June 20, 2019
Hobby Apps Can Lead to For Profit Enterprises
Marty Schultz, CEO and Founder of Blindfold Games
(c) Trusted Counsel (Ashley) LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Speaker 1: It's time for In Process, conversations about business in the twenty-first century with Evelyn Ashley and John Monahon. Presented by Trusted Counsel, a corporate and intellectual property law firm. For more information, visit trusted-counsel.com.
John: Welcome to In Process. Today I am by myself. This is John Monahon. There is no Evelyn Ashley. Unfortunately she could not make it today. So I am solo but luckily I have a fantastic guest today. His name is Marty Schultz.
Marty, welcome to the show.
Marty: Well thank you for inviting me.
John: Absolutely. I'll give a quick background on you because you've had an interesting background and of course today we're talking about building apps for the visually impaired. But we're also going to talk about some of your background in software companies and your successes and how you sort of bootstrapped some of that as well.
Without any further ado, Marty Schultz is a successful technology entrepreneur who has built and sold several software companies during his career. He's an angel fund investor and an award-winning innovator who has a background in software engineering.
Today he joins us to talk about his wildly successful creation, Blindfold Games, an app development company he founded in 2014 that builds successful games for the visually-impaired community.
To date, the app has released more than 80 games and has surpassed half a million downloads.
Wow, that's great. That's a lot of success there.
Marty: I owe all that, the success to really the appreciation, the enthusiasm of the community of visually-impaired people that discovered my games and really enjoy them.
Marty: I got started [inaudible 00:01:40]. I think my first entrepreneurial foray was back in high school when my friends and I hated the high school cafeteria food so we went out to the local McDonald’s, I had the use of a beat up old car then and we got ourselves some McDonald’s food. Then the next day, a couple of our friends said, “Can you pick me up some food when you're going out there.” Well, I did that and then every day I had more and more people wanting us to bring home food for them and I think after about a month or two we had about 75 or 100 students asking for food and I was actually running a little business where I completely re-outfitted the car that handled the drinks I'd bring back from McDonald’s and all the hamburgers and such.
John: You [crosstalk 00:02:19] were the first Uber Eats.
Marty: ...every day and we were eventually shut down by the cafeteria ladies who thought we were too much competition for them.
John: Wow, that's great.
Marty: So then I went off to college, and I was a professional student for a while, worked for somebody for about a year and a half. This was back in the early eighties and we saw an interesting opportunity. There were lots of all these microcomputers being created out of Silicon Valley that were just as powerful as big old expensive Mini-computers coming out of the North East like companies like Digital Equipment Corporation or IBM.
We said, if we could get the software that people wrote for these bigger computers and get them to run on those little computers, you'd be able to sell 5000 dollar computers with some great solutions that would previously be restricted to 50,000 dollar computers.
My business partner and I reverse-engineered what we needed to do that, built the pod, put out there, and that was our first company. We named that company [Softball 00:03:18]. I did it for about eight years. Didn't make a whole lot of money as that but I certainly learned how to bootstrap a business from that.
That led to doing another company, this was by the time we were in the nineties, where fax technology was just getting going. There were lots of people using computers. Email hadn't been popular by then but all documents went everywhere by fax.
Somebody came to me and said, “Marty, why don't you build some way that instead of, when we want to send a fax to somebody, we have to put on the printer, walk over to the fax machine, put the paper in the fax machine, dial the phone number, press star, and the fax comes out the other end somewhere else in the country or the world.” He said, “Can't you figure out how to combine these two technologies?” So we looked at what was available, we ended up coming out a product that would let us send a fax right from a multi-user computer. This was in the very early days of PCs.
Marty: We launched that company. We were very lucky with it because we hit the timing just right and that was company we ended up taking public.
John: Oh wow.
John: Yeah [crosstalk 00:04:21] and that technology's still done today, right?
Marty: Well what's interesting about fax today is it's the only way that guarantees that it's end-to-end secure transmission and a lot of financial companies will not accept anything other than a fax. They won't accept documents through email because that can be intercepted and faked.
Marty: So fax still exists today.
John: Yes. I was just on the phone with the IRS regarding a matter for one our clients yesterday and we had to do the whole fax routine.
Marty: I get that. Then in the early 2000s, instant messaging was all the rage and a lot of companies were using it to... and instant messaging for any of your users who are not familiar with that, is like texting but between computers instead of between phones.
