There and Back Again
My name is Zach and I’m an entrepreneur.
Over the last eight years, I had the most extraordinary experience building an amazing company. When we started, it was a horror show. I couldn’t believe that so small a group could hate each other so much and still come to work shoulder to shoulder in a tiny office in the armpit of Manhattan. But we did.
Eventually, a few people got off the bus and a few more hopped on. That was key. Then we started winning deals, converting customers from pilots to paid, expanding to system wide accounts, six figure contracts, then seven figure contracts. We smoked competitors ten times our size, assembled a ridiculously talented team, became true partners with our clients, saved hundreds of thousands of lives, saved billions of dollars in unnecessary medical expenses, and delivered incredible returns to our investors.
It wasn’t viral at all. It was super hard work. Late nights, early mornings, countless hours in planes, trains and automobiles. It was eerily similar to most of what you saw on Silicon Valley, but it wasn’t a caricature, it was real. There really was a foosball table and we played all the time. We actually divided ourselves into Harry Potter houses and (at least at the time of this writing) have a really awkward Sorting Ceremony, with music and slides, for every new hire. It was incredibly rewarding and immeasurably fun. We did great work and we changed a lot of lives, not the least of which was our own.
So why did you leave?
Great question. It started about 3 years ago, when my son Conrad was born. I suppose every product-minded human worth their salt goes through the same process and frustration I did. We try basically everything, eventually pruning down to some set of solutions that we think gives our little beings a fighting chance at getting a job in some dark AI dystopian future. The best out there do some amazing things and move the ball forward for everyone: like Melissa and Doug or the amazing LovEvery team. Those guys rock.
For me, being a nerd, I focused on literacy. I believe that reading is true magic. There are these peculiar little runes on dead tree pulp that can make you cry or laugh, enlighten you and rile your enemies. If you are a writer, start calling yourself a wizard. It’s not far off.
Not having a background in early childhood education, I read nearly everything I could get my hands on. This study was a key starting point. I chased down many of the supporting studies, like this one. This book. That book. This NPR podcast. Then I started hacking. Literally. Chopping up paper to make hundreds of flash cards and labelling everything in our house down to the sconces. And then, perhaps a little woozy from the laminator smell, the lightbulb went off.
The alphabet isn’t perfect. What if we fix it?
Some schools teach the ‘ā’ for Āpe vs. the ‘a’ in Cat. But what about the ‘a’ in About? That’s a “u” sound. Or Wand, where it’s really an “o”. In Care it’s more like an “e”. English is filled with this garbage! (The second “a” in Garbage is more like an “i” is it not?).
This sort of language game can be amusing as a literate adult, but the difficulties it presents to a child or ESL students are enormous. Without an attentive teacher, parent, or caregiver, you can’t learn to read on your own. There are more exceptions than rules. Exceptions exist everywhere, in the simplest words, crippling early readers.
This really annoyed me. So I got serious. I started hacking for real. I dusted off my keyboard. I read this book and took this course and some of this course and a little of this course, and began building a system that would create the foundation of a new way to teach kids to read, the TinyIvy Phonics System: TIPS™.
TIPS uses specific marks to denote exactly how to say every single letter so that it can be sounded out, from left to right, without exceptions. We introduce letters in a standardized progression, so that we can be confident that every single word the child is asked to read will be a word they are capable of reading. By using a more refined system, our ability to use data and machine learning to drive improvements in children’s outcomes is unprecedented. We’ve now coded over 125,000 words into our system.
In the weeks to come, I invite you to listen. It’s not a simple thing to wage war on the Alphabet. I will need help. Your help, probably. So I hope that as you hear more about what I’m working on that it all becomes clear. I hope you see what I see. For those of you with kids, I really you have the courage to try something new on the most important person to you in the whole world.