Skyrocketing America's Math Grades with Video Games — Dr. AnnMaria De Mars
Today’s guest is a tough, tough badass — in the realest definition of the word.
She was the first American to win the Judo world championship (1984) — which involved coming out on top over her Japanese, Korean, and Eastern European counterparts, who trained full-time as professional athletes — while she had a full-time job as an industrial engineer, a baby daughter, and… get this… a non-functional leg that had been operated upon.
Fast forward to today, she’s on a crusade to improve the way math and sciences are taught to kids in the USA (and beyond).
Only 25% of people who graduate from high school in the USA are considered “proficient” in math — a surprisingly large number have trouble even doing basic multiplication and division. And the standards are still going down — the average kid would have easily flunked 10 years ago for what they get As and Bs today.
But as it turns out, the American schooling system is quite complicated. Every state has their own rules, and so does every district.
So how do you build a profitable, mission-driven company in a highly regulated, chaotic industry (filled with bureaucrats on top) where every penny is hard to squeeze, and kids are involved?
And how do you do it while making it “harder” (devoting a significant amount of resources on reforming low-income districts who need it the most — but which most ed-tech companies ignore)?
Well, I guess you just go ahead and do it.
Dr. De Mars is the Founder and President of 7 Generation Games, which has solved a multitude of problems one at a time:
- First, building a smashing product that kids, teachers, and parents unanimously love. Her company makes interactive video games that use real-world, culturally rich problem examples (from the life of an Aztec diplomat, or a Sioux hunter, or fisherman, etc) to teach math — raising average grades by a 30%.
- Second, they solved distribution — taking the games both directly to consumers, as well as building a partnership/B2B channel such that schools can deploy them for every student en mass, and using an innovative mix of private and public funding to finance it.
- Third, they also built the software platforms needed to churn out high-quality educational games in quick succession, in any language — enabling them to both move faster and scale at the same time.
In this episode, we discuss:
- There’s a Judoka who’s never been injured??!
- The REAL problem with math education in the USA, and how to fix it
- Why focusing on affluent kids is, counter-intuitively, a bad business decision
- Competing with the Microsofts and Pearsons of the education industry
- Where does most ed-tech funding go?
- Why most “math games” don’t actually teach you math
- Their big fight with Apple about… the Aztec smallpox pandemic?
- Building the “WordPress for educational games”
Connect with Dr. De Mars and try their games:
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Aman : Hello everyone. Welcome back to another episode of the Eccentric c e O podcast.
I’m your host, Amman, as usual, and today I have with me a very special guest. And of course I say that every time, but now, today it’s extra special because. My guest is not only a serial tech entrepreneur, which we’ll get to in a minute, but probably also one of the biggest bad asses you’ll ever meet. And the reason why I say that is that she is a former judo world champion.
And that championship, by the way, she won with only one functioning leg because her left knee, I think it, it was an, an accident when you were a teenager, right? Or
Guest : Is my right knee, but yes, I heard it when I was a teenager.
Aman : Yeah. So she couldn’t really put any weight on her, on her right leg. Uh, and, and on top of that, she had a full-time job as an industrial engineer because, um, I think to this day there’s no such thing as an American professional judoka. Is that right? Or do you know any? I, I don’t,
Guest: I don’t know any
Guest : notes
Aman : know,
Only in Japan and maybe in a few other places you can be a professional judoka, but you know, in the US there’s, there’s nobody like that. And on top of that, while training you were a mom to, I don’t know how many kids and how old at that time.
Guest : I had the first one while I was competing, so Mario was two when I won the world championships, and then I quit competing, went to get a PhD and had two more kids. And so then my husband passed away when the kids were little, and I got remarried a few years later and had another one. So I have four altogether.
Aman : Ah, I see. Yeah. Yep. Uh, and by the way, just, you know, I know a lot of people don’t really like, are not really intimately familiar with judo as a sport. But let me just tell you from my experience that. It’s one of the toughest on the body. Like I would say it’s more than an even rugby B or wrestling because there’s a very high attrition rate for newcomers.
Like you start training and then a few weeks later, most of the beginners have kind of left and kind of disappeared. Uh, that’s, that was just at least my experience. I don’t know, like, do you know any healthy judoka who have been, who have had long judo hobby and they have their bodies fully intact with like, you know, uh, fully functional and like no joints, uh, no funny joints or something.
Do you know anybody like that?
Guest : I know one,
Aman : Oh,
Guest : and that’s, I’ve been doing judo for, let’s see, almost 50 years. I started when I was 12. Yeah. So over 50 years. Uh, yeah. Lynn Rothi, she won, uh, she won a silver medal in the Olympics and the World Championships, if I got that right. But anyway, she has never been injured. And I, her and I were talking about that.
I said, you’re kidding me. And she said, I, I didn’t realize how unusual that was, but yet she’s the only one I know.
Aman : Wow. And like no concussions at all. Even,
Guest : As far as I know, she’s never had a serious injury
Aman : concussions are at least the most common one. Like at least like everyone has had at least one, one or two. I’ve had one. I don’t know how many of you you’ve had.
Guest : I don’t know about concussions. I had eight knee operations. So that that was mostly issues that I had. I, and then, yeah, bust up my ankle. Went to the ER for that, but I didn’t have to have it operated on, had my thumb replaced. I mean, the joint did not, so yeah, there’s a lot of injuries, but I think it’s probably true of most elite sports really.
I think swimmers have a lot of shoulder surgeries and uh, you know, as a statistician always talk about sports as we’re pushing the envelope of what is human potential. And when you push that hard, sometimes things rip.
Aman : yeah,
Guest : Because I, I read this in a, in a book on sports psychology once, but I think it’s true where he said elite athletes are the outliers at the distribution of humanity,
Aman : yeah. Makes
Guest : which is true in many, in many facets of life.
Some good, some bad
Aman : Yeah. Yeah, that’s true. And but why I say that, why I say this about judo is that, I mean, I know, I don’t know, I don’t even know any harvest who hasn’t, who hasn’t, who doesn’t have at least one joint in their body that’s not funny because of judo. So, you know, I, yeah. But, you know, um, any case, and you, and you were in a, you know, one of the most competitive weight classes in for ju like the 48 52 range, um, for women’s judo at least.
Guest : is what it was that Yeah, cuz it’s a very common weight class. Right? super heavy or super light, there’s not as many people in it.
