2015 in Review

2015 was a year of learning –

  1. Teaching – Early in the year I taught a course on Spring & Hibernate in Java. Then, had to bow out of teaching the next course. Teaching is rewarding, but also a lot of work. I needed to work on the plan for where to take Infinut.
  2. Conferences – Thanks to Chiu ki‘s and Margaret’s support and insistence, I submitted, got accepted and presented my first conference talk in NY.
  3. Pitches – This was the year I learnt to pitch to investors. I started off with trying to project an image of a business person with heels and suits. I was always uncomfortable, nervous as someone I was not. My first presentation was at First look, and last presentation at InnovateHer was in jeans t-shirt and comfy shoes. We did not get funding, but, made a great number of helpful connections.
  4. GDG Organizing – I organized workshops on Getting started with Android along with Margaret at Seattle GDG. And, at the end of the year, finishing up organization of a WTM event to encourage women speakers – paying forward Chiu Ki’s effort to get more women technical speakers.
  5. Workout – In 2015, I found the right balance of workouts for me. Yoga and circuit training each once a week – stretching and strength. When the stress of doing too many things at a time rises, a workout provides both an escape and a way to get back in focus.
  6. NSF Grant – I started preparing to apply in February for an NSF grant. I spent months getting letters of support, organizing a team, writing a proposal that I submitted in June. And, after much waiting and nail-biting suspense, we were granted in November for Jan-Jun 2016

Next in 2016

Infinut as a company

This year, we’ll have a small office in a co-working space. I am setting up payroll for the 3 people joining on Monday. I can’t wait to have their expert help and support. Infinut feels more like a company.

I’ll go to educational conferences, talk to many customers, and figure out how to market to schools this year. I wonder if I will look back at this as the turning point. There is so much to do.

With the huge learning curve of managing a company, plus, delivering on promised software, I will step back on some of the optional things – Teaching, Conference talks, GDG organizing – fun and rewarding things I may come back to again some day.

 

Making Women in Tech Visible

If we meet a woman engineer, its like finding a Unicorn.

Watching a video on women founders looking for technical co-founders, that line stood out. I am a woman engineer and a founder of an ed-tech company. I screamed at the video –

I am not a Unicorn. I do exist!!!!

But, the reality is women-in-tech are often invisible, unheard, and isolated.

Chiu-Ki Chan finally showed me a ray of light in changing that. I feel a little more like I exist. She and fellow Android engineer – Corey Latislaw – led a charge to get more women speakers at technical conferences. It is a great example of what works. They almost doubled the number of women speakers at Droidcon NYC in just 1 year.

Why more women speakers at conferences?

Margaret and I recently led two code-labs at GDG Seattle. GDG Seattle typically has 12% women attendees. The organizers are very supportive and have a code of conduct that they enforce – conditions that typically result in good amount of women attendees (Yes, 12% is considered good). But, for our code-labs, we had 37% women attendees – triple the typical.

Women speakers at conferences make more women feel welcome. Perhaps, next time, they may be inspired to speak too. Perhaps, gradually, more of well-known engineers and developers will be women. Perhaps, eventually, my daughters may grow up thinking women engineers and developers are nothing unusual.

First proposal for first Conference – first rejection or first acceptance

I had not planned on submitting a conference proposal. There was so many excuses not to. I have two kids. I don’t like traveling. It’ll be a lot of work. As it turns out, none of them is valid. Husband will happily manage the kids for three days. I may not like traveling, but, the camaraderie, learning and exposure makes it well worth it. As for work, it is just motivation for me to clean up my code and setup for the next phase of development of educational apps. Its work that had to get done. The conference talk provided motivation… which I needed.

Doing something for the first time seems infinitely challenging. What is one even supposed to propose? When I sat down and had to – more than 1 idea came quickly. Will I have to write the whole talk when I propose it? Turns out I just needed the abstract and a short bio. What should I put in the abstract? How long should it be? It should be small and eye catching. But, have some detail on how it is unique or interesting. These are all the things that Chiu-Ki and Margaret helped with.

