Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Danielle Allen, co-founder of Si · La · Bul, located in Denver, CO, USA.

What's your business, and who are your customers?

Si · La · Bul is a social media language learning platform that uses interactive video newsfeeds to incorporate social and cultural community-style learning for diverse businesses. We created a social media video platform where language learners can watch, study, ask questions and create bite-sized videos to learn socially.

For example, first responders who want to learn Spanish are able to access the platform with pre-loaded EMS-based course content. Spanish-speaking residents in that municipal region are able to sign-up and access the interactive portion of the platform. First responders can learn from the pre-loaded content while being able to ask questions from their residents and receive specific responses. We bridge the gap between "classroom language learning" and real-world application.

Pre-existing apps and courses address language from the technical, "hard skills" side. These include direct translations, grammar, and perfect pronunciation. While other socially-focused apps work on matching individuals to language exchange partners, which doesn't give a holistic view of the society or culture norms. We start by addressing language barriers in niche markets—like emergency medicine—to provide real-world phrases and communications skills that we then anchor into our community of storytellers.

What's most rewarding is seeing and hearing about the impact our company is making in the field. I'm a firefighter, so "saving lives" is what I'm supposed to do, but creating this company has allowed me to address the systemic inequalities in our healthcare system that I witness every day. Our app allows for community members to learn directly from each other and their experiences.

Tell us about yourself

It's 2002. I'm eight years old at a Chinese language summer camp with my best friend, who speaks Chinese. It's 2006. I'm in the 6th grade, and I'm logging on to Rocket Languages to practice my Arabic greetings.
It's 2016. I'm walking into my beginner's Spanish class as a senior in college. It's 2018. I'm being interviewed in American Sign Language for the Denver Fire Department's Language test.

The irony of who I am is that I'm not fluent in any of those languages, but boy, will I try. It seems odd that someone with social anxiety would repeatedly throw herself into the embarrassing churn of language learning, but hey, that's love, right? For the record, I epically failed my ASL proficiency test.

The funny thing about languages is that the real world has no grades. As a firefighter, I've used my broken Vietnamese, finger twisted ASL, and Spanglish to help patients during roll-over car accidents, children barely breathing, impending pregnancies, and some of the worst moments of their lives. They didn't care about grammar mistakes or using incorrect modifiers. For many of them, they saw a person who gave them hope —in their own language—that everything would be okay.

Before the fire service, I'd never had a face-to-face conversation with a deaf person. I remember sitting outside an Arby's where the Wichita Association of the Deaf had their weekly meeting. My social anxiety kicked in, and I sat in my car for 3 hours even though the meeting was an hour long. It took me nine months to start practicing my ASL again. It takes extreme courage as an adult to show up face-to-face and butcher your way through a conversation where your most used phrases are, "Could you say that again?" And "I don't understand." That's outside of the comfort zone of people without social anxiety. More than that, I know very few people who are willing to make themselves repeatedly uncomfortable in the pursuit of a goal that will take 400+ hours to master.

I think every time I'm at work as a firefighter. I interact with a patient who speaks Spanish, Burmese, Amharic, or signs. It drives me to get better, memorize another phrase, dig a little deeper, and figure out what phrases would make their experience as a patient a little bit better, a little less stressful.

What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?

Since pivoting into the B2B space, we've wrapped up our first contract with the City of Aurora in the greater Denver Metro area, bringing English learning solutions for 911 emergency situations. We've also partnered with Babbel for our Spanish for First Responders course. The fact that we're developing a product that could scale globally is amazingly terrifying. It's an accomplishment to start with an idea that takes on its own journey.

What's one of the hardest things that come with being a business owner?

Our latest challenge is overcoming our most recent pivot into the B2B space. We originally started off as a B2C solution for the everyday English language learner until we realized that we were gaining more leads and sales from companies who were pursuing our solution for their own organizations.

Being a dynamic team of 4, we are really wearing a lot of hats. Every time we shift and pivot, it takes all of us recalculating our trajectory, time, and efforts, to get to our destination. Realistically, pivoting is just the iteration of refining our product to our customers' needs. However, it takes lots of time and energy to boil our product down to the essentials.

I think entrepreneurship is tricky that way because oftentimes, it's like reading a map with no trails to follow. I feel like we make our course corrections after we hit an obscure checkpoint. Like: "Okay, so we're somewhere along this riverbank, the mountains are that way, and all of our current and potential users are coming from segments we didn't even plan for..."

What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?

  1. Decide to do it. Then do it.
    If I'm being completely frank, most days, I don't feel like "doing" anything. I work at a busy firehouse in an impoverished neighborhood. My Fitbit says I sleep like garbage, and I crave pasta 17 hours a day. That being said, almost three years ago now, I told myself I was going to start this business and commit to bringing it to life. That's what keeps me going. In my mind, it's a binary system: do it or don't.
  2. Learn to Love Re-learning
    One year of entrepreneurship is better than the knowledge of one thousand self-help books. Most of those books teach you how to rethink, revise, and re-program many of your core beliefs and habits. Entrepreneurship forces you to take action that flies in the face of your deepest fears--many of which need reframing. For me personally, I'm learning how to use my social anxiety as a "reality gauge." Raising funds requires talking to a lot of people and getting rejected 90% of the time. Now, I am learning to think about talking to customers, investors, and advisors as a building block-- the more people I talk to, the more real my idea becomes. Whether it's a fear of numbers, rejection, being the laughing stock of your social media page, learn to love the process of re-learning.
  3. Define the Difference between Rest & Procrastination
    "Am I sitting on the couch in the dark because I'm resting? Or am I sitting on the couch in the dark because I am scared to send that strongly worded email about the contract negotiation?" I deal with the existential angst that I am not being as productive as I should on a daily basis. What I've learned is that I spend more energy pondering the rest/procrastination paradox rather than picking one. I procrastinate because I'm scared and overwhelmed. If that's the case, I figure out what I'm scared of and how to take the first step in reorganizing my overwhelmed state. If I am scared, overwhelmed, and out of energy to overcome the task, then I rest. For me, rest means anything that completely detaches me from the task.

Is there anything else you'd like to share?

I shy away from talking about specific emergency calls I've run because they can be emotionally traumatic to read about. The running joke in our department is that we give our therapists PTSD. Under the calloused firefighter humor, there's a sensitivity we're all affected by— feeling useless when we can't help our patients. It's the most dreaded feeling when a mother who doesn't speak English hands you her limp child, and you don't know how to ask her what's wrong. You don't know how to comfort her. You don't know how to communicate with her.

I've seen the most cutting-edge technologies fail in the field because they got wet or ran out of juice. I've watched as interpreters' phone lines freeze, ASL patients watch helplessly at a frozen Zoom screen, and ER doctors run out of a code to find the interpreter cart. I started this company because you can't fake human-to-human communication. We need better educational infrastructure to help us understand one another.

Where can people find you and your business?


If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solopreneur that you'd like to share, then email; we'd love to feature your journey on these pages.

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