Everybody loved instant messaging. But the problem is that employees were using instant messaging for everything, for sending invoices, making commitments, and unlike email, once you send the instant message, there was no trace for it behind, there was no log or computer log. We said let's create a computer trail for instant messaging and we went out, built the company, started selling the product fairly inexpensively, but nobody wanted it.
What we did notice was a lot of parents, for whatever reason, were downloading this really complex software that would track their kids' instant messaging. We called up a couple of these parents and said, “Why're you doing this?" They said, “Well we want to see what our kids are doing online."
Because this is just at the age when kids were using the internet more and more and there was the fear of sexual predators. So we took our small business-orientated instant message monitoring software, patented the entire company, and then contacted the National Crime Prevention Council. They're the people who own the McGruff take a bite out of crime-
John: Oh yeah. Crime dog.
Marty: And we convinced them to give us exclusive digital rights to their brand, we relaunched our product as McGruff's Safeguard and this became an instant hit with parents. Lots of parents were downloading our parental control internet safety software. That took off really well.
Marty: I also was a co-founder of a company that provided special education management for school districts. School districts get a lot of federal money to take care of the kids with special needs, be it blindness, or dyslexia, or speech and language issues, autism. Any number of these issues. But there's a lot of government forms they have to fill out.
We started a company that automated that entire process and in fact it was one of first software as a service companies back in 2000. Where instead of the school district having to buy all sorts of hardware and software, we simply rented to them on a monthly basis and made access through a browser.
Now software as a service is a common way to do business. Almost everybody has that. But, back then it was an innovation for schools and that company grew over time and we sold it back in 2016.
Marty: So since about 2012, I've been kind of testing out little ideas here and there and one of the things I noticed is right before my daughter's birthday she was making up a new birthday wish list every single day.
And I said, “There should be an app for that. For kids to create their birthday wish lists.” So instead of writing those out, then ripping it up and making new lists the next day, and the day after that. I said, “I'll build an app and then I'll test it with her friends,” and I thought wait a second, she's in sixth-grade. Why don't I make this a STEM learning opportunity for the kids at her school?
So I contacted the Head of School, said “I want to run an afterschool for six weeks, meet with the kids three times a week, and together the kids and I will design this app and then I'll do programming at night."
John: That's cool.
Marty: So, after getting fingerprinted and going also going through all sorts of rigmarole to make sure I was safe to work with the kids, we ran the club, the kids had a great time, they learned a lot.
After the club was over, the Head of School comes back to me and says, “Marty, can you run the app club again?” I said, “Sure.” He said, “Also, by the way, if you drop your daughter off in the morning, would you mind teaching the middle schoolers first period programming?” So, being an involved parent, I said, “Yes.” That's when I found out why they had parent volunteers for first period. Because these little monsters are so out of the control that, when you drop them off at school, in seventh and eighth grade, that by the time they've done with their elective, they're ready for their core curriculum.
When I met with the kids in the app club again, they said, “We don't want to build some stupid app, we want to build a game this time.” I said, “Okay. I'm willing to do the programming to build a game and show you how games are designed, but it has to be a game that's really different than all the other games in the App Store because if I'm programming, I want to do something interesting.”
I said, “Go off for two weeks, think about something, and then we'll meet again.” When we met again, the kids didn't have any really creative ideas and I thought what could be really different here? I said, “Well let's make a game that doesn't need the screen." Because that is different. Nothing like that has been done in the App Store to our knowledge. So I said, “Why don't we build a driving game for blind people?” Now, at this time, I had never met a visually-impaired person and the kids said, “I don't understand what you mean.” So I took a girl and I put her in the middle of the room. She was probably six or seventh grade, and I said, “You stand there and make a sound like a cow.” So she started mooing.
Then I took a boy, put a blindfold around his eyes and said, “You have to walk up to the cow, walk around the cow without touching the cow, and get to the other side of the room.” And the boy did that and at that point the students understood the concept of getting around by using their ears instead of their eyes. Together the kids and I ended up building this first game called Blindfold Racer where you drive with your ears instead of your eyes.
You use your iPhone or your iPad like a steering wheel. If you drive too far to the left, the music's louder in your left ear and then steer to the right. If the music's too loud in your right ear, you turn to the left to avoid hitting a fence. You aim for noisy prizes like popping popcorn and avoid obstacles like barking dogs.
