Confront your confidence — An old friend and successful entrepreneur used to joke about getting T-shirts made with a range of confidence levels so that he could wear the appropriate one each day to convey his confidence that we could pull off a new line of business. That level of transparency — at least with yourself — is a powerful asset. Understanding where you stand can help you make the most of the moment.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristen Kane. She has dedicated her career to education, leading innovation to improve learning in large companies and start-ups, in finance and technology, and in local and federal government.
Currently the EVP at Noggin, Nickelodeon’s digital learning service, Kristen also served as Co-Founder and CEO of Sparkler, COO of Amplify, COO of the NYC Department of Education, Broadband Policy Director at the Federal Communications Commission FCC, and VP at JPMorgan. She holds an MBA and Certificate in Public Management from the Graduate School of Business at Stanford and a BA from Yale. She lives in New York with her husband and two children.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It’s great talking with you about this important topic. My interest in a career in education was sparked during my freshman year in college while I was working for a professor who was curious about the ways in which the private sector might influence K-12 public education. The more research I did on emerging ventures focused on reimagining education, the more intrigued I became about the potential role of the private sector in supporting families and teachers in their quest to improve outcomes for their students. At the time, the professor received my enthusiastic analysis with a healthy dose of skepticism, but ever since I have been driven by the possibilities of putting more capital to work for the benefit of kids’ learning.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
In my first weeks at Nickelodeon, I spent several days in the very room where SpongeBob was created diagramming a learning analytics approach for Noggin. I spent one day in The Netherlands with my co-founder to present our start-up’s innovation in enterprise solutions for early childhood and the next in Poland presenting a growth strategy for Noggin’s direct-to-consumer business. The cognitive dissonance of these experiences was striking at first, but now feel par for the course. In a way, they foreshadowed an ongoing series of interesting moments in which different dimensions of pop culture, academia, creative process, and research-based practice collide in unexpected and innovative ways that make for a fascinating job and, I hope, good outcomes for kids.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In the early days of my ed tech start-up, I was hyper focused on meeting as many needs of our customers as possible. One customer, a gregarious high school principal, had an unusually large number of requests, including that we bring balloons to fill a gym at back-to-school night. As I struggled to close the doors of my car overflowing with balloons, several bunches floated away. I realized I had taken customer support too far. We were not in the event planning business and taking on that role inevitably got in the way of more important work. The importance of staying focused on your core business, even if that means saying no to customers, is a valuable lesson worth learning early.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Early in my career I ran something like a start-up inside the largest school system in the country — it was the Office of New Schools, charged with opening hundreds of new public schools in New York City. I remember how daunting the challenges were. To create meaningful educational opportunities for hundreds of thousands of students in a short period of time, we had to rethink and rework every service the system provided, from human capital to finance to facilities to enrollment to learning design. Each day the obstacles seemed more insurmountable than ever before, yet our small team rose to meet them again and again. Shared mission is what mattered most — the conviction that the work we were doing could make a meaningful difference in kids’ lives sustained me through many long days and nights.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are so many! My family first and foremost–my husband, in particular, makes so much of our life possible.
Close friends and advisors have offered invaluable support, helped me navigate tricky moments and delivered the occasional floral arrangement to keep me going. And I carry with me inspiration and wisdom from former bosses, especially Joel Klein, the visionary chancellor of public schools when I worked for the NYC Department of Education. He made it a point of whistling his way up the many marble steps around the office, no matter what challenges the day brought.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Teddy Roosevelt.
