Shutting Down a Dream

When I was 17 years old, I wrote a little Applesoft BASIC program to help myself memorize vocabulary for my Spanish class. When I went to college, I wrote a new version for the Mac, adding special features for Japanese. Senior year I wrote two new versions – one for my senior project, another for a class in which we were supposed to learn the basics of five ancient languages (I adored the professor, but he was a little meshuggah). Another version when I started studying French. It became a bit of a joke – every time I started studying a new language, I’d first spend a lot of time rewriting my vocabulary drill software – if I’d only spent that time on the languages themselves!

And so, a decade ago, when I left the video game industry and had some time on my hands (thank you, San Diego real estate market!), I used this project to teach myself web development. Every version up until then had been for an audience of one – fine for my purposes, but completely unusable by anyone else. So I set out to build the version for the masses, the final version – the version that would allow me to stop writing and rewriting the damn thing.

I didn’t mean to make it into a company, it just kind of happened. Well, OK, I incorporated three weeks after quitting my job, but it wasn’t what I was planning originally. I really just wanted to get it out of my system. And so, all of the learnings from the prior decade and a half, poured into a product that no one would ever pay for. Who (other than me) would pay for a flashcard system? Sure, there are a couple of them out there (God love ’em), but not anywhere near enough even to get ramen profitable. So I went back to the drawing board, and went after a market I thought would be interested.

Teachers. They could get it for free and have their students pay – everyone wins! The teachers set up homework, the students learned vocabulary, and I got paid. Somehow, though, the teachers didn’t find me on their own, so I ended up doing a lot of cold calls. 100 calls to talk to 10 people to get 1 in-person demo, frequently in another state. I got in the car, put on the suit, and did the demos. I put together some signage, set up a booth at ACTFL, IALLT, and military linguist conventions. My parents saw a lot of me (they live near a lot of colleges), I stayed in a lot of cheap motels, and slowly, I built a list of customers. Not a lot, never enough. Harvard, Yale, Brown, and other top schools were among my customers, but I never made the “big score” – the state school with tens of thousands of students.

I integrated with PayPal and Authorize.net. I spent a huge amount of time doing data entry – I promised the teachers I’d enter all of their vocabulary lists into the system, and record audio for all of their words, before that critical first fall semester – and there’s an entire summer of my life that’s missing, lost time. Princeton Spanish reneged at the last minute, which taught me the value of communicating progress along the way. The rest followed through, and became some of my best customers, but with one or two exceptions, I wasn’t able to leverage one language department to get an entire school.

It was growing, but too slowly. I was down to the bottom of my life savings. I stopped dating. I ate a lot of canned soup and peanut butter sandwiches. I borrowed money from my parents. I lost weight. I had insomnia for a month and a half.

In 2006 I started talking with a potential acquirer. But there was a blizzard, and we missed a crucial meeting, and in the meantime I got in contact with an old boss who was interested in getting involved. So I followed one path instead of another.

We got some angel funding, brought on some additional people, and tried to make a run for it. I won’t go into the details, other than to say that we made huge mistakes, and didn’t get lucky. After two and a half more years of trying, the money ran out, and the world economy suddenly collapsed. And so I went out and got a job.

I kept the site running – what was I going to do, shut it down? It was making some money – not much, but it was paying for itself – and though I was married, we didn’t have kids, so there was time to do stuff after work. And then we did. And still I kept it going. The teachers who depended on it were friends – I’d known them for years now, they were real people, not just users. And there wasn’t anything remotely like it out there, so what would they do? I felt like a TV executive pulling the plug on a great series that couldn’t make the numbers – how do you face the fans? How do you respond to their emails?