Well, the kids and I worked on this for about six months and then I tested it over at the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind. I was in Miami then. Most of my software career was done up in Boston.
One of the keen boys when we were testing this game said, “Is the screen dark when you're playing?” I said, “Yeah because I want the same experience for blind people as sighted people.” The boy said, “Well you better put something on the screen because sighted people will think their iPad is broken.” He's actually the same boy who ended up naming the game Blindfold Racer.
We put it into the App Store, it jumps to the top of the accessible games list. I start hearing from blind people all across the country. All across the world. I met with several of them, like the head of the American Council of the Blind, Kim Charlson and the woman who is running the Braille Association of North America, Judy Dixon. They would tell me what they liked in games, what made a game for visually-impaired people really good. At that meeting, Judy had asked me for a nine by nine Sudoku game. Kim asked me for a solitaire game and both these people had been blind since birth. I built those two games kind of as a hobby. Then every month, I get a suggestion for another game. So as a hobby, every two to three weeks, I publish another game be it bowling, or basketball, or a card game or a board game or a puzzle [inaudible 00:11:30] games like an audio version of Flappy Bird, checkers, [crosstalk 00:11:34] a slot machine game.
John: All of these are [crosstalk 00:11:36] rely on some sort of, no visual side at all for any of these games. So all just based on audio and response and movement?
Marty: Exactly. If you're playing bowling, you swipe your finger on the screen to throw the bowling ball, then hear it roll down the bowling alley until it hits the pins. You hear it hit the pins, you hear the pins fall down, and then it announces what pins are still up, what's left. So that when you take your second shot in that frame, you know whether to aim for the side pins or the center pins so you know exactly what to do.
Whereas in basketball, you point the phone in front of you and it tells you which of the competitors of the opposite team is in front of you and you have to dribble the ball to get around them. Then you take the shots into the basket.
If it's checkers you're moving things around on a board. If it's Flappy Bird you're tapping the screen and then instead of seeing the bird pop up and down trying to get through the pipes, you're hearing tones and you have to match the tones to indicate that your bird is the same height as the opening in the pipes. But every game you can do. If not too complex of a game, you can create an audio version of that when you don't need to look at the screen.
John: You must have to do a lot of research for this. I know that you talked about testing Blindfold Racer but I can imagine it's very difficult to get this right. Especially [crosstalk 00:12:59] since-
Marty: ...inevitably I would get every one of these games wrong. So the way I was able to solve that was over time I developed a group of about fifty blind testers across the world.
I would put a game out in its first test version and they'd come back and they'd say, “Change this, change that. This piece doesn't work, this is too complex.” And I would just follow their suggestions over the course of six to eight weeks of improving the game so that by the time they signed off on it, it was ready to publish in the world.
John: And they're all just volunteers. They're just excited about being the first ones to test it.
Marty: Exactly. They know that I'll listen to their feedback really closely so that they know that the quality of the product I'm producing will be excellent. I never question their decisions. A lot of them will sometimes have ideas for new games and whenever they do, we say, “Hey, this person came up with the idea for a game like this.” Then I'll send it out. For example, over the last few years a lot of them said, “Can you come out with a game where I can take care of virtual dogs?” Kind of like the Tamagotchi virtual pets that were popular I think in the late nineties or late two-thousands. You wear this little thing round your neck and it had little buttons on it. Do you remember that at all?
Marty: Okay. So I said, “Yes, that's kind of interesting.” When I heard from about 100 people who all wanted the same game, I started collecting up sounds of dogs barking and whining and panting and running and anything else you can think of. Then started looking at, okay, what are all the things that dogs can do? You have to walk a dog, a dog will pee or poop, you have to brush the dog, you have to play with the dog, you have to give the dog water, you have to take the dog to the vet. The dog will indicate to you what it wants based on the sounds it makes.
I worked on the game for, this one took me about six weeks or so, built the game out. Then tested it probably for about four or five months, adding more and more features like being able to bathe your dog or take your dog to the river so it can go for a swim. Or have your dog get into a fight with another dog and then having to travel to the vet. I kept improving it based on everyone's suggestions and then it, along with Blindfold Bowling and Blindfold Racer, were some of the most popular games that I produced.
