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“Why we need a better alphabet” with Fotis Georgiadis & Zachary Silverzweig

Imagine the difference in the world if 85% could read proficiently instead of the other way around? How many people would take their medication properly? How would we treat the environment? How many people would vote? How many fewer people would end up in jail? I think education solves a lot, and this innovation solves […]

Imagine the difference in the world if 85% could read proficiently instead of the other way around? How many people would take their medication properly? How would we treat the environment? How many people would vote? How many fewer people would end up in jail? I think education solves a lot, and this innovation solves a big chunk of the education challenge in the country.


As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Zachary Silverzweig.

Zachary Silverzweig, founder and CEO of TinyIvy. Zach’s focus on products that help make the world a better place began when in college, when he was diagnosed with cancer. After recovery, he spent the next fourteen years working in and around healthcare, which led him to his role at CipherHealth, where he worked since 2011 as a Co-Founder, CTO and Chief Product Officer. At Cipher he helped define the vision and raised over $50M to deliver the best-in-class products that made hospitals safer and more efficient. He created a culture that led CipherHealth to be chosen as the Best Place To Work by Modern Health Care for five years running, and in the top 5 in NYC by Crain’s Business. And then he had an idea. A big one.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Being an entrepreneur is just built in for me. My Grandpa Joe had a thread factory and Grandpa Harry a grocery store. My parents built their own business too. So when I was in kindergarten, it seemed natural to buy lollipops and sell them for markup. I started a record label when I was at Columbia (we didn’t know Vampire Weekend was there at the time…), and I was only in my first job maybe six months before I wanted to venture out on my own.

Cipher was an incredible learning experience. I grew up there in a hundred ways, and learned about start-ups. The whole thing was extremely rewarding, incredibly challenging, massively fun. I’m grateful for all the friends and colleagues I got to know there, and feel really proud of all that we accomplished, and continue to accomplish, with that technology. But almost four years ago I had my first child, and another passion, education, took over.

My mom had used a program to teach me to read when I was a baby, with very limited success. As I began exploring how to teach my son to read, I found it frustrating, and difficult … there were way more exceptions than rules. And it is hard to teach a 2 year old that when you see an “O”, it can be pronounced OH, or OW, or AH, or EWWW, or not pronounced at all. To them, an O is an O is an O. Until it’s not. So I thought maybe if the letters LOOKED different for each sound, it would be easier to sound out words.

I experimented with all kinds of things, made books, and flash cards, and drew, and at some point realized that it was a mathematical problem, and until I looked at it that way, I couldn’t solve it. I looked at sounds statistically and developed algorithms to organize words by frequency and difficulty. I became more and more excited with what I was seeing, and more and more depressed by the statistics in our country on reading proficiency and illiteracy, and I thought that maybe the system I was developing could be a solution. So I was faced with a dilemma. Keep doing what was easy and comfortable, or jump into something new and exciting with a huge upside potential for helping society. Healthcare is important, but education is even more so. The ability to read opens so many amazing avenues, helps people economically by creating better opportunities, and can save billions of dollars a year in costs associated with illiteracy. If I could impact that even a little bit, I wanted to do it. My entrepreneurial heart took over, and here I am!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Honestly, I feel like I’m writing that chapter right now. I have never done anything remotely as intrinsically intellectually interesting as this. I am doing a pilot program in a school in Harlem, and am learning more about how to teach my system every day.

The biggest moment for me probably wasn’t the most interesting, just the most enlightening. It was a really clear choice that happened on a plane. I was flying for vacation, and had a book, Ender’s Game that I desperately wanted to finish. But I also had these exciting complicated ideas spinning in my head for the next design of one of our products at Cipher. I decided to wait for the beach for the book, and I spent the whole flight cranking on those designs, which ultimately set the foundation of a best in class product for years. It was confirmation for me that “work” is a misnomer. You need to take advantage of the moments when the ideas are clear, and not wait for the next work day. You have to do as much in life that charges your battery, as much as you can.

Related to TinyIvy, a real “Aha!” happened early on while I was reading to my son, and would point to words in the book he might know. I pointed to “WAS”, and sounded it out, “Wuh, Aaaa, Ssss, WASS.” He looked at me, puzzled, and said : “What is a WASS?” That was when I really started putting a lot more energy towards fixing our broken phonics system.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

“Life is a marathon not a sprint, but to win you need to sprint the whole way.” I’m a believer in hard work. Early starts, late finishes. Work the weekend. I open up my WeWork pretty much every day in Tribeca. Which is nice, I get a good seat at the hot desks. Someone once told me that “sprinting” technically was not possible during a marathon. I don’t think she got the point, but I feel like I have to add the caveat. The point is you “win” by running a 5 minute mile for 26 miles, not by jogging.

