BWP Ep. 6: Toucan w/ Taylor Nieman

Meagan Loyst
Building with Purpose
7 min readDec 3, 2020

The under-appreciated Chrome GTM strategy & how Toucan is taking on the world of language learning.

I first came across Toucan seeing tons of instances, like the one below, on Twitter where people and companies were buying and owning words. I was definitely intrigued, and quickly learned that this was an incredible growth hack and monetization strategy for an EdTech company called Toucan.

Morning Brew co-founder, Austin Rief, buying the word “coffee” for the Morning Brew on

There are a bunch of great language learning companies out there in the world, from consumer apps like Duolingo, Cambly, Busuu, Rosetta Stone, and Babbel, to more B2B-focused applications like Unbabel and Kudo which are focused on translations. However, Toucan stands out from the pack in a couple of ways to me.

As an investor, one inherent issue with language learning apps is tied to churn — language learning is oftentimes very episodic in nature. Think about times in your life when you’ve tried to learn a new language — maybe it’s for an upcoming exam and you need the extra practice, or for an upcoming trip to France (pre-COVID of course!) where you’d like to be able to navigate around the city using simple phrases in French. Once that event is over, your motivation to continue learning and opening that app disappears.

Toucan inherently fixes that problem by making language learning a part of your everyday routine. You install Toucan as an extension on Chrome, and you start learning right away. I took Italian for five years growing up and also studied abroad in Rome, but I lose a lot of that knowledge each day I don’t practice it. With Toucan, I can refresh my Italian simply by reading articles where they’ll natively replace “the school” with “la scuola,” bringing contextual immersion front and center.

Invisible learning will continue to be an important theme in education, and Toucan is truly leading the charge. It’s also inherently aligned with the way Gen Z consumers want to learn. The friction to download a new app today has never been higher, so Chrome extensions offer a unique way to reach those consumers where they already are — which is online.

I’m excited to share Taylor’s thoughts with all of you, and the story of Toucan!

A Conversation with Taylor Nieman, Founder & CEO of Toucan

First start with telling me about the origin story of Toucan, and how you landed on this product idea.

My two cofounders (Brandon & Shaun) and I have known each other for the past 9 years working across the LA tech ecosystem, and consumer technology has always been our bread and butter.

Brandon and I were both early employees at Headspace, joining when there were about 20 employees (pre-funding) and left after the Series B when the company had ~300 employees. I led most of the distribution initiatives, and my core focus was around this central question: how do we scale these high growth tech companies without paid acquisition? That’s been central to my entire career path as well. One example of this was Headspace partnering with Spotify to become their first-ever bundle partner, or getting Headspace’s content into every airline. And now the founder of Headspace is also an investor in Toucan, so it’s nice to have that full circle support.

From these experiences, we learned so much about consumer behavior, the science of habit formation, and everything that goes into it. So when we started thinking about Toucan, we approached it thinking, “how do we get people to learn new things, but also learn new things every single day?” We didn’t want to steal time out of people’s very busy days because we learned how hard that was at Headspace.

You’re not just competing against, work, school, family, and friends — but also Netflix, Spotify, Instagram and every other online platform nowadays. So we decided to intentionally layer our technology on top of existing behaviors, and meet people where they already are throughout the flow of their day. And that’s how we landed on a browser extension as our first product vertical.

At Toucan, we serve you up with micro-moments of learning while you’re already browsing the internet. Right now we’re laser-focused on language learning. And at some point, the tech we’re building can extend to science, history, or even sports trivia — really anything you want to sear into your long-term memory. This contextual immersion is the gold standard on the efficacy side, which is also really important to us.

And why is having Toucan as an extension on Google Chrome so important for education specifically?

Chrome extensions are a massively untapped distribution channel given mostly everyone uses Google Chrome. And then on the education side, people also don’t realize the power of Chromebooks and how prevalent they are in K-12 schools and Universities all over the country. Toucan is making that hardware more valuable to companies like Google everyday.

Tell me a bit about the “Own The Word” campaign.

Anyone in the world can essentially own a word through Toucan. Users can subscribe for $1 a week, and it serves as an incredible viral marketing campaign. We’ve made it a weekly subscription (it’s a very odd way of monetizing on purpose!) because we want increased churn. If a user buys a word and then churns, then we get that word back in our dictionary and someone else can buy it and share out to a new audience. We’ve set it up in a way where we’re actually trying to get them to give it back to us.

Meagan: I recently purchased the word “gen z” — favorite purchase of 2020 by far!

Now I’m the proud owner of “Gen Z” :)

How do you think about Toucan’s expansion beyond a Chrome extension or growth story? Anything you’d like to highlight on the roadmap?

Using gamification as a way to enhance learning is incredibly interesting for us, because every other EdTech product out there is trying to get you to watch a video or open an app. With Toucan, we want to think about both how we get people in, and then also coming back to us every day. That’s definitely on our roadmap.

And then as far as expansion, our goal is to capture 80%+ of the market with more than 30 languages on the Toucan platform, and we hope to launch a new language every five weeks. Expanding our dictionary of words and phrases for each language is also important — we feed that into our tech, and our translations improve every time through a combination of natural language processing, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.

And we’ve only scratched the surface — right now, our users have to be (a) using Google Chrome and (b) be English speakers wanting to learn one of five languages. The moment we start unlocking these different language factors and product verticals, the market for Toucan will only get bigger and bigger.

Has COVID-19 created any tailwinds for Toucan as it has for many of your EdTech peers?

Our business was already all about layering technology on top of behaviors, so we didn’t have to deal with an influx of people choosing a digitally-native Toucan over an in-person educational alternative. However, we’ve seen our users’ weekend activity skyrocket! Previously people were outside on the weekends enjoying the sun — but now, everyone’s stuck indoors still browsing online, so we’re seeing more activity there.

What’s your advice for an entrepreneur building something transformative in education? And what would you like to see built?

My advice would be to launch as early as possible. Our first version was so ugly, it was beautiful —it was just 10 simple words with Spanish/English translations to figure out if there was any magic here. Then we also went to local coffee shops to get strangers to use it because friends or family will always just say your product is amazing — it’s important to have real and genuine feedback when you’re starting out. You need to ask people that don’t know you to give honest, true opinions on your product and idea.

As far as what I’d like to see built, I would love to see more education-related products on the browser extension ecosystem. I think there are so many different use cases, especially with Chromebooks everywhere. Toucan’s goal is to get people to learn new things every single day — not just download us, not just pay for the product, but really learn every day. This has so many positive ripple effects, and I would love to see other companies build towards this future as well.

A huge thank you to Taylor for sharing her perspectives on Toucan’s origin story and unique GTM strategy!

To learn more about Toucan, check them out on Twitter, and follow Taylor as well!

If you’re an entrepreneur building in education, or within the Chrome ecosystem as Taylor mentioned above, please shoot me a note at I’d love to learn more about what you’re building.

Keep an eye out for future editions of Building with Purpose, and in the meantime, let’s keep in touch on Twitter :)



Meagan Loyst
Building with Purpose

VC @ Lerer Hippeau | Founder of Gen Z VCs | Advisory Board @ Girls Who Invest