The Social Innovation Podcast had the pleasure of speaking with Yuha Jin, the CEO and co-Founder of Tella

According to Yuha, “Tella is short for “TellAfreeca”; a team that started out with the social mission of creating knowledge-based jobs in East African countries for university-educated youth. When my co-founder and I visited some East African countries, we experienced a totally different Africa than what the media portrayed (hunger, illiteracy, unskilled, etc).

We saw that hundreds of thousands of university graduates could speak at least 2-3 languages fluently. Yet most of them were jobless (83% of graduates unemployed in Uganda) or were underemployed. I believe creating knowledge-based jobs is not only important for giving people the means of a livelihood, but these individuals can eventually be the backbone of national economic development in their countries through the pragmatic application of the knowledge garnered on the job.”

Suffice it to say that we had a fascinating discussion…

Check out the transcript below.

Michael Waitze 0:00
Hi, this is Michael Waitze, and welcome back to the Social Innovation Podcast. Today I’m joined by you ha Jin, a co-founder and the CEO at Tella. Yo, how are you doing today?

Yuha Jin 0:13
I’m doing great. How are you?

Michael Waitze 0:14
I am super. And you know, you can learn a lot about somebody when you’re trying to set up a podcast with them. I think you’re insanely patient. So I really appreciate your patience.

Yuha Jin 0:24
Well, same here.

Michael Waitze 0:26
Can you give our listeners a little bit of your background for context before we jump into the main topic?

Yuha Jin 0:33
Okay, so I’m a Korean, born and raised in Korea. But when I was younger, at about five years old, my father went to study in the States. So that’s when I lived in the states in California for about five years. That was basically my childhood, came back to Korea. Since then I lived in Korea, I graduated from college in Korea, and worked in Korea, but living in the states was a major part of my childhood.

Michael Waitze 1:06
When your dad went to the United States, How good was his English and your mom’s as well?

Yuha Jin 1:13
I remember that they were pretty fluent when we were there. But I’m listening to their stories. My mom was an English teacher in Korea. But being an English teacher in Korea, especially at that time, doesn’t mean you’re necessarily fluent in conversation. But yeah, they were able to understand and eat or survive, basically.

Michael Waitze 1:39
Let’s not sell mom and dad short, right? Did your dad go to California to get a master’s degree to get a PhD? What was he studying when he was there?

Yuha Jin 1:46
He was studying. He went for his PhD.

Michael Waitze 1:51
And when you left Korea at five years old, I mean, I presume your parents just spoke Korean at home, right? But did you speak any English at all? Did they do any prep work with you before you went there?

Yuha Jin 2:03
So my mom told me that they didn’t really prepare us. But when I went to the States, so when we arrived, we lived at my cousin’s house for a month and my cousins were born and raised in, in the States, so they understood Korean, but they weren’t able to communicate in Korean with me. So mom told me I was really stressed out because of that, even if it was Oh, yeah. And I’m kind of like that kind of, you know, nerdy type, or like, I would be really stressed about that. So my mom told me stories where I would, you know, ask my mom for any books or tapes, cassette tapes, at the time, for studying English. When, yeah, and so I tried to study on my own. But, you know, after living there for a while, you do get a hold of it, especially when you’re that young. So, but yeah, I was super stressed out..

Michael Waitze 3:00
It’s fine. It’s actually relatively easy. I don’t know if I mentioned this to you the last time we talked, but my, my younger brother’s wife is Korean. So born in Seoul, and moved to the United States, if I remember correctly when she was two, but she moved with her whole family for good, right. So they, they weren’t there for a short period of time. And her parents, obviously, two graduates of Seoul National, both of them are doctors, right. And they moved to Connecticut. But yeah, there’s an adjustment period for everybody. Right. And at some point, like you learn that speaking another language gives you a little bit of, I don’t know, power in a way. When did you realize, like you were there for five years. So by the time you were 10, you must have been perfectly fluent in English, because you must have been going to school, an English school, right?

Yuha Jin 3:45
Yeah. Y eah. So I went to public school. But yeah, so five years, I was under 10. So I became really fluent. And I think I was, I really was interested in language. So I was pretty good. And actually, I got a lot of praise from my English teachers, because I was like, yeah, writing. I was like reading 30 books a week, stuff like that. So yeah…

Yeah, even amongst my peers, although there were a lot of like Koreans or foreign-born peers, but most of them were born and raised in America. So I was pretty good amongst my peers in terms of my language skills, like reading and writing, right? I realized the power of, especially of English when I came back to Korea.