Grassroots plus Support

The organizers had no idea why they were seeing more talk proposals from women. It was a grassroots effort. It was done by individual women reaching out, and helping each other. We chose Droidcon NYC because Intel sponsors women to attend it. That offsets some travel expenses. Wish more companies and more conferences offered support.

We would love to hear you speak

We often don’t realize how big an impact speaking at a conference may have. I did not. It can help our careers and our standing within our own company and the developer community. I strongly recommend women developers to speak at a conference at least once… perhaps start with a local developers event. Ask us about speaking at GDG Seattle.

Kindness of Strangers

Investors

The running of a startup wears one down. Raising of funds even more so. You pitch. So, you expose yourself to the judgement of others. That judgement is often harsh – delivered with little understanding, but, must be taken as gospel coming from investors. Tim put us down – while telling us how they helped a company with just an idea grow, he told us – don’t bother to apply to the accelerator – with 1.4 million downloads, we don’t have the traction to be of interest to them.

But, I finally met a kind investor – Jian. He told me the same things that everyone else did. He did not put money into the company. But, he was kind, and he was encouraging. He asked about the mission, not just the financials. He even recognized how being a mother gives me a unique perspective. He was genuinely impressed by the accomplishments so far, and did not try to play them down. Thank you, Jian. Your kindness helped me finally accept some very tough conclusions.

I remember another kind investor, David, who wrote us a letter of recommendation for our grant application. He was the first one who believed in us, and what we are doing. Having brought up and taught his own kids, he could relate. Thank you, David, for your support.

Educators

Many times, I feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task I have taken on. I must change how math is taught in schools. If we keep drilling and testing kids the way we are, we will continue to turn kids off math and science. Sometimes the weight of the huge task seems too much. I have to build game based content for K-5th grade – most likely by myself, most likely without funding, most likely without pay. I forget why I signed up for it in the first place.

Teachers at the ISTE conference told us, to get them enthused and supportive, developers should just pay the teachers. The money I have earned from sales this year, is allocated to pay for the neighborhood school’s tablets – to test the app I am building for them. I don’t have any to pay the teachers to use the product.

Why do I bother when everyone would rather I just stop?

Then I see the picture on my basement office wall sent by @BreteauFound of kids in South Africa playing with Kids Phonics, and those in Sri Lanka playing with Kids Measurement Science, and pictures of my own kids testing the apps, and learning so much more.

As @OChemJulie put it, it gives one a kick in the butt. I have no right to complain. Thank you @BreteauFound, @OChemJulie, @mr_isaacs, @CornDogArt, @DennisDill – for kind words and a kick in the butt 🙂

I can do this, I can make a difference, 1 kid at a time.

BreteauFoundationRuralSouthAfricaPhonicsByInfinut

Kids in South Africa playing Kids Phonics.

breteauSrilankaMeasurementScience

Kids in Sri Lanka playing Kids Measurement Science.

kidsandmetablet

Me and my kids testing apps together.

I/O and Back

A chance recommendation from the local GDG organizer (Thanks! Clive), meant that I had an invite to Google I/O. It was my first technical conference in more than 10 years. Going to it was like experiencing a different world for 2 days – a world where we were dined and wined, and pampered, and shown a glimpse of the ‘better’ technological future. Its a relief to be back to the real world.

Google put up a great show. There was lots of relevant information on how to promote my apps, small-group talks from google classroom and apps for families, many of whom I could talk to afterwards. They were nice people who listened to me ask and question and complain with the utmost patience. It was a really good show – just, not real.

Cardboard Expeditions

One of the favorites of the show was the ‘cheap’ Cardboard Virtual Reality Headset. In reality, the cardboard was cheap, but the phone that powered it was anything but.

