Keith Phillips is a former humanities major, turned foreign language college professor, turned EdTech entrepreneur, turned AI innovator. He taught French and Spanish for 20+ years, interacting with over 6,000 adult students ages 13–83 from all walks of life. He is now leading a language-learning startup based on our patent-pending Curated Immersion™ Approach. RealLINGUA offers an immersive foreign language-learning application that helps people learn a language using video and natural language processing. It’s the language as it’s used every day — unscripted, in-context, at-speed — making our approach as close to the way humans naturally learn the language as possible! One of his passions and he believes his ultimate calling is the innovative application of AI for positive gains in education — Positive Gains From Conversational AI in Distance Learning. His team and he were recently awarded a startup grant to pursue another patent that will serve as the basis of a conversational AI our company is developing specifically for language learning— Can AI Show Empathy Like A Parent Teaching A Child? realLINGUA Is About To Show Us.
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Table of Contents
Thank you for joining us today. Please introduce yourself to our readers. They want to know you, some of the background story to bring some context to your interview.
Keith Phillips: So, after 4 years of studying Spanish in high school with traditional grammar/dictionary methods, I still couldn’t say anything remotely comprehensible. And trying to speak to Rosario, the Spanish exchange student from Madrid that was visiting my high school with her classmates confirmed this with stark clarity. Of course, I knew some Spanish and even how to say some random things (think: «El sol es Amarillo.»). But I didn’t know how to speak the language.
My breakthrough came in college when I studied abroad at the Universidad de Salamanca, in Spain. Upon arrival, I still couldn’t speak much — still stumbling over my own words. It was super-late when my new roommate and I finally arrived at our host family’s home after 10+ hours of travel. The host father was a night owl, and so he was very eager to chat us up. My brain was fried, but during our conversation (and in between shots of something or other that he continued to pour!) I kept hearing him say «vale», which wasn’t something I had run across before. Roughly translated it means “okay” or even “yeah”. I was so tired I just started saying it after everything he said. And, amazingly, he started speaking faster and using more slang with me, like I was another native speaker.
Then it dawned on me — students from the U.S. that he had met previously never used the word «vale» (it’s actually from the Spanish dialect spoken primarily in Spain — i.e. Castellano). So, using it increased the conversation’s inherent comfort level and his willingness to continue speaking with me. The next day I decided that I was going to do more of this linguistic mirroring to see if people would treat me more like a native speaker and use more authentic language at speed with me, a non-native-speaker. After another couple of days, my assumptions were completely validated. I realized that if I said things in the same ways that the locals did, they understood me and conversations got longer and longer, and my language skills got deeper and deeper. To zero in, I participated in several language exchanges — «intercambios» — with Spanish university students wanting to practice their English.
This strategy I was developing on the fly was exactly what young children do when learning their first language: say what everyone around you is saying and continue building upon it. There were still landlines back then, so one day when I called my friend from California who was also studying in Salamanca and living with another Spanish host family, the host mother answered. She and I talked for a bit, I explained who I was, and I asked for Stephanie (all in Spanish). She then took the phone away from her ear and said to my friend (in Spanish, of course!): «Estefanía, ¿conoces a un chico español que se llama ‘Keith’? Hay un chico español en el teléfono que está pidiendo hablar contigo.» “Wow!”, I thought to myself, “she thinks I’m Spanish!”
My solution worked so well that I went from fumbling around the language to near flawless speaking ability in just 4 weeks. When I got back to the States, I felt a real calling to share this “magical formula” that I had developed with others. So, I decided to scale the language learning solution I came up with and went on to teach French and Spanish for 21+ years at the college level. I felt an even deeper calling several years ago to scale things even further and I’m now leading a language-learning startup.
While living in France with my family a few years ago, I had the amazing opportunity to learn more about the future of AI from some of the leading minds in the field. I got a vision for how AI could positively impact education and beyond. I knew I wanted to be a part of shaping that exciting future as well. My team and I were recently awarded a grant to pursue a patent for a conversational AI that my company is developing specifically for language learning. Very exciting stuff — part of the reason I can’t wait to wake up and get to work each day!
You are a successful entrepreneur, so we’d like your viewpoint, do you believe entrepreneurs are born or made? Explain.
Keith Phillips: Trick question! Nice! My answer is… both and neither!
I believe that you are entrepreneurial rather than just simply being an entrepreneur. That is, it’s having the essential ingredients – grit, resilience, determination, passion – and then translating that into the work. To be entrepreneurial, I would say that some of those essential ingredients have to be present within yourself from the outset. But that’s not to say that you can build on those, make them stronger, add to them to account for deficiencies in other areas, etc. That’s actually what entrepreneurs do – they set out to do something that’s never been done before to meet a real need with the resources at hand. And most often those resources are not controlled by the entrepreneur trying to make a go of it. Howard Stevenson and Peter Cohan summed it up very, very well like this, respectively:
“Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity beyond the resources currently controlled.” -Howard H. Stevenson, Professor Emeritus, Harvard Business School
“A key entrepreneurial skill is the ability to persuade people you don’t control to give your venture the resources it needs to seize that opportunity.” -Peter Cohan, Lecturer of Strategy, Babson College
If you were asked to describe yourself as an entrepreneur in a few words, what would you say?