Aman : Makes sense. But anyway, coming back to business, I mean, I can talk about Judo forever, but Dr. DeMar, uh, Anne Maria is the founder and c e o of seven generation games, which is to put it simply an educational video games company. And we’ll get, get to that in a minute. But they, put simply, they make games that teach things like math in a fun way to school kids so that they can get better grades and go to college and things like that.
And what’s interesting to me is that why it sounds very basic, you know, like, yeah. Math games for kids, whatever, you know, nineties, uh, like it’s welcome back to the nineties, right? But if you actually wanted to build a legit, real business in this industry, it’s. Actually surprisingly hard. It’s like surprisingly complicated and not straightforward.
And so in fact, um, I think Anne Maria, they had to change their business model multiple times and we’ll talk about that. And also some other interesting things like how they’ve fundraised through crowd equity, which is I think, an emerging new trend, and how do you do that properly and, uh, how they got into trouble with the Apple’s app store for some really weird reasons, um, and some other, you know, fun stuff.
So thank you again, uh, Anne Maria for joining us today.
Guest : Well, thanks for having me.
Aman : Yeah, yeah. So l let me, let me start with a very fundamental but also loaded, nuanced question from what does it mean to be good or bad at math from an educational system perspective in the us. Uh, and how bad, how good or bad exactly are most kids ated and what’s, what’s going on in schools?
Guest : Most kids in the US are not very good at math at all, and it’s a really huge concern. And yet, ironically, even though it’s a really huge concern, it’s been difficult to get funding for it. Uh, I. I know that 25% of kids in the US who graduate from high school are considered proficient in mathematics, and the majority of our students have difficulty with things.
I would consider very basic, like what’s 40% of 250? So we’re talking
Aman : Mm-hmm.
Guest : not calculus level, math, not even basic level of math, and that would be our average student. So that’s a real concern. Now, our, I would say as somebody who is also a college professor for many years, our top students are the same as the top students anywhere,
You have a granddaughter who’s 14, who’s doing calculus now, but our average student is, Far below where we would like them to be. They’re far below what I would consider the level of proficiency. Forget things like exponents and equations and I, when I’m teaching statistics I’ve had where I do, you know, X minus the meaning of X squared divided by N minus one, and some will raise their head and say, why do we have a two up there next to princess?
Uh, what does that line over the X mean?
Aman : Oh, wow. Okay.
Guest : And that’s not for high school students. That’s not uncommon. I wouldn’t say it’s the typical thing, but it’s not like, oh my gosh, I’ve never heard a student say that.
Aman : Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. And that’s high school, so like 7, 16, 17 years old, right?
Guest : Yes.
Aman : what does the education system deem as good enough in math? Because you don’t, you don’t really flunk students in math in school, right? Like, how does that work?
Guest : Oh, lots of students fail in math. Oh God. Now, and it, it really depends on the district too. But no, there are districts around me where I live in, in California that they might fail a third or more of their students in AL in algebra, which is what they would take in the ninth grade. And then the really idiotic decision some of these schools made is, well, if our students are failing algebra in the ninth grade, let’s teach algebra in the eighth grade.
How that makes any sense. I don’t know.
Aman : Yeah. That’s weird.
Guest : Well, here’s what happens. We have in the US thousands of school districts, and when I was in Chile, we were part of Start Chile and we opened an office down there. But anyway, I was in Chile and I was talking to some of the folks from who were also in startup, Chile from, from Chile, from Peru, from uh, from Trinidad and Tobago.
And to them, the US school system is somewhat insane because we don’t have a national curriculum in the us and then people say, oh, so you have 50 different curriculum for 50 different states. No, we have thousands of school districts, and each school district can make their standards, their own requirements.
There’s been a push towards having common standards, but it has been, it was adopted and I forget the number of states, maybe 20 or 30 states. And then some of them went backwards and said, no, we’re not gonna do this after all. So we have thousands of different school districts
and education is funded.
Mostly by your property taxes.
So I did a study, uh, funded by the National Science Foundation. It was very interesting because we were in a number of, we went to school districts around the country and interviewed educators about what they need. And most of the school, the schools I went and visited were on American Indian reservations.
They were in Flint, Michigan. They were in very low income areas. But I also went to one that was the second highest income district in California, probably one of the top five in the
country. And what they had. As far as resources for students, these are all public schools, was night and day. Uh, the one school, for example, I was on, on a reservation and there are apps that you can get on iPads that work with microscopes, right?
So you can see, you can have, have these apps and see what’s going on in the microscope and connect them. But their technology was so old. They had iPads that ran iOS nine. They had, uh, really old microscopes, so they couldn’t use any of this, right? This other school I went to, they had their own 3D printers.
They had a makerspace. I mean, it’s a school who went up to the sixth grade, like 11.
Their kids were getting Adobe certified by the time they were 11. So yeah, if you have enough money and resources, you could do amazing things. My youngest daughter got a scholarship to a prep school up in Ohio, California, which is again, a
Aman : What’s a prep school? What’s a prep school again?
Guest : Oh, a prep school would be a college preparatory school. So there are some public schools that consider themselves college prep, but most prep schools are
Aman : Private.
Guest : i’ll just status. They’re very expensive and it’s mostly people who are fairly upper class that send their kids, uh,
like I said, my daughter got a scholarship, so that tells you how much they were car
Aman : Yeah,
Guest : I mean, it was an academic scholarship for merit, but still, uh, she was telling us she was homesick or one time and complaining and she said, well, what if her kids was homesick and his parents sent a private chat from Turkey to fly him home and say, well, we drove off from Santa Monica in our private car to bring you home.
Be happy. So they had of course vastly more resources than the average public school. So in the US and I think India is probably the same, right? There’s great disparity in the educational system and there’s even great disparity in the public educational system depending on where you live. Now for us, and this is an area where some investors question this, but we did anyway, our focus is on those lower income schools because we feel like you only get one life and our, these are our lives.
You, you run a startup and that’s pretty much sucking up your whole life, right?
Aman : Yeah. Yeah.
Guest : And I didn’t wanna spend my life giving more advantages to kids who are already advantaged. I mean, let’s be honest, my kids did well, my grandkids, they’re gonna do well. Whether they get supplemental software to help them learn or not.
