🐧Toucan

A deep-dive into the chrome browser extension that helps you learn a new language without setting time aside. We look into Human Psychology, habit formation and posting on online communities..........

Hello Folks 👋,

Today’s case study is on Toucan.

A few weeks back I (virtually) met with Taylor, to talk about her new language learning chrome extension that is taking Twitter (and the world 🥶) by a storm. I have been sitting on this for a while, and can’t wait to share it with you all today!!!

A little bit about Toucan + the team behind it

Toucan is a chrome extension that translates and highlights some words on your page. Instead of asking users to download an app, set aside a regular time to learn a new language through a one-size-fits-all curriculum, they immerse you in the language while you’re browsing the web and you pick it up from there.

(Side note: They announced their $4.5m seed round last week🤑 and I could not be more excited for the team….this is gonna be YUGE).

Taylor, Brandon and Shaun (the cofounding trio) met throughout different parts of their careers…all of them played a major role in building some of your favorite consumer companies. Taylor and Brandon were on the founding team of Headspace they joined the company pre-funding and helped scale the company to post Series-B. In particular Taylor worked on (organic) growth, whilst Brandon worked on the Product Side. Taylor and Shaun crossed paths at Fair after the company raised a massive $1.5b to scale their car-as-a-service concept….where they both took the leap to start Toucan.

Taking the road less traveled

Building a consumer company is hard (period) There are only a few angles of attacks for a new company especially if you are operating in crowded space such as language learning. You can go after price, feature-set (go much deeper or much lighter than your competitors) or the underlying consumer behavior. Some of the most successful companies went after behavior; Tinder changed how we interact with potential matches, Uber changed how we get from point A to point B, Airbnb changed how we stay on vacation. In all these examples, those companies invented and taught people a new behavior…a new better way to do the thing they already do.


Toucan also went after consumer behavior but in a radically different approach than all the companies I highlighted. Rather than try to teach people a new habit, they've invented a whole new experience to fit into users’ existing habit. 

What we learned from our previous experiences around consumer behavior and the science of habit formation was (that) even trying to take 10 minutes out of people’s very busy days is hard….doing that over and over again is really really (really) hard .

When we set out to build out Toucan, we did not want to compete for time. Competing for time means going after your friends and family and also after Netflix, Spotify, Tiktok, Clubhouse…etc. It’s literally competing against everything and anything.

- Taylor, Cofounder & CEO of Toucan

Deep-Dive🧐

People on average spend 5-7 hours everyday browsing the web, on the other hand, language learning platforms strive to get you to spend just 20min-30min on their app 4-5 days a week. By (literally) being where consumers are, Toucan did not only avoid directly competing with the behemoths in this space, but more interestingly, got users to spend X8-X25 more time learning a new language. The more time you spend searching the web, the more value you extract from Toucan, the more trust  and social capital the company builds. 

I spent a lot of time working on referral programs, and if there is one thing I learnt from spending hundreds of hours trying to understand the psychology behind referrals, it's that Trust, Social Capital, effort & incentives are the four traits that motivates us (the human species) to recommend any product to our friends....almost nothing else matters.

If you trust the outcome/value of the product is easily replicable to others, sharing the product will make you look good (your friends will love it, be impressed by your knowledge, or perceive you in a positive light..etc), there is no hoops you need to jump over to refer (we're all busy people) and that you will get something your personally value as a reward....you got a viral product on your hand. 

Toucan's decision to fit themselves seamlessly into your existing habits (of procrastinating on the interwebs 😬), nails down 3/4 of those traits. 

Companies build trust by delivering consistent value over a long-period of time. The biggest hurdle to do that is....well....training people to consistently seek out your product. Toucan is one of the very few companies on this planet that don't have this issue, the only thing they need to do is to get people to take this one-time action of downloading the app, and actually build a product that delivers value....and boiiii have they done that. 

Social capital is interlinked to trust the only difference is with social capital you are weighing how "the value" of the product is perceived by others. If I was a betting man, I would bet that helping your friends learn a new language in a faster, easier way is not something to be judged in a negative light.

As for effort, because Toucan is just there every time you open chrome, the effort threshold is pretty darn low.

Incentive is the only thing missing piece of the puzzle...the team is working on some really exciting experiments atm...so unfortunately I have to 🤐🤐.

If there is one takeaway here, it's that virality is engineered not stumbled upon 😉


The very first customers

Okai back to the story now 🤤. When Taylor and the team first came up with this hypothesis of creating an extension that would manipulate the words you see on the screen…they had to…you know…test it out. V1 was a beautifully terrible user experience (whatever that means 🤷‍♂️)…all it did was translate the word “the” from English to Spanish…and even that simple task it didn’t do it properly. Because the word “the” can be either masculine or feminine in Spanish…the extension did not always nail the correct format every time.

