Meet Taylor Nieman, Co-founder of Toucan

From the volleyball court to the startup land, co-founder and CEO Taylor Nieman flexes her competitive side as she builds her “fourth baby,” Toucan. What can be described as a Chrome extension, Toucan is designed for those who want to learn a new language on the go.

Here’s the rundown: The extension examines the English text of the website you’re browsing and automatically translates words into the language you’re learning.

While we hopped on a Zoom call with Taylor, she shared all-things language, micro-habits, and how playing competitive volleyball made her a startup athlete.

Competition doesn’t mean you versus the world. Toucan makes it easy to learn at your own pace aka competing with yourself.

Laying The Groundwork

Many don’t know that Taylor was on track to become a Junior Olympian when she was growing up. As a star volleyball player, she eventually left the court brought her competitiveness to school.

As a communications major at Cornell, Taylor became acquainted with hospitality and worked for her school’s restaurant as a dishwasher and later a manager. Taylor described how as an undergrad, she felt as though engineering wasn’t marketed to her.

After graduating, Taylor sparked an interest in engineering and taught herself code through YouTube. Soon, the young entrepreneur created her first startup called Simba. It was an app to connect dog owners to each other. Soon after came Taylor’s second startup Lancer, a Glassdoor for freelancers.

Finally, she landed her first major gig at Headspace as one of their earliest employees. That’s where she adopted the idea of habit-forming when it came to consumer behavior. When we asked Taylor about her early startups, she was proud to have “three startup fails under her belt.”

Competition doesn’t mean you versus the world. Toucan makes it easy to learn at your own pace aka competing with yourself.

Just taking the step to become a founder, I am so competitive. I would bet on myself any day to make something happen.

The Birth Of Toucan

Taylor is one of three founders at Toucan. When we asked how her team came to the idea of Toucan, it wasn’t about building an app from scratch. Instead finding what worked and using that as a jumping-off point.

“We decided, let's intentionally layer on top of existing behaviors. Meet people where they already are throughout the flow of their day.”

Thus creating the birth of Toucan. They landed on a browser extension by layering on top of what people already loved. That meant a contextual immersion feature to help users learn a new language without having to put in that extra effort.

How Taylor describes it as a “one-two punch combo.”

While building our Toucan, Taylor focused on her leadership skills. For her, that meant remaining positive, resilient, and bringing a can-do attitude was even more important than the product itself.

“You can be in back-to-back meetings, ambassadors ripping you to shreds telling you why your idea is going to fail miserably. But the next one is a completely new slate, like a new point.”

“Getting people excited, rallying them, still having that positive energy to turn things around.”

The Good With The Bad

As young as Toucan is, Taylor admits that the team wasn’t afraid to start implementing feedback right away. They jumped off the deep end.

“We did 360-reviews on [all] three co-founders. Our investors were pretty shocked that we even did that [at an early stage].”

Taylor is no stranger when it comes to feedback. However, from her early days as a Junior Olympian to a founder, Taylor’s approach to feedback has definitely changed. Initially, the Toucan founder would gloss over the positive feedback and go straight to the negative.

Naturally, instead of going to the positive feedback, I went to the constructive feedback. I think that’s the personality [I’ve had]. Always trying to improve, always trying to do better.

Part of being an effective leader and growth-minded individual is finding areas of improvement. However, many of us tend to get caught up in the constructive feedback that we forget to celebrate the small wins. It’s soaking in the victories that give us the inner boost to keep moving forward.

Like a good, old fashion epiphany, Taylor quickly recognized that she wasn’t taking the time to appreciate all the progress. She soon realized how much power that positive feedback held.

“I think taking time to reflect on the positive was almost more impactful because I was able to realize I'm actually doing a lot of good here for the team. I'm taking the time to listen to their feedback, and then quickly implement what they're asking for.”

The Takeaways

One traditional job, two career changes, and three startup fails later, Taylor is coming out on top. And needless to say, the co-founder has racked up some valuable insights and habits over the years. One thing we loved about Taylor is her mindset: To achieve big goals, start with small habits.

Sit in your thoughts. Taylor took up meditation about seven years ago when she joined Headspace. “I guess I was doing a form of it when I was competing, right before volleyball, but I didn't quite think of it as meditation. [It’s] game-changing to be mindful in the present moment.” With mediation, Taylor practiced active listening and found that she was more present in conversations. As a leader and top performer, Taylor found more value in EQ than IQ. It’s all about investing time on the self-care side.

Reducing the screen time. You’ll never find Taylor binge-watching Netflix on the weekdays. She reserves screen time for the weekends only. Instead, the Toucan CEO is buried deep into books. “These people [are] putting amazing knowledge at your fingertips. Their best tips and tricks are almost a gift to the world that I just consume over and over again.” It was always easy though. Making that transition meant training herself to get excited about reading and learning from great leaders.

Tweet like there’s no tomorrow. The last habit Taylor took on pushed Toucan to the forefront: tweeting. “Baron Davis, a 2-time NBA All-Star, found us on Twitter [and] tweeted about how amazing Toucan was. [And he] brought down our website with all the traffic he sent.” The next day, they set up a meeting and David immediately invested. For Taylor, she knew staying consistent every day — even at the beginning — when no one followed or engaged would pay off in the long run.

Get To Know Taylor

At the end of every interview series, we ask our guests a series of rapid-fire questions to get to know them better as a leader. Their quirks and habits have led them to where they are today.

Q: What are you reading at the moment?
A: Trillion Dollar Coach by Bill Campbell

Q: Who are three leaders you look up to?
A: Elon Musk, just a visionary with big ideas. Jeff Wiener, the empathy EQ side. Then, Shivani Siroya who's the founder and CEO of Tala. She's a powerhouse.

Q: Night owl or early bird?
A: Early Bird, but I love my sleep. So, it's almost forced.

Q: What language(s) are you currently learning?
A: Portuguese!

Q: What kind of advice would you have for your younger self?
A: Keep taking risks. No career path is a straight line. Everyone’s a little curvy.

Q: If you could instantly become an expert in something, what would it be?
A: Emotional intelligence like a World Class expert. That's a game-changer. Love it.

Q: If you could go anywhere right now (pre-Covid-19), where would it be?
A: A personal one. My dad had unexpected spine surgery. I think [I'd like] to hug him because you can't go into the hospitals right now.

Conversation Starters

  • Hiring: Bonita Stewart, Google VP, says she always listens for these six things during the job interview. (Source: CNBC)
  • Leadership: In just 10 years, Tim Cook has built out a $2.3 trillion (with a capital ‘T’) fortress. (Source: Bloomberg Business)
  • Social Media Management: Uh oh, Clubhouse got competition. Looks like Facebook, known to clone its competitors, is building a similar audio feature. (Source: New York Times)

Now’s Your Turn

Yes, Toucan give and receive actionable feedback with just one click!

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Cover Photo: Toucan

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