But a lot of the kids that we work with, like, uh, on a lot of the reservations, there isn’t any afterschool programs with supplemental instruction for them. They’re basically what they have as far as extra curriculum is what we provide in our software. There isn’t a bookstore anywhere near round. There isn’t a library anywhere near round, we’re it?
Aman : Okay. So let’s tell back a little, you know, just to recap what, uh, which is actually a good segue. What is, what, who are your paying customers and what do they get from you?
Guest : Well, our, as you mentioned, our paying customers have
Aman : Or Oh, yeah. Yeah. In the beginning. In the beginning, who were your paying customers and what was your business idea? What was your business model?
Guest : In the beginning, our idea was that we were gonna sell, we were in this little niche company. We were gonna sell to schools on American Indian reservations because Native Americans had the lowest performance in math of any group in the United States. And I have, you know, friends, my friend, my co-founders, my original company were from the Spirit Lake Nation.
They lived on the reservation. So this was our idea. We’re gonna make games that have a Native American storyline. Like how, if you’re meeting another tribe across the plains and it’s six days right away, where’s the fairest place to meet? would be three days. Why is that? Because, you know, a half is two equal parts.
So, so that’s what
Aman : Yep.
Guest : do. And we started out and we sold two schools, and then about half of our sales came from Parrots that would see us online and they would pay 10 bucks and they would download the games. And that’s how we started. Then we did a crowd, we did a crowdfunding, a Kickstarter, and then people.
Who saw it online said is, are these games only for Native Americans? And actually, I’m the president of the company. Maria is our ceo. And she’s CEO because she’s kind the marketing face and ceo. Because she said, no, these games are for you if you have $10. So we started out thinking, selling to reservation schools.
About half of our money came from school sales. We charged $1,500 a year. All the students at your school could use it and then parents could get all the game, one game for $10 or all in for $25. That’s how we started. Then uh, COVID happened and all of a sudden, ma, something you could use to learn math at home was a big seller.
And our user numbers went up 10 times over a couple years and we, our school sales shot up. Because all of a sudden, lots and lots of schools wanted something that worked and was documented effectiveness. We had done controlled studies where we had a control group that didn’t play the games, an intervention group that did.
And so all of a sudden our school sales went way up. So instead of 50 50 parents in schools, we were 90% schools just because
Aman : see.
Guest : parents went down, but schools went up. So then as you know, people started going back to school. Uh, the sales didn’t go the, they usually didn’t go down, but they sort of plateaued and which was good cause they plateaued at 10 times
Aman : Yeah.
Guest : Then we had, when we were in Chile, uh, well actually before that, we had made these games about Native Americans and we had a teacher approach us and say, I know you do these focus on Native Americans, but I teach in a small town and. I went to a little college, came back home to my small town, married a farmer, and once a year or so I’ll get a child in my classroom that I speak Spanish.
Their parents are working on the farms or they’re working at a restaurant and she said, I don’t speak Spanish. I’m in a little district. There’s no curriculum. I tell them, we’ll just sit there and watch and I know I’m not doing right by these children. Is there a way you could make a game that would also teach in Spanish?
So we did
Aman : Yeah. Translate. Yeah.
Guest : right. So we did and, and then we were thinking we’d sell them again. Things transpired different than you expect. We’re thinking we’d sell ’em these little rural areas where there are teachers that might have one or two kids in the classroom, they have no curriculum in Spanish. And here you click the button and the game changes everything sound, um, you know, the audio, the text from, from English to Spanish.
And then the teacher has an English, so he or she can see what the student’s learning. It’s great. Well then I see some of the schools that are purchasing these and using these, and they’re in Los Angeles and they’re in the same four Valley of California. And some of these teachers, I know them. I know their Spanish is better than mine.
Right. And I say, You speak Spanish, why are you buying these games and using them? And they said a really wise thing. Like one of ’em said, yeah, I speak Spanish, but guess what? I have kids in my class that came over here from Ecuador last week. I have kids in my class that they speak, um, you know, conversational English, but they don’t know the word for quotient are, are dividend.
I have kids in my class that their Spanish is, is good, but their English is is not quite as good and they maybe just need a few words explained here and there. I can’t do five different curriculum. I can’t stop my teaching in English and teach this kid Spanish. So we ended up having lots of people use these games.
So then we get a call from somebody saying, you make these games in Spanish and English, could you make them in Lakota in English? And I said, well, sure. I mean I
Aman : again? I’m sorry. What was that again?
Guest : Lakota. It’s a language that the Lakota speak that Native Americans who live up in sort of the north central part of the United States.
Aman : Oh, okay, okay. I didn’t know that. Yeah,
Guest : So they said, could you make them in Lakota, in English? And I said, well, the code we have, I mean I wrote the code during for the functions to switch the language. And I, yeah, except that nobody here speaks Lakota. And they said, well, funny thing we’re calling from the Pine Ridge reservation we’re the Lakota.
And so we made a game for them. So they paid us and they wanted the game to be available for all of their schools. So they paid us upfront to develop it. So then we have some people down the road and a couple of states over call up and say, well, how come there’s not a game in Dakota? And we said, well, cuz the Lako paid us to do this game.
Well we have money. How about if we pay you to a game? Ok, fine. And so then, Um, down in Chile, we there, there’s startup Chile and they’re like, well, you could do a game for us. You do one on Native American history. In Latino history, like in Mexico and Guatemala. How about one on Chilean history? I’m like, well, do you have money?
Yes, we do. We’ll also provide you an office space and we’ll help you hire people and help you get schools to test it in. So we’ve gone from being half parents in half schools to 90% schools to predominantly customized software. You won a game that teaches about Chilean history or the Bozeman Trail in Montana, or We did one for a company.
They wanted a game to teach about semi inter quartile range and mean, and media because they did educational games, but they didn’t have any on math.
So we now we’re doing a lot of customized software development for anything anybody wants to make a game about
Aman : I see. So let’s now zoom out a little bit, right? And I wanna talk about the big picture a little, because, so there’s. The theme has been, you started out by making these games, right? It was a product tape. You, if you’re a school, you’re a parent, whatever, anybody can buy the game. It’s, you know, like, yeah, pay and buy, and you play the game.
And, uh, you started with B2C and b2b. It’s kind of both. It was kind of a mix, right? And then the pandemic shut up, you know, shut up your sales and everything. Uh, and then of course, as you become more popular, other people start coming with, Hey, can you do this first? And can you do that for us? And of course, you know, uh, when you’re bootstrapped, which I believe you, for the most part, you were, um, you say yes, right?
