Lisa is the founder and CEO of Almost Fun, an education tech non-profit dedicated to providing culturally-relevant and accessible educational resources to low-income students and students of color. She was previously a product manager at Google, building education products used by over 40 million teachers and students.
Where did the idea for Almost Fun come from?
I used to volunteer as a test prep instructor through programs that worked directly with low-income students in New York City. As a group, the test prep instructors struggled to get scores up, and, at first, I thought the problem was that we only met with students once a week to practice. I thought students weren’t reinforcing the skills they were learning, and that was the reason we couldn’t get scores up.
So, I asked one of my students whether they had time to practice one SAT question a day if they could do so on their phone. He laughed and replied, “Of course I have TIME, but who wants to do these questions? They suck.” Later that morning, we were reviewing linear equations with a problem that asked students to calculate the cost of renting a luxury golf cart, and I realized he was right – these questions did suck.
I started writing my own content for my students, based on TV shows, movies, and books that they liked talking about. Students who would just come in and put their heads down on their desks perked up and started engaging in discussions. Students would come in, excited to see what content sources they would be learning from this week, and actively debate the questions. One day, one of my students glanced at me and said, “Hey, this is actually almost fun.” I left my job soon after to build out a full product around this new content and used the name my student had given it: Almost Fun.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Remote work in the time of Covid-19 has changed my day significantly. I used to spend a significant amount of time at schools observing and talking to students and counselors. Now, due to the school closings, we’re unable to work as closely with students and schools, but we’ve tried to adapt as much as possible.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the way I start my mornings. A typical day starts with coffee and a look at our dashboards. I look at our mobile and web usage, retention, crash reports, feedback, and search rankings to see if everything looks healthy or if there are trends/changes that require further analysis.
My day continues with meetings with my team to discuss product updates, metrics, and feedback. Part of staying in sync now is also staying active on Slack. We used to be able to just look up and ask each other questions, but now we’re leveraging Slack heavily.
I’m the only person focusing on partnerships, so I also spend a lot of time on calls with school leaders and counselors. In the next couple of months, as schools prep for the next school year, many of these calls will turn into professional development sessions focused on how to use Almost Fun.
Depending on the day, I may also spend some time testing out new features and editing content. Tech is our vehicle for scale, but our content is what makes us unique. We hold ourselves to a very high standard when it comes to content, because we want every interaction a student has with us to feel fun, comfortable, and accessible.
I do a few things to ensure productivity. At the start of every week, I use Google Tasks to organize goals for each day of the week that roll up into our monthly and quarterly goals. I also set aside at 1-2 hours in the week to take a step back, reflect on our mission and goals, and think about new ways for us to accomplish our vision for the future. Being an early-stage founder comes with a lot of challenges, one of which is maintaining your own conviction. I find that setting aside time to reflect on the feedback we’ve gotten from users and funders, evaluate everything we’re doing, and play devil’s advocate for our organization helps ensure that I face any doubts I might have directly, instead of keeping them in the back of my mind constantly.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I’ve brought a lot of what I learned at Google into our product development cycle. A new idea usually starts from spending time with students or reading through a lot of feedback. One thing I’ve learned is that the thing your users are asking for may not be exactly what they want. There might be one feature that’s bugging everyone, but it could represent a larger issue in your product. The only way to really know is to spend as much time as possible with your target beneficiaries.
