How Vu Van found a voice through her AI app

By Ayesha Lal

A self-identified “hard-core operator” and tireless entrepreneur, Vu Van is the co-founder of Google-backed ELSA, the world’s smartest AI assistant for pronunciation training and language learning. Recently recognized by Fast Company World Changing Ideas Awards 2020 in the AI and Data category and part of SOSV’s MOX batch 2 startups, ELSA is helping 11 million people from 101 countries learn English. Yet Van doesn’t come from a technical background, and her entrepreneurial story is an unusual one, despite the double Stanford degree and an international management consulting career. 

The ELSA team. Photo courtesy of ELSA.

At Stanford, Van found herself lacking the confidence to speak up. For non-native English speakers, “concerns over mispronunciation held them back in her Stanford MBA class and, later, management consulting work,” she told CNBC. How did this Vietnamese entrepreneur become the first bet in Asia by Google’s AI venture arm Gradient Ventures?

Van went in depth during SOSV’s annual 8×8 talks, where she shared her lessons on building an AI company with no prior technical background:

1. Don’t start with a technical solution. Start with a problem.

As someone familiar with the language disparity when it comes to spoken communication even after “years and years of learning English and a lot of money,” Van found the ‘problem’ faced by millions of people around the world.

“People had a hard time understanding you and that really hurt your confidence, that really hindered your potential ability to achieve different opportunities,” she points out an all-too-familiar challenge of non-native English speakers.

Rather than becoming “too bogged down into one technical solution”—a common mistake with overly technical teams—she found a different approach, one which provides different avenues to the solutions. ELSA was started with the pain points of real people in mind, and the rest is history. 

2. Understand the market deeply before building anything

“Starting a company isn’t just about building a product right at the beginning. It’s about researching, understanding what you know, what you don’t know about the market, what is the right solution people need and how are you going to address that challenge,” Van pointed out.

Waiting for a technical co-founder would’ve held her back. Van conducted plenty of market research and even attempted to launch a marketing campaign before diving into the end product. 

This deep understanding of the end users becomes the foundation for everything else, the basis for all technical and product developments.

In recent years, social-first companies also echo this move by building communities and generating market needs first before building.

3. It’s OK to be vulnerable. Ask for help. Lots of help.

Even without the technical knowledge, Van formulated a daily “mission to meet with five different AI experts in voice recognition technology” to network with people who could help her create the app or gather insight on whether her idea was possible or not. 

“People are willing to help out,” she highlighted the long-due collaboration between entrepreneurs, scientists and community builders.

4. Own up to what you don’t know. But be ready to learn fast.

While people expected Van to have known the technology before founding an AI company, the battle-hardened entrepreneur didn’t. This unwavering indifference to technical difficulties became her advantage: Van approached the vision from what it should be instead of what it could be based on the current technologies. This leap of faith puts ELSA ahead of the race: the Google-backed app has gained over 11 million subscribers, and raised up to US$12 million as of 2019.

5. Use your non-technical advantages. In my case, networking.

Know what is your advantage and use that, and leverage that to help you address all of the challenges that you have.” 

Using her networking skills to her advantage— In a room full of technical people, she stood out the most, knowing she lacked the knowledge to speak to the cliqued groups. As a result, she was more outgoing and mustered the attention of the room. 

She recalls: “At the end of that five-day conference, the word got out that, “have you seen the little Asian girl walking around looking for a technical co-founder?” Eventually, after six months of looking, Van found her co-founder and CTO Xavier Anguera, one of the world’s leading scientists on voice recognition, in Germany.

6. Action speaks louder than words. Show what you can do.

“I didn’t wait to start until I got my co-founder. When I met my co-founder at the conference in Germany, I actually already had a prototype,” Van shares. 

Showing initiative and preparedness is key as it compensates for what you don’t know or what you might need help with.

7. Surround yourself with the best technical experts in your field.

Van believes that, “people are there to help you, you just have to figure out who those people are.” They are all working towards a common goal— “amazing technology that has potential impact in the world” in Van’s words,  even if they’re busy with another project or can’t work with your team full-time, they’ll help or direct you to innovators who can. 

Identifying the best people for the job helps when technical dilemmas arise and their expertise are required. Complement all the weaknesses in the areas you don’t know with the best experts,” she says.

8.  Being non-technical makes you fearless. You aren’t constrained by what you can and can’t do.

Van envisioned that “if Siri can listen to people speaking English, why can’t we turn Siri into something that can teach people English?”

Not knowing what restrictions there are to the technology, the entrepreneur found that the parameters to constrain your imagination don’t exist. According to Van, it gives “a lot of room just to come up with ideas to solve people’s problems whether technology can or cannot do it.”

Final thoughts from Van: 

That fearless attitude can get you a long way especially in the startup journey.

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