Um, now, so before, before we, so stopping right there, let’s talk about the landscape of educational games and educational software and educational accessory solutions, right? Because there’s a lot of startups and there’s a lot of other players who are trying to make. Software and stuff to help teachers and to help kids learn on their own.
And, you know, it’s been stuff. So tell us about how is the market segmented, right? Who are the players? Who are different players, and where do they fit in? Uh, what problems are people solving already? And what was the niche? What was the, uh, how did you know, seven generation games find its own niche of this is, this is what we’re playing.
And we did talk about one aspect, which is to focus on the lower income, um, schools, but that’s, I would say, more of a marketing aspect, right? From a product perspective and, uh, from a pricing perspective. Like, tell us about the overall picture.
Guest : Yeah, well, education, the educational market in the US is extraordinarily fragmented, so there’s 50 states, but within those 50 states, there are thousands of school districts, and each school district makes its own individual purchasing decisions. So there may be some state level requirements that you have to do this or that, but it’s selling into thousands of different markets.
And now the larger ones like Los Angeles Unified, um, the New York City Public Schools, those are, you know, spending billions of dollars. But then there might be a school district that has in some very small rural area that’s got 300 kids.
So it’s, for us, we decided we can’t go in and compete against Pearson Education and Hooton Mifflin and these people that have, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars in marketing budgets, they’re going out.
We went to one conference, the National Council of Teachers at Mathematics, and they’re, it’s $5,000 for a booth just to have a little table there. And next to them, next to us is of course, Microsoft and Google for Education. They’ve spent a hundred thousand dollars to put this little palace with,
Aman : Yeah.
Guest : you know,
Aman : Free food.
Guest : chocolate fountains or whatever.
So for us, that was not really a good choice. So what we decided to focus on was the smaller rural districts, because we started out in a small rural state. So for somebody who’s headquartered in. San Francisco, they’ve gotta pay a lot of money to fly out other people. Our people are already there. So we could have people there who could drive to Standing Rock, who could drive, well, they’re right at Spirit Lake.
They who could, you know, drive to Minneapolis and, and now our headquarters is in Minneapolis. So that is an advantage for us when we want to market to those rural states in the Midwest, because there isn’t as much competition there. Yes, all those bigger companies are trying to market there. But it’s easier for us to meet with folks in those districts because it’s, you know, a two or three hour drive for us.
It’s not that we’ve got fly to Minneapolis and rent a car, drive, drive out there. So we decided to focus on smaller rural districts predominantly, and then also Southern California, just because I live here.
Aman : Mm-hmm.
Guest : And so for me, I, we were founded, we started out in Los Angeles. And having offices in Los Angeles and North Dakota.
But now we’ve moved having headquarters in Minneapolis and then we have a few people who remote work. So it’s been that the pandemic caused that, right?
Because we’re paying a lot of money for office space in Long Beach that nobody’s going into. And I’m thinking, why am I paying for this office? And then eventually, because we didn’t have anybody going the office, we hired people from, from Washington State, we hired people from South Dakota, so, so our focus was smaller rural markets.
We started out on uh, American Indian reservations, just cuz that’s who we knew and that’s who we had connections because we’re going into a school saying, change your math class to include our game. That’s a big sell.
Aman : Yeah. Yeah.
Guest : so what we had to do was get some schools that would go along with that, collect some data, show that those schools were doing well, and then move from there to the schools up the road.
And that was interesting in itself because first we get some schools that say, okay, we’ll try your thing. So we do a study. We have, uh, it was kind of a naturally occurring experiment. We have a reservation, they’ve got two schools. So one school uses our games. The other school just does their regular curriculum, the kids who are, so at the end of 10 weeks, we, we assess both kids at beginning, at the end of 10 weeks, the kids who play, who didn’t play our games, their mask scores were up 10%.
I mean, they’re in school, right? them to go. The kids who did play our games, their mask scores were up 30%.
Aman : Hmm.
Guest : So we say next year we’re gonna reverse it. We’re gonna have the control group school be. The intervention school. And the intervention school will be the control group school. So we go to the schools and we say this, and the control group school’s like Yay.
And the intervention school says, are you crazy?
Aman : Yeah.
Guest : Our kids went up and you want me to now not do this so you can get data. And the superintendent school says to me, lemme tell you this, Dr. DeMars, I’m appointed, this is a political position. I’m appointed by the tribal council and how long do you think I will have this appointed position if I go to parents?
And I say, your children did way better in math last year, but now I’m not gonna do that cuz this lady from California wants research data. He said, no, we’ll be in this study again next year, but we will be the intervention group again. So we okay, we’ll go to a different reservation a couple hours away and we’ll ask them if they’ll be a couple.
So I go and have this very nice meeting with the superintendent and then he says, Yeah, I talked to that other reservation down the road, so we’ll be in your study, but we’ll be the intervention group. we agree to be the control group, uh, the second year, which makes sense, right? So what we were able to do is, um, what in, in clinical studies, they call a dose response effect, right?
So there were some schools for various reasons that didn’t use the games as much. Like they had an issue with the computer lab and they, you know, they didn’t have, every kid didn’t have a computer, an iPad, and they could only get in a computer lab one day a week or so on. So we were able to show that the students who played the games, uh, say just fif, you know, 15 or 20 minutes once a week, didn’t improve near as much as the kids had played three times a week for 30 minutes at each time.
So we were able to collect some data showing that it was really effective
Aman : you did mention some companies in the, in the mix, which are like, you know, Microsoft and Google for education and pears and all that. And so, so tell us about that. Like, what, what, uh, do they offer, like, education? And you said, you said that you offer games that teachers can use as a, as a supporting material, but also kids can just play on their own, right.
Uh, so it’s not exactly a teacher assistance is most like a teacher replacement. Of sorts, uh, in a anyway, because kids can, of course you, cause you go to school and everything, but like, just to play the game, you don’t need a teacher to help you play the game, right?
Guest : do not though. One of the things that we found to be really effective is we have a whole site called Growing Math. It’s growing math.org. Anybody can go to it. And it was funded by the US Department of Agriculture, which seems kind of funny, but they were very concerned about, um, About performance in rural areas.
