How Joon Beh founded Hallo
The Founder Series is a column by and about Utah founders and how they got to where they are today. Click here to read past articles in the series.
Something clicked in my head as I listened to Uber engineers as a Deloitte consultant in the Bay Area. “Uber for language learning!” I thought. “It would be amazing if I could speak and practice with a native speaker via video at the click of a button.”
For the next couple of weeks, I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea. In February 2017, I was driving to Los Angeles from San Francisco with my sisters, and we spent the whole drive talking about how the idea could solve the problem of finding opportunities to speak a language that we, as immigrants, had faced. I knew I was onto something because I was so excited about the opportunity that I wanted to go all in.
Until then, I had been a good student and employee who had taken the safe, paved road. I went to a good school, got good grades, entered one of the most prestigious programs in the nation, became a certified accountant within a year of graduation, and worked at the world’s largest consulting firm by revenue. However, I had a deep-seated desire to be an entrepreneur and pursue my dreams.
I was coming up with business ideas in college, taking entrepreneurship classes, brainstorming with friends, considering dropping out of college, and even proclaiming on Facebook that I would start a company before turning 30. Surprisingly, when the opportunity presented itself, it was an easy decision for me. I had a good feeling about it and decided to follow my heart despite my lack of experience, knowledge, and resources.
The first thing I did was come up with a name and logo for the company. After evaluating a few options, I decided to go with “Hallo” for three reasons:
- Self-explanatory: “Hallo” is “hello” in German and is how people greet each other in many countries.
- Simple: I noticed many successful companies’ names—such as Google, Samsung and Apple—had only two syllables.
- Personal: When my family moved to the U.S., I used to say “hallo” instead of “hello” because it was awkward to speak English with my family.
For the location of my startup, as much as I liked the Bay Area, I wanted to move back to Utah. I had more connections there and the startup scene was blooming. As soon as I moved back, I started talking with every person I knew about Hallo and meeting new people.
I remember having lunch with Steve Smith, one of my professors at Brigham Young University, and getting a call from him a few days later where he told me that since our last conversation, he had been thinking about how great the idea was and wanted to invest. With the investments from Steve and my parents, along with my savings, I was able to officially start working on the idea and get it off the ground. I’m grateful for Steve and my parents. I love my parents to death, and I would not have been able to start without their support.
Facing delays due to visa complications
A few months in, I was building a website, doing interviews and gaining momentum. But then I received a surprising, unpleasant letter from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) saying that I was staying in the U.S. illegally and had 60 days to leave the country.
My lawyer had told me I had enough time to apply for my business visa, but I had apparently received false information. It ruined my plans. I was frustrated and devastated. I started packing and getting ready to go back to Korea, but that didn’t stop me from pursuing my dreams. Instead of relying on lawyers, I started researching and preparing to file a petition for an E-2 visa on my own.
"The hard truth is that if you don’t sacrifice for your dream, your dream will become your sacrifice."
A couple of months later, I was in Korea and about to have an interview with the U.S. Embassy. Before getting into the building, I prayed to God and promised that if I got the visa, I would work my butt off to make Hallo big and use it to serve others. When my interviewer congratulated me on getting the visa and gave me five years instead of two years after the interview, I shouted with excitement and thanked the interviewer in front of everyone.
Because of my visa complications, I wasted months, but it made me believe that I was meant to build this company and that I was in good hands. When I came back to America, I was more excited and committed than ever. I was ready to give 110 percent of my time and effort.
I conducted thousands of interviews on Facebook to understand the problem better and started getting some traction. During this time, I convinced one of my best friends, Ben Dent, to join me full-time and start working together.
Ben and I bonded over Korean food in the early days of college, and we have been best friends since. I knew Ben was smart, and we were always sharing business ideas. Most importantly, we were excited to build something cool and disrupt the language-learning industry together. I remember vividly talking with Ben at Starbucks in Orem one day and telling him how exciting it would be to work together on Hallo. Honestly, I miss those early days.
First, we built a mobile app where English learners could send messages and make calls with each other, but we had only 500 users. To gather more resources, we decided to move to the Bay Area to fundraise for a few months.
Knocking on doors of VC offices
I knocked on many VC office doors. I remember one of them calling me insane and some telling me that I should not knock on doors. We were running out of money, and I was getting rejected every day, living on the floor of a friend’s place in California.
One of the journals I wrote during that tough time reads: “Tonight, I received a message from one of my investors, and it brought me to tears. Ben and I are living in California for Y [Combinator] Startup School, and we have no technical co-founder, no MVP, and we are running out of money. He said, ‘Hey, I just wanted to let you know that if you’re stressed about being a good steward of your investors’ money, you don’t need to be. You’re the hardest-working person I know. Every investor takes a risk, and you’re a hard worker whom I’d bet on again in a heartbeat. Don’t stress about us. You do what’s best for you.’” This simple message inspired and helped me to keep going.
Luckily, we got into Startup School and received some valuable advice to find an engineer to build a product again. After finding a great engineer in Utah, we were able to move back.
After coming back, we got into a new venture services firm, RevRoad, and got to present at Silicon Slopes with an MVP. I presented my startup in front of thousands of people. It was one of the most exciting moments of my entrepreneurship journey.
It was a memorable experience, and I’m forever grateful for all the individuals who helped me and Hallo get to where we are. Especially Eric Rea from Podium, who has been an amazing mentor. He’s supported me on both good and bad days, even to this day.
Officially launching Hallo
We launched Hallo in 2019 and raised a round of funding in 2020 to build a great team and product. Fast forward to today, and we’ve made tons of mistakes, built several products and tested multiple business models, but we didn’t give up.
We kept going and recently managed to find a product market fit. I would say the key is to focus—you can’t try to catch two rabbits at the same time. If you do, you will lose both of them. Keep building and testing until you find a product that’s growing and profitable. It’s easier said than done, but you will know when you find it.
As of right now, Hallo has hundreds of thousands of people using our product and spending over 10 million minutes practicing and speaking on Hallo each month. We have been super focused on the English learning market, but we just launched AI features and 30 languages. Now, language learners can have conversations with AI tutors to practice speaking in seconds anytime, anywhere.
Looking back and reflecting on what I’ve gone through, I know that starting and building a company is extremely difficult. The odds are against you making it happen, but that’s why it’s exciting and rewarding.
Since the inception of the company, I’ve been able to push myself past my limits, learn a lot faster and change my whole perspective on work. I hope you take a leap of faith and just try it. In my twenties, I closed my eyes and solely focused on my dreams. Whatever I did, I worked my butt off, took risks and made sacrifices: no drinking, no parties and no vacation.
It probably doesn’t sound fun, but to me, it’s exciting, meaningful and fulfilling. Achieving dreams is not meant to be easy, and you need to be friends with words that people don’t want to hear—such as risk, focus, failure, sacrifice, challenge and hard work. If you want to be great at what you do, you could be misunderstood by a lot of people.
The hard truth is that if you don’t sacrifice for your dream, your dream will become your sacrifice. How amazing would it be if your dream becomes a reality one day? Keep chasing your dreams because, at the end of the day, success is not a matter of chance but a matter of choice. I love being an entrepreneur and I have no regrets. Life is short, and I encourage everyone to dream big and reach their full potential.