John: Now, do you ever have to license. You were talking about Flappy Bird. I mean, do you have to license for these or do you [crosstalk 00:15:16] create them from scratch-
Marty: Well a lot of the games like Flappy Bird have been cloned so many times, where it's just the concept of icons moving on the screen, you're not in violation of any intellectual property.
So either we'd avoid a game that would step on somebody else's intellectual property, so before we do a game, we make sure that this game has been cloned so many times.
Marty: And in essence, the rules of the game are now in public domain.
Marty: Since I'm not using any of the artwork or any of the other things that might be copyrighted like names of things.
Marty: Then that keeps me on a much safer path but I'm very sensitive to intellectual property.
John: How long does it take you to develop a game?
Marty: A really simple game like a card game might be two to three weeks. The hardest thing in a lot of games is when you're playing with an opponent. Coming up with a good strategy for how the opponent should play with you so you have a good gaming experience.
A game like Candy Crush or Bejeweled where you're just playing by yourself is pretty simple but when you're playing against somebody, even something like checkers, you need a good strategy to make sure you have a satisfying time while you're playing the game.
Marty: What's most interesting out of all these games, is the fact that, unbeknownst to me, teachers of visually-impaired students had discovered these games and started using them to teach skills.
John: Oh cool.
Marty: I started talking to a couple of these teachers who called me up. One them called me up and said, “Marty, can you build a Battleship game?” So I checked and said yes, Battleship is kind of in public domain. If I do this and we don't use the name Battleship. I called it Sea Battle so I can do that. I said, “Why do you want it?” She said, “Well, we could use this to teach kids the concept of a grid.” Because as you move around on the Battleship board, you have to go from A1 to A2.
Marty: And test whether or not there's a ship there. This woman, Diane Brown and I, together [specced 00:17:16] out the game and put together. We put it out there. Then she wrote a blog for other teachers of visually-impaired students about how you can teach the skill with the game Blindfold Sea Battle. She then asked me to a 3D Tic-Tac-Toe game because she said blind kids are much better at imaging 3D objects in their heads than sighted kids are.
So I built that and she uses that to teach 3D concepts. Then over time she's asked for a couple of other games where we've tested it out or she'll say, "Hey, bowling is really good to teach kids from left and right, some of the concepts of swiping their finger on the screen.” Some people from some of the Lighthouses across the country called me up and said “Marty, you really should take a look at doing something for educational games for students.”
Before I do any company, I do as much market research as I can. I went out to one of these conferences with teachers and there were about 600 teachers showed up in Reno. This was last August. I would stop the teachers in the hallway. I didn't get a booth or anything like that, I just wanted to do good research. I said, “Do you use any of the Blindfold games with your students?” And about a third of them did which blew me away.
Marty: I said, “If you do, why're you doing it?” Well, a lot of them simply said, “We're doing it because it's a great reward. When the kid does the right thing, we let them play the game for a while.” But a bunch of them would tell me, some of these teachers see their kids that are mainstream only once a week for like an hour or two. They said, they're teaching this kid this concept, maybe it's left or right, maybe it's compass directions like something is at 2 o'clock or east or west. She said, when she teaches the child and she goes back a week later, she has to repeat the same lesson because the kid didn't really practice it for that prior week. Because the parents were too busy and the regular teacher doesn't have time to do that. She said, but when we gave them the game that had that feature in it, when the teacher went back the following week, the kid had mastered the skill.
The other thing I learned at that meeting was that these are all audio games and blind kids are much better at audio games than sighted kids are because this is the world that the visually-impaired kid lives in.
Marty: When the visually-impaired kid starts playing an audio game, he's now the leader amongst his sighted peers. So where the child whose normally in a following role is thrust into a leadership role it's a new social experience for them.
Marty: We took all that information, plus some knowledge that we gained from the prior company we did which did the special education management software, and said let's look into building a company that will provide educational games for kids with special needs. Let's start with blind and visually-impaired kids. Then once we prove out that we can do great job there, we can spread out to other needs.
We raised around our seed funding last summer. We said let's achieve a certain number of goals and the goals we achieved were things like, we won the Louis Braille Touch of Genius award for one of our innovations where you can put a sheet of braille paper on an iPad and the iPad knows what you're reading.