I was first inspired by this quote during my years in public service, but I find many dimensions of it relevant in corporate life, too. There will always be plenty of critics and plenty of failures. The point is to try, and to keep trying, particularly for a cause worth daring greatly for.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
Noggin is a digital learning service from Nick Jr. — we provide subscribers access to learning games, books, and videos with Nick Jr. characters kids love. Our mission is to grow big hearts, strong minds, and healthy bodies through great stories and interactive experiences. Noggin captivates the imagination of kids and builds the trust of parents through content based on our unique learning approach. Informed by research in child development and the expertise of an advisory board of prominent leaders in education, our approach focuses on the whole child. While engaging our young audience is our top priority, we also strive to make parents’ lives a little easier — by offering peace of mind that their child’s screen time is safe and valuable and providing insights into their child’s passions and learning progress. This has become even more important during the pandemic when many preschools closed and children have been home with parents struggling to balance work and family responsibilities.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
It’s the powerful combination of our characters who captivate little kids, the credibility of our learning team and approach and the platform of ViacomCBS that make Noggin particularly special. Noggin is able to tap the power of the best children’s media and exceptional creative teams to make learning engaging for young children. Our reputation and commitment to quality enable us to partner with world-class organizations as well. There aren’t many early childhood businesses that can partner with NASA, like we did recently, to get a live downlink from the International Space Station and put 4-year-olds at the center of the experience.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are working on more projects with our extraordinary partners, including NASA and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, to make their vast resources and expertise accessible to families, to expand kids’ horizons and inspire future generations of creators, scientists and global citizens. We are also developing new content promoting the social and emotional development of young children with an emphasis on the importance of fairness, inclusion and respect. Our goal is to help prepare children for learning and life.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
Tech is a field in which women are notoriously underrepresented. Like anyone who wants to strengthen the field and improve the culture for innovation, I am not remotely satisfied with the status quo. The world needs more founders, engineering and product leaders, and investors who are women — particularly women of color. I don’t think there is an easy fix, but all of us need to persist in pushing for greater representation and help pave the way for more women to thrive in tech. We need more trailblazing until the paths are wide, clear and accessible to anyone who wants to take them.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
There are plenty, but I don’t spend much time focused on them. I’d never get anything done! And I’d rather spend my timing helping other women break through whatever barriers they encounter.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
My first piece of advice would be to take some time to reset to make space for fresh perspective, which is too often treated as a luxury rather than a necessity. My second suggestion would be to spend some serious time with your customers so that you truly understand their needs. My third would be to try something unorthodox — consider acts of extreme generosity or a partnership with an unlikely company or organization. Sometimes getting unstuck requires getting uncomfortable.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
In my experience, the key to building a high-performing sales team is to create a great product and hire empathetic people who understand what it takes for your business to meet the moment for your customer–-today and in the future.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
The quality of our content is what drives the engagement of Noggin’s “consumers” (small children), and the promise that this content will support their child’s development attracts our best customers (their parents). The most effective strategy we have to make sure we’re delivering value to both of our audiences is play-testing — engaging kids and parents deeply in our content development process. Whether we use paper storyboards or digital prototypes, we always gain tremendous insights that inform our work and ensure that we’re on track to have a positive impact on learning.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
Customizing the experience to meet customers’ specific needs has been the most effective strategy I’ve seen — building into the product as much personalization as possible and enabling delivery that is as flexible as possible. That flexibility means finding ways to adapt and evolve as the circumstances change, like we’ve seen this past year with many preschools closing and children and families spending more time at home. We have also had success giving current customers unique opportunities to co-develop new features. In an enterprise context, often showing up matters most of all — being present whether there are challenges or not.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
For Noggin, our strategy to reduce churn centers around personalization — helping our customers understand the investment we are making in their child’s growth and in their journey as a parent. We are focused on making the Noggin experience responsive to each child’s learning progress, passions about characters and topics, and the moment in which we’re living — whether that’s using our platform to support children’s social and emotional development during COVID or promoting values of honesty and fairness.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Solve a real problem — I heard a lot of great pitches for capital during my years in finance and venture philanthropy. The ones that addressed an actual problem were rare.
- Build your bench — In a mature organization, this would be about transition planning and capacity building. In a start-up, it’s about having someone around to say yes when everyone else says no and help remind you why you’re in the game.
- Embrace ephemerality — Especially in the beginning, every day can be a roller coaster. As you might expect, the highs are high and the lows are low. It’s their frequency — often within the same day — that takes some getting used to.
- Sell, sell, sell — It’s tough to overstate how important this is. Building something, even something that solves a real problem, is just not enough. You have to get comfortable selling the vision, the product and, often equally importantly, yourself as an entrepreneur.
- Confront your confidence — An old friend and successful entrepreneur used to joke about getting T-shirts made with a range of confidence levels so that he could wear the appropriate one each day to convey his confidence that we could pull off a new line of business. That level of transparency — at least with yourself — is a powerful asset. Understanding where you stand can help you make the most of the moment.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
We as a society need to do more to set all children up to be successful, healthy, and happy adults. If I could inspire a movement, it would be to build the public and political will to invest in child development and wellness from the start. A complete commitment to brain-building for each and every child that begins before birth will yield enormous benefits to individuals and society. There is an overwhelming body of research around how to fuel healthy development early in life, and we need to make it a priority.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
MacKenzie Scott because she is quietly and single-handedly upending philanthropy in profound and powerful ways. Through gifts exceeding 4 billion dollars in 4 months, she has demonstrated a no-nonsense commitment to getting big, meaningful things done fast. Nearly 400 organizations across the country committed to filling basic needs or addressing systemic inequities exacerbated by the pandemic have benefited from her enormous generosity. While the scale of these gifts is staggering, her generosity of spirit, urgency, and unconventional approach are what I admire most. In its own way, Noggin aspires to make step-level change in society, and it would be enlightening and inspiring to learn more about the impact she is having on the world.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!
Thank you for the great discussion. It’s been a pleasure.