GiantOtter: a Startup in Infancy

It’s been a big year for GiantOtter. Our biggest year.  Well, to be honest, we haven’t existed for a full year yet, founded in May 2013.  But the start of 2014 begs for some reflection on the past year.  This Vizify montage of the @GiantOtterTech twitter account highlights our progress on SchoolLife, and our experience in theMassChallenge accelerator, but that’s not the whole story.  Much has been happening behind the scenes as well.

As the parent of a three year old, I’m finding many similarities between the early development of a startup, and that of a human being.  Early life is chaotic and disorganized.  Long-range vision is blurry -- only things directly in front of an infant’s face are in focus.  Infants spend their days engaged in motor babbling, learning through experience how to coordinate their limbs to achieve their goals.  It’s not uncommon for babies to try to move forward, and find themselves moving backward instead; but every attempt is an experiment, and a learning experience.  By the end of year one, most babies can crawl, and not long after they can walk, then run.  With competent control of their own bodies, focus shifts to developing skills to communicate their thoughts to others; a social process, again composed of experiments and learning opportunities.

Indeed, the earliest days of GiantOtter were chaotic.  We knew we had a common vision and complementary skill sets, and we knew both our names were Jeff (or Geoff), but only through working together have we figured out how to coordinate the left hand with the right hand.  Participating in MassChallenge helped us shift our focus beyond the immediate concerns of setting up our legal, accounting, website, and technology infrastructure to bigger picture concerns of our articulating our vision and accomplishing long-term goals. We’ve spent months experimenting with different ways to communicate our goals and vision, through proposals and pitches, iteratively refining and learning from the feedback.  These efforts are finally starting to bear fruit (aka funding!), which we are excited to share more about in the coming weeks and months.

While our ultimate goal has remained consistent – creating a platform for mining, assessing, and imitating behavior and language in context – MassChallenge provided many opportunities for us to experiment with how best to communicate the our value proposition, and iterate.  People found “harvesting human imagination” to be a bit too abstract.  We had more success describing a “new technology for teaching social and communication skills”, but this is a narrower application than our overall vision.  We eventually arrived at “Artificial Intelligence for a better world” – technology that fosters a world that’s more compassionate, better educated, and more fun.  This vision has resonated with people, and generated some positive media coverage (NECN BusinessNew ScientistBoston Herald). Either way, we’re stuck with it, now that it’s on our business cards.

Like a baby, we’ve certainly had the experience of trying to reach our goals, but finding ourselves moving backward rather than forward. Though we see most of these situations as two steps forward, one step back. For example, we’ve learned some hard lessons in the process of pilot testing SchoolLife in real classrooms with teens across the country.  SchoolLife is an immersive 3D videogame that teaches perspective taking and assesses social/communication skills.  Students play the roles of a bullying victim and bystander, and negotiate possible resolutions to a social dilemma anonymously with another real student.  When one of our pilot schools decided to have over 100 students play simultaneously, we found their wireless network just couldn’t handle it.  Students were repeatedly kicked out of the game due to connectivity problems, inspiring us to completely re-architect our networking infrastructure from a synchronous to an asynchronous solution. The silver lining on what could have been viewed as a disaster is that our new solution prepares us to port to mobile devices, where lightweight networking is a necessity, earlier than anticipated.

Over and over we’re finding that there is more gained than lost in putting things out, “into the wild,” long before they are finished products.  As much as possible, we’re trying to work, out in the open, living by theLean Startup philosophy.  Inspired by Toyota’s success with lean manufacturing, the Lean Startup preaches that companies should work in tight build-measure-learn iterations – essentially suggesting that startups should act as scientists, much like Piaget described children as little scientists, constantly constructing theories about the world, running experiments to test these theories, and learning from results.  The game developer in me cringes at the primitive state of the prototype that we share publicly on our Lab page -- lacking animation, artificial intelligence, audio, and running with a placeholder user interface, script, and dialogue.  But getting it in the hands of users immediately has allowed us to learn and adapt to the realities of running videogames in real classrooms, with constraints on time, technical infrastructure, and teenage attention, while also iterating on our design, fortifying the efficacy of taking perspectives of others through immersive simulated role-playing.  Plus, kids have given us great ideas for future episodes.

I think our biggest lesson learned from year one is that getting a startup off the ground is really a social process.  Social interaction is key to the development of skills that allow children to thrive, and the same is true of startups.  As tempting as it is to hibernate and focus on product development, and as incredibly time-consuming it is to get out and talk to people, sharing our ideas with others has rarely turned out to be time wasted.  Many of our most promising leads for partnerships and funding have come from totally random conversations.  You could call these conversations serendipitous, but we’re big believers in the saying thatluck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.  In that vein, we’ve had a lot of luck in 2013, and have much work ahead to keep it coming in 2014.  We’re crawling now, but with a little luck, we’ll be running by 2015.