Q&A With Terry Thoren, CEO and Co-founder of WonderGroveLearn
Edtech Times had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Terry Thoren, CEO and co-founder of WonderGroveLearn, a company that develops instructional animations for children in Pre-K – 2.
Company at Glance:
Founders: Terry Thoren, CEO; Rudy Verbeeck, President
Founded: February 2013
Category: Instructional Animations for Education
Product stage: Market
Company Twitter: @WonderGroveKids
Founder Twitter: @TerryThoren
ETT: How would you define the market segment your company is in? Who are your core customers?
TT: Our mission at WonderGrove Learn is to help children in Pre-K through 2nd grade achieve their full potential through instructional animations. So I would say our core audience consists of educators who teach students in these grades, as well as parents of children ages 4-8.
That said, we have seen a diverse group of educators buying and using WonderGrove, not just primary classroom teachers. Everyone, from guidance counselors and speech therapists to principals and superintendents, have found a way to make these videos work for them, and we love to see that!
ETT: How did you identify the problem you’re addressing? What was your process in identifying it?
TT: We started noticing more and more studies out there showing how kids today have shorter attention spans and fewer social skills, so we knew there was a need for a product like this. Together with a team of educators, we began doing our own research on the many ways in which social skills, classroom management skills and functional life skills are taught in elementary schools.
One of the most compelling studies showed that teachers are much more successful in helping students develop social skills when they infuse their curriculum with situation-specific lessons that target key behaviors (Gresham, 1998; Sugai & Lewis, in the Educational Resources Information Center). We also found that today’s children spend about 50 hours a week watching TV or using a mobile device for some form of entertainment outside of the classroom. We wanted to bring those two ideas together, and that was the driving force behind our initial phases of product development.
All of the research we implemented is available on the WonderGroveLearn website: www.wondergrovelearn.com/research/
ETT: And what was the process of arriving at the solution to this particular problem?
TT: We worked with educators to create storylines for each lesson. We produced instructional animations to bring the stories to life with age appropriate characters. Then we tested the animations in classrooms and made alterations and edits until we achieved our desired results.
ETT: What makes your solution different from the competitors’ – what it is that you’re doing differently than your competitors?
TT: Of course, there are other companies in the education field focused on classroom behavior management, but we are unique because we are using instructional animations to model positive behavior in simulated real-life situations. Other companies tend to focus on correcting negative behavior or creating lessons for a teacher to review with the class. However, those methods don’t connect very well with the students who really need to hear the message. By using age-appropriate animated characters, we make each social skill relatable to the students, and we give teachers an easy way to address inappropriate behavior without embarrassing or singling out a particular student.
ETT: Please tell more about your product stage and what we should expect to see from your company in the next 12 months – i.e. describe your potential next milestones.
TT: We are currently working with education-based organizations, charities and government programs, such as Head Start. We will have some big partnerships to report in the next 12 months. In addition to our WonderGrove educational content, we will also be rolling out more of the Institute for Habits of Mind 16 Instructional Animations. These videos are married to extension lessons that teach children critical thinking skills that will set them up for success in school and life, such as managing impulsivity, thinking flexibly and being persistent. We developed these instructional animations through our partnership with the Institute for Habits of Mind. We are excited to have teachers start to implement them in their classroom as students go back to school.
ETT: Are you a disruptor, and why so? Do you believe you will remain as a disruptor in near foreseeable future or become a more mature company? Why is that so?
TT: I’ll take it one step further – we are a disruptor to disruptors! By that, I mean that our animations are designed to intervene when a student is being disruptive to his or her class. Because children are so accustomed to watching cartoons and modeling the behavior they see on TV, our animations are able to command the attention of every student in the classroom while modeling important lessons about appropriate behavior. So I would say that being a “disruptor” is a large part of our mission at WonderGrove, and I’m sure it will remain that way for a long time to come.
ETT: Could you tell us about other startups or product builds that you have been a part of and what your role was?