To validate the idea, Taylor and the team went down to coffee shops in LA (before you get 🤬 with me…this was pre-pandemic) and asked random strangers to download Toucan on their browser, play around with it and give some feedback. The team proactively segmented out anyone they know from giving feedback because:

  • Friends and colleagues more often than not have good things to say about you.

  • Strangers are ruthless, they have no inherit interest in your products success and they can be extra cranky if you are imposing on their pumpkin-spice-caramel latte-me-time. If your product sucks, they won’t sugarcoat it!

Even though, the chances are your average coffee-shop seeking Jill may not necessarily be their power-users, learning a new language is broad enough problem, and Spanish is technically LAs second language…that even the people who are not spending their nights and days on their phones (or computers) are sure to find some value in brushing up on their Spanish.

Infiltrating online communities:

After getting some initial feedback from random strangers around LA…. Brandon, Shaun and Taylor went back and started actually working on the product. They developed an initial dictionary of 200 core words (as opposed to just the one)… the extension would sprinkle these words across your browser so people can pick up their new language in the context of things they actually read and care about.

With a product on hand, the next step was to get some more customers. Luckily, communities around language learning are so vast and spread online. Those are best found on Reddit, Twitter and Facebook Groups

1️⃣ How to Reddit:

The wrong way to do things is…find a subreddit with a lot of followers (i.e r/startups or Japanese learning), create a new burner account, get admitted and post about why your new company is awesome.

The Taylor way to do it is:

  • Use your personal account

  • Ask to join the relevant subreddits

  • As soon as you are in…reach out to the moderates (despite popular belief…they’re nice people)

  • Show them your product and ask for the blessing

  • Tell them *exactly* what you are gonna say, workshop your message with them to make sure you are not breaking any community rules

  • Shoot your shot, and DM them your post along with a thank you note.

Deep-Dive🧐

If you treat moderates and their space with the respect that they deserve and don't try to "game the system" ...not only would they not take-down your post, but in most cases they would help push engagement on it, ask questions and encourage others to participate in the discussion. At the end of the day, we all want to feel heard and appreciated ...similarly no one wants to feel cheated :).

When posting online, especially in communities like Reddits and facebook groups...the best thing you can do is ask for feedback (this is exclusively what Taylor did). Asking for feedback makes people more interested and invested in your product. People want to be more helpful and give back when they feel that their opinions and thoughts are of value and appreciated.

2️⃣ How to Twitter:

The other magical place on the internet is Twitter. It is one of the few avenues left where you can actually get decent organic distribution. Taylor went all in Twitter. In just under two years she took her account from 0 to over 10k followers.

Here is how she did it:


Building Distribution products:

When you have a team that have spent their life growing some of the worlds best consumer products, you sure are to learn a trick or two about how to get distribution. On top of the core browser extension, Toucan built several products engineered specifically to go viral and acquire new customers. Two of those products that I am fanboying so hard over:

Own the word

This is a fun one 🤠. There are only few things in life you can’t actually possess, a word in the dictionary is definitely one of those. Toucan on other hand, surfaces millions of words and their definition to customers every single month. What they created was a way for you (or your brand) to have a direct association with this one word that you are all about.

Its fun, its cheap, and it’s of one of those things you can convince yourself could be worth a gazillion dollars in 20 years. We all have this one friend who has 700 domain names….Toucan Words are the web 2.0 version of domain names. The rational way to think about it is you weighing (opportunity) cost vs potential upside….the not-so-rational-way….is appealing to our human nature. There is something about having ownership over a one-of-one “object” that causes us to make some irrational purchasing decisions.(guilty as charged)

Deep-Dive🧐

What made this product go be even more successufl was that Toucan actually charged money for it. For $0.99 you can get to own any word in the dictionary as long as it is not claimed. (I own distribution 🥶). The reason why Own The Word was so successful, I believe, was because it was priced perfectly to be an impulsive purchase. 99c/week (as opposed to $4/month which you can start to draw comparisons to Hulu..etc). And we  are all guilty of masking our impulsive purchases as "investments."

When you make an "investment" you seek a return, and in that case, return comes in the form of interest in those words. Toucan words are only as valuable as people's interest in them.

With Own The Word...Toucan got people to pay them $4/month for owning a word on their platform....on top of that, it got them to share those purchases far and wide (as it was in the users best interest after all)...generating more demand for these words...translating to more people buying words and all while organically spreading the word (pun intended 🙈) about Toucan (the company).

Dog Translator

As an April’s fool joke, Barkbox got together with Toucan to Launch a dog translator version of Toucan. Simple put, users type in a sentence and the product translates it to woofs and raffs. If there is anything that I learned from my 25 year career on this earth is that dog owners love their dogs! And what better way to reach Hardcore Dog fans than to build a joke product for one of the biggest players in the pet space 🐶.


If after 3000 words you haven’t already checked Toucan ….give them a go. They’re legit one of my new favorite startups 🤗.


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This is it for today folks… See you next Sunday 😉,
Ali Abouelatta

P.S: Best way to reach me is on the twitter ( I am really horrible at keeping up with my email.)