You don’t have to be an expert in everything. Find your niche and find the people around you to complement your skills.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a field that Russ Ewell hasn’t tried his hand in. From sports to apps to writing, Russ is a true Renaissance man and jack of all trades. Today, Russ is the founder and CEO of Digital Scribbler, a company that specializes in apps and technology consulting for the special needs community.
Russ got his start as a pastor in the 80s with a heart for youth in need. Leading a youth group, Russ and the rest of his pastoral team lead small missions trips, meetings, and more to support young adults as they explored the complicated nature of high school, religion, relationships, and who they wanted to be. To this day, Russ continues to act as a pastor and provide leadership via sermons. Russ’ writings on the nature of God in a modern context (which you can read about on GoodReads) enjoy some popularity, along with his blog that touches on similar topics.
Deep down, Russ always had a passion for technology. From the very first mobile phones to the earliest iteration of the touch-screen device, Russ knew that the potential for these devices to change the way users take in information and conduct daily business was nearly infinite. Russ’ initial thinking had more to do with activities of daily living for all users, but soon found a niche in how to harness the power of VR and touch-screen interfaces: the special needs community.
Russ Ewell and his wife have two boys, one of whom lives with Autism, and the other of whom lives with Downs Syndrome. As such, Russ has spent many of his years in the tech world figuring out how he can marry the rapidly developing hardware and software creations coming out of silicon valley with the needs of the physically and cognitively disabled members of society. From app development to tweaks to user-interfaces, Russ has jumped headlong into the tech world as a voice and advocate for those with accessibility needs.
Russ’ company Digital Scribbler has released two apps that are available for download. He also acts in an advisory capacity with some of the tech behemoths as they trial new tech and ask for feedback on how to make sure it has all the capabilities necessary to make it useful to everyone at a reasonable price point. Russ also founded E-soccer to ensure that sports, too, were inclusive for young athletes with special needs.
Russ continues to pursue affordable solutions to communication barriers facing the special needs community, from those with disabilities to their teachers, counselors, and families. You can be sure to find him at conferences, tech campuses, and schools listening patiently and scheming more ways to guarantee inclusivity.
Where did the idea for Digital Scribbler come from?
I always wanted a startup since the late 90s. I just wasn’t sure what kind of startup it would be!
I came up with the name “Digital Scribbler” as a play on the book entitled “Infamous Scribblers” about founding fathers. Hamilton, Jefferson, and the whole gang of Founders were called “scribblers,” basically partisan scribbling. I was really drawn to that concept and nabbed the concept for those with disabilities.
The other element that informed Digital Scribbler was inclusion for those with learning disabilities. I have two children with disabilities, and I got on the tech bandwagon early. I purchased some software for my kids for $45, and within a year, the developing company raised the price $300 per app download.
I understood the high cost of production. Psychologists were working on it, as were people with backgrounds in language absorption. And as much as I want them to get paid, it makes that tech inaccessible. Usability wasn’t always necessary. It was great for speech therapists, but what about people just trying to get through daily life? Family, vacations, shopping? Even then, $300 is really expensive. My thought process was, can we build something cheaper, mobile-friendly, and better for the user? In search of answers, I hopped onto Twitter and started building relationships with speech therapists for input. They told me that they needed something more simple, practical, and affordable.
So the startup idea became clear — I wanted to develop affordable tech for education, which is a crucial area for everyone nationwide. I wanted someone who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, or the south side of Chicago to be able to get their hands on technology that would improve their quality of life. There’s kids with special needs out there who can’t afford fancy devices plus expensive apps on top of that. I don’t want kids to be starting life so far behind, unable to communicate.
I started developing apps for Android because their devices were cheaper, so my apps could get to the kids who needed them. I put the app online for free and people started using a basic bare-bones version. Once I got a better version developed, I started charging $2 on Android.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I have lots of balls to juggle. Going to digital readers from paper books, over the long run it would be better. My whole library is on some combination of my Kindle, iPad, and Nook. Even though I was skeptical of ebooks at first, I couldn’t live without them now. They help me stay on top of reading, note-taking, remembering important quotes, and more for the past 5 years down the road.
How do you bring ideas to life?
The biggest theme of everything I do is just talking to people! On the one hand, my staff and I spend a lot of time talking to kids with special needs, their parents, teachers, counselors, therapists, and supporters to figure out what they really need in a device to meet their needs.