And then my father passed away. This was a wakeup call that took a long time to ring. I decided to shut down the site, but had to give people enough warning. The date was set for the end of the year. I put up the notification. I desperately tried to ignore the pleading emails. And at the last minute I blinked. Maybe it could still work out. Maybe if it just made more money? I raised the price on students, and started charging teachers (which I had always balked at, before). Maybe I could still make this make some kind of economic sense? The teachers were relieved, and happy to have their school districts pay. Strangely, though, this caused more trouble. The combination of checks, credit cards, purchase orders, temporary enabling of accounts while waiting for checks to arrive, etc., took more and more of my time. And then I had a second child.

When you have children, you can have exactly one hobby. Anything else is an exercise in futility, self-deception, and ineffectiveness. Cooking healthy food is a hobby. Exercising is a hobby. Maintaining a website is a hobby. Writing a blog is a hobby. Bringing work home is a hobby. You have time to do exactly one thing after your kids go to sleep, if you want to do it well. The pointless waste of time had to go.

It was time. A new date was set. That date was June 30. I’m a little late, but just because I need to provide a vocabulary export tool, and I haven’t gotten around to it. This time it’s going down, and that’s that.

I suppose this is part confessional, part apology, part cautionary tale. Am I glad I did it? I’m glad I had the courage to try, and I’m grateful for the insight it gave me into what it takes to build a business. If I could go back in time would I do it again? No. Perhaps some other startup, some other time, but this took too long, and was too painful. My love for the product didn’t blind me to its failure, but it did prevent me from failing faster. It’s taken such a long time to die – I decided to start looking for another job five years ago this month – that I no longer feel more than a small ache. It’s long since passed from beloved child to albatross.

And so, shutting it down. It will stick around for another month or so (so that teachers can get their materials off of it), and then it will be gone. There are other things I dream of doing with more time, and less mental energy spent worrying about this. Getting back in shape. Translating ドグラマグラ. Writing some one-off iPhone and Android apps. But first, I need to clear my plate.

100 thoughts on “Shutting Down a Dream

  1. Hei, thanks for sharing your experience. Can you re-license the code and data as GPL and upload them to GitHub?

    • I would very much like to. There are two issues, both (hopefully) possible to overcome. All vocabulary is tied to specific accounts, and a lot of the value is in the vocabulary lists, lesson plans, and audio clips. So, I’ll have to go through and scrub everything to remove all personally identifying information. Then, there are my partners and investors. The code and data are assets, and I have to make sure I do right by them. We’ll see.

  2. Hi Dan,

    Thanks for writing this. It’s a little scary for me, a software engineer with no business training who decided to embark on a strikingly similar venture [1].

    I actually heard about your site a couple of weeks ago from a new user of mine who was looking for alternatives since WordChamp is shutting down. I’m very keen to see what export options you support, since I’m planning to add import options to Readlang soon. If possible, it would be great if you could export the spaced repetition data (e.g. interval, easinessFactor, nextScheduledDate, or your equivalent) for the smoothest transition.

    I’m very sorry to hear your story, it sounds like it’s been a painful process and I really hope not to follow your path too closely. If you are feeling very generous, I’d really appreciate learning a more about your experience, particularly what “huge mistakes” you made, and if you have any advice or feedback for someone like me starting something similar.

    Thanks,
    Steve

    [1] http://readlang.com

  3. Dan, I don’t know you, and I will probably never have the courage to start a business of my own.

    I found this story touching and strangely familiar. It is truly about losing a dream. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. Great post and sorry to see you have to shut the site down. Don’t know if you’ve seen/talked to the guys at Memrise, but they’re on a similar flash-card path.. Maybe it would help to talk to them?

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and sorry it didn’t work out.

  5. What a journey. Thanks for sharing Dan. Been through the same (we have 5yo twins). “Exactly one hobby” is so true. It takes great courage to stop working on your dream, but sounds like you made the right choice. My guess is you’ll enjoy your time with your kids and start something up again when they’ve flown the nest.

    Be proud of all that you’ve attempted and achieved – even if it feels like failure right now, in future you’ll look back and be proud of what you built, lived, shared.

