Education tech startup guru, Brett Singer knows how to let an idea take its natural course. His online application, Youtopia used by teachers at all levels to encourage kids to excel academically, began as fiction and blossomed into fact. Confused? Singer wasn’t. He spoke with Our Town about Youtopia’s inspiration, tips for self-starters and his time with The Oprah Winfrey show.
Our Town What inspired you to create Youtopia?
Brett Singer The story of how Youtopia came about, and what inspired us to create it is, well... a long one. Back around 2000, Simeon Schnapper and I made a feature film called Dot. It’s a mockumentary that follows 9 months in the life of a startup. Both Simeon and I pulled from our real life experiences living through the late 90’s startup bubble. Then, almost two years ago I was Facebook’d by one of the film’s rabid fans. His name is Shawn Riegsecker, CEO of Centro, right here in Chicago. Shawn had seen the film 13 years ago at a screening and had been quoting it in board meetings ever since. He said he had an idea for a new film and wanted to discuss it with his two favorite filmmakers. Many emails later, we landed upon a brand new storytelling concept for non-linear narrative told entirely via social media, anchored by a weekly behind the scenes documentary that followed a new Chicago startup. It would use satire and show what it was like to be a startup in the blossoming Chicago tech scene. It would be fiction, yet portrayed as real.
OT So, how did Youtopia become a learning tool?
BS If people were going to believe that this company could be real, we needed to make sure it was something we knew well. We stuck to business concepts that fell within our range of expertise, and what was new and excited us: Technology, Design, Education, Gamification. We were unknowingly building the foundation for a truly exciting business concept. A couple months later, after exhilarating research and interviewing potential customers, we were convinced that this idea we had invented for this story, was truly innovative and disruptive. We made the decision to abandon our storytelling adventure and to focus all of our attention on building a real company. Youtopia was born.
OT Who is Youtopia for?
BS K-12 teachers who consider themselves thought leaders, game-changers, and are looking to embrace new technologies to affect positive changes in their students. Youtopia is about bringing administrators, teachers, and students together into one productive community focused on recognition and social good.
OT What are some examples of ways teachers can use Youtopia to enliven classroom learning?
BS Youtopia is an incentive and engagement platform that provides instant access to plug-and-play gamification tools (points, badges, and leaderboards) and powerful analytics. It's a true classroom management toolkit. Youtopia dovetails perfectly with efforts that already exist within schools; we just make it more fun, more accessible, and more reportable. In K-8th grade schools, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports already employ simple gamification techniques (acknowledging a child positive behavior with tickets, or rubber bracelets). With Youtopia, those activities are more transparent to the students, parents, teachers, and administrators and their rewards don’t get lost in the wash, but are saved on a student’s Youtopia profile. Activities can be connected to academics like, “Complete your homework on time,” or more social behaviors like “Random Acts of Kindness.” In High Schools, administrators use Youtopia to track their students Service Learning requirements. They can also build badges around their service requirements, inspiring their students to go beyond what is required. On the university level, Greek organizations are using Youtopia to track their chapter’s recruitment, fundraising, and service hours.
OT You worked for 14 years on the Oprah show, what was that experience like?
BS For the most part, amazing. I was there quite a while and saw the show, and Ms. Winfrey, evolve into something truly incredible. What struck me most about my time at Harpo was the level of professionalism that everyone exhibited, all the time. At 3 a.m. after working 30 hours in a row for a live show in a few hours. Very few people got rattled there. Hundreds of people made that show work every day, under incredible, inconceivable pressures at times. Even on a bad day, being a part of something that unique meant a great deal to me. Everyone who worked there was just so very good at their job. Which made you want to be that good too. There was literally no problem that could not be solved. Yes, money buys a lot, but money alone does not make things work. It’s the people behind those solutions that was always exciting to me. I can’t tell you how many times I was in a room where some concept was proposed (either creative or technical) and someone would say “Well, how have other shows done it?” And 9 times out of 10, the answer would be, “No one’s done this before.” And then a group of really smart people would go about figuring out how to make it a reality. You didn’t feel bad not knowing the answer because, often times, no one did. And, it didn’t hurt that we rarely heard, “We can’t do that, it costs too much money.” Also, I have to say that I retain a tremendous amount of pride in being a part of something so important and impactful. Her show was truly a mission and I was honored to be a very small cog in the very large machine that made that show tick.
OT What’s the biggest misconception about tech guys?
BS I think people have this idea in their heads about what a tech guy/girl is like. Introverted, analytical, non-artistic, programmer types. But the more time you spend with real coders, you come to realize that writing code is more art, than math. The unbelievable creativity that programmers must engage in on a daily basis is astounding. Their medium just happens to be code, but it’s no less creative than the work a graphic designer does.
OT You’re a self-starter who’s been successful in multiple ventures. What tips do you have for others who want to start their own companies or create online apps?
BS The startup community likes to share and without much effort you can find articles, blog posts, stories, courses, books, and more, all available online for free. In Chicago you can also find a meetup or an event of some kind every day of the week. Usually for free or a few bucks. 20 months into our adventure we still frequent these events. Amazing people from every level of the startup scene all sharing. Sure, it can be overwhelming at times, but it’s nice to know you’re not alone. Another key to starting your own company is finding like-minded founders. That doesn’t mean they know what you know or agree with you. It’s people who understand what it means to be an entrepreneur and your personalities work together. I prefer to find others who are happy to argue and fight for things they believe in. I don’t need to surround myself with people who already share my opinion or expertise. I need others to challenge me and provide a different perspective. There’s a concept called Minimum Viable Product that became very popular, and for good reason. The concept is simple; with as little money as possible, begin talking to your potential customers about your business or product and make sure they want what you’re building by showing them, in the simplest way possible what your product will do. A Minimum Viable Product for software can be graphics on paper that you’ll use to pretend the site is real. It can be that simple. It’s a vital first step to understanding what you’re building and why you’re building it. There are many books on this subject. I’d say, however minimal you think you’re going; you can go further. The key is speaking to real people immediately.
OT How do you decide whether an idea is worth pursuing?
BS I’m going to steal this answer from a friend. Early on when we were deciding whether or not to pursue Youtopia as a real business, he said “Anytime I think I have a great idea, I ask 10 people what they think. If only 9 out of 10 say it’s good, then I let it go,” That’s a pretty high threshold, but I agree.