Michael Waitze 4:32
Oh, tell me.

Yuha Jin 4:33
Yeah, so I was in fourth grade at that time. It was the late 90s. So at that time, not a lot of Koreans had exposure to or I would say like, they never really went abroad. Not a lot of people brought before. So I was kind of like the new kid that came from America. So everybody was like coming up to me and like asking me to like pronounce all these words.

Yeah, I remember like we call cup in Korean cup as well. But somebody was like, What is cup in English? So? Yeah, so I remember that. And then, as I grew up in Korea, I learned more and more how powerful it was to be fluent in English, especially in Korea, because Korea has a very fierce competition for, you know, getting into the great universities getting into getting a great job. And actually being fluent in English played a real big part. I felt gratitude, all thankful that I had the opportunity to learn English in the States, but at the same time, I felt a little bit.

It seemed like an unfair advantage. And you just played it to me, but yeah, it because the Korean language is so opposite from the English language like Koreans struggle so much to become fluent in English. And I think it’s just because the structure of the language is totally opposite.

Michael Waitze 6:05
Are you suggesting that the grammar Korean grammar is essentially backwards from English? In other words, in English, you’d say I went to the movies, right? In Korean, is it backwards? We’d say something like movies, I went kind of thing.

Yuha Jin 6:19
Yes, yes. Yes. And even in that sentence alone, like for Koreans, we would even omit the I yeah, the subject is omitted A lot of times, so if implied. Yeah. So it’s very contextual. So Korean language is very contextual. We omit I or the subject a lot of times and the the order, we have the verb come at the end of the sentence, right. So yeah, so the grammar structure is different. And certain, you know, parts of the sentence are missing in Korea, or they might be different. So um, I would say it’s a difficult language for Koreans to learn.

Michael Waitze 7:03
So I want to jump into Tella in a second. But before that, I want to ask you one more question. Do you remember when you came back? You said you were in fourth grade? And some of the kids were coming over and saying, How do you pronounce this? Or how do you say that? Did you feel a sense of pride…when you knew the answer?

Yuha Jin 7:21
Of course, yes, I was a kid, like I was. And the thing is, like, when I came back, I was okay, in Korean, but then I didn’t learn anything from the Korean education system. So. So the first exam I took, I basically got zero on all of the subjects, except English and math. I think, like that kind of kind of boost in my, I guess, sense of pride, or, you know, and it was kind of fun. Because like, that was a way to get to get more friendly with my peers .Like, I was kind of like the only new kid. So um, yeah, it was kind of fun. Okay,

Michael Waitze 8:01
That’s awesome. I want to because I want to get back to the pride thing, particularly as we move into some of the corporate clients, right, and how that works. But tell me about Tella. Tell me about its inspiration and tell me how it’s different from other companies that are trying to teach English.

Yuha Jin 8:16
Right. So Tella is an online English education service where we provide chat-based English lessons. So you might have heard of voice lessons or video lessons online. We provide that through chat or text messaging. And how it’s different is during the lesson you get instant corrections or recommendations on your English expressions. We decided to do chat for many reasons, but the main reason was, because Koreans and a lot of other English learners have that fear of speaking English, especially because they learned English for such a long time, that they have high expectations. They want to speak at this level, but actually, they haven’t really practiced making my own English sentence before. So lack of that, and then going straight to speaking actually, is very nerve-racking. It’s also it’s also super hard.

Michael Waitze 9:17
I mean, look, I remember when I moved to Japan, I had studied Japanese in college, right? And I could understand a lot of what people were saying. And my brain like wanted to respond through my mouth, but it just was hard. Right? Yeah, words were there, but I just wasn’t coming out. And I used to say that to me all day, all night just doesn’t come out. It’s weird.

Yuha Jin 9:37
I guess that’s the same thing for every language learner. So I used to call it English constipation,

Michael Waitze 9:43
Because it just doesn’t come out. I mean, it’s weird but that it is what it is, though, right.

Yuha Jin 9:47
Yeah. So you you have all this info and you understand it but like it just doesn’t come out. That’s, that’s what most learn. English learners go through. And but people say That, oh, I’m just not good enough. Oh, I guess that’s like a Korean’s way of thinking, maybe…

Michael Waitze 10:06
How does chat get around this? And does it also help? Is there a? Is there a verbal part of it too when people get comfortable so that they can then improve their pronunciation? Or is it more focused on giving them the ability to create their own sentence structures? How does that work?