But working hard in the wrong direction doesn’t help anyone.

So what’s most critical in the early stages of a business, this one in particular, is empathy. We need to think and feel more like those we are trying to help. This is the secret to incredible products, especially in hard areas like healthcare and education, where the likely consumers are not the buyers and so few in those roles speak to product. Making things work for a nurse, who deals with patients and wound care every day, takes an ability to look at the world through a different set of eyes. Most people build products too much for themselves.

If you can put these two things together, then you get Field of Dreams. If you really build it right, I do believe people will come.

One more thing that is key to me came from a book about a farmer who needed a leveler to flatten his field. Home Depot could help him build one for a few thousand dollars. A local mechanic fashioned one for a few hundred. There are two economies in the world. One key thing for startups is to stay in the “real-world” one as long as you can. And we think $15 flash cards and inexpensive classroom kits can go a long way to solving a $500 billion problem.

Ok. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

The world needed a better alphabet. So we decided to make one.

A simple idea, but takes some time to digest. So yes, to say it again: the big idea is that we need a better alphabet. One that a child can sound, out loud, one letter at a time, without making any mistakes.

English has been written with fundamental spelling errors since the first monks tried to write down what, at the time, had been a language written in runes on swords. There were 44 sounds in English, but only 23 letters to work with at the time. So they made things up. It has been broken ever since.

It’s hard for a kid to learn to ride a two-wheeler without using training wheels. It’s hard for a kid to learn how to read. Our big idea is to create training wheels for reading. We did the hard engineering work to figure out which letters make which sound and how often that happens, so we could prioritize teaching kids the most valuable letters up front. Then we took the alphabet that kids learn early on, and added reading tips or marks to each letter so that the specific sound can be learned and memorized by a child. That’s why our alphabet has nine As, each one representing the eight different sounds an A makes, plus one for a silent A. The tips are small, but for a child, knowing the sound each one makes is the difference when sounding out a word between getting it right the first time or being frustrated and giving up on reading. And the transition back to the Latin alphabet is simple.

The result of the work is, we hope, going to change the world. Because we determined the mathematical frequency of the occurrence of certain sounds in the English language, we know that by learning only 30 of our TIPS Letters, a child can sound out thousands and thousands of words. Not just BOB MAT SAT CAT, but the meaningful words that kids use in English, like I LOVE MY MOM and OATMEAL and POTTY. Note in these examples, the O in LOVE sounds like a soft U, the Y in MY and POTTY makes a hard I and a hard E. We learned from our work that 97% of English words have an exception like this. But now we can teach those exceptions explicitly. Once the kid learns the TIP for Y as a hard I, they get SHY, MY, CRY, WHY and TRY correct, never making a mistake between this and SUNNY, STORMY, and HAPPY. How many words can kids read if all they know are the 26 letters in the ABC song, and one pronunciation for each letter?

We can then go a step further. Because we know the order in which our kids are going to be learning these TIP letters, based on algorithms, we can produce reading content in the same order that every student using our system is learning these new letters. We structured the program into Reading Levels, each with six TIP characters. So once you know all the Level 1 letters, you know the 20 or so meaningful Level 1 words. By Level 2, you have a hundred or so. But it’s exponential. At Level 5, knowing just 30 blocks, you have literally 30,000 dictionary words you can read, and enough standard English to convey meaningful stories.

That’s why we developed a digital translator, that can translate any English word into its TIP counterpart, and this can be used to translate whole books into TIPS so children can read left to right, with no exceptions, and read the books they love by themselves.

Every time a child practices in our system, their knowledge is reinforced and their growth in reading is progressive. They are taking steps linearly towards perfect decoding and articulation, and building up sight recognition of the words needed to become a fast and efficient reader.

The biggest ideas challenge assumptions so foundational we didn’t even know they were there. We want to see the alphabet change, so we remade it to follow rules, to be more fair, and to be easier for our kids. We want reading to open doors. We believe that the TinyIvy Phonics System does exactly that. We have flash and word cards that effectively teach in just a few minutes a day, at home or in a classroom setting. Our app Reading World is almost done, and this puts teaching the TIP system on a phone or ipad in a fun game format. We also think that our system can help with remediation as well, so anyone, of any age who is not reading proficiently can improve their reading skills. TIPS is so easy, even a three-year old can do it … but so can anyone else! Illiteracy costs our country over $500 BILLION a year, and affects the quality of life of scores of millions. We think we can make a dent in that.

