Vancity Entrepreneurs: Penyo Pal

Dec 19 2017, 6:22 am

Education and technology, aka “edutech,” is a hot topic these days. Edutech is everyday news around the world and also here on Vancity Entrepreneurs as we featured the Thinkific team just a few weeks ago. Next up to bat in the edutech space flourished from the same accelerator program as another past feature of ours, mobile marketplace app, Tradyo. Meet Penyo Pal, a kids education app with already over 30,000 downloads in 150 countries! We finally have a co-founder not from UBC but instead, “up on the hill” (did you know that the VcB Co-founders also hail from here?). SFU Alumni Jessica Fan takes some time to enlighten us about Penyo Pal.

1. Who are you? Tell us about your business/core idea and how it got started.

Hi there! I’m Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Penyo Pal – a startup right out of the Next 36 program. We are creating a mobile education platform that combines technology and play to teach kids languages. We believe that kids learn most effectively when they have fun in the learning process. We help them do that by combining stories, games, and language curriculum. We began with Mandarin and French, but we’re planning to expand English soon.

2.   How have you validated that gamifying Mandarin increases retention and motivation to learn it? Where did the cooking idea come from?

Our first released product was Food Frenzy – a food vocabulary game that helps kids recognize pinyin, Chinese characters, and audio. We started with food because it’s something kids can use in their everyday life. Since its release, we’ve had interviews with users and have tracked their progress over time. We’ve found that users are mastering an average of 1 word/min of gameplay and are willing to purchase additional content packs. Parents have told us that their kids play Food Frenzy up to an hour at a time – a pretty big feat for an educational game. Based on the early traction, we know there’s lots of potential for our products.

3. Tell us about your experience with the Next 36 alongside the future plans for the Penyo Pal team.

I feel very grateful for the opportunity of being in the program. Through it I met my rockstar team and now I have even bigger dreams for what we can achieve. It was challenging to balance working on a venture with coursework over the summer, but everything we learned was relevant. Now that we’ve graduated from Next 36, people have even higher expectations of us. It’s quite nice to have that extra pressure to keep pushing harder.

The Penyo Pal team is now living with another Next 36 team in a “startup house” in Toronto. We’re continuing to iterate on our product strategy as we learn more about the market. Several interested investors have approached us and we hope that they will join us on our vision.

4. What kind of challenges has your team had to face and how have you mitigated them?

Our greatest challenge was finding product-market fit and that’s led us through a few different venture ideas. Our initial idea was a cell phone for seniors but we quickly realized that our market didn’t need or want something like that. After more research and a lot of pivoting, we recognized the opportunities within the edutech space and created Penyo Pal. It’s important that you don’t strongly attach yourself to any one idea, especially as an early stage start up. Listen to your users and respond to your learnings quickly. Our ability to do so has allowed us to make a lot of progress within only a few months.

5. How does this improve the city of Vancouver? What is the real world problem you’re solving?

The discussion around “disrupting education” is a hot one right now, but how do you tackle such a complex issue? Our team sees part of the problem being ineffective teaching methods. Kids are often force-fed information instead of finding  joy in the learning process, leading to demotivation and disengagement. What if we made learning more like an adventure rather than a chore? If we can get kids excited about learning a new language, imagine how many more opportunities will open up for them in this increasingly globalized society.

I see this issue relating to everyone in the world, but it’s especially obvious in Vancouver where there is a diverse immigrant community. Knowing English is necessary to compete in today’s market, but if you’re a first-generation Chinese-Canadian, also learning Mandarin is important in connecting with the Chinese community.

6. What’s your advice for current or future entrepreneurs?

Make sure you surround yourself with good people. Creating a successful venture is a rocky road and it’s your team that will pull you through the hard times. Also, work on a problem that you’re passionate about. The bigger the problem, the bigger the opportunity.

Jessica (rocking the purple in the above team photo) is one of those humble yet tenacious entrepreneurs that quietly takes over her environment in a swift and prompt manner. She really has a good heart and its a joy to see her success with Penyo Pal on a very worthwhile and smart mission to help kids learn languages from a very young age. As a business student and recent traveller, i’ve witnessed and felt exactly how important it is to know other languages. She’s right, schools don’t make learning languages fun nor do they emphasize how important they will become in your future. Languages are everything. ¿Estás de acuerdo?

You can follow Penyo Pal on Twitter and Facebook.

Stay in touch @pauldavidescu

*Vancity Entrepreneurs is a weekly feature on the city’s most notable entrepreneurs or startups that are making Vancouver a better place. If you think your venture deserves to be on the series, send [email protected] an email explaining why*