Yuha Jin 10:20
Right, the first goal is to give them the ability to build their own sentences. But the ultimate goal is to become proficient in actual speech, in English, or conversation. So all of our content is geared toward every day or maybe business situations where you’re speaking, that being said, chat actually helps overcome that. That part where you have the time to think about your sentence compared to a voice lesson, you will have to immediately understand what the English tutor is saying and then respond in your own sentence. And having to instantly respond is where you kind of get frozen and then you become less confident after that. Whereas chat you have that time to think and respond. So that really leads to overcoming that fear and actually having a sense of accomplishment.

Michael Waitze 11:20
Right? So I find and tell me if I’m wrong here, but I like to think that a lot of people that sign up to learn a foreign language, whether it’s English, or French, or German or Korean, are really into it when they first start, they’re excited to do it. But it ends up being kind of like a gym membership where…

Yuha Jin 11:35

Michael Waitze 11:36
…you know, they fall off a little bit and they’re like, now I’m getting a little bit chubby and going to the gym is not going to help me and I’m embarrassed to be there kind of thing. And maybe it’s the same thing. If it’s just spoken English. They don’t want to get on the video because they’re embarrassed that they either haven’t done their homework or they haven’t, like caught up. Does that make sense to so are you suggesting? Sorry, go ahead. Yes.

Yuha Jin 11:55
That’s exactly what our customers are going through, or most of the learners. So it’s exactly the gym experience. Sure, there’s a few people that will go through no matter what. But most people, if you don’t feel that sense of accomplishment, it’s going to demotivate you and really, you just end up end up wasting your money, right. And so for our competing services for voice lessons, although the lessons are great, content is great, but because of that factor, a lot of people give up and to give you some stats for like, these kind of voice lessons, the attendance rate is usually less than 50%. For Yeah, for video lectures in might be less than 10%. So even if the service is pretty cheap, you still end up losing at least half of the money that you paid for. So um, people then get demotivated more because you think, Oh, I just ended up wasting money.

Michael Waitze 12:59
Right, but what is it like for Tella? In other words, what’s the retention rate? And what’s the what’s the what’s the attendance rate? If you have that stat?

Yuha Jin 13:06
Yeah, so our attendance rate for the lessons that people book would be 95%.

Michael Waitze 13:13
God really, it is. I want to go to that gym, actually.

Yuha Jin 13:16
Oh, yeah, you should sign up. But yeah, so the attendance rate is 95%. The lessons that people purchase, they would use up at least 70% of the tickets, they purchased tickets meaning the tickets to book lessons. So um, retention rate becomes way higher than competitors. It was more than 30%. Last time I checked, I think it is getting higher retention rate meaning repurchasing.

Michael Waitze 13:46
Yeah, exactly. And you’ve done something a little bit different here. Right. In other words, are all your teachers in Korea? Are they remote as well?

Yuha Jin 13:55
They’re all remote. We hire tutors from Uganda and the Philippines.

Michael Waitze 14:01
So why did you decide to do this? I mean, the Philippines obviously is an obvious place to do this. Everyone knows that the Philippines is the fifth largest English speaking country in the world, and you know, famous for outsourcing and a whole bunch of other things. What was the idea to focus on I guess, Uganda is in the eastern part of Africa. Is that correct?

Yuha Jin 14:19
Yes, you’re correct. So Uganda is in the heart of Africa and East Africa. And this is how actually Tella started out. So me and my co-founder when we were in university, we visited East Africa for the first time, and it was, yeah, it was through like a Christian mission trip. Got it. So a lot of our Seonbae or Senpai in Japanese, our seniors from university were missionaries there. And so we went there to help them out for a few weeks. And that was the first time we went there had and before that, we didn’t really have any information or just the normal, you know, perception,

Michael Waitze 15:05
Right. How would you know?

Yuha Jin 15:07
Yeah. So we just thought like, okay, Africa, there was war in that region, like a decade ago or something, oh, that there’s a lot of poverty there. But we went there. And we met a lot of people there and found out that there were a lot of people that were actually very fluent in many languages, including English, and a lot of university graduates as well. So that kind of opened our eyes to the massive talent, or potential talent that can serve Koreans or other people through English.

Michael Waitze 15:47
And how do you so how do you find teachers there? How do you train them there? Do you have certain tools that you use specifically just for that? Because right now, at least for the last year, you probably haven’t been able to go there, right? Because of COVID. Is that fair?