How do you think this will change the world?

The biggest challenge with addressing literacy in the US is that it doesn’t affect you or me directly, nor most of the people we interact with. Most folks who read this will have gone to college and almost all of us will fall into the 14% of the country that can read proficiently. For everyone else, it’s incredibly hard to learn to read and if you don’t, you fall behind and never catch up.

It takes about 1500 hours of instruction to teach all the common exceptions needed to read in English as is. And with our system or not, these exceptions need to be memorized into sight words to read efficiently. But with our system, I believe a teacher or grandparent or parent, or Athena in our reading app, can teach kids exactly what they need to know to decode the language in just a few hours. Once you do that, reading makes sense. A child can read enough on their own to build high proficiency, and that leads towards a brighter future.

Imagine the difference in the world if 85% could read proficiently instead of the other way around? How many people would take their medication properly? How would we treat the environment? How many people would vote? How many fewer people would end up in jail? I think education solves a lot, and this innovation solves a big chunk of the education challenge in the country.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

One concern that definitely comes up is how this might add yet more pressure on young kids. There is a lot of benefit in play-based learning at a young age, and programs like this can, in the wrong light, be seen as a sort of either/or between “structured” learning and play. We don’t see it that way.

Some people will find it hard to think out-side the box. The current way of teaching reading just doesn’t work. If it did, we wouldn’t have two-thirds of fourth graders not reading at grade level, with a large percentage of that group ending up in jail. Parents and educators have to make a leap here, and try something new and innovative.

Many parents or caregivers will feel they don’t have the time. But it doesn’t take much time. Really. A few minutes a day. It’s the consistency. In the car, on the potty. At breakfast or lunch. Before bed. Whenever. But EVERY day.

Some people are also concerned about the transition back to the Latin alphabet. We don’t think that will be a big stumbling block because all the letters are there, in the right place in a word.

What this program can do is make learning to read filled with delight. There is a moment that happens when a child decodes a word they know, but have never seen before. They have a relatively slow processor, so you can actually watch their lightbulb go off and see them smile and see the pride, stemming from accomplishing something on their own. We are very Maria Montessori in this way. Kids that learn to dress themselves build confidence. We’ve just made it possible to do this with literacy.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

More like a series of tumbles. After the WASS moment I took a big step back from phonics and shifted to whole-word sight reading approaches. But there was just so much. Every single word we needed to learn had to be memorized. I must have made, and laminated, 300 cards. It was crazy.

So back to phonics, but this time with something I had called “Rainbow Reading”, where less common sounds for a letter were in Red or Yellow. But this ended up looking like a page from a horror movie with all the letters cut out of a different magazine. It was hopeless to read. Even for an adult.

Then, one day, I took a blank stack of paper off the printer, and started making a character to match every sound. And TIPS came shortly after. That was the tipping point, no pun intended. It all clicked. The algorithm became pretty clear in my head, then the data started to fall into place. After that it was a few months of tweaking, which wrapped up in December. In the end, it was about three years thinking about the problem on and off, and then 6 months of work to go from solution in my brain to a working thing everyone can now try.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

Proof.

It takes a long, long time to learn to read in most circumstances. If a program is 50% better than what is out there, it could take months or years to show the benefit. For an entrepreneur, that’s a tough pill to feed an investor. And without controlled studies, getting the DOE to run programs nationwide will be impossible. So it needs to be 90% better. 95% better. So much better that it really can’t be ignored, and early trials show such progress that things change faster than they ever have before. That’s what we are working towards. We need more parents to use it, more day-care and preschools to use it. High schools with kids thinking of dropping out because they can’t read. I’d like to do a pilot at a school in Appalachia, where the education ranks among the lowest in the nation. A pilot in a prison. So to get the proof, I need people willing to take a chance on trying something new.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each

