Chalk it up to a case of entrepreneurial ants in the pants. When Mike Wood, an attorney-turned-educational toy maker, retired in 2004, he didn’t stop working for very long. In fact, the founder of LeapFrog Enterprises—which is now responsible for 120 million educational systems, interactive children's books, and games in homes worldwide—got busy creating SmartyAnts, an online learning tool and companion toy designed to help kids read.
It started when Wood spent time in India trying to help children learn to read in English with software programs. It was part of an initiative to raise the standard of the country’s public schools, Wood says. Female college graduates unable to find work were given $30 per month to become principals or teachers at schools for slum children.
Watching the students help each other read the few books available to them was "powerfully motivating," Wood tells Fast Company. As was working with a group of Indian PhDs who created new (much less expensive) chips to go into Leap Pads for self-directed learning. "It just proves that nothing is impossible. Given the right opportunity, anyone can create their own miracles."
When he got back to the States, he set to work building on this and his past experience with LeapFrog products. "I knew a lot about pedagogy," Wood says. "I practically got a masters from spending a lot of time learning best practices for teaching kids to read."
Joking aside, Wood could see that software had developed to a point where "you could build the greatest reading tutor who would be available whenever your kid wanted to sit down." He wanted that virtual tutor to be able to take virtually any child and lead them on great learning adventure. "I decided that is what I was going to spend rest of life trying to achieve."
Five years later, he had SmartyAnts. But just because he’d developed and funded an interactive toy company before, didn’t mean the going was easy. Though he didn’t have much trouble raising capital, ("My brothers each gave me $5,000 for Leapfrog and got $3 million back, so they were in.") Wood says the hardest sell was to himself. "I had some idea how challenging it would be. What I forgot was how hard it is to make things that are super engaging for kids. I’ve got high standards."
Indeed, it wasn’t simple to create the entire Smarty Ants World along with the "Reading Pup," a stuffed dog which connects to the computer through a USB Port while the child is playing on SmartAnts.com. Nor was it a cakewalk to build in an almost invisible component that allows the program to evaluate the child’s learning style and personality, to keep them challenged and provide rewards for their achievements.
The phonics-based program has 67 adventure stories licensed from Candlewood Press. Stories are read to the children, then a comprehension game in a quiz show format, with the ants making comments peanut gallery-style. Three hundred sing-along songs and hundreds of learning videos round out the current offerings.
Though the product just launched, Wood says his producer Ed Annunziata has been known to lament, "It will be in beta until we die." Nevertheless, he is determined to keep tweaking. "It’s like a live ability to listen to what parents, kids, and teachers tell us so we make it better. There’s always room to improve," he says.
Despite the plethora of doomsayers predicting the death of reading at the hands of electronic gadgets, Wood is optimistic about the future of children’s books and his role in promoting them. Unlike films or television, Wood maintains that interactivity is inherent in reading. "I think it’s magical to have someone read with them, pointing to words and pictures and talking about plot, character, and themes. It becomes the starting point of kids’ imagination. I hope we create lots of ways to help kids be great readers and be more thoughtful and imaginative."
As for his own future plans, Wood adds, "This adventure is just starting. I just need to get some sleep."