Yuha Jin 16:03
Now we’re up to a point where we don’t really have to go there. So everything set up, we don’t actually, I don’t think we’ll ever have to visit to be honest to run the business. But yeah, but we do go there occasionally, at least like once a year just to, you know, motivate our people there. But initially, it was, it was a long process. So we started out the company, because we wanted to create jobs for Ugandan university graduates specifically. That was because we thought that well, like there’s a lot of university graduates. This means that the country, whether it’s the government or a lot of organizations, and people actually invested in the youth to get higher education, but they weren’t getting jobs that really match their education. In fact, they’re sometimes there aren’t even jobs period. So we thought that was a big problem, because the university graduates have the potential to create even greater value to the society, whether its economic growth, industry blooming, and then becoming future leaders of the country. So we thought that creating jobs for university graduates was a very important thing. And so that’s how we came up with the business whole business model and the whole service model. But the chat lesson itself was kind of a new thing in Korea, so nobody was doing it before us in Korea. So we had spent some time to figure that out. After that. We went to Uganda and hired our first tutors. I remember there were five of them. And at that time, it was 2015. There wasn’t as much of information online about Uganda. Meaning like Google, Google Maps wasn’t really there. Yeah, basically didn’t have that much info, but and we even never really met our tutors in person, but we just trusted one of them and booked a plane with their state for two weeks, train them, and came back.

Michael Waitze 18:14
How many teachers do you have there now?

Yuha Jin 18:17
So right now we have about 50. Wow. accumulated we have created more than 100 jobs so far.

Michael Waitze 18:25
That’s awesome.

Yuha Jin 18:26
Yeah, and I think this year will go beyond 100.

Michael Waitze 18:31
Do you think that this cross cultural experience, right, in the sense that if most of your clients, we’ll get to this in a second too, but if most of your clients are Korean, who also probably know nothing about Uganda and Ugandans who probably know very little about Korea, do you think that there’s more going on here than just English speakers teaching non English speakers how to speak English? In other words, is there a cross cultural exchange that’s taking place that you think is also impactful and meaningful?

Yuha Jin 19:01
Right, most definitely. Um, so initially, our goal was to first create jobs, but then the ultimate impact we were thinking through our business model, if we were able to be successful, then a lot of companies would, whether it’s in the English education space or in different areas, a lot of companies would be willing to hire, or work with Ugandan or East African talent. So that was the goal. But we’re seeing other effects as well, such as so far for more than 40,000 Koreans had an interaction with our Ugandan tutors. It might just one lesson, because we do give free trial lessons. But that experience alone really has that cross cultural or cultural experience, where they have a conversation with the Ugandan tutor and even if they don’t sign up to have multiple lessons. It’s just changes the perception they have, or they might not have had that much of a perception or any info but because they have a tutor, which is meaning the tutors teaching them, there is a little bit of an authority there. That means that this tutor is really well spoken, graduated from university and the here maybe a little bit of information in that lesson about Uganda because people are interested, they asked like, oh, where do you live? Like, how’s the situation there? And they see like, there’s actually like, an urban environment as well. Stuff like that. So, yeah, I think that really changes that perception and 40,000 people in their 20s. And 30s is like, a huge shock. Yeah, it’s a big,

Michael Waitze 20:45
It’s a really big deal. I want to share something with you as well, just to let you know that I understand this. Again, getting back to when I lived in Japan, you know, people from the United States would ask me, like, Are there still samurais walking around? And I think they meant it, right? Because the perception and the reality are really different. But also in Thailand. When I moved here, people would ask me, you know, are there elephants walking around the streets? Because that’s the perception that they have. And I presume that the same thing. You know, people probably think Uganda is just one big jungle with, tigers and lions running around. But you’re right. There’s an urban experience there that people don’t know. And the only way for them to know is to interact with them directly.

Yuha Jin 21:22
Yeah, I mean, similar question. Like, one question is, Oh, do you guys like living in a hut? Another question was, are there giraffes on the street? So these questions are like, purely out of like curiosity and innocence most of the time, so on, and our tutors are like, have a great sense of humor. They never really take offense on this. And they just like joke, sometimes, like our tutors would say, send a picture of a giraffe on the street when they actually never saw their life. But um, yeah, that just that experience and like showing pictures of their home or the city? Yeah, it changes their perception, and really kind of elevates the image of the nation in general, but also the people there.