I mean, that’s their
right? So we have lesson plans for teachers to say, all right, you wanna use our games? Here’s a lesson plan that goes with it. Making Camp Navajo teaches about rational numbers. And so here’s an an example of they’re playing, making Camp Navajo. They’re learning about sheep branching.
Here’s an example of using an equation to calculate how much it would cost to build a fence to build a around a sheet. Correct. So we actually have been pretty successful in packaging the games as part of an overall curriculum. Here’s the lesson plan. When you, your students are playing the games within the game, it’s asking them questions and they get the question, right?
It’s recorded in our database. So you as a teacher can see how each student is doing. So even though the students can play them on own, some of them do. I mean, honestly, if the student has a choice of playing Fortnite in their spare time or a game that teaches math, they’re probably gonna play Fortnite.
But if they have a choice of playing this game for their homework or doing worksheets, oh they are so gonna play that
Aman : yeah, yeah. Makes sense. Makes sense. And so what do, what do these big companies do and, uh, like what’s, what do they offer, you know, in the market?
Guest : This is, to me, the kind of, um, upsetting thing about ed tech in the United States maybe around the world. We talk a lot about how poorly our kids are doing, and we’re supposedly, we’re very concerned about it, and yet most of the money going into educational technology is not going into curriculum.
It’s going into making lives easier for the administrators. So the big ed tech companies are mostly doing things like assessment. So it’s not teaching, its testing.
Aman : Mm, I
Guest : So they all have online tasks. So there’s a lot of big companies that do that. There’s also a lot on educational management, say attendance.
Aman : Yeah. Yeah, yeah,
Guest : Putting up and, and I will say Google Classroom has got some good stuff as far as the management part. So it’s not so much the teaching itself, but you can upload, here’s my class, my Google classroom, and here’s all your assignments and you can download them here and you can turn them in here. And, and I’m not bashing that cause I use that myself in teaching,
but it’s not,
Aman : too.
Guest : it’s not so much for the curriculum.
The, the part that Google has got good as far as teaching is how to use Google apps, which again, that’s fine. But as far as educational content to teach math, for example, there’s, Cahoot is a big one that doesn’t actually teach math. You as the teacher can create some sort of flash cardy things that. You have a question, you know, what’s four times eight?
And the quickest person to say 32 gets a point, but who’s really doing games similar to us? There are some, um, I wanna say legends of learning maybe.
Aman : what’s their approach? What’s their go-to market approach as a, you know, as a, if you had to put those into different categories, different buckets.
Guest : legends of learning
Aman : These, these companies that you, that you mentioned who have, who make content games? I mean, what I, what I, what I think of when I see, what I think of educational games is, yeah, I go to the app store and I look up, look something up, and I’ll probably find a game or two for math, you know, which teaches me some math through exercises or something like that.
Right. Um, that’s where I typically see, which is a very b2c, they’re probably, half of these games are probably ad supported. Right. There’s a lot of ads in these and I, I don’t know how you, like, how much can you monetize with showing ads to school kids? Right. I mean, they don’t,
Guest : Right. Our games have any ads cause the school’s paying for it. Right. Or somebody paid to have it made because they wanted that content out there. So we don’t have any ads, uh, when most of the math games I see are either bad games or bad math. And I would say the difference with us is, so they’re, they’re, there are basically two different groups that we’re in competition against.
I wouldn’t say Microsoft and Google so much cuz they’re more educational management, not content. There’s a bazillion apps out there, lots more of them for very young children. And our games are aimed at grades three through eight. So about children eight to 14,
there’s. A lot of stuff with very young children, probably, because if you’re a parent, you put that on your phone and you can make your kid do it right?
Where if they’re 10, 11, 12, the older they get the harder. It’s also, it’s a lot easier to teach, you know, counting
four plus six than the associated property, the distributive property, or even, you know, converting equivalent fractions to mixed fractions. That kind converting things to equivalent fractions, finding the lowest common denominator.
So first of all, there isn’t nearly as much in
the upper elementary, middle school, and then there’s not as much games for high school for like trigonometry, stuff like that. There you have more, I’m a college student, I’m taking this class. I need to pass it.
Aman : Yeah, yeah,
Guest : So we’re sort of in the middle of that. So the, I’d say there’s a couple of companies that we would.
Be in competition with. But even the big ones like ABC Mouse, I think it’s called the learning Company. They’re more aimed at the younger kids. Um, so there’s the people, the one-off guy or some guy doing, some couple of people doing an apps, they putting in an app store. This is an educa a math game. And let me talk about, often those people don’t know very much about teaching math.
Maybe they’re a good programmer, they were good at math. They think everybody knows how to convert a fraction to a mixed number. Everybody,
so they skip things so often. They’re, they’re ma. When they’re making an educational game, they will say, you know, here is, I’m trying to think of one that we did very recently. Um, you know, we’re finding, we’re finding the median. So here’s how you find the median.
You know, we’re finding you’ll be, here’s all these numbers. You went out and you collected data on all of the, in all these different areas of what the temperature is. And so you play this game and it’s a really cool game. one of the things that we included in it was, is global warming really a thing, right?
So you have a game and you’re taking your car and you’re go driving on the desert in different places of the desert, you’re collecting data.
All right? So that’s say maybe that somebody who’s joined an educational game would do like us, and then you find the median to see if the median has really gone up.
Because the mean, and then you’ll also find the mean, because the mean can be affected by some, a few
Aman : Yeah. Some outliers,
Yeah. Yep, yep, yep.
Guest : So in the process of that, the thing that we would do, for example, is you would find a meme and you’d find a meeting. Now what we would know is that the mean could be affected by outliers.
So we might have you do that twice, and one time it comes out different because you have this very extreme score. And then our character will pop up and there will be something in the game that explains why they’re different, because an outlier can really affect the meat. Well, what else is there? Well, you could get the median.
And so then you go out and you go back into your computer lab and maybe there’s a, a search game or a maze because you have to jump over all the stuff because you didn’t clean up your lab. So there’s another part of the game, and you get back in the lab and you’re gonna compute the median. And so there might be something telling you how to compute the median.
Computing the median, if you have an uneven number of and and odd number of points, or an even number of points is different. So we would explain how to compete the media, compute the median for an even number of data points and an odd number. Somebody who doesn’t have a lot of experience in math education might just show how to compute it.
If you have 11 points and you take the middle one, right? Well, what if you have an even number? Well, everybody would know. You would take the average of the two middle ones. No, they wouldn’t.
