I am Shelby Rideout the creator and CEO of Bright Signs Learning. Bright Signs Learning is an early learning program for children ages 6 months- age 4 that introduces children to early communication and early reading using sign language and other multisensory techniques. Until recently, Bright Signs Learning was a tangible learning kit that included 4 DVD’s, 80 words/image flashcards, 26 upper and lowercase alphabet cards, numeric flashcards 1-19, and an activity guide. Technology and how people get information is ever-changing.
As a result, Bright Signs Learning went digital. The Bright Signs Learning program is now available as an app on IOS and Google Play. The app includes the 4 learning videos ( available streaming or download) as well as digital flashcards and games. As a learning company, our mission has been to spread the joys of learning to as many children and families as possible.
After many months of development, our app became ready for release during the pandemic when virtual learning became the new normal. By eliminating manufacturing, storage, and mailing costs, we were able to dramatically lower the cost to the consumer. Bright Signs Learning takes our youngest learners from effective non-verbal communication all the way through to beginning reading. Learning unfolds naturally while children are captivated and engaged in this kinesthetic learning program.
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
I graduated from Vanderbilt University having double majored in Elementary education and Special education with an emphasis on Deaf Education. After graduation, I moved to New York City to pursue my childhood dream of becoming an actress. To support me I began tutoring children of all ages. My reputation as a tutor spread and I had several private schools that referred me out to parents of children who were struggling in school. I began seeing a theme in some of the younger children. At a very early age they had already established that they “didn’t like reading,” “were stupid,” “ were bad at school,” or “hated school.” My goal was always, of course, to get these children up to speed on what subjects they were struggling with, but it was equally important to me to change their mindset and get them believing in themselves and understanding that learning is fun. I realized that these feelings regarding school and their abilities had been established well before they had entered school. I began thinking about ways children could enter school feeling confident, excited, and capable.
It’s important to recognize your strengths and weaknesses and either hire people that balance you and/or accept that there are parts of the business that you will like more than others but it all must be attended to be successful.
After some success in commercial and print modeling, I moved to Los Angeles. I continued to tutor and while the acting unions were on strike I went back to school and got a degree in Sign Language Interpreting. After receiving a degree in Signs language interpreting I returned to NYC where I continued to pursue my three passions of tutoring, acting/modeling, and sign language interpreting. Looking back I can see that I always had an entrepreneurial heart. I enjoyed working for myself, creating my own schedule, and being responsible for “drumming up business” and being personally accountable for my successes and/or failures.
In 2010 my husband and I adopted our first child from Ethiopia. While in Ethiopia ( I lived there for 2 months while waiting for my daughter's Visa) I discovered I was pregnant with our first son. Once I returned home I was a mother and pregnant with my second child and I no longer had the desire to go on auditions or act. I was now living my dream of being a mom. I relished spending time reading, playing, and signing with my children. As a sign language interpreter I was well aware of the many benefits of using sign language with babies and children: fewer tantrums, child/parent bonding, increased language and cognitive benefits, aids in early reading, and increased self-esteem. I began making educational home videos for my kids to watch when I needed time to cook dinner or take a shower. These videos teamed sign language, phonics, and early reading concepts, music art, and other fun visuals together to create an entertaining program for my kids to watch and enjoy. In a short amount of time, my two kids were reading before the age of two! This began to attract a lot of attention from friends and strangers alike who began asking me how I had taught them to read at such a young age. People began asking if they could buy my videos. I realized how beneficial a widespread, baby sign language/early reading program would help both children and parents. My home movies became the prototypes for the professional videos we eventually shot for the program. It never gets old seeing videos of little ones, signing, reading, and enjoying the Bright Signs Learning program.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?
What made this journey so fun was how it seemed to naturally unfold from my passions and experience as a teacher, sign language interpreter, and actress. The creative process took place first in a small New York apartment. Later, as my family grew ( 3 kids at this point) we moved to Westchester NY and I would create and film in my basement while playing with my children. I think it’s effective to use different manipulatives and materials when teaching a concept, so as we played I would film and develop ideas that would then be reworked into something fit for the videos. I eventually designed and added my puppet, Paulie- a sign language puppet. For the flashcards and packaging, I leaned on my husband to help find the right people for design and manufacturing. I enjoyed that process of collaborating with a design team to make my ideas come to life and incorporate their design expertise into a product I am quite proud of.
Next, was setting up our website and sales. My husband and older brother were instrumental in helping get that setup. Did I mention I was pregnant with my youngest son ( fourth child) during all of this? It was important for me to tap into the resources and skills of family and friends to meet a respectable timeline. Getting a listing on Amazon is simply the first step. You may have a great product but if people don’t know about it, or it shows up on the 15th search page, you won’t have very good sales. I then began to research and teach myself about the many aspects of selling on Amazon’s platform. There is a lot to learn and understand. My advice would be to at least familiarize yourself with how it works so if you hire an SEO person you can at least be speaking the same language.
I would be remiss to not speak of social media and PR efforts. As I mentioned you can have a great product or service but you will have zero sales if people aren’t aware of your product. I have had to become much more tech-savvy as I have navigated my way through amazon, digital platforms, different social media channels, etc. I haven’t done it alone. A key member of our team is a millennial who adds so much value and knowledge regarding social media, some tech efforts as well as insight into the mindset of younger generations. We’ve had several influencers mention our product on their channels. I have found this to be most helpful only when that influencer carries influence in our space. So in other words, if an actress mentions that her child loves Bright Signs Learning it only carried weight if people valued that celebrity as a good mom. I had some great features in Popsugar, Forbes, pregnancy magazine, as well as different awards that helped raise our profile.