When we do have an idea that excites our team and our users, we write out 1) goals and non-goals of bringing this idea to life, 2) user journeys we want to support, 3) specifications for an MVP, and 4) metrics that will help us evaluate whether we successfully implemented this idea. They, we try to prototype the MVP quickly and collect feedback from students before starting to really build it out. Once we start building, we’ve established a clear code review and submission process that lets us test for bugs along the way. At this stage, so many students rely on us that it’s important we don’t allow bugs to make their way to production code. And, once we launch, we spend a lot of time looking at metrics and feedback to understand next steps.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I’m excited about the intersection of media and education. More and more, we see companies leveraging media that interest students into their education. Media companies like NBC and Netflix are starting to create educational materials connected to student learning. We’re realizing that fighting for student attention is a losing battle – we need to use what they’re excited about to facilitate learning. In particular, when educational content reflects the experiences and cultures of students of color and low-income students, they are better able and more motivated to build skills. We show them their experiences are valuable assets to their education, rather than completely disconnected from it. So, instead of feeling excluded, students are empowered to engage and connect with their learning.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
As a non-profit entrepreneur, I focus a significant amount of time on relationship building. One habit that I’ve adopted is following up quickly when someone offers to help in some way, being proactive about sending appreciation and thanks, and making sure we communicate updates to everyone who has supported us. This helps us ensure we’re able to take advantage of new opportunities and that we keep folks who have shown interest in us in the loop.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would advise my younger self to spend more time thinking about the bigger picture, instead of just my immediate, next goal. When I graduated from college, I was a little lost – I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and it took time for me to find my passion. I don’t regret the path I took to get where I am today, but in a lot of ways, I wish I had spent more time in college exploring new ideas, rather than focusing purely on academics and job hunting.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Dedicating your career to helping others is worth it. You will likely take a pay cut and you will likely be constantly reminded of the inequity that exists in our world, but the benefits far outweigh anything you’re giving up. If you have the privilege to do so, spending your time focused on creating positive social impact will just be so much more rewarding.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I spend a lot of time with our beneficiaries. I think the best thing any entrepreneur can do is spend as much time as possible with your target user to understand their needs and how they’re using your product today. You learn so much, so quickly, and those learnings are invaluable to your organization.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
In the early days of any organization, building strong partnerships can be highly impactful. Our partnerships with other organizations in the education space have helped us grow quickly and access more students than we would be able to otherwise. But, a partnership is only effective if both partners are getting something valuable out of it, so we’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how to position ourselves as a valuable partner.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Early on, I struggled with fundraising. I didn’t get one “No,” I got many, many. And they came with really accurate, insightful questions about whether what we were doing would work and/or be effective. At the time, each one feels so personal, like a punch in the gut, but I refocused my energy on viewing them as an opportunity. I analyzed the feedback and questions, added my own, and searched for ways to find answers. I ended up immersing myself within high-poverty schools in New York to figure out whether what we were doing would work for students. Through this experience, I was able to build up my own conviction as I saw our impact firsthand.
As an entrepreneur, taking things personally distracts from the value of criticism and feedback. You may find that some criticism is ungrounded, but some of it will be incredibly valuable. Constantly hearing praise or excitement can blind you from true problems in your organization or product.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
There are a lot of platforms that provide crash reports or bug reports for software, but we haven’t found a great way to find user interface issues in the wild. From observations, we’ve seen issues where the screen wasn’t formatted correctly on less-common screen sizes. For any product that is content-focused, this can be a huge issue, but right now, there’s not a great way to catch these beyond extensive testing on your own.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
To be fair, we haven’t spent this $100 yet, but we’re planning to offer $100/month to our employees for education benefits/student loan repayment. I’m really excited about this benefit, and I hope to see more organizations offer it. Student loans can be debilitating and minimizing the anxiety they create for members of our team is worth every penny.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Maybe it’s because I started my career using Google products and never really used Microsoft Office, but I love Google sheets and docs. Sheets help me organize tasks, projects, goals, and Docs help me detail out strategies. Sharing and commenting makes it super easy to get feedback from others. Then, for more complicated tasks, Apps Scripts let us set up interactive Sheets that we can use for metrics analysis or our pilot partners can use to get information directly from our database in a secure, safe way.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Winners Take All is a book I think everyone should read. I don’t necessarily agree with everything in the book, but a lot of good points are made about the role large companies play in our world, and the impulses that must be regulated so that inequity in this country doesn’t get even worse.
What is your favorite quote?
“Don’t ever make decisions based on fear. Make decisions based on hope and possibility. Make decisions based on what should happen, not what shouldn’t.” – Michelle Obama
- Listen, listen, listen to your users! Building for them should be your number one priority.
- Reframe every piece of criticism and every failure as an opportunity.
- Build your community of users and supporters by focusing on relationship building.
Carlyn runs the day-to-day publishing operation here at ideamensch and interacts with our awesome customers and entrepreneurs. She is likely editing this with a cat on her lap.