If anyone is a global citizen, it is Karen Ong (OJ), who speaks six languages and spent the months before enrolling at HBS trotting around the globe solo, from navigating through South Africa and Pakistan to experiencing adventure in Russia and Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Therefore, it is only fitting that her social networking start-up, My Happy Planet (www.myhappyplanet.com), is a way for people around the world to connect and learn languages from native speakers.
“I’ve always known that I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” says Karen who was inspired by her parents who had also taken that path. Indeed, even her Career Leader survey results confirmed that her talents lied in entrepreneurship. While she gained important skills working for Proctor & Gamble, in some ways, she says, “it was too bureaucratic for me.” As a result, when a sectionmate had sent her a list of the top tech companies in the US, Tutorvista, a social networking site that connected children with tutors around the world, immediately sparked an idea. Karen thought to herself, “If only I could apply this model to the language learning space.” Through her experience, instead of passive classroom learning or studying grammar, the most effective learning comes from interactions with native speakers, “which gives a depth to what you are learning about. But many people, because of time or money, are unable to do that.” As a result, she wanted to apply social networking framework to languages.
In order to nail down her business strategy, she solicited feedback from everyone around her, from sectionmates to professors, and in particular, successful alumni who had sold their companies, such as Sharon Payer, founder of Pixamo.com. However, instead of rushing out to create a business plan, she translated her ideas into action. Karen says, “I don’t believe in business plans. Why would you spend your valuable time writing a 100 page business plan rather than just creating the company?”
In creating myhappyplanet.com, times were not always happy. “While I understand marketing but I had zero technical background,” admits Karen. As a result, during the second semester of her RC year, she embarked on a search to find a business partner who would act as the CTO. Unable to find the right fit, she decided to outsource the project and put up ads on guru.com and elance.com, two websites that connect entrepreneurs and IT developers. While she got responses from ten companies, she narrowed it down to her final choice based on experience in web 2.0/social networking, experience with overseas clients and reasonable pricing. After finding a developer, she spoke to potential users and conducted online focus groups in order to design the features of myhappyplanet.com. She gave her plans to the developers and had a positive experience working with the team. Karen says, “It was great. They would develop something and I would look at it and give them feedback and I woke up the next morning and the change was there.”
Through the summer, she worked on the launch of myhappyplanet.com with her interns trying to drum up hype for the launch through Facebook and grassroots marketing. On August 9th, she launched the closed beta, which recently passed the 10,000 user milestone mark. “It has definitely exceeded my expectations and user feedback has been excellent too – over 30,000 conversations have been initiated on the site,” Karen says. While the site is currently closed to the public because she is developing new features, Karen has great ambitions for the future, “I want to get to 100,000 users before I leave HBS.”