So the difference with
Aman : obvious.
Guest : right? So the difference with us is we break it down kind of task analysis. What do people need to know?
are the things that they will probably confuse? Uh, I just did one where, where the answer is something like 8.2. this is a different game that we’re in the middle of doing, and the answer is 8.2, and they’re told to round it. Uh, They’re to round it to the nearest, uh, to round it to two decimals. So it’d be 8.20.
Now the thing there round is 8.196. So if somebody puts in 8.19, you pop up, uh, a help screen that says you wanna round up, because when you have more than 0.5, you round So that’s the other kinda stuff that we would build in that your guy building the thing on the weekends wouldn’t think about. What are the most likely errors people are gonna make and what are things that you need to put in as scaffolding?
So those are the kind of things that we would do that you don’t see in a lot of those games that are made in the app store. The other thing that we would do is make it a real game. So you might have a teacher and they really know math and they really know how to teach math, and they will have all this stuff about the mean and the median and and so forth.
And in between their game part is you correctly say how to, you know, the median when you have. A set of 10 numbers that they’ve given you the 10 numbers right to com you correctly comput and you get a little alien figure that pops up with a badge and says, good job. That’s not a game. Right? So ours would combine those two things, like I said, to get to your lab, to enter in the data you have to dodge through and jump over all these things because you didn’t clean your lab.
And to collect the data in the first place, in the first part of it, you had to drive through the desert. And now you stop here and you read the number on that thermometer, and then you get back in your car and you drive through the desert and you read the number on that thermometer and there’s horn lizards hopping up.
And then you have to not hit them because horn lizards are endangered. And so we’ll show up a little thing in there about what’s an endangered species and why are horn coats called toads even when they’re lizards and, and so we are trying to make little Easter egg things. We make it fun. So the big thing about us is we have really thought out education.
Not, oh, I was good in math. I’m gonna say. Find the median and here you go.
And so our games include instruction as well as testing, which a lot of them don’t. Um, our games are actual games, so as I always say, those things that you can download in the app store, usually either bad education or bad games.
Aman : yeah. Makes sense. Makes sense. And, and, and I, I think it makes sense because, uh, from what it sounds like is you want to put math in context of real life and real situations, right? Because otherwise it’s an abstract concept. And that is not, I mean, I even until college, I, I mean, I was like an Indian kid.
I, I just wrote, memorized a lot of math in my, you know, in my time. And that’s the way I did it. But until I went to college and I was actually using math not to pass exams, but to. Do real stuff. Um, you know, that was useful then I, I, I was like, challenged by my conceptual understanding, like, okay, what’s the difference between a mean and medium?
Like, okay, you know, how to, you know, what’s different about how to calculate a mean and a medium? A medium, but why do we care about one or the other? Like, oh, okay. The median doesn’t really deviate that much with the outlier, so it actually tells you the actual average in most cases, that the median that, so, you know, you learn all these things from, just from context, which is usually missing when you’re learning to pass exams.
And it sounds like by putting math, by weaving math into stories, kids can actually learn how to use math before they learn how to do math. Does that make sense? Uh, which I think is the, like application based or context oriented learning.
Guest : I think they’re learning both at the same time. They’re learning how to do math and how to use math where I a hundred percent agree with you. I was looking at some books. I like math, right? I’m looking at some algebra textbooks and I’m thinking, this sucks. I mean, if I was a kid and I was learning, just like you said, to memorize how to solve these equations that completely are.
Are separated from anything in my life. I liked, I like math as a kid cuz I looked at as puzzles, right? Like solving a crossword puzzle or urgent sub puzzle. And I didn’t look at as being any more practical than that. And of course as an adult, I use math every day.
Aman : Yep.
Guest : I used to be an engineer of course, so you we’re predicting which missile’s gonna blow up on the launchpad. But as a, as we teach kids in school, so much of it is very dis, dis distinct from anything that is in their life. And then also we have a lot of kids who are from Native American communities, from Latino communities, they don’t see a lot of people who look like them doing math in, uh, in these professions.
And they think this is not a thing that people like us do. And what I try to con convey, and we all we do through our games is there has always everywhere been math and everybody uses it.
Aman : Yeah. I think it’s, uh, I think it’s surprising how quality alone, simply quality and thoughtful design, can be a huge competitive advantage. Because come to think of it, What’s the difference between Apple and Microsoft in terms of their, their hardware, right? Like the computers they make, like you could say, well, they go for the same market.
They’re, they’re playing in. Like, no, it’s different because Apple puts a lot more thought into what they’re building. Uh, and it’s not just about how you segment the market, but also how you differ your offerings and consumers can tell the difference. Right. Um, cool. And so how did you, oh, talking about Apple, we have to mention that story unless it, before it gets, uh, if it slips down, you know, between the cracks, what happened with you and the app store.
Guest : So two, actually I had two run-ins with store and it’s because they’re a huge corporation, right? And they have certain roles. So one of them was our games are historically accurate and we have a game Fish Lake, which is very popular. We, we, it’s available on Mac and Windows and also for iPads. And in it they learn about the Ojibwe migration, where the Ojibwe people who originally up in what’s now, uh, the maritime provinces of Canada 500, over 500 years ago, for some reason, they decided to move and they walked.
From that part of the country from where they were to the middle of the United States. And there’s the whole game is about that and how they lived and, and they fished and they hunted deer. Well, the app store decided that was violent, that because there’s hunting in it. So there’s bow hunting and there’s fishing was spears.
so our game had to be RA rated for above a certain age because there was violence.
Aman : I see.
Guest : And so that’s, and so that was frustrating. Cause this, this is a game and the kids who played this game are above the age level or below. A lot of ’em are below the age level. I, I forget if it was like 11 plus or 14 plus that they rated it for.
But I go into these reservation schools and I say, how many of you kids hunt deer? And every little boy’s hand goes up in probably
Aman : Yeah. We go fishing
and everything, you know?
Guest : Yeah. Yeah. So, but they can’t see it in a game, so that was considered violence. So we had to say, okay, fine, we can’t argue with you, whatever. Uh, and then we did a game, Aztec empiric empire, which the funny thing is we had proposed this back in September of 2019, and it came out in the summer of 2020, and the game was about pandemics.
So we proposed this before the pandemic, and it’s about a lot of what caused the fall of the Aztec empire wasn’t so much that the Spanish had these ma overpowering armies. It was, they came and they brought in smallpox and just massive numbers of people died. And so then they were weakened and they lost.