  1. Work Work Work Work Work: This is for folks that had a great first run and are thinking about jumping back in at the beginning. That water is cold, my friend! If your last business made it, you had to be a leader and a delegator. You had a team, a great one, and things got done. Your team knew your weaknesses and helped compensate. But early on, it’s just you. Even if there are a few of you, you are all doing all the work. For me, this is also coinciding with a time in my life where I have young kids who I want to spend time with. It’s a real sacrifice to start a business at any time in your life. Be sure you are fully committed to it and have the support you need around you to be successful.
  2. Practice Everything More: Not only did you have an awesome team, but you knew everything you talked about cold. You knew the pitch so well you could watch the room. You knew the objections, sometimes led the witness to them, so you could counter brilliantly and close the deal. At the beginning, you don’t know this. You are inventing this. So practice like crazy with the mirror and your wife and your mom, because every lead at this stage is insanely precious.
  3. Open a Bank Account: It’s hell to dig through receipts and try to figure out which of the four thousand amazon purchases this year were for your business. Track your finances.
  4. If You Don’t Know Ad Tech Pay for Help: There is a great community of resources, tutorials, and best practices on which engineering stack to choose, how to set it up, how to fix it if it breaks. Marketing is imho much harder and has become insanely sophisticated. There are 300 widgets to get ad tech and social media and organic search and campaign management up and running. Ask someone who is amazing (like Logan, who helped me after I had wasted a ton of time) to get you set up.
  5. Just Go Do It: There is never going to be a perfect time to start something. There are always going to be big things left undone, competing priorities, upsides and downsides. But if you have the kind of heart that thrives in a startup, if it’s really what you love, and if you really have an idea that can change the world, even just a little, go do it. Go right now.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

Best idea wins

Great contributions can come from anywhere at any time, so we need to listen to all the voices in the room and make a decision about where to go with all the ideas laid out on the table. Your role in this is three-fold: speak up when you have something to say, genuinely listen when someone else is speaking, and have the courage and confidence to accept a proposal that isn’t yours as the right path forward.

Do more with less

Treat the money spent on the business as if it comes out of your own pocket. This is easy right now for me, because it is true. Remember that there are two economies. If you are paying more than $50/hr or $200/month you are using the wrong one.

It’s all your job

Everyone needs to pitch in, to do dishes, to make chairs, to cold call, to code. There is an impossible amount of work to do. If it bothers you enough to talk about it not getting done, do it. Never say “that’s not my job”. If it needs being done, do it.

Speak up

If you see something, say something. Good, bad, ugly, indifferent, amazing. Feedback should be fast and focused. Don’t let bad news simmer. Don’t wait to ring the gong. Sharing is the foundation of a strong remote workforce, do it often.

Be good people

The strongest friendships are built on mutual trust and mutual respect, all nighters, tough times and victory drinks (be it Martinelli’s or High West). Treat every member of the team, every customer, every potential customer like they could be a life-long friend. Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. Don’t steal. We hope this business brings amazing people close together and creates relationships that last a lifetime.

Sprint the marathon

If we are going to turn heads, we need to run a six minute mile every mile, all the way to the end of the marathon. You have to pace yourself, but you have to move fast too. You also can’t expect a leisurely jog to take home any medals. Run hard so you can make a difference, every day, for years.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

  • Learning to read is VERY difficult, and the illiteracy rate in the US contributes to $500 BILLION in costs every year, costs that could be alleviated if people knew how to read. The conventional systems for phonics and sight reading don’t work because, in part, there are too many exceptions to pronunciation.
  • TinyIvy offers a truly innovative product suite that teaches young kids to read faster, fearlessly, and with less frustration, based on a re-engineering of the English language.
  • We developed a simple system based on mathematics that can teach kids to read tens of thousands of words on their own, with no tears or frustration, in just minutes a day.
  • Our patent-pending algorithm breaks English down into its phonemic components and is optimized for learning efficiency. In this process, we came to learn just how hard a task reading English is.
  • Target audience is wide: Moms who want their kids to be the best, any child 3–5 years old, children who are lagging behind grade level in reading, children with learning disabilities, high schoolers ready to drop out because they can’t read, illiterate adults, ESL learners, prison inmates trying to rehabilitate. For starters.
  • Our initial product line is digital apps, flashcards, Classroom Kits and books designed for different reading levels in our system.
  • Learning to read is VERY difficult, so we made it easier. We defined Reading TIPS so kids could sound out every single word. We organized these systematically into Levels. And we now know that by teaching just 30 TIPS Letters, a child can sound out thousands and thousands of words.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

For Parents/Teachers/Caregivers:

https://www.instagram.com/ourreadingworld/

For Everyone:

www.linkedin.com/silverzweig

https://www.facebook.com/tinyivyllc/

https://www.instagram.com/tinyivyllc/

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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