We were selling very well on Amazon. However, also during this time, technology began to change. Computers were no longer even being sold with an internal disc drive so playing DVDs became more and more obsolete. Customers began asking if we had a digital option. As a company, we realized that as we got close to selling out our inventory, we were at a crossroads and needed to either order more physical kits or shift completely, and create a digital platform for Bright Signs Learning. It became obvious that manufacturing more kits would just be prolonging the inevitable; delivering our content digitally would be the only logical option. I hired an app developer and began the process of redesigning the program for a digital experience. The four videos make up the most important part of the program and I knew I wanted customers to have the option to watch the video streaming ( when people had a wifi connection) and also through download. This way parents had the option to bring Bright Signs Learning “on the go” like a plane or car ride. I have been told many times by customers that Bright Signs “saved” them on a journey with a little one.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Bright Signs Learning is still in the midst of transitioning out of physical kits into a digital experience. We no longer sell on Amazon. We are now an App that sells for $4.99 on the Apple Store and Google Play. Selling an app is a completely different experience than selling from Amazon. Releasing our app during the pandemic is good timing in some ways as virtual learning has taken center stage in a way no one could have predicted. It also has its challenges. I have 4 children that I am homeschooling with my own curriculum. Finding time, let alone, time by myself to get work done has been a challenge. Digital Apps is a whole new world for me. I am learning in real-time how to promote and manage an App. One positive is unlike a physical product, apps have minimal fixed costs ( i.e. no manufacturing, storage costs, etc.) I am also able to easily sell in other countries unlike on Amazon which made selling internationally a complicated process. So I am happily exploring marketing Bright Signs in other countries.
Many customers have asked us for additional videos that build upon the reading concepts learned in the first videos. Building out the videos to cover more topics and advanced concepts is certainly something I see happening in the long term. I have also had discussions about making Bright Signs into more of an episodic program that could be available on one of the many cable channels. The possibilities and directions to take Bright Signs are endless.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I think it is important to remember why you started- what drove you to create your product or service. I had someone early on trying to tell me to “ditch the puppet.” I refused. This person had no experience with children or teaching. Paulie, my puppet, has been so effective in connecting with little ones and helping them have fun while learning. In that regard, you must hire and work with people that share the same vision as you. Don’t confuse that with hiring “yes” men/women who simply tell you what you want to hear. You should share the same visions but having different respectable opinions of ways of getting it is good. As I mentioned it is important to work with multiple generations, men, women, different cultures because it allows you to see each choice and decision from a multitude of angles.
I think the inception of Bright Signs Learning was completely luck and timing. All of my life experiences, acting, sign language interpreting and teaching came together in a natural enthusiasm while teaching my own kids. It was like the initial prototypes were easy to create because they were created from my passion and necessity to occupy my little ones with educational content while I made dinner or attended to other household duties. I will say, starting a business really highlights not only your talents but also your weaknesses. I am a creative person and teacher who has a passion for the wellbeing of children. I am not as passionate about marketing, accounting and other business aspects of having a company. I have learned I am capable of doing those things but I approach those aspects more begrudgingly than I do the creative process. It’s important to recognize your strengths and weaknesses and either hire people that balance you, and/or accept that there are parts of business that you will like more than others but it all must be attended to in order to be successful. What drove me to start Bright Signs Learning was having a hand in setting kids on a path to joyful learning. Having kids make the connection that learning is fun and believing that they are capable is essential for a successful school experience.
As I mentioned, I am homeschooling 4 children in my garage that I transformed into a school. A neighborhood boy was struggling with online schooling. On top of that he is English is his second language AND he is extremely shy. He was really struggling with this online schooling so I told his mother, “ Please, just have him come to my school.” In the course of only a few days ( maybe even after day one) he was home telling his parents how much fun it was to be in school and to learn! Experiences like these and the many customers that reach out with successes and videos of their children signing a reading because of my program inspire me to stay on track and continue getting the word out about Bright Sign Learning.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
While selling on Amazon, I used Helium 10 which was a great SEO tool that allows you to track your ranking, track similar products, and optimize your listing.
We have had a lot of success using ODesk. Our videos contain animation and we found 2 talented animators on ODesk. My app developer is from Italy and I found him on ODESK and had a great experience with him. I would say I have had less success with SEO help on that platform but I think it just all depends on your needs matching with the right person. When we were creating our logo we used 99Ddesigns. There are so many talented freelancers out there, that I only see these types of platforms becoming more widespread.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I am a huge fan of anything to do with mindset. Truth be told, being an entrepreneur requires a lot of self-motivation. You are answering mostly to yourself. So I have always found that when I get my mind in the right space there is no stopping me.
I have always been a huge fan of Tony Robbins, his book Awaken the Giant Within was transformative. I find that most of his insights are not just theory, they require action. Action is the key to success. Try new things, make new connections, keep connected to your target audience.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
My advice would be to start small. We signed up with Amazon almost immediately. In retrospect, I knew little about it and acquired unnecessary storage and advertising costs, nothing drastic, but I hate wasting a penny when it isn’t essential. I just realized only after the fact of how little I understood about Amazon when I started. If possible I would start with direct sales. That way you are really in control of every aspect. And you can grow at the same rate that the company is growing which evens out the learning curve. As I mentioned, my husband and brother helped me set up Amazon, which was super helpful while I was still tackling the creative/ educational side of the program, but as a result, I felt like when I began to dive in and learn about it for myself, I had lost valuable time because I just didn’t have a handle on all aspects of the company.
There is so much you can learn from the internet. Youtube is an endless source of information as well. Social media obviously takes a presence in any/all companies. Filming and photography tips, helpful design programs like Canva help tackle simple design needs.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Instagram & Twitter @brightsignsabc
- Facebook Bright Signs Learning
- IOS: Apple store Bright Signs Learning with Fun
- Google Play: Bright Signs Learning with Fun
- Youtube: Bright Signs Learning
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