So it talks about the smallpox, uh, epidemic and what’s an epidemic, and what’s a virus and what, and how it’s different now. And in the beginning of Gabe, you come in as a time traveler. And you’re dropped back at the beginning of the Antec Empire and it’s talking about the Spanish have arrived and brought with them death and destruction.
And the app store said, well we are, you can’t publish this because we’re not publishing things that talk about the pandemic cuz we’re trying to prevent misinformation from getting out there. And I said, look, this was funded by the National Institutes of Health and I have a PhD and I teach epidemiology and biostatistics and here’s my credentials and here’s some articles I’ve published and here’s some presentations I did on biostatistics at international conferences.
And we actually won that one. And Apple published it AM store.
Aman : Wow. Uh, yeah, it’s, it’s funny, you know, uh, how the, the tailwinds can, you know, change, uh, as an entrepreneur, like think complete things completely out of your control can come and hit you in the face. Um, but yeah. Anyway, coming back to the, the discussion. So how do you, so you were talking about these companies have multi hundred million dollar budgets and so on.
How do you reach your customers? It’s like, what’s your go-to market process and what does your marketing typically look like? Uh, and what have you learned, you know, over the four or five years that you’ve been, you know, selling, you know, uh, what’s, what’s worked and what hasn’t worked for you?
Guest : Uh, I just wanna shout out to Google Play because they did feature Empiric Empire, that game I mentioned and send it us 2 million beta testers, so that worked for us. They just, I, I guess because they liked it. So shout out to Google.
Aman : Yeah.
Guest : So that was helpful. That was just, They saw us online and like, you know, it’s terrible.
I have to say our marketing, we have gotten much, much better. We just had a couple people at the National Johnson O’Malley Association. Johnson O’Malley is, uh, legislation that relates to Native American communities and providing services for them. So it’s something very specific to us. But what we found works for us, because we started targeting markets that other people didn’t so much, was to go to places where we find those people who are gonna be interested in our games.
And we don’t have to so much be competing with Microsoft. Like they might have, they’ll be at the big thing. Microsoft
or places will be at the
National Council. Teachers Mathematics
Aman : yeah, yeah. Yeah.
Guest : won’t be the Johnson O’
Aman : They actually don’t have the money. They actually don’t have the money to attend
these smaller conference. Yeah,
Guest : Yeah, they know the money be everywhere. So we’ll be at, well they’ll be there, but they won’t have this enormous booth there, right? So they might have a table like us. So we’ll be at the North Dakota Indian Education Summit. We’ll be at the South Dakota Indian Education Summit. We’ll be at the National Indian Education Association.
So we, we’ll be at, um, the New Mexico Association for Bilingual Education. So we go to these smaller state and regional conferences where, like I said, these bigger companies also have a presence, but their presence is the size of ours, right? So we’re not being overshadowed. And the folks who are going there often are the people who are from the smaller districts that maybe can’t afford to pay, you know, a thousand dollars to go to the isti, the International Society for Technology and Education.
They maybe can’t afford to fly to New Orleans to spend that money. So they’re gonna go to. The regional conferences in their area. And so that’s kind of our market and we can afford to go. So that’s one place we do is we go to the smaller regional conferences. Uh, the other thing is really kind of the absolute worst business case study ever where all of our, up until very recently, all of our customized software development came from, people called us up,
Aman : Oh, okay.
Guest : they heard word of mouth, right?
We didn’t do anything. The, the folks, the Lakota Language Institute folks saw us online somewhere and called us up and then those, these people out in the Upper Sioux community saw us online, called us up, and then the Warm Springs people walked by our booth at, you know, the National Indian Education
Aman : that’s more you being, well, that’s more like you being at the, at the conferences. That’s that. I would allocate more to your hustle than your reputation, I would say if somebody walks by your conference, conference table. Right.
Guest : but the, we were not thinking of, oh, we’re gonna make these customized games. People saw we did it for somebody and they came and said, how about for us? And then the next person said, how about for us? And then we said, Hey, this is starting to be a larger part of our business. Maybe we should market
this. And then we got, um, somebody else that called up and said, how about for us? So,
Aman : so you, you’re still making custom games. Is that right? Or are you making, okay, so you’re still making custom games and you’re making games that then you just hand off to the customer? Or is that like a partnership where it’s more like a rev share model where you put it up on the app store and you, uh, collect revenue?
Like, how does, how does that work? How do, how does, how do you scale? Or is that a, and is that a concern for you? Is that a focus for you at all?
Guest : Generally it’s not a revenue share model. We have done a couple like that, but generally it’s you pay me money, I make a game and give it to you. The other thing that we’re moving into now is, and this is our, I don’t know, we’re on business model five or something, but in addition to the customized games, because we’ve been doing this for a long time, we’ve developed a lot of building blocks to make education games faster, so we to make a game of dis quality, when we first did it the first time we did, probably took us eight months with a couple of very experienced developers and someone with a lot of experience in education working on it full-time.
Now we can do a similar thing in two or three months with people who are not nearly experienced because we think about blogging, right? When.
I started, right? Creating webpages and blogging way back. If you wanted to do, you had to know php, you had to know html, you had to know css, you had to have your own server.
And now you can go to WordPress and in five minutes you can have blog.
And if you want it to be different, you can pick one of their themes and you can have plug-ins. So we are kind of moving to WordPress for educational games, and that’s our next business model that we think is gonna be the really scalable thing.
Because if you could put the ability to make these games in the hands of a lot of educators. And then also we have the building blocks for the educational component, right? So if you pick and say you want to make a game that teaches decimals,
then this will come up with, well, here’s 20 types of possible questions.
You want your game to be set in, uh, tropical Island. All right, well here’s the,
here’s, here’s the different games that you could have. You could have a search game. You could have a game where you’re dodging coconuts. You could have a game where you have a ship that’s coming to the island. And in that, there could be questions like, if you are going, you know, 10,000 miles from here to there around the world and you’ve come to this location and now it’s 2,500 miles, how much of your journey is completed?
Give that as a decimal. How much of your journey remains? Give that as a decimal so you could kind of plug and play those things, and then you can go in and edit it yourself. And so this is what we’ve been working on and we have a crowdfunding, a crowd equity campaign going on right now that is funding that development.
