We followed up with Hoang Dao Xuan, first-place winner of the 2016 Tech-I Pitch Competition Startup Stage award to learn more about the future of his venture, Monkey Junior.
Glenn Doman, founder of The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, stated that babies have the capacity to read. In addition, children between infancy and age six experience tremendous brain growth. Reading aids a child’s brain growth as it provides new information to process and absorb.
Developed by early education professionals, Monkey Junior provides a comprehensive curriculum to systematically teach young children to read from single words to phrases, and to complete sentences. Each lesson lasts for 5-7 minutes. Children can take one or more lessons each day. The program is available in multiple languages, and is currently the highest ranked language literacy app in the Android app store and Google Play.
How did Monkey Junior come about?
In 2011, after my first daughter was born, my friend introduced me to the concept of early education. It caught my attention right away. I bought many of the well-known books in the field and spent hours reading them. My wife and I then tried to apply what we learned with our daughter. But we felt something was missing. We wanted a tool that offered a comprehensive and systematic curriculum that allowed us to teach our baby everyday. We ended up creating a lot of flashcards to use with her. When she reached 20 months, she was able to read both English and Vietnamese.
After three years of research and practical experience, we gathered a team of early education experts and software engineers and designers to build Monkey Junior.
What were your obstacles at the beginning? How did you overcome them?
Teaching babies how to read is very difficult. Plus, every child learns differently. What works with one child may not work with other children. Initially, we struggled to find the most effective way to accommodate different learning styles with our content while keeping children engaged.
We built our first version in five months. We then encouraged parents to provide feedback on all aspects of the tool. The input helped us make necessary improvements to the content and functionality.
The tech education market is crowded. How did you manage to get Monkey Junior to stand out?
It’s true that there are thousands of educational apps available for young children. However, a majority of them offer very limited content and don't have proven a methodology behind them. Our team has 40 years of combined experience in early education. We spent years building our curriculum.
As I mentioned before, we made sure to create content that met the need of different learning styles. In each language, Monkey Junior teaches around 7,500 words and phrases, and 2,000 sentences using a library of 2,000 videos, 6,000 images and 10,000 audio clips for illustration purposes.
How did the GIST Tech-I program help take your venture to the next level?
Winning the GIST Tech-I competition showcases Monkey Junior to a global audience. More people are aware of who we are and what we do. News outlets are featuring us. A U.S. Ambassador even shared the award announcement on his personal social feed. How cool is that!
I also learned a great deal from the two-day intensive workshops and from networking with many experts and experienced entrepreneurs. The support and advice was invaluable. I better understand how to approach U.S. investors. It was also inspiring to be surrounded by people who work hard and smart everyday to make their dreams a reality.
Most importantly, winning the GIST Tech-I competition confirms that we are on the right path with Monkey Junior. We now hear "yes" more than "no." The Tech-I award is the BIGGEST “yes” we’ve received.
Based on your experience, what advice can you offer aspiring entrepreneurs?
Create something that solves a problem in a big market. Team up with talented people. Offer incentives to encourage them to work hard and stay with the team. Follow the lean startup model. Don't wait until you complete the whole product to release it. Start with a bare bones model. Keep developing the product as you learn more from your potential customers.
Editor’s note: The American Center Hanoi recently hosted a conversation between Ambassador Ted Osius and Hoang Dao Xuan. Over 100 entrepreneurs, investors, donors and ecosystem influencers attended the event.