Michael Waitze 22:13
Right. I mean, look, this is one of the beauties of doing sort of an impactful business. Yeah, in the sense that you’re not just teaching people things. You’re not just making money, but you’re changing the way the world is. Can you talk a little bit about the client side? like can you characterize who your biggest clients are? And can you talk a little bit about how difficult that sales cycle is.

Yuha Jin 22:33
So most of our clients right now are individuals, we mostly do B2C, but we do have businesses, making contracts with us to purchase our services for training their employees. So Samsung Electronics pochi, known for the game battleground, and some other gaming companies, IT companies have signed up. Yeah, it’s very different on the B2B side and to see, for B2C, once they experience a free trial lesson with us, a lot of them sign up, they kind of instantly know that this is gonna work for them, or at least, it’s comfortable enough for them to at least try a month. For the B2B side, though, we have to persuade the decision maker and the decision maker isn’t really necessary isn’t necessarily the the user yet that’s a whole other process. But when we actually show the numbers like the attendance rate or testimonials from our B2C customers, they become persuaded.

Michael Waitze 23:42
So earlier, I asked you how you felt when you came back from the United States to Korea, and did you feel pride when the other students were asking you to pronounce this or tell them what this word was in English. Do you see the same thing in your students? In other words, do your teachers get a sense where someone you know, or like a bit has switched? And they kind of have this epiphany moment of ,you know what, I get it now? And they feel prideful, where they feel like no, I got it and their sentences start getting better.

Yuha Jin 24:12
The feedback we get the stories we get from our customers is just that we see a lot of people, a lot of our customers saying that I actually was able to, first of all, finish all the lessons that I booked. That’s a huge accomplishment. But then the ultimate goal is to get better in English, right? So they say that I actually found myself making jokes with this foreigner at a pizza place, which I never thought I would do. Or they would like joke around with their clients on the phone. And yeah, just having a better interaction in English with other people that really, so the moment they actually have that situation in their life, whether it’s at work or In their personal life, that’s when they that’s when they really see the effects of, of our services. And they’re really grateful for that.

Michael Waitze 25:08
Yeah, I mean, I remember that feeling when I first had a dream in Japanese, and I just thought, Okay. Yeah, it was weird. Like, my brother was speaking to me in Japanese my dream and I thought, okay, that’s, that’s different.

Yuha Jin 25:20
Yeah, yeah. I mean, that’s, I think that’s like the ultimate way you know, you’re, you’re now fluent in the English when you dream in that language. Right. So

Michael Waitze 25:31
that’s kind of cool. And have you How have you been funded? You’ve been at this. You said since what 2015 2016.

Yuha Jin 25:38
Started in 2014. But I would say like a year or two was like, pilot phase. We got initially funded in 2016. By D.Camp, which is like a huge, they’re not the VC necessarily, but kind of, they’re a big foundation in Korea for startups. So we got funded by them. Yeah, recently, we’re now in the process of closing another round of funding. Oh, really? Which, yeah, we’re not done yet. But yeah, we’re in the we’re in the process of closing.

Michael Waitze 26:12
Okay. I mean, you’re in the rest of closing. That’s great. I mean, look, if there are other interested people, how would they possibly get in touch with you? What’s the best way to reach you?

Yuha Jin 26:18
Yeah, I mean, email is best. You can reach me through email or LinkedIn. Yeah, I check my email every day. So what’s your email address?

Michael Waitze 26:30
Nice and easy. And are you thinking about expanding outside of Korea? It sounds to me like most of your B2B and also your B2C customers are in Korea. Are you thinking about expanding outside of Korea into other countries?

Yuha Jin 26:44
Yeah, so our plan is to expand to other countries starting this year. We’re thinking our first places Japan, I think you are aware that Japanese people probably have the same if not more, you know, they have a even higher barrier to English. They’re more shy when they’re speaking in English. Um, so we’re going to Japan and other places we’re thinking are Taiwan and Latin America.

Michael Waitze 27:13
Good stuff. Okay. Well, look, that means we’re gonna have to catch up in six months so we can figure out what your progress has been. I really want to thank you for doing this today. Yuha Jin, a co-founder and the CEO at Tella. I really appreciate your time today.

Yuha Jin 27:26
Oh, thank you. Thank you for your time. And thank you for inviting me to the podcast.

Michael Waitze 27:29
It’s my pleasure.

Transcribed by

EP 28 - Yuha Jin - CEO at Tella - Having To Instantly Respond Is Where You Get Frozen

by Yuha Jin | Social Innovation Podcast