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Ninety percent of brain development occurs during the first four years of life, and as Nicki Boyd explains, the main input that impacts that development is language – that is, the verbal communication that a baby or young child is hearing.
And yet, in a world where technology is everywhere and data collection is nearly ubiquitous, no one seemed to be monitoring what toddlers are hearing and, just as importantly according to recent research, how much of it they are hearing.
That’s where VersaMe comes in.
Started three years ago by Boyd and two military veterans-turned-entrepreneurs, VersaMe has developed a mini Fitbit-like device that counts not steps or calories but rather the number of words parents utter around their infants or young children. The wearable technology uses the resulting data to encourage moms and dads to talk, read and even sign as much as possible around their little ones.
“We have a mission to help all children fulfill their potential in life,” said Boyd, who launched the Silicon Valley startup alongside brothers Chris and Jon Boggiano. “That’s really at the heart of everything we do.”
In an interview with Free Enterprise, Boyd discussed the inspiration behind the startup, the all-too-common challenges her team has faced attracting engineering talent, and her advice for other up-and-coming entrepreneurs:
Let’s start with your background. What were you doing before starting VersaMe?
Boyd: Sure, I am from the U.K., and I spent 10 years in London working largely in finance. In 2012, I made the decision to take a bit of a timeout to decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and I decided to do a one-year Master’s program at Stanford’s business school.
It was there that I met Jon and Chris, and we shared passion for education. We started working together and thinking about business ideas in the education space, where we could have a high impact. We had technology on our minds, as well, and it was that year at Stanford together that we gave birth to VersaMe. We founded the company shortly after we graduated in 2014.
What are Chris’s and Jon’s backstories?
Boyd: They’re from Jersey City and both went to West Point. When they left the military, they both went into different jobs but ultimately left those jobs to found a business called EverBlue.edu, which is an education training business focused on the energy sector, and they sold that in 2011 or 2012. They came to Stanford looking for what business to start next, at which point our journeys intersected.
And tell me a little about the product.
Boyd: We started VersaMe with a product called starling. It’s basically a cute little wearable device for babies and young children and it measures the amount of language they are hearing. We are all about making a big impact in the early years by giving parents the information they need and encouraging them to engage more verbally in the first couple of years with their children.
What inspired you to start this particular company?
Boyd: As we founded the business, and as we were thinking about building this product first, the idea was that it could be ubiquitous. There are many children and families living in what’s basically a dessert of language. And in those important first few years, through circumstances potentially beyond their control, the children are not getting enough language to give them a good footing in life.
Boyd: Almost all parents and families want what’s best for their children but a lot of times it comes down to a lack of knowledge or a lack of information. We’re trying to get to reach those families and children that aren’t hearing enough language and trying to transform their trajectory before they even enter the classroom. Because if children at ages 4 or 5 are already behind, it becomes very hard for them to catch up. This can then lead to a spiral of misbehaving and falling behind and so on.
Boyd: To that end, we have the technology, but we needed help getting it out there. So what we are doing is partnering with organizations that are already working with some of those families and children. We have been selling Starlings and working with nonprofits, running in touch programs with libraries and working with a cross section of families and children. I see us potentially having our greatest impact by getting Starlings on babies as soon as they leave the hospital.
How many people do employee have now?
Boyd: We are 18 people in total, split between two offices in Menlo Park, California and another in Charlotte, North Carolina. Our engineering and product work is done here in California and our marketing and customer support is in Charlotte.
What have been the biggest challenges starting and growing your company?
Boyd: Well, I’m a British citizen, and my visa status and my ability to stay and work here became a distracting challenge early on. My fiancé was American so we picked the date of our wedding and it allowed me to get a green card. So that was one major challenge that was more personal but also became professional, because it was enormously distracting and made me sympathetic towards my employees.
Any other hurdles you have faced or continue to face?
Boyd: There is also such a fight for talent, particularly engineering talent. One of the reasons we based our engineering here is because you have access to tremendous talent here in Silicon Valley. But the flip side to that is that everyone else does the same thing, so getting and keeping talented engineers is extremely competitive. I think one of the advantages we have is a strong mission, which has helped us attract some amazing people.
What’s it like starting and running a company alongside two Army veterans?
Boyd: I think that the military gives a sense of pride and purpose and some set goals, team work, and leadership, which is not a thing that I just see in them but I also see in other veterans. I think one of the other things is this sense of scrappiness – fight is the wrong word, but it’s this sense of drive and determination, which you need.
Boyd: And finally, they have such strong people skills. Everyone’s a leader in the military, and the ability to inspire, lead, and work as part of a team are so important as an entrepreneur, and they both have those qualities.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?
Boyd: A lot of it is about the people on the team and whether that team has the ability to deliver. Again, people skills are so important, especially when you’re talking about hiring and building a team. I always choose an employee with the right attitude over one that is slightly more skilled. Attitude is so important.
What’s most rewarding about running a company and being an entrepreneur?
Boyd: What a roller coaster of a journey. I think it’s being in control of our own destiny and not feeling restricted or hamstrung by other people or structures. We can move as fast as we want, and I think that is pretty exciting.