  6. Wow, great post – I have been googling to find out the story behind the closure. As an aspiring app producer with 2 kids and energy starting to flag, I empathize!
    Is there a way that you could save some functionality – esp. the web reader, just to save lookups to a local textfile (you mention studying Japanese – there is a plugin called peraperakun that does this for Japanese). The flashcard function can be taken care of by other sites like Quizlet etc. A project like that may be a manageable scale, and not currently out there as far as I can tell.
    Good luck!
    Oliver
    http://www.kanjigames.com
    http://www.lexwordgameapp.com

  7. Have you tried the textbook publishers, Holt, etc? They should be lining up to buy this to sell with their language textbooks! As a Spanish teacher I would choose a curriculum that included Wordchamp for sure!

  8. Webreader is such an incredible innovation – it puts Google Translate to shame. Is there no way to keep it up? Right now what Google Translate really lacks is the pronunciation aspect of Word Champ, not to mention how awesome it is to keep the text in the original language while only checking a handful of needed words.

    Surely there’s some way to spin this off with the accompanying database of words/pronunciations that you’ve built up in order to continue? It would be such a shame to let such a powerful tool go to waste.

  9. Man this is so sad. Word champ is what got me and so many others through the defense language institute with 3L/3R on the DLPT5. Very sad that it’s going away. You had the best way to find words… I used your site as a dictionary more than anything. So so simple and easy to use. Also there were definitions, words, and phrases given to us by teachers that don’t exist anywhere else other than here, and with every new class those continue to grow. It’s going to be such a loss. So so sad.
    I pray one day a word champ 2 will pop up!!!
    Take care and good luck.

    • This is exactly the kind of comment that drives a stake through my heart. RayG, people like you are the reason I built the site, and why it’s stayed up this long. I hope we can find a way to get someone (else) to take it on.

      • I’m not in any position to take it on, but can you provide any details about what would be involved in taking it on so that this information could be circulated to potentially interested parties?
        Oliver

      • The main issue right now is the investors. I need to do right by them, but once that’s been worked out, things should be a lot easier to figure out.

    • I just scrolled down to say the same thing — years late, but my post-military career took me in another direction. I lived on Wordchamp through my years at DLI, and it has a lot of credit for why I was able to learn Mandarin at that time.

      I completely understand why the site closed, but man, what a loss to the world that Wordchamp was never embraced to the economic level it deserved. Years and years later I still think it’s the best tool of its kind I’ve seen for language learning. I’ve really enjoyed a few other tools (Anki, Duolingo, Quizlet, etc.), but they don’t quite serve the same purpose.

      Thank you for everything, Dan!

  10. Any thought of doing a kickstarter? Enough linguists around that have used wordchamp that you could try to raise at least some capital. The database that you’ve built up, including user generation translations + audio pronunciation help, would be a major boon to Google in case you ever decide to spin it off / sell it to them

    • Yes, please start a kickstarter. What RayG said is no joke and this site going down is equatable to the burning of the library of Alexandria.

  11. Dan: I have been an enthusiastic fan and proponent of Wordchamp ever since circumstances forced me to go 21st century and incorporate web-based tools in my repertoire. It was the combination of manageable cards, sound files, the ability to attach visuals and then track student use that convinced me of the quality of the product and its massive usefulness for learners. As a result, I built massive stacks of flash cards and used them for high school, community college and adult ed. courses. And that’s why I am massively sad to see Wordchamp go under. You provided us teachers with a product that is vastly superior to others out there. I am sorry that it never proved to be profitable for you and ended up consuming so much of your time and your soul. Best of luck to you in your next step.

  12. Many thanks for letting us in on the detailed history, Dan. I’m grateful for the help the sites provided me over the last six years but sorry it’s taken such a toll on you. I’ll also just echo the hope that something can be be done to salvage the Web Reader database and the recordings. Qiizlet, Cram and the rest can more or less replace the flashcards but the reader was unique.