Keith Phillips: I’m gritty and full of grit. As an entrepreneur, the ability to create something where it didn’t exist before and to then keep going in the face of adversity, defeat, and failure is all that matters.
Tell us about what your company does and how did it change over the years?
Keith Phillips: I’ve been working on this full-time since fall 2016. Back then, it was just me. With the help of one of our advisors, we then assembled our first team and started the MVP build in early 2018. We’ve recently completed a successful paid-beta.
We’re working hard on acquiring our first institutional customers (several 𝘶𝘯𝘪𝘷𝘦𝘳𝘴𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘦𝘴 currently in our sales cycle) and enterprise customers (U.S. top-tier professional sports league – 16-week pilot in summer 2021). Updates:
- We have gotten interested from an established language-learning tech startup (growth stage, Series A+) based in London (UK) in a possible partnership. Keith and their founder/CEO have made contact.
- We have been extended an invitation to make a presentation of our platform to the player education representatives from each of the aforementioned professional sports league’s clubs at their upcoming monthly meeting later this month.
Thank you for all that. Now for the main focus of this interview. With close to 11.000 new businesses registered daily in the US, what must an entrepreneur assume when starting a business?
Keith Phillips: Success isn’t guaranteed and failure isn’t a certainty.
Did you make any wrong assumptions before starting a business that you ended up paying dearly for?
Keith Phillips: Wrong assumptions made before starting a business? Yes! Anyone who says they didn’t is most likely lying – either to everyone else or to themselves, or both.
Paying dearly for? No. It’s all been worth it and I made sure the risk was properly mitigated from the start. All good entrepreneurs do that in some way, shape, or form.
If you could go back in time to when you first started your business, what advice would you give yourself and why? Explain.
Keith Phillips: I would tell myself not to listen to me… and just keep going. There’s no time for more unsolicited advice for the entrepreneur. That and I did the best I could with the resources I had, so I don’t have any sage advice to improve upon that. The other thing for the entrepreneur, and I don’t mean any offense here, is that there is no ‘back in time’ button. There’s only forward – success, failure, or otherwise – moving forward is the only option for the entrepreneur.
What is the worst advice you received regarding running a business and what lesson would you like others to learn from your experience?
Keith Phillips: I’ve gotten a lot of ‘worst’ advice over the years, most of it from ‘wantrepreneurs’ who have never actually don’t sh** but want to have people listen to them and act on their advice. There are scores of these kinds of people all over the planet and the best thing an entrepreneur can do is to avoid them like the plague.
But here’s a quick anecdote. I was accepted into an entrepreneur coaching program locally a couple of years ago. Sounds awesome. But it wasn’t and the primary reason was that of the 6-7 people on the coaching team, not a single person had any actual entrepreneurial and startup experience. One week, during my pitch deck practice session, one of the coaches chewed me out for having too few pictures/photos in the deck. The next time I came back, the same person seemed me for not having enough text. That’s absolute lunacy and no entrepreneur needs that added to their already full plate.
In your opinion, how has COVID-19 changed what entrepreneurs should assume before starting a business? What hasn’t changed?
Keith Phillips: Well, I think that it has demonstrated that entrepreneurs need to be ready for anything. And, honestly, that was true before the pandemic.
What is a common myth about entrepreneurship that aspiring entrepreneurs and would-be business owners believe in? What advice would you give them?
Keith Phillips: That it’s a flashy, celeb-like lifestyle. Depending on the individual and their level of success, it can be like that. But I’ve found that entrepreneurship works, hard work. And if someone isn’t up for that, being an entrepreneur is not a good choice.
What traits, qualities, and assumptions do you believe are most important to have before starting a business?
Keith Phillips: Traits – grit, resilience, persistence, passion
Qualities – empathy, good communicator, creative thinker, hard worker
Assumptions – success is not guaranteed and failure is not a certainty
How can aspiring leaders prepare themselves for the future challenges of entrepreneurship? Are there any books, websites, or even movies to learn from?
Keith Phillips: Every aspiring entrepreneur should read Burn The Business Plan by Dr. Carl Schramm. Then stop all reading and start all doing.
You have shared quite a bit of your wisdom and our readers thank you for your generosity but would also love to know: If you could choose any job other than being an entrepreneur, what would it be?
Keith Phillips: Well, sounds cheeky but… serial entrepreneur! Seriously, it’s in my blood now and I love it!
Apart from that, possibly venture capitalist or even venture ‘catalyst’.
Thank you so much for your time, I believe I speak for all of our readers when I say that this has been incredibly insightful. We do have one more question: If you could add anyone to Mount Rushmore, but not a politician, who would it be; why?
Keith Phillips: Hmmm… I’ll have to think about that.
Larry Yatch, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Keith Phillips for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Keith Phillips or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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