This edtech startup combines machine learning with Hollywood visuals in an attempt to boost children's vocabulary.
According to new edtech startup Mrs Wordsmith, there are 10,000 words that young people need to know to succeed academically and to have a richer life. So they've illustrated all of them with the Hollywood artist behind kids’ blockbusters Madagascar and Hotel Transylvania and added a dash of machine learning to create "the world's most intuitive dictionary": a hybrid on and offline program they call the 10,000 word journey. The aim is to connect young people to the words they need to know "in the fastest and most unforgettable way, so they don’t need to cram and can enjoy the journey."
Mrs Wordsmith was founded by US-born Sofia Fenichell. Originally an ad agency executive, Fenichell went on to write for a living as a technology analyst in the City for 12 years. After the birth of her children, she became a self-confessed serial entrepreneur in the technology world, launching startups including Wonder Place Ltd., a company dedicated to creating next generation video platforms. She is also an agented writer on a TV script called Silicon Sally.
Working alongside her is Craig Kellman, the award-winning Hollywood character designer and artist; Ian Brookes, former editor-in-chief of The Chambers Dictionary, and Ellie Stedall, an ex-senior editor at The Oxford English Dictionary. Ted Briscoe, Professor of Computational Linguistics at the University of Cambridge, recently joined to help the team make their product digital.
What's the gap in the market?
'I was shocked by the generally poor quality of educational materials on the market," Fenichell delcares. "The homework sheets that my children brought home from school haven't changed in decades. These worksheets are boring, sometimes factually or grammatically incorrect, and often random in sequence or approach. The gap we spotted was to apply research, creativity and technology to create better curriculum and materials - for school and home. Our materials not only address important aspects of national curriculum but they accelerate achievement. I believe that if we provide better content for schools we can lift teachers to teach to a higher level."
Success so far?
In its first year, "with very little marketing other than a few Facebook ads", Mrs Wordsmith has sold just shy of $1 million books - making it one of the UK’s fastest growing start-ups.
"We gained traction with parents through word of mouth," Fenichell explains. "Over 500 schools have asked us for our product and now we’re racing to get it ready for September. And we're working with machine learning experts to create the 10,000 word journey app to reimagine the dictionary - completely. We are not just taking our paper product and porting it to digital. We are going to create a fundamentally new and exciting way to interact with words."
Understanding your audience can be pretty tricky when they're so young. "Our biggest challenge involves constantly getting inside the mind of a child to re-imagine how they can learn more efficiently," Fenichell reports. "There are many elements that we have to incorporate from research, understanding previous behaviors both good and bad ones, how to complement the school curriculum and how to generally create easy-to-use products that take less time to present better results. Most of the products on the market are time consuming, unengaging and not necessarily based on the latest research in education."
This one's simple - the Mrs Wordsmith team aims to teach as many children as possible, more words. The team want Mrs Wordsmith to ultimately become as popular as Scrabble or Monopoly.
Advice to other publishing entrepreneurs?
"Focus on a problem you have personally experienced and have a deep passion and intuition for. It will catalyse the journey. And it is a long and rich journey where you will constantly be learning."