  13. Dan, it’s time for yet another teacher to chime in. Thank you so very much for the time and energy you put into the development of this extraordinary product. I have been assigning Wordchamp drills across an average of 3-4 full sections per semester for six consecutive years. I gave an inservice to other staff three years ago, and now over 50% of the WL teachers in this area use your product as well. The greatest testimony of your product’s success, however, is that students loved using it…they loved hearing the words pronounced in the target language when practicing the flashcards, and they were extremely competitive when it came to who completed a particular verb conjugation drill in a particular tense with the highest degree of accuracy and in the quickest time. Over the years, I’ve had untold numbers of students hammering those exercises on their own time even when they weren’t assigned to…why? Because it’s a method of learning that works. The kids already connect to the technology…it’s their world, after all. Add to that world a product so nicely polished and multifaceted that helps them learn the target language at their own pace…it was going to be a slam dunk right from the onset. I will sorely miss the opportunity to integrate Wordchamp in the future…it was perhaps the most exciting and effective learning supplement I’ve yet to encounter. I would like to beg and plead that you reconsider, but I too understand how work can consume your life if you’re not careful (or even when you are), so instead I will just say thank you from the WL staff of Central Valley School District and Eastern Washington University in Spokane, WA. Best of luck with your future endeavors!

  14. At first, I was pretty mad about Wordchamp shutting down. I had no idea why they were closing it. Now I do. I cannot thank you enough for writing this, I know it couldn’t of been easy. Now, I totally get it, and are surprised you didn’t do it earlier. It’s a sad thing, but for a good cause. Have a great time with a actual “life”:)! Thanks for all the help you’ve brought us previous years ;)

  15. Thank you so much for some great years! I have used WordChamp with my high school Spanish classes for 5 or 6 years, and it was the best vocab learning tool ever! The kids – and their parents – absolutely loved it! If I wanted to impress at parent night, I’d pull up a WordChamp demo. :) I am very sad to see the site go; I have some work-arounds, but there truly isn’t anything out there quite like WordChamp. I understand why you have to let it go, but I want you to know that you have made a huge impact in many lives by creating this site – you made vocab study fun for so many students and help us teachers hold them accountable in an objective and fun way. We’ll miss you!

  16. We will indeed miss you; my students have been begging me to see if the site’s status has changed. Thank you for letting us know why; it can’t have been easy. This site was fabulous, and you deserve to make money from it; I truly hope something comes through for you. Thank you.

  17. Daniel, WordChamp and I go way back and I appreciate hearing from you how it all went down. The site had become an integral part of nearly every course that I teach and I am at a loss about what’s next. There is no substitute. I heard raves from my students every semester, and the prices you were charging seemed trivial to me. I would like to have recruited some colleagues at my college to use WordChamp –I tried– but they are hard to persuade, and not only about WordChamp. I think their problem is the same as mine: we have an world full of resources and a very small semester to squeeze it all into. Please drop in if you are ever nearby! Lunch is on me.

  18. Thank you for your time committed to Wordchamp. I cannot even fathom what it took to create, but I do know that for many of my students Wordchamp saved their language abilities. They could study without me. They were held accountable. They could practice what they needed to practice. They could read authentic text with a sub without fear of failure.
    Please thank your family for all the time that you were unable to spend with them because you were saving so many others. It was not unnoticed by so many.
    Wordchamp will be greatly missed an your family deserves your time.
    Thank you again for all that you have done to work with us.

  19. just wanted to say thank you. My son was in his freshman year of spanish last year and had to do this once a week as a homework grade. It usually took about an hour or so as he was required to do each lesson 3-4 times correctly. He quickly found it to be “such a pain!” But I’m telling you (and he will admit to it now) he learned so much and is a strong spanish speaker after only one year of Spanish. His Spanish 2 teacher loves him this year because he can confidently walk to the front of the class and speak a paragraph in spanish without his notes. So thank you thank you!!! It will surely be missed!

  20. I’m a mom too–Wordchamp was the best tool to help my daughter to learn French, and now my son wants to use it as he is getting started. I was thinking there might be a way I could download the flashcards, but I guess not. So sorry for your experience. I wish it worked out differently. I would happily pay to use this tool!

