Vinod Lobo – CEO of Learning Upgrade

I like to finish projects no matter what. I find that people who finish projects on time are the ones who succeed in small business. Perfectionists and procrastinators are at a big disadvantage versus those who just get things done.

Vinod Lobo is the founder and CEO of Learning Upgrade, which publishes online courses to teach math and reading through songs, video, and games. In 1998, he brought together educators, musicians, artists and programmers to produce innovative, engaging lessons designed to support struggling students in reading and math. Through the incorporation of song, video, games and educational research, Learning Upgrade has helped over 1 million students find a new path to learning success.

Vinod grew up around recording studios and schools as the son of a songwriter and teacher. He then completed a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and an MBA. The world of interactive learning was ideally suited to combine his experience in music, computers, and schools. He founded his first educational publishing company at age 23, which gave him the experience to create Learning Upgrade at the start of the Internet era in 1998.

Vinod grew up in Redlands, Calif., east of Los Angeles. He moved to San Diego to attend UC San Diego for engineering school. His love of the ocean means that when he is not producing musical lessons, he is often sailing, kayaking, or walking on the beach in his hometown.

Where did the idea for Learning Upgrade come from?

My mother is a teacher and a songwriter, and I am a computer engineer. One day, we brainstormed how we could combine catchy learning songs and video game interactivity to teach reading. The idea was to use music to help students make breakthroughs where other methods had failed. Students are comfortable in the world of pop music videos and interactive games. Our aim was to reimagine reading instruction as a series of song videos and engaging activities, to give students new path to fluency.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I have to move constantly between producing new lessons and marketing our products to schools. Not having the luxury of a large staff and segmented departments has kept me very close to our customers, who are teachers, parents and students. My comfort zone is recording music, writing scripts, and working with our artists and programmers. But the need to work closely with our school customers keeps me in direct contact with the children we are trying to help.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Our team talks to each other continuously. I am on Skype for many hours each day, talking to our songwriter, designer, programmer, artist and sales director. We have to produce effective musical lessons, but we also have to serve the needs of our school customers. I find the only way this works is for everyone to feel comfortable sharing new ideas. Then we decide together which way to move forward and start prototyping. I find the best way to create new programs is to rapidly experiment and then make changes early, before the big investment in polish at the end.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

What I’m seeing more and more is the ability for small teams of innovative people to independently create and market competitive products. Ten years ago, school publishing was dominated by large conglomerates that put out the same boring textbooks year after year, keeping a stranglehold on school distribution. Now, small teams like Learning Upgrade can create innovative programs that teach diverse students in new ways, and through the Internet and direct marketing, we can reach schools, teachers and children around the world.

The future will be shaped more by small teams of creative, innovative people than by billion dollar corporations.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I like to finish projects no matter what. I find that people who finish projects on time are the ones who succeed in small business. Perfectionists and procrastinators are at a big disadvantage versus those who just get things done.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I led a yearlong contract project from a major Hollywood studio to produce a children’s video game to accompany a movie. After a year of abuse from power-crazy middle-level managers at the studio, the final game was canceled after the movie was canceled. No children ever enjoyed our work! Since then, our company has never done any contract work! We only produce programs for our own publishing, and programs we created 15 years ago are still helping children learn reading and math today.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

In the early days, our company was focused on selling our programs through large companies, and each of them ripped us off in one way or another with a bad ending. One company made us sign an exclusive, then developed a copy of our program and refused to sell ours, but prevented us from selling it ourselves! So if I were to start again, I would focus from the start on selling our products directly to our school and home customers. It is much more difficult to start that way, but the payoff is controlling your own destiny.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

It is easy to get pulled in every direction as a business owner. So I focused our company on one thing: helping children struggling with learning to find success. As I get bogged down with day-to-day mundane roadblocks and challenges, I keep several photographs of a child using our programs close at hand. My job is to help one child make a learning breakthrough, start to read on her own, add fractions, or solve a word problem for the first time. Do that over and over, and I have success.

So I recommend to others to break your company down into an essential task. Twitter helps one person share a moment with the world. Over and over again.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

We are still working on this, very much still learning how to grow! But the biggest change this past year is talking to our customers in a personal way, through personalized email, web conferences, real conferences and phone calls. This has to be done not in a “social marketing” buzzword way, but in a genuine spirit of wanting to talk with your customers and have a fun conversation. We are just beginning to learn how to do this. Some of it is very old-fashioned: we have started calling teachers by phone or video conference, to go over their students’ progress one by one. When they see that we can help each student learn, and that we care, they tend to want more.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

My biggest failure was putting our future in the hands of distributors, large companies that would exclusively sell our product to schools and parents. Once we decided to do the hard work to build our own channel to our customers, we eliminated the inevitable letdown of letting a large company exclusively sell your products.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I think the world of energy is going the way of many other industries, where small companies are taking market share away from large conglomerates. There will be thousands of successful businesses selling clean energy to power homes, businesses, and cars over the next decade. Find your niche in this transfer of wealth from big to small.

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

When I was 7 years old, I told my parents I would have four companies. So, two more to go…

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

We use Adobe’s suite for creative work, as well as a variety of music production software like Sonar, Band-In-A-Box, and Sound Forge. Salesforce handles our customer data, and we use Constant Contact for email, and Google Drive for some shared docs. These are all just great tools. As long as they serve our purpose, we use them, but we are always willing to change to something better.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I will expand the question and recommend a television show instead: Shark Tank. Despite knowing that it is a formula reality show, I can’t take my eyes off the stream of entrepreneurs and the deals they make. Energy and creativity are on display, as well as the good and bad attitudes that small business people have. Wish I had watched something like this long ago.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

I tend to look more to the non-profit world than Wall Street for inspiration. This includes people like Salman Khan from Khan Academy and the Kennedy/Shriver family, which founded the Special Olympics. What these people have in common is that they have core values and bold ideas, and they make seemingly impossible things happen to help change people’s lives for the better.


Learning Upgrade on Twitter: @learningupgrade