Every school must have one of these. Don’t you wish you had this when you were a kid?

– the Googlers told us. They even built a whole Google Expeditions system – take a trip to Mt. Everest without the danger of earthquakes, or one to Mars – in seconds. So, I sat down on a class with the teacher. We saw corals, and wave-rock and basalt formations in 5 minutes. And then, it stopped – technical difficulties, wi-fi is overloaded – and that is the reality of a real school. Here there was the best possible network money can buy, two techs to help, switch out batteries, reboot. What would happen in a real school? I was helping out at the Highline school district hackathon. They had chromebooks for every student. But, not enough bandwidth for everyone to connect. So, some students had to share. How would they ‘share’ a VR headset. I suppose a ‘better’ technology for learning must start somewhere. Perhaps in 5-10 years, this experiment will be worth it.

Kid Friendly

This year Google woke up to realize that ‘kids’ are a big market. Parents dote on their kids – I am one of them. Kids are the future consumers. They took all their people from Google Play for Education and put them on the Family Friendly Play Store. The same people who I was hoping would provide a solution for us to connect our learning software to the classroom – and solve real world classroom problems, were too busy selling us on our kids’ Favorite Disney Characters.

We make it easy for parents to find their kids’ favorite character. Don’t all parents wish they have this?

– Googlers asked us… and cajoled us developers to build shiny bright graphics and animations to keep kids mesmerized, and away from the real world. That is what Googlers believe parents stay up late worrying about.

Back in Seattle

It was only 2 hours flight, and 2 days of conference. But, I may as well have been to a parallel universe. That was a fantasy world.

As I stay up late every night building math manipulatives after the kids go to bed, just so they may understand, and learn (not just consume), and build a better future through technology and innovation, I begin to doubt if technology is the best future for them.

I know I’d rather live in the real world.

Make Math Real

Rules and Symbols are not Math

There is a new disturbing trend in math learning games – that of using symbols, in place of math. Take Dragon Box for example. It uses symbols instead of numbers or quantities. Kids learn to move the symbols based on rules. It is the kind of rules based math learning that puts kids off math in the first place. Math is confusing enough for kids without making it more symbolic, more rule based. Another such game is Wuzzit trouble. These are fun games, and that’s it. They will not magically turn our kids into math geniuses.

We need to make math real. Associate numbers to real world quantities, not just map them on a number line or a map. Making math real deepens the understanding of the math, helping kids do better in School. Using more symbolism only makes it more confusing. There are very simple things we can all do to help our kids understand math…

Make math real for your 5 year old today

Give your 5 year old a treat of 3 M&Ms, but, tell him its 5 M&Ms. When they say that’s not 5, ask how many you should add to make it 5. Watch how fast they learn the difference between 3 & 5.

Looking for EdTech Funding in Seattle

Last two weeks have been a huge learning experience about funding. I started off with many weird and wrong impressions about funding. I found out more about funding – angel and VC, and gaps in our business plan.

First Look Forum

Much of my learning was thanks to First Look Forum, and meetings with many coaches, fund partners, etc. First look forum is run by a non-profit – WTIA. Unlike accelerators, they don’t take any equity or payment. They set the companies up with coaches for – presentation, pitch, business and funding.

Each angel or seed investment fund operates roughly the same way. They have associates or partners who filter whether or not they want to consider funding the company first, then… actually, I don’t know after because we never got beyond that point. Still, we came this far – finalist for First Look Forum – one of 12 startups selected out of 60+ applicants, and presented to a roomful of angel investors. I went around and talked to as many people as I could to learn what stood out … what were the holes in our presentation. Some of the people I talked to were investors in various angel funds in Seattle.

Market Size

I would look at companies like Secret getting funded, and could never figure out why Angels or VCs would fund yet another social media app.

VCs look to fund companies that have the potential to address 100 billion market – order of 100 million will not help their returns on only a handful of investments every year. Social Media apps have the potential to capture a large advertising market – the key here is ‘potential’. So, VCs are interested in them.