  21. I don’t know how technically or financially viable leaving the web reader would be but it’s something I’d certainly like to see. Between 2007 and the closure announcement this year, I probably spent a total of around 300 hours enlarging the Latin database by glossing the weekly `Nuntii Latini’ news bulletins put on the web by Finnish Radio ( http://www.yle.fi/radio1/tiede/nuntii_latini/ ) as explained on my own site (http://linguae.weebly.com/using-nuntii-latini.html). I don’t think these were very much used but I’d like to see the result preserved in some way if possible,

    • Mr. Whelpton,
      I just wanted to let you know that your recordings were of incredible use to myself and my husband over the past six years. Between the two of us, we made thousands of flashcards to aid hundreds of our Latin students in their studies. Without the hours you put in to the Latin database so many of those cards would have been silent, reinforcing the belief that there is no need to speak or even hear this august language any longer and robbing students who are aural learners of a great resource. I mourn the loss of the site as well as your recordings. I do hope that you have them saved somewhere and that they can once again be shared as so many of us begin to reluctantly rebuild elsewhere. Thank you for your time and efforts; they did not go unnoticed and they were greatly, greatly appreciated.
      Cura ut valeas,
      Rachel Ritchie Kless

      • Iohannes Rachelae salutem plurimam dicit
        Gratias maximas tibi ago propter verba benigna. Gaudeo quod recitationes vobis usui erant et veniam peto quod responsum tardum do – tantum hodie nuntium tuum conspexi.
        Pro dolor, recitationes vocabulorum singulorum tantum in servatro Danielis ponebantur itaque postquam Wordchamp ab Interreti emotus erit, non poterimus illas audire. Daniel, tamen, mihi scripsit non fore ut recitationes nostrae deleantur, itaque adhuc sperare possumus olim in futuro eas in aream publicam iterum regressuras esse. Interea sunt multae recitationes, et ab me ipso et ab aliis factae, quae in situ meo audiri possunt. Eundum est ad http://linguae.weebly.com/circulus-latinus-honcongensis.html
        Optime valete

  22. 長い間どうもありがとうございました!
    Dan, I was always a fan of Wordchamp and the enthusiasm you brought to it. There was much crying and moaning around here when we saw the shut down announcement, but I understand that sometimes it’s just time to move on. Thanks so much for all you have done and please know how many learners you have helped. I know of at least 17 former students of mine who are living and working (or have lived and worked and come back to tell the tales) in Japan and I bet everyone of them would give credit to Wordchamp for helping them make it happen. Best of luck to you in your future endeavors!

  23. Hi Dan. I just wantedt to say thank you very much for wordchamp, because you saved the school career of my elder son who is now 15 during a very difficult period. Wordchamp was a way for him to learn at least the minimum of the vocabulary he needed at school.
    I am now forced to use a German site, which I don’t like at all. Have a nice time with your family.

  24. Thank you for your program. I have used it with my students for the past five years. My favorite part was being able to assign the listening activities and the accountability for the students. My biggest praise would be that, by providing a high quality tool that students could practice with on their own, my students that believed that they “couldn’t” found out they could! Muchas Gracias!

  25. I agree with everything that the last person shared. I have used Word champ as a homework assignment for my Spanish class for the last 3 years. Can anyone suggest anything even remotely similar that I could use with my students?

  26. Just learned about your website from Yahoo answers.

    Thank you for sharing your experience. Anyway, not going after the dream and passion would leave bitter aftertaste. Thank you for your courage and hard work.

    Good luck and happiness your family.