TT: I have essentially been involved with startups throughout my entire career. Before launching WonderGrove, I was the CEO and co-founder of TeachTown, Inc. We produced software, games and animation for children with autism and related special needs. I used my production experience to develop all the production protocols.
During my tenure with TeachTown, I was also one of the owners of Big Bad Tomato, a full service interactive development company, specializing in the development of mixed media multi-platform user experiences for the entertainment, education and consumer product industries.
Before transitioning into the education market, I was the CEO of Klasky Csupo, Inc., the first animation studio to produce the TV series “The Simpsons,” and home of “Rugrats.” I oversaw the production of a slate of top-rated series for Nickelodeon, including “Rugrats,” “The Wild Thornberrys,” “Rocket Power” and the Emmy- nominated “As Told By Ginger.” I also launched the movie division for our company and oversaw the development and production of four successful animated features: “The Rugrats Movie,” “Rugrats in Paris,” “The Wild Thornberrys Movie,” and “Rugrats Go Wild.”
In 1985 (now we’re really back going back in time!), I created and launched Animation Magazine. After 29 years of publishing success, today Animation Magazine is still the animation industry’s leading international trade publication and the only magazine of its kind in the world.
ETT: Did you or do you currently have a mentor who is/has been helping you through the startup stages of the company? Who is that mentor?
TT: I owe much of my success to a large group of mentors who have guided me throughout my career. Currently my mentors in education are Art Costa and Bena Kallick, the founders of the Institute for Habits of Mind. Former superintendents Mort Sherman and Greg Firn have provided a steady compass to guide me through the many minefields one encounters in education. They have also introduced me to powerful educators whose input has been invaluable to the efficacy of the WonderGrove solutions.
During my tenure with TeachTown, Dr. Chris Whalen was both inspirational and motivational for both her brilliance in providing solutions for children with autism and for her genius in creating cutting-edge applications to affect change. When I worked in the entertainment industry, I had an entirely different group of mentors – Bill Pence, founder of the Telluride Film Festival; Steve Gilula, president of Fox Search Light Pictures; Gary Meyer, founder of the Landmark Theater Corporation; and Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo, the creators of “Rugrats.”
ETT: Where do you see the education technology market going in the next few years?
TT: School districts will need to increase their Internet bandwidth and related systems to effectively deliver technology to classrooms. With the advent of smart boards, tablets, and other electronic devices that command a majority of children’s attention, education will need to adjust its delivery systems. Education content will need to be as engaging and exciting inside the classroom as it is outside of the classroom.
I also believe the ed tech market will see a surge in digital technology as a means of teaching. Even our early education students will be bringing tablets to school rather than notebooks. They will be connecting with their teachers and turning in assignments via online networks and mobile applications. Classrooms will be supplementing traditional teaching with the latest electronic learning methods, thus making sure students have the most well-rounded, balanced and comprehensive education available.
ETT: What advice, if any, do you have for someone thinking about launching a company in the education technology market?
TT: My best advice for anyone trying to launch a company in this market is to think about how you can make your customers’ lives easier. Today’s teachers are experiencing initiative fatigue and information overload. They are facing new Common Core Standards, implementing new technology every semester and are under pressure to find the perfect apps and tablets for their classroom – all while dealing with shrinking budgets and crowded classrooms. A teacher today is forced to cram 120 hours of work into a 60-hour workweek. It’s so important for ed tech companies to keep this in mind as they design and market their products.
EdTech Times thanks Mr. Thoren for sitting down with us and we recommend you check out WonderGroveLearn at:
Yevgeny Ioffe, or as people call him, Yev, has been working in both the startup world and established companies. His career spans from joining Xplana Learning as it launched to Cengage Learning to MBS Direct when it acquired Xplana in 2009. Yevgeny brings to EdTech Times his passion for start-ups and technology, along with his interest in the ever evolving world of edtech. Yevgeny obtained his BSc and MA from Brandeis University and MBA from Boston College.