One important thing I learnt was that our market size is too small for VC – only $1.3 Billion K-5 Math Content market.

Many Angel investors look for deals that will result in VC funding later. Few look for deals that might be just good businesses. This kind of business is not exciting for VCs, and by extension for Angel investors. But, it may be just the right type of profitable, purposeful company for you and me to build.

Marketing Plan and Growth

Investors also want to see how we would capture our market. School market is known to be tough to get into. It scares investors. Because of the tough market, I had a very slow growth curve. That was also a problem.  From watching better presentations, I would say investors are looking for significant growth in the next 3 years. Mine was over 5 years of slow steady growth. Investors would rather the business succeed fast, or fail fast. Funding is a double-edged sword.

Differentiator

Investors like to see something that makes the company unique and is protectable. We showed annecdotal evidence that our math learning approach is unique and more helpful, but, we still need the scientific study to quantify that. With the study, it may be more convincing for investors.

Even with the study, the content still would not be protectable. Someone else could build similar content. A recognized brand will be more protectable. That will take time and money to build.

Catch-22

You might think as I did – we’d be able to do all that, if only we had the money for the research and building out the product. But, no-one will invest in us until we’ve proven it first. That’s the Catch-22 of building a startup, and hence of investing in one. It is as much an art as a science. Investors have to go with their gut feeling. So, sometimes they invest in people they know and trust. Sometimes they invest in something that they have personal experience in and understand. Finding the right investor is also an art more than a science.

Educational Funds

At the start of this process, I started looking at companies like ours, and who they had been funded by. Some common names came up again and again, and I contacted those. None of them are in Seattle.This strategy seemed to work well at first.

Kapor Capital – said they decided not to invest after looking at our website.

New School Venture Seed Fund (now Reach Capital) – talked to us, and were willing to give feedback. To be honest, after our first conversation, I thought they would say ‘No thanks’ too. I thought the answers I gave on moving to iOS – no, and to participating in co.lab accelerator – can’t, would disqualify us. But, to my surprise, they asked to talk further. Still ended up with a ‘No’. We are in competition with Motion Math, in which they are already an investor. I think my strategy of looking at who’s funding other companies like ours just backfired.

Learn Capital – said they were doing a new fund for late stage companies, not seed funding for now. Tom Vander Ark is active in the education community and responded promptly – which is great.

Learning Accelerator – I found out about them from a news article announcing that they had made investments in a few educational companies on a trial basis. Each company would build some OER (Open Education Resources) prototypes, and then be eligible for more funding. They said they aren’t accepting any more companies for now, but, might connect in the future.

Intel Education Accelerator – This is a new Accelerator being run by Intel. It might’ve been an interesting one to pursue, were it not for the requirement of moving to San Francisco for 4 months! Most of the current/potential team is well settled in Seattle. Nevertheless, it shows Intel’s interest in education, and digital learning. So, I tried to reach out to people at Intel. But, I suspect like Reach Capital, they prefer that any prospects go through their accelerator first.

Friends and Family

A friend offered to provide financial help i.e. funding. But, the only way we can take such funding is if they are an accredited investor. If they meet the net worth requirements, they are considered an accredited investor. If the company takes funding from an unaccredited investor, it places an onerous financial reporting burden on such a small company.

What next?

Refusal only makes me more determined, more interested, more certain. If you are crazy like me, and can maintain your optimism in the face of lots of rejection, I’d definitely recommend looking for funding 🙂

The whole process did help me plan out where the company is headed next. I will try to raise funding again, after addressing investor concerns. It may take 1-2 years to be further along in proving that we are the best content for kid’s learning and have the right strategy to sell to schools. We will apply for SBIR grants to help us get to that point.

Many many thanks to all those who helped me understand how to raise funds, and those who are helping me apply for the grant – putting their faith in me.