Aman : I see. So tell us more about the crowd equity fundraising. How does, how does that work? And I, and I know you’ve, uh, you’ve been able to raise also from non-accredited investors and all, and, you know, because of, uh, uh, legislation change. Tell us about that. And also, I’m interested in asking you about what were some lessons learned along that, along the whole fundraising history of your company.
You know, you’ve been funding funded by different types of people, you know, whe whether it’s, um, a public fund. Um, and so now it’s retail investors in a way. Right? And you’ve also had some actual investors. What’s been your fundraising history and what’s, what have you learned along that journey?
Guest : We have done everything that’s sort of non-traditional, so we have not got any VC funds. We started out, we were in a, a startup incubator, and so then we did a small seed round raised, you know, $250,000. We got a number of small business innovation research grants.
Aman : so that two 50 K was from Angels? Like who?
Guest : Yes. Angel invested.
Aman : Mm-hmm. Was that, was that expensive money?
Guest : expensive and uh, well it was very early on, so it was expensive in the sense we gave up, you know, much more percent of the company than we had later on. But we were very early stage, so I think it was fair.
we’re getting started out. We’ve get some investors. We, at that time, I think when we came out of that incubator, we just published our third game.
We got funding in small business innovation research grants from the US Department of Agriculture and from the National Institute of Health. And so those, you are developing a product that has a commercial impact, but also there has to be a research component. So that’s where those studies that I mentioned came in.
We had small business innovation research grants from US Department of Agriculture because they’re concerned about rural communities from the National Institute of Health. And that all told, we did a number of grants like that, developing different products that came out to a couple million. And then we got, um, a contract from, again, US Department of Agriculture during covid to deploy educational content.
That people used to learn online that was ready right now. So we did that and then we also did two Kickstarter, cam three Kickstarter campaigns for different products. And the difference between, and people often confuse Kickstarter or crowdfunding and crowd equity. They’re two different Crowdfunding, you are getting a product. I go to you and I, I go out to the public and I say, I’m gonna make this game. If I raise $50,000, I will make the game. People can put in money. You say, yes, I would like that game and I’ll back you $50. So I not only get the game, but I get a t-shirt when it comes out.
So that’s crowd crowdfunding. We did a few of those. We raised total about a hundred thousand dollars.
Aman : Oh, that’s, that’s a good, that’s a good successful crowdfund,
Guest : well we did it three times and so one was about 45,000. One was maybe 30,000, one was 20,000. So, uh, but. Part of it, the crowdfunding too, is it gives you a chance to go and promote your product as opposed to just always being buyer games by our games. So I could go on another time about crowdfunding cuz we’re running outta time.
But crowd equity is different in that you’re not back backing a product, you’re backing a company. So this is a change in s e C regulations, the Security Exchange Commission fairly recently. And it used to, well usually for you to invest in my company, you need to be an accredited investor. You need to have at least a 200,000 a year net, um, income, or at least, uh, million dollars, something like that, net worth.
But in this case, Crowd equity. You have a company, in our case, we funder that does the due diligence. They scrutinize all their books and so forth, and they say, yes, these people are legit. We looked at their ballot statement, we looked at their pipeline, we looked at their income statement, so on. And then non-accredited investors can go online and they can invest.
Normally for us, depending on which seed round, we’ve done the minimum investment spend like 10 or $20,000. For we funder, the minimum invest is a hundred.
It’s a hundred.
So now the average investment is I think a thousand, but still that’s far less than when we do a typical seed round. And so that allows, just anybody who likes the idea thinks they might make some money to invest their money in the company.
Yeah, sure. For sure. Uh, so two last quick question. The first one is, so you raised a lot of money, uh, significant amount of money from public funds, right? So as a for-profit private company, was that a, was that a problem at all? Did you have to do any, you know, um, incorporation mabo jumbo to be able to, uh, to qualify for that money?
Aman : Or was that like Yeah, it doesn’t, it doesn’t really matter.
Guest : There are a very small fraction of federal budget or, or grant funds in general are available for for-profits. So we targeted that very small amount. So we are a for-profit company and that funding came to us. The S B I R, the SB stands for small business. So in the us, which is very different than a lot of companies, if you wanna, you can be a sole proprietorship.
You can say I am a company. That’s it. Do you know? I mean, like I was in Chile, it’s vastly different. I it’s vastly, but we are seven Generation games is a, a Delaware C Corp. We originally in incorporate as an L L C and when we were in the first startup incubator, they said, we want you to be a Delaware C Corp.
We think that is a better model for investors and they actually paid for the attorney and all the cost so it was kinda a good deal. I don’t think, um, they’re running an ed tech cohort anymore. Boom startup at a Salt Lake City. So we are fortunate to be in it when they were and they paid for all the expenses for us to incorporate.
Um, and so that’s, that is our business model now and or the S B I R funding. It did not
Aman : So
C Corp. Can you give a one sentence like explanation of how that differs from an lsc?
Guest : My one sentence would be, investors like It better LLC stands for limited liability. Uh, the C corp you have, we have preferred shares of stock
Aman : Ah,
Guest : and
Aman : Makes sense. Makes
Guest : invest and get those preferred shares. If something happens, you get paid
Aman : Yeah. Yeah, makes sense. Makes sense. Makes sense. Yeah. That, uh, that clears it up. Okay, cool. Cool. Uh, and the, the final question right before we, because I, I know you’re short on time. Who’s the funniest member of your team?
Guest : Oh, that’s a good question. You know, I think it’s Maria, I think it’s Maria who is our CEO O
Aman : Okay.
Guest : but she never lets me like put any of this stuff out on social media because she wants to project a very, um,
When we were doing this, collecting these data for the National Science Foundation and traveling all around the us.
I mean, there are times when we were driving the other and I was just laughing so hard at some of the stuff that she said, but a lot of it is very, um, inappropriate. So she will never let me.
Aman : Okay.
Guest : I have a really dumb joke for you though. Um, so my husband, who is also our cto, uh, taught my granddaughter. What’s the difference between a vegan and a software developer?
Aman : Okay.
Guest : One hates rack of lamb and the other hates lack of ram.
That’s a really dumb
Aman : No worries, no worries. Well, thank you so much Anne Maria. Uh, it was a comp absolute pleasure to have you, and thank you for the education. Uh, I’ll, we’ll talk to you. I’ll talk to you another time.