Manish Kothari was co-founder of AlphaSmart Inc, an education technology company that he helped build into a $40MM business. He was part of the executive team in AlphaSmart’s IPO and the subsequent acquisition by Renaissance Learning.
He was also co-founder of Root-1, Inc. which was acquired by Edmodo which provides students and teachers a free and easy way to connect and collaborate.
Watch the Full Episode
What will you learn in this interview?
– What were some of his early childhood influences?
– How was life growing up in Bombay, India?
– What was his culture shock experience upon moving to America?
– How did AlphaSmart got started?
– How do you get orders before you even have a physical product?
– How can you create awareness for a new product without help from major corporations?
– What was a turning point in sales for AlphaSmart?
– How hard was it to compete with desktop and laptop computers in the marketplace?
– How was the experience of taking his company public?
– What were some of the big lessons he learned?
– What are some of the low points he faced in his business?
– How do you know when there’s something you need to stop doing while in business?
– What is the best advice he has received?
– How does he make sure not to take himself too seriously?
Business Mentors, Tools, Books mentioned:
– Steve Jobs – the co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Apple Inc.
– Ketan Kothari – Apple Computer engineer
– Joe Barrus – Apple Computer engineer
– Angus King – American politician
– Reid Hoffman – Founder of Linkedin, venture capitalist and author
A little background about Manish Kothari:
Manish Kothari is GM, Platform, at Edmodo. Edmodo is the world’s leading social learning platform for educators, students and parents. He is responsible for Platform Partnerships, Sales and Business Development.
Prior to Edmodo, he was a co-founder of Root-1, Inc. (www.root-1.com), whose goal was to make learning much more engaging and effective. Root-1 was acquired by Edmodo in March 2013.
From November 1993 through March 2006, he was President and co-founder of AlphaSmart, Inc, an education technology company (www.alphasmart.com). At AlphaSmart, he was responsible for overall management of worldwide sales, marketing and operations. In addition to helping build and grow a $40MM business, he was part of the executive management team during AlphaSmart’s IPO (NASDAQ: ALSM) in February 2004, and, the subsequent acquisition of AlphaSmart by Renaissance Learning, Inc. (NASDAQ: RLRN, www.renlearn.com) in June 2005.
Prior to joining AlphaSmart in 1993, he served on the staff of Cardiac Pacemakers, Inc. (then a division of Eli Lilly & Company) in strategic planning and marketing roles. While at CPI, he was responsible for product marketing for a new device used to interface with implantable pacemakers and defibrillators.
Manish serves on the Board of MindCrest, Inc. (www.mindcrest.com), a Chicago-based legal right-shoring service provider, and is a member of the Advancement Council for the School of Engineering & Technology at Brigham Young University. From 2006 through 2009, he served on the Advisory Board of Water.org, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization committed to providing safe drinking water and sanitation to people in developing countries. In Fall 2009, he was awarded the Distinguished Alumnus Award by the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Brigham Young University.
Intelligent Peripheral Devices, Inc. was founded in 1992 by two previous Apple Computer engineers, Ketan Kothari and Joe Barrus, with the mission to “develop and market affordable, portable personal learning solutions for the classroom” and to “deliver affordable, lightweight, rugged portable computing devices that are expandable, easy to use and manage, and provide exceptional battery life.” Shortly after its founding they were joined by Ketan’s brother Manish. Later, as their product line expanded, they changed the name of the company to AlphaSmart, Inc. Barrus and Kothari also hold a US patent on a “portable keyboard computer”, applied for in 1992 and granted in 1995.
AlphaSmart, Inc. completed its initial public offering (IPO) on the NASDAQ on February 6th, 2004 and started trading under the symbol ALSM. In June 2005, it was acquired by Renaissance Learning. The name changed again in the spring of 2009, this time to NEO Direct, Inc. They went on to release the Neo2 and 2Know Responder hardware products.
The AlphaSmart is a keyboarding device that enables a person to work on the go, much like a laptop computer, but it is strictly for word processing, as it functions essentially like a simple digital typewriter. The Dana (a newer device made by AlphaSmart, Inc.) is an exception, as this device can also run Palm OS applications. Since the AlphaSmart, Dana, and NEO are specialized for limited purposes, they are generally much cheaper than a standard laptop computer. All of these devices are meant to be plugged into an ADB, PS/2, or USB port for transferring the written text into a computer’s word processing document for further editing (such as indentation and font preference) or printing if so desired.
The AlphaSmart saves every keystroke directly to the machine’s RAM, which is maintained by a battery backup even when powered down. AlphaSmarts can transfer data either by a special program that communicates with the AlphaSmart or by the simpler method of transmitting the keystrokes of the written text as if it were the computer’s keyboard. When not transferring text, the Alphasmart can be used as a standard keyboard.
AlphaSmarts are very popular in schools for their affordability and durability. Elementary schools and high schools use them; they are particularly popular among special education departments for use by students with graphomotor challenges. The machines have also developed a type of cult following among journalists and writers, who find them easy to carry and appreciate the full-size keyboard and long battery life.
The original AlphaSmart computer companion was shipped in August 1993, and worked only with Apple Macintosh computers, plugging into the Apple Desktop Bus (ADB) port. This model provided customers with 16 “pages” of memory (32,000 bytes) for 8 separate files (2 pages per file), that were accessed by pressing the corresponding function key. The AlphaSmart took on the aesthetics of the computer it was intended to be partnered with—it had a boxy, durable beige plastic case like the Macintoshes of that era. It had a four line LCD character display similar to what one would find on some appliances. Each character was displayed in its own LCD “box,” making the point size and font type fixed. The AlphaSmart could not display graphics, except for ASCII art. It ran on 2 AA batteries, and could be used for literally days at a time due to its clever power saving technique, effectively “sleeping” in between keystrokes. There was a rechargeable nickel-cadmium battery (NiCad) pack add-on that a customer could purchase separately.
