then, we did a few rounds of beta testing before we released the app. In the first release, we only opened for a few thousand people to test it. We had those people on the waiting list, and we said we'd email and test those few. When we publicly released, we were at SXSW—we launched onstage. We were the winner at SXSW that year, so I think that gave us some initial publicity, and we got 30,000 downloads in the first 24 hours.
EA: Oh, awesome. How did you get 7,000 people going to the landing page in the first place?
VV: Well, I started a Facebook campaign, and I called it “Love My Voice.” I just wrote a note on Facebook about my journey of learning English, including some of the special moments in my journey learning English growing up, and how my voice matters. We hashtagged #LoveMyVoice, and then I started getting a few friends of mine joining the campaign. Just within the first twenty-four hours, I started writing people, asking, "Hey, can you write something about your English learning journey? #LoveMyVoice #ELSA”
Back then, nobody knew what ELSA meant. We just had the name, but that’s nothing, right? We just said to hashtag those two, and then just post it on your page. The campaign was really well received. We somehow got a lot more people writing about their stories than the few people that I asked for. I asked people who had a lot more followers or friends or influences, right? We got quite a bit of people doing these campaigns. We probably got around 100 in the first two days or so. People wrote very inspiring stories. Lots of people were sharing with that hashtag.
When we then came out, we just piggybacked on this campaign, and we said, "Hey, now ELSA is out to help you perfect your voice," or whatever. I can't remember exactly, but we just came out with a tagline, and we said, "This is the website." We had a very simple landing page. The landing page said, "Hey, my name is ELSA. I'm here to help you speak English like an American," and then, “Sign up for early access.” We just shared that one out. We got about a thousand people or so to sign up on that waiting list very quickly, because we just asked these people to post it on their Facebook post, which already had a lot of traffic. I think that’s when we noticed people were actually signing. Initially, we only told people that we had access for about a thousand, but we had more than a thousand people signing up.
We figured out that we should do a referral, so we just changed the campaign twenty-four hours later to say, "Hey, now you're number 1,100 on the list. Refer five friends to be part of the VIP and escape the line," or whatever. That campaign worked extremely well. So many people started sharing. Just imagine 1,000 people sharing to five—we could get to 5,000 pretty easily. I think that's how we got 7,000 people on the waiting list.
VV: We said, "Okay, now the waiting list is closed." We had the first 7,000 people, and that's how many we needed to do beta testing and to get feedback with those first users for it to be meaningful for our MVP.