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PlaySay in/for The Land of Opportunity

PlaySay in/for The Land of Opportunity

PlaySay's vision is to enhance cultural awareness and international fellowship through language. In this post I'll share the inspiring stories of three of my great now-American friends who are living the American Dream. They have shaped who I am as a founder of a company that empowers people with what what these three friends of mine all acquired to accomplish their dreams - English.


Photo Credit: Colin Lenton, Philly photographer

After 22 years of living in the USA, Yasmine finally became a US Citizen last week. She arrived from Kuwait to the US when she was eight years old. Although she couldn't speak any English in 4th grade, she learned enough to assist her parent's in running their 7-11 store. In high school she added a few under-the-table waitress jobs to her repertoire to make ends meet for herself and family that was then without a Father. She continued working full-time to put herself through college. I met Yasmine in her 3rd hear of college at Temple University. She and I were studying Entrepreneurship and soon became great friends. I remember joking with her through college when she didn't know certain English words, grammar, spelling, etc. Fast-forward a few years. Yasmine just sold her first company, 123LinkIt. She's now a US Citizen and wrote about her journey today on her blog. Wow. I'm not going to comment on 'glass ceilings' but I can assure you I've witnessed her shatter through many. 


Nich moved to the USA from Kenya with his mother and brother in 1999. I remember befriending Nich in high school and understanding little of what he said. That didn't stop us from becoming great friends and laughing hysterically when we hung out (quite often). To pay his Mom's mortgage, in high school Nich worked 60-hour weeks at a nursery home. He would fold laundry for 10 hours straight throughout the night and come to school the next morning. When his Mom's health condition took a turn for the worse, Nich increased his hours to make up for the hours she couldn't put in. I'll never forget the imagery of Nich folding mounds of white laundry in the dark basement of the nursery home - where we'd pick him up in the morning (to go to school) or at night (to go to the club). By college Nich's English was superb and he began studying to become an anesthesiologist. Nich never stopped paying his Mother's mortgage and even put his little brother through high school. Nich attended college part time in the semesters that he needed to work 80+ hours/week to pay for himself, his brother and his Mother. In college, Nich was blessed with a child that he's been supporting. I was always in awe of how Nich managed the responsibility of someone more than twice his age. Fast forward a few years, Nich's graduated, a US Citizen, and happily practicing anesthesia. He goes home to the house he owns every night to meet his beautiful new wife. 


Adin was raised in Taiwan and eventually settled in the USA after his early childhood. Since becoming best friends in middle school, Adin became my first true window to outside the USA. Hearing him communicate in Mandarin Chinese with his Taiwanese mother intrigued me. Tasting her asian cuisine was equally rewarding. Hearing his father's business stories about Asia fascinated me. In high school, Adin and I decided to live in Taiwan for a summer to teach English. That was the best summer of my life. We taught English in Taiwan for another summer immediately after we graduated high school. In college, Adin proactively honed his bilingual asset and his incredible gift for industrial design. After graduating college, he started his career in Shenzhen, China as an industrial designer. Fast forward a few years. He's an award-winning designer. Adin is an incredible asset to the famous company he works for (Umbra) by managing the bulk of the manufacturing, production and distribution between the company's English-speaking headquarters in Canada and Mandarin-speaking factories in China. 

Other foreign friends of mine that have found success in English: Gunter (sold his tech company for millions), Peniel (PhD at Yale), Photis (CTO at a successful startup),  Tony (PlaySay's Backend Developer!), Yuki, Yuka, Pitchada, Kozue, Nao, Emiko, many more!...


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PlaySay's Love Story, How it All Began

PlaySay's Love Story, How it All Began

I fell in love with Japan the first time I traveled there when I was in High School in 2000. Since then I decided I wanted a business career in Japan, so that's where I started my 'dream job' fresh out of college in 2008 with a Japanese marketing firm called IMP, Inc. Above you'll see me (back-left) as the only white guy, aside from a tall European client who was the President of Bourjois at the time. Good times. 

Here's the story in a nutshell: Within months of starting my aforementioned 'dream job', I developed digital vocabulary flashcards to learn Japanese on my iPod, learned Japanese faster than my friends that were in full-time Japanese language school, randomly ran in to the Director of PayPal, Japan at a bar a few months later, showed him my product and impressed him with my Japanese skills, he told me within weeks to quit my job and start a company with his seed investment, which I of course did. 

The Extended Story

The Problem

No one in the office spoke more than a lick of English, I needed to learn Japanese fast. I'll explain how I got the job in a later post. Although I had studied Japanese in college, I couldn't hold a conversation past "hello" and "my name is" (slim shady). I didn't have time to go to Japanese class or to study in front of a computer (I worked from sunup to sundown in that company - typical for a Japanese salaryman). I was never good at learning visually (e.g. paper flashcards, textbooks, etc.). I was unpleasantly suprised to find no solution that could help me learn the Japanese content I needed to learn (e.g. business words) through audio on a mobile device. So I made a solution for myself.

The Solution

I created digital audio vocabulary flashcards that worked on my iPod (this was before the days of smartphone applications in Japan). Initially I used my own voice for recording. Since my Japanese pronunciation sucked, I eventually hired professional voice talent to record the hundreds of words in Japanese and English that I had collected in a notebook from my daily life. I worked with a developer to create a program that imported an excel file of these words along with wav files of their respective Japanese and English Counterparts, to export hundreds of individual mp3s for each vocabulary word on my iPod.

The Business

All my friends (most in full-time Japanese language school) asked how I was learning Japanese so fast. I gave a few my product, they loved it. Their friends asked me for it, I gave it to them. I was soon barraged with requests, so I decided to learn how to code a website (I didn't know a thing about websites!) to start selling my product online. I started making more from the sales than I was from my full time job.

The Investment

At a bar I randomly ran in to the Director of PayPal, Japan. I saw him giving his business card to someone and interrupted him (in Japanese). I gave him my pitch, he asked how my Japanese was so good, I showed him my product. Within weeks he convinced me to quit my job and to start a company out of my product with his seed investment. I gladly accepted. 

The Product/Market Fit

I discovered that there were 22,000 English speakers in the USA that needed to pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), that had a very structured (and published) series of levels with specific vocabulary lists for each. I hired translators to translate the Japanese vocabulary lists into English, then hired the voice talent to record the words, then created digital vocabulary flashcards for this market. Particularly with great Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Search Enging Marketing (SEM) and with Google Adwords, I was able to capture sales from 18% of that initial target market with a 60% return on investment (ROI). I knew I had something, it was time to scale. 

This man, "Ichimi-san", believed in me and hired me straight out of college to head the International Business efforts of his marketing company, IMP, Inc. God bless him, PlaySay would not exist if it wasn't for him. 

Here I am in 2008 with my new Japanese girlfriend, Eimi, celebrating my first day at IMP, Inc. Of course a girl was involved with the beginning of PlaySay. Why else would I be so intrigued to learn Japanese?! I kid, but truth be told, the girls of Japan were instrumental for maintaining my engagement in learning the language.

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