The early AlphaSmart models included a couple of jokes, including a reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. If, while using the calculator, the answer is 42, the words “The answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything” appear. Or, if the input was 1+1, the calculator would say, “That’s too easy.”
In February 1995, the AlphaSmart Pro was launched. This looked almost identical to the original but had a PS/2 port as well as an ADB port, making it compatible with both Windows PCs and Macintoshes. Second, the Pro had a “find” feature to search stored text. Third, the AlphaSmart Pro was able to receive text from a computer through “Get Utility” software installed on a Mac or Windows PC. Lastly, it included a password feature for securing content. The Pro model was able to store up to 64 pages of text (128,000 bytes), holding 16 pages in the first file, 8 pages in files two through five, 6 in files six & seven, and 4 pages on file number eight. The original rechargeable NiCad battery pack could also be used in the Pro model.
In October 1997, AlphaSmart, Inc. introduced the third generation of the AlphaSmart family, the AlphaSmart 2000. Along with a more ergonomic design, the case of the AlphaSmart 2000 was curvy and blue. New features added were spell-checking, direct printing (allowing a user to plug into a printer directly, bypassing a computer), auto-off power save, and a keyboarding timer. A year later, the company added infrared capability to the 2000, enabling users to transfer text to a computer or another AlphaSmart without a cable. This model needed 3 AA batteries, but could still use the original rechargeable NiCad battery pack. Like the Alphasmart Pro, it had a 128K memory.
In January 2000, the AlphaSmart 3000 was released. The 3000 used the same chassis as the AlphaSmart 2000, but it was now encased in translucent bondi-blue plastic, matching Apple Computer’s first generation iMac. This was meant to be a visual indication that the AlphaSmart 3000 was a USB native device, as many other USB devices were patterned using the iMac’s design in the same way.
Designers removed the ADB and PS/2 ports, replacing them with a USB port and a mini-DIN-8 serial port that allowed users to plug the AlphaSmart directly into a printer. Also new was the SmartApplet architecture that was capable of extending the simple functionality of an AlphaSmart with the inclusion of SmartApplets—miniature software applications that extend the AlphaSmart’s functionality to give it features beyond basic word processing. For example, it included a simple 5-function calculator. Additionally, the battery life and memory were increased (although it still ran on 3 AA batteries), and cut/copy/paste functions were introduced. The original rechargeable NiCad battery pack was not compatible with this model. Instead, it used a new optional nickel metal hydride battery (NiMH) pack that lasted longer and eliminated the memory effect of NiCad batteries. The AlphaSmart 3000 had the customary 8 files, each with a capacity of 12.5 pages (about 25 kilobytes), for a total of 100 pages altogether. AlphaSmart announced the discontinuation of the AlphaSmart on April 30, 2006.
In June 2002, a radical departure from the standard AlphaSmart line was released. Similar to Apple Computer’s Newton eMate 300 (a laptop running the Newton PDA operating system), the Dana is actually a fully fledged Palm OS device complete with a touch-screen, allowing a user to write directly on the screen via Graffiti in addition to typing on the built-in, full-size keyboard. The Dana’s screen has a backlight and is capable of displaying complex graphics (though only in 4 bit grayscale), unlike the original AlphaSmart line. It has 16 Megabytes of storage and two expansion slots for cards in Secure Digital (SD) or Multimedia Card formats.
It is compatible with nearly every Palm OS application, and some Palm apps can take advantage of the Dana’s extra-wide screen, which is 3.5 times the norm (560 x 160 pixels). The screen is taller than that of the original AlphaSmart products, and the Dana’s casing is made from opaque dark-blue plastic—a change from the iMac-esque clear blue of the AlphaSmart 3000. The Dana optionally comes with Wi-Fi connectivity for internet use and interaction between other Danas, and it runs off a Ni-MH rechargeable battery or 3 AA batteries for up to 25 hours of usage.
The Neo model, introduced in August 2004, can hold more than 200 pages of text. Its LCD display is 50% larger than the AlphaSmart 3000’s display. Unlike the 3000, it doesn’t use fixed blocks for each character and therefore can display different font/point sizes, along with simple graphics. The Neo also runs a newer operating system that allows modular control of SmartApplets and a new version of AlphaWord (the word processing SmartApplet), which allows dynamic file resizing.
The Neo’s chassis is a dark opaque shade of green with its form factor based on the Dana. The Neo also uses the same class of CPU as the Dana. It uses the same optional NiMHe cursor and a text-stacking bug) were corrected in an update to the operating system, System 3.2, but this seems to only apply to USA Neos. A software update for UK/European Neos was released in September 2008.
The Neo 2 offers several minor upgrades to the original Neo, and was the first unit released after AlphaSmart was acquired by Renaissance Learning. It has added quiz functionality, using the 2Know! Toolbar, which was developed for the 2Know! Classroom Response System. Teachers can create, distribute, and score quizzes using the Neo 2. Neo 2 can also access Accelerated Reader quizzes and allow students to use network printers, when using the Renaissance Receiver accessory. Both the Neo and Neo 2 have been discontinued by Renaissance Learning in late September 2013, although the company still offers support and software to existing users.