Startup Spotlight: ListenWiseAugust 14, 2016
This week we speak to Monica Brady Myerov, Founder and CEO of Listenwise – the startup that brings the best public radio stories into the classroom.
GH: What is Listenwise?
Monica: Listenwise is a listening skill platform that leverages NPR content and podcasts in the classroom. Listenwise uses compelling real world podcasts and public radio stories to build listening skills throughout the curriculum. We believe listening comprehension is fundamental to literacy. We make it easy to bring authentic voices and engaging non- fiction stories to the classroom through our standards aligned lesson collections in science, social studies ELA, and current events. Our listening supports make academic language accessible to all learners, including ELLs and struggling readers.
Listenwise Premium, a school/district subscription product, provides insights into student understanding and scaffolding for language and literacy. Teachers can create custom online assignments from our rich library of lesson resources. Premium provides interactive transcripts of the audio and a slowed audio to deepen understanding.
Monica: I was a reporter at WBUR, the public radio station in Boston, and was reporting on education, specifically the adoption of the Common Core. At the same time, I had two children who were always forced to listen to the news on public radio every morning and afternoon because that’s all I played in our home. One day my daughter asked a very good question about a news story that I thought she wasn’t even listening to. I thought the content was over her head, but I was wrong. I decided to go into her school and ask her teacher why she doesn’t include public radio in her curriculum. I knew of other news outlets that are in school such as Time magazine and The New York Times. “Where was public radio?” I wondered.
When I learned it was too hard for teachers to find the right public radio stories and align them to the curriculum, I thought, I can do that. I know how to source the best public radio stories. That’s how I created the first lessons on Listenwise, by pairing up with teachers at my daughter’s’ school. A few months later I quit my job as a reporter in public radio and applied and was accepted into the Learn Launch edtech business accelerator.
GH: How did you build your team?
Monica: The hardest person to hire was the first person. As a solo founder, I was often told by advisers that I needed to find a partner. But it’s hard to bring someone into something you’ve started alone. But the transition to a team was easy when I met Karen Gage, our COO. She was a mentor at Learn Launch so I knew her a little and trusted her judgement. Her skills in businesses, product management and finance really complimented my skills and that’s what makes us a good team.
We’ve built the team by looking for people who are passionate about what we are doing – educating with the power of audio and improving students’ listening skills. They must be hardworking and dedicated because in a small company there is no room for low performers.
GH: What is your company philosophy driving your company culture?
Monica: Our mission is to inspire tomorrow’s citizens by connecting their education to what is happening in the world around them using the power of listening. Our values include: educate all kids, passion, team, exceed expectations and positive energy. Our philosophy of connecting students to real world events is probably most evident in our company culture by the amount we all talk about the news! We love to share good news stories and discuss how it might fit into school curriculum. We all now see world events through the lens of a middle or high school teacher.
GH: What did you learn from your first customers?
Monica: Our first customers taught us so much! They taught us current events that are curated and given to teachers with context are valuable in any classroom. We have a free version of Listenwise, and our customers taught us that this is an important way for them to experience the tools in order to see how they would fit into their instruction.
One of the most important things I have learned is that Listenwise has many more applications in educational settings than I first thought. One teacher of English language learners reached out to me to say she loves using our selected public radio stories with her ELL students. I wanted to learn more so asked if I could come to her class and watch her teach. It was a revelation. While I thought Listenwise would be best suited for social studies, ELA and science teachers looking for engaging aligned stories, I didn’t think it could be used for language instruction. Now we have worked with experts in ELL to add scaffolded supports for language learners and that has opened up the world of English language learners, because of the feedback we’ve received from our teacher users.
Monica: Boston is a great place to start a business because there is a thriving start-up culture. There are several different accelerators and lots of mentors who have been through what you are going through. I think LearnLaunch has done an amazing job supporting the growing edtech industry. Boston has always been home to major publishers and many respected higher education institutions, but I don’t think the edtech start-up community would be as robust as it is today without LearnLaunch. They supported me and dozens of other edtech businesses to keep Boston the leader in education.
GH: What is the Boston ecosystem lacking from your perspective?
Monica: I really can’t think of anything. There are so many mixers, shared office space, mentors with open office hours, I feel well supported.
GH: What’s the best/worst piece of advice you were given along the way?
Monica: The best piece of advice I’ve received is to keep in touch with your advisors and investors. They have so much to share and as your company grows, what you need to learn changes so you will need them in the future!
Monica: Two great things happened this year – first, we announced our partnership with NPR, the most trusted news source to bring even more of their content into the K12 classroom. Second, we have a sales distribution agreement with a Japanese education company that will help us enter the Asian market for people learning to speak English. These two deals are very significant for Listenwise.
GH: What does the future hold for Listenwise?
Monica: This fall we are introducing a game changing new feature – a listening quiz. We’ve been working on creating a formative listening assessment for two years and it’s finally ready for pilot and release. Stay tuned for this big feature release!
You can never predict what the future holds, so follow along with us on twitter @listenwiselearn to make sure you keep up with us!