  27. Conjuguemos is ok but no listening, not nearly as reliable, no picture recognition. Just conjugations and vocabulary. Sigh… Best that I have found that allows me to keep track of students scores. There are some nice self study sites out there, but lets me honest, in the HS world it better have a due date! :)

  28. My French teacher has repeated told us that he has used your website for over 10 years ever since I took a course with him 2 years ago. I did learn a lot through the website, and I especially loved how it gave the time after every practice. I used to repeatedly do exercises just to beat my own time. I took Japanese last year, and now I am taking Spanish (both along with French). Even though those teachers didn’t use WordChamp, I had used WordChamp for one year before that, and I would like to thank you for helping me learn so much during that one year and achieving high grades in French. Best of luck to you and the rest of your life!

  29. Sad day. Have been using wordchamp for about last 7 years or so. It was the only homework I would actually give my students. Such a great way for them to practice their vocabulary. Saw such improvements with them using W.C. There is nothing else like it on the web.

  30. I am a student who is very grateful for having been able to use WordChamp. I started taking Spanish at my high school last year and I never was able to get it before I began to use the flashcard drills here at WordChamp. I’m sorry to see such a great thing go. While there probably isn’t any flash card site as good is there any I could use after WordChamp shuts down.

  31. I just finished downloading the 3500 plus flashcards I and my students made from 2008 to 2012. I know how sad I feel at this moment, as if a long-ill good friend in the prime of life finally took her last breathe and quietly slipped away in the night. WordChamp will be missed not just because she was the best language learning system out there, but precisely because the person behind her was obviously so intelligent, dedicated and kindhearted. Being a teacher and having become a mother recently myself, I understand why you worked so hard to help others learn and why you had to stop. Thank you for your sacrifices, thank you for hard work, thank you for allowing us to dream with you even if it was just for little while.

  32. I suggested to the director of foreign languages in my county that they buy your site outright–many or most of the teachers in the county were using it, and we didn’t want to see it go down. Perhaps if the economy were better they would have. I hope that you will continue to work in this area–your site was truly useful to teachers in a way that many sites are not (they appear to have been designed by people without teaching experience.). If the business issues could be solved, the software will naturally find its place. Best wishes from someone who used the site for 6 years.

  33. I am so sorry to hear that this is happening… I, too, have 2 children, and believe me, I can relate to this. thank you for your passion. Perhaps somehow, someday, someone will pick up where you left of… I loved the webreader function…. Ich bin so traurig. Best of luck.

  34. Hi Dan, I want to thank you for helping save my career. I was on “language probation” in the State Department. I used your tool for a year of language studies. Keeping track of things on paper got too cumbersome and was not random enough and not practical for spending a few minutes here and there studying or getting some time in when visiting my parents, etc.. We had two small children and wordchamp helped me provide flexibility in my study schedule. I spent countless hours studying on Wordchamp and passed my exams. Some of the language professors at the Foreign Service Institute have admitted to using your tool. It worked beautifully for Urdu as well. Thank you for all your help!!
    Damo

  35. Thank you very much! This was very helpful!
    I wish you the best in future.
    We used the verb conjugasion in french.
    P.s. I study in HELSINKI, FINLAND, EUROPE!!!

    Thank you for the awesome job

  36. A very important feature to please keep in mind for a rerelease or relaunch is the “dictionary” feature. When you entered “create flashcard” mode in your target language, when you would alternate between the target language and english boxes it would populate a “suggestion” field with what other people had used for the word. I hope sincerely you do not lose the database you have in regard to this “suggestion field”. Please put up the kickstarter! This is such a huge loss for students.

  37. Dan, I still do not understand what will happen physically to the data base (and particularly the web reader) when you finally shut down. Will it survive to be resurrected if anyone shows interest in buying the system in future, or will it simply be deleted?

    • Hi John. I would never delete the data – it will stay around, and hopefully we’ll find a way to make it available, one way or another (none of the user data, obviously). -Daniel

      • Hello Mr.Dan,

        I’m sad to hear you will close it, it seams like a usefull tool, and the more comments I hear/read about it, the more wonderful it sounds.

        Would it be okay if I used someones account to download the program? I would register, though it is disabled.

        And Just a tip from a fellow codder, keep multiple copies, just in case one or two get damaged.

        In Christ
        -Mel

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