We worked with a number of schools for the blind and they absolutely love what we're doing. We have about ten different games to teach a variety of skills of kids of different ages. I've been to dozens and dozens of conferences where I describe what we're doing and we're getting phenomenal feedback. We're putting in all the pieces in place so that sometime this summer we'll close our series A round.
John: Okay. Nice. What made you decide that you wanted to get funding?
Marty: Because this is a big problem. What we realized is if you can [gameify 00:20:48] education and provide the feedback within this to the teachers to show exactly how much the child is learning, which our system has built into it, then you can apply this across many different concepts of education for children with special needs and children with disabilities.
Even though the blind community's relatively small, all the things we're innovating now would apply across the board and we realized this is not a small problem, this affects six million kids in this country alone and probably five times that worldwide.
John: Wow. So [crosstalk 00:21:26] is this-
Marty: We can't do that on a bootstrap.
John: Yeah, that's a little bit difficult. Is this something that there's socially minded funds that you think would be interested or [crosstalk 00:21:36] are you making the case for any fund-
Marty: ...venture firms will be interested and this is one of those that are involved in social impact because this company will have a significant impact on children's education. What's interesting about a child with special needs is, there's something called the Individual Educational Plan which means you know what exactly what this child has to achieve for the upcoming year.
You can then design a curriculum around that as opposed to kids in regular ed where everyone's kind of following that same curriculum. With special ed, you can focus the educational [gameified 00:22:09] tools. You're working that right around their specific learning needs. You're able to do a really good job, so that has social impact and of course the venture capital firms that are involved in education technology I think would like the fact that we're applying interesting software technology and artificial intelligence and products that are literally off the shelf readily available. Whether it's Amazon Alexa or the iPad or any of the other devices that are now low cost. We can apply that within the concept of really amazing educational games and educational curriculum.
John: How many people do you all have with your company right now?
Marty: We're about ten people right now.
John: Wow. Mostly developers?
Marty: Yeah. Yeah.
John: When did you know that you wanted to make it a full-fledged company? At what point did you say, hey this is going really well and it's time [crosstalk 00:23:03] to make this into a business?
Marty: I've done five businesses before and my business partner of 35 years has done about three or four, several of them we did together. Before we raised the seed funding, we were looking at whether this is a small problem and just within the blind and visually-impaired community, or whether this really impacts. It has a big impact. Now we've been sufficiently successful in our careers that we can actually say, hey we're in this for long-term and we can make this company have amazing impact. So before we raised the seed round, we looked at the size of the market and the impact it would have on the market and realized it might be a multi-year, twenty-year path before we achieve amazing things. Knowing that, in the short term, every single year we will be changing the lives of literally tens to hundreds of thousands of kids but the mission of this company can go on for years and years and years. That's when we knew that this is a big deal.
John: What's the next five years look like for Blindfold Games?
Marty: This isn't Blindfold Games now. Blindfold Games was just the hobby company. The new company is called ObjectiveEd.
John: Oh, okay.
Marty: ObjectiveEd acquired the assets of Blindfold Games.
John: Got it.
Marty: That is building up all new games all with, what we call, closed-loop curriculum. The games report the child's progress and teacher can see the child's progress on a web dashboard. Everything ObjectiveEd is doing is really focused around making sure the teacher gets the feedback she needs and making sure the child is so enjoying the game, they're learning without realizing they're learning.
So over the next five years, we'll be going after multiple disabilities where we can apply amazing technology to really change the outcomes of children's education.
John: Well Marty this has been really interesting. I think, one it's great. I mean it's great to hear about an app and a product and a company that is tackling such big, big issues and it's a really cool story about how you came about it as well. I mean the idea initially came from school children. It looks like it's doing some great things so I really appreciate you being on our show.
Marty: Well thanks for giving me the time to tell people about what we're up to.
John: Absolutely. Can you tell our listeners where they can go to learn more about you?
Marty: Sure. They can visit objectiveed.com.
John: All right, well Marty thanks again. Appreciate it.
Marty: Well thank you.
Speaker 1: This has been In Process, conversations about business in the twenty-first century Evelyn Ashley and John Monahon. Presented by Trusted Counsel, a corporate and intellectual property law firm.
Are you interested in being a guest on our show? Email our show producers at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on Trusted Counsel, please visit trusted-counsel.com.