Q&A with Smart Coos founder Mirta Desir post Startup Weekend

While attending Startup Weekend West Palm Beach in November 2013, Mirta Desir validated her idea for a web-based language learning platform for children with live teachers and the use of sign language for reinforcement.

She decided to leave her law practice and teamed up with Harold Jean-Louis, who she had met while attending Syracuse University. Together, they founded Smart Coos, a startup that gives parents and educators access to tools and services designed to give children the opportunity to acquire a second non-native language from birth.

Smart Coos offers courses in Baby Sign Language, Mandarin, French, Spanish, and English. With bilingual instructors, a robust foreign language curriculum, a library of books and bite-sized language videos, parents and educators can easily engage kids in the acquisition of a second language.

We recently caught up with Mirta and chatted about how her business got its start, how it has taken off since she participated in Startup Palm Beach and what advice she has for aspiring entrepreneurs.

How did the idea for your company come about?
The idea for Smart Coos was an overlap of two events in my life.
First, during my pregnancy, I struggled to find a Mandarin Chinese and Spanish instructor to teach my child those languages soon after birth. Research shows that the first six years is the critical period for a child to learn a language, and I wanted my child to take advantage of that period.

However, because of my location, I struggled to find a qualified bilingual instructor. And, many of the classes in Palm Beach County required that she be significantly older to start, missing several windows of opportunity between birth and age six.

Second, my experience as an English language learner in elementary school in Palm Beach County was initially terrifying. Born in Haiti, my parents had me join them in Florida at age 7. My ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher spoke to me in English, read to me in English and helped me write in English. She was nice – I know this because she smiled at me a lot. I was desperate, needed, wanted to understand her – but I didn’t speak English.
Erol, my younger brother, is deaf. A bilingual Haitian Creole and English speaking instructor came to our home to teach him Sign Language. I set in on his language sessions. I was out of ESOL in one year.

Because of my experience, I was concerned ELL (English Language Learner) teachers were struggling, and ELL students were not getting what they needed. So I created a solution, Smart Coos for Educators.
Can you tell us about the benefits of Smart Coos?
For parents and children, the benefits are instant! We have parents and 6-month-olds using Sign Language with each other within 1-month of starting Smart Coos. We have 12-year-olds who are speaking Mandarin Chinese with a qualified bilingual instructor from home. We’re the only platform that provides qualified online bilingual instructors, text nudges, and interactive content so kids (and parents) can grow in the language – and based on our growth as a company, parents and students are satisfied.

For English Language teachers and learners, Smart Coos is the perfect match. We make it easy for teachers to:
1) Message any parent, no matter the home language. Teachers’ text in English and parents’ text back in their home language. Our platform does the translation, so teachers only see English responses, and families only see responses in their home language.
2) Perform bilingual assessments. Research shows that bilingual proficiency and biliteracy are directly correlated with high academic achievement in both languages. However, schools are unable to consistently assess students in both languages throughout the year. Our interactive platform allows students to play and be assessed in both.
3) Provide live web-based bilingual teachers. Many schools only have one bilingual teacher on staff, whom cannot handle the load of giving instruction to the dozens of multilingual ELL students. Smart Coos provides a way for schools to meet their needs.
Smart Coos is available for both consumers and educators in the following languages: Arabic, English, French, Haitian Creole, Mandarin Chinese, Sign Language, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

How did Startup Weekend West Palm Beach help you with your business idea?
In November 2013, I had just given birth to Naya, my daughter, who was nearly three months old, and I was working full-time as an attorney. My plate was full.
However, I had an idea that I thought was worth 56 hours. I pitched it (yes, I bent the rules) at Startup Weekend West Palm Beach, expecting to be kicked off the stage for it. But to my surprise, I was one of the ideas voted in. Even more surprising, the team was diverse enough that we created a minimum viable product.
When we made our first sell to a parent (a parent handed us cash!) – I knew that I would be doing myself a disservice if I did not pursue it. And, I hate “what ifs” stories, so I did.
A few months later, I left law practice, applied to 4.0 Schools LAUNCH program and shortly moved to New Orleans to participate in LAUNCH!

Can you give us an update on what’s been happening with your company since you participated in Startup Weekend?
Startup Weekend was a sneak peek into a new space for me. We took a year to build and pilot Smart Coos. In July 2015, we launched at the Essence Festival in New Orleans. In 2016, we pitched at SXSWedu and were featured in Essence magazine. We were named American Airlines Innovators and were recently shortlisted for the Reimagine Education Awards, amongst other honors.
Most importantly, Smart Coos is earning revenue, and we aim to break even in early 2017.

What were the pros and cons of starting a business in West Palm Beach?
I started Link Haiti, a non-profit in West Palm Beach in 2010. Link Haiti’s mission was to provide short-term emergency relief to communities in Haiti. The West Palm Beach community support went well beyond expectations. We recruited dozens of medical volunteers from within the community and also received a lot of donated supplies.
However, when I started Smart Coos about four years later – it was clear that the same support did not exist. This was simply because Smart Coos is an ed-tech startup and the community infrastructure was not available. As a result, it was a concerted effort on my end to connect with others in my space.
In the past two years, the West Palm Beach ed-tech/startup community has grown significantly. And, I’m excited to see where it’s going.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
1) Focus on your product. Don’t be seduced by media mentions or saddened that you’re not raising a $5 million seed round. Focus on YOUR product: that means learning about your users, your space, and how to make YOUR product better.
2) Pivot when necessary. If you learn that your product fits a niche market that you did not anticipate, be open to taking another route.
3) This is a marathon. There is no easy way to success – however, you define it – with your product or service, except to go through every step. Train (work on your product routinely) every day. It will be boring, at times even painful, and many times you will question why you are doing it. But each milestone is a step forward, so keep at it.