We also then go talk to the people who can take all the information we’ve gathered and put it to work on apps and devices. I recently attended the Google IO conference, figure out accessibility. How to help other companies have inclusion in mind in developing products
So for example, there’s no need to create apps for google home. We just need to figure out how to make it as useful and user-friendly as possible for kids with special needs. My son uses his to remember his daily schedule, tasks, and medicines.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
There’s a few! I love that the price of technology continues to drop lower and lower, thus making it more accessible to kids of various socioeconomic statuses.
I’m also excited by the proliferation of in-home assistants in houses across the US and how easy and user-friendly they are. Things like the Amazon Echo or Google Home have proven really helpful in my household with my boys and even helping to keep me on track!
I love how touch interfaces have become more integrated into people’s everyday lives and the frontiers of touch-screens we still have to explore. I purchased an HP Touchsmart for my son with autism when he was little, and it really helped with language breakthroughs. The touch interface was really good for him since sensory sensitivity for kids with autism is really engaging, and the tactile response would help him. At the time, it was a $1500 device, plus insurance! The price has continued to decrease and function has gotten better, making such interfaces more affordable and friendly for other kids with special needs and communication handicaps.
Finally, I love the frontier of possibilities for Virtual Reality and all the ways we’re harnessing the tech to train people and prepare individuals for real-world experiences and offer them simulations as close to the real deal as possible at a fraction of the cost.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
The two big ones for me are writing notes by hand and reading all the time. Both help me learn and retain the information coming at me all day better.
What advice would you give your younger self?
You don’t have to be an expert in everything. Find your niche and find the people around you to complement your skills.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on?
LBJ was one of the 10 best presidents in history! The whole Vietnam War fiasco was terrible and took a lot of the focus of his presidency. However, unfortunately, that debacle overshadowed his huge strides in civil rights. Especially since he was a southerner, the work he did to promote equality was huge!
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
You always always have to reevaluate where your influence is. Be patient, and be disciplined.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
You have to figure out where your value is and partner with people where your strengths aren’t. Over the last two years, we realized that our greatest contribution was really about inclusion and accessibility — and we didn’t see that coming. Compared to the giants in the industry, we just don’t have the ability to pour engineering time in to develop lots of apps, but there are lots of other companies that are able to. For example, Google and Facebook are becoming more and more interested in the idea of accessibility and making sure their apps and whatnot are helping those with special needs live their best lives. Instead of creating everything, we realized that our real market niche was influencing, advising, and consulting companies like Google.
Take, for example, iPads. They absolutely weren’t designed with autism in mind, but now that they’ve taken off in the community of people with disabilities, Google is interested in making it as useful a tool as possible for them. We can engage with their engineers and help guide their app and product development to keep our community in mind.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Creative Destruction. When an economy grows, the people experience a natural sense of destruction of what once was. When I started, the most important thing to me and my team was developing apps, but that was already a very full market, and it was hard for them to get paid with stiff competition. As much as we were driven to contribute some good to the community via our app development, we realized that it wasn’t paying the bills, and we needed to pivot to stay in the game in any capacity.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Without question, I would develop a business that uses of Virtual Reality (VR) to help special needs kids, esp autism. The development of apps is well underway, even though they’re not being used a whole lot yet. Psychologists are already using VR to help patients deal with PTSD. At this point, the only negative of VR is that it may cause seizures. You could make a lot of money selling to psychologists, therapists, and other health centers.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I purchased a really cool backup battery generator for devices to keep things going for 30 hours. Especially since my sons are really dependent on tech for their daily lives, in the event we lose power, they’ll be able to keep up with their activities just fine.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
Microsoft one-note. As I mentioned a little earlier, it’s really important to me to be able to handwrite answers to questions to help me remember and retain information. I used to take notes on paper, and with a stylus like the Apple Pen and a software like One Note, I can have my notes wherever I need them wherever I need them.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Well, I own pretty much every digital book on “Winston Churchill” because I love reading about writers who changed the world. Jefferson could communicate ideas like few others ever could. And I always recommend Karl Marx, Dr. Martin Luther King, the Kennedys, and others who were prolific and engaging writers.
I’m also a big fan of “Transforming Leadership” by James MacGregor Burns.
What is your favorite quote?
MLK: Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words ‘Too Late’.