Lyssa Neel, Ph.D. is the co-founder and President of Linkitz, which is making a tech toy for girls ages 4-7.
What do you do?
I’m CEO of Linkitz, which currently means doing the company scut work [laughs]. Do you know what scut work is? Like when you’re a medical intern working in the hospital and they make you change the bedpans, that’s called scut work. At the beginning I was very, very involved in the technology side of Linkitz, laying out the product vision, sketching it out, understanding all the different parts and how they worked together but now that we have seven people working in the company there’s a lot of scut work. Managing the investors, writing up reports, doing the financials—I still maintain the overview and I am in charge of the software side. But I have people writing code now… don’t say I have people [laughs]. There’re people who are way better coders than me at this point. My CTO Drew is in charge of all the hardware, electrical and mechanical and I manage the software side, so that’s how we divide that.
So tell me more about Linkitz and how it got started?
Well, two years ago I was in San Francisco at a tech conference. It was the usual thing, tons of guys and very few women. I’m certainly not the first person to have noticed that. I started thinking about this topic and it was really bothering me because I’ve been working in tech pretty much since the eighth grade when my school got their first computer. I loved it and it’s something I think that more girls would like if they knew how much fun it was. I quickly realized that reaching girls in high school was too late. Based on the research, by the time they’re in middle school, they’ve already decided that technology, STEM, etc are not things that girls do. So some girls do decide otherwise but they’re kind of pioneers or outliers or the kind of girls that don’t care what other girls and sometimes boys say about them. It’s very non-typical behaviour for a girl.
So I realized you really have to reach girls earlier, when they’re little, and let them see how much fun it is. Then, by the time they reach middle school, they’ll have the confidence and it won’t just be a boy thing because they’ll have grown up creating technology. Not every girl obviously, but I mean, at least give them the chance!
I started thinking about what kids below the age of 10 are interested in and what I could do to get them interested in technology. What kinds of things, playing on girls’ strengths because they do develop differently. I noticed that girls like jewellery because they have very good fine motor skills that develop earlier in girls than boys and they like to do things that are social. When girls do beading they often do it in a group and show each other what they made and make things with their friends. These were behaviours I saw in my own girls and others, and I thought, well, if we can add technology to that behaviour that could be something that girls can feel confident in and still get familiar with trying things and programming the pieces.
So we started developing that idea and that took about a year just figuring out how to make a prototype. Obviously jewellery is very small and for kids it’s even smaller, so how the challenge was how we could fit electronics into a very tiny device in a way that would be easy for little kids to put together and still be electrically interesting.
We came up with our first prototype and then applied for an accelerator program in China called Haxl8r because we knew something like 93 percent of toys are made in China; it was important for us to understand why they’re made in China, what the advantage is, and to understand how toys are made. So we got in and Haxl8r were our first investors. By this time I had been joined by my CTO and our Chief Education Officer, so the three of us went to China for three and a half months. That was really interesting. We learned a lot about manufacturing and when we came back we had won the N100 competition in Cobourg, Ontario and we used the proceeds of that to hire an industrial designer to help us refine the product. Our first prototype had parents really excited but we had some problems with the electricals shorting out so we refined the design and had to redo all the electronics.
Now, we are ready to bring it to market later this year.
What do you find most rewarding about your role? Most challenging?
First of all, toys are really, really fun so that’s super rewarding. Being able to create something new—I just love that process of seeing a problem, brainstorming a bunch of solutions, experimenting with them, and trying to find out which ones are feasible. Especially when you’re making hardware there’s a lot of cost consideration. It’s kind of like a puzzle where you have to make everything fit and I really like that process. Then there’s sort of a, well, at least I hope, if Linkitz takes off, I’ll have the satisfaction of finally being able to help girls recognize that they can do engineering, they can do tech, and that it’s not just for boys. That would be very gratifying. I haven’t experienced that yet but that’s my goal.
I don’t think there’s anything I don’t like about it, I mean raising money is never easy, rejection is never fun but it comes with the territory. You have to have a very thick skin. Before I started Linkitz I was totally a software person, never thought about hardware, and software is really cool because you can write software and a million people can use it, 10 people can use it, it doesn’t matter, it’s the same amount of effort for the most part. When you go to hardware, everything costs something. It’s a really big challenge to get the cost of the actual physical product down to the point where you can then sell it and make a profit at a price that people are willing to pay. So you start to look at every single little choice you make, like even how many colours something is going to be. It was a challenge because I’d never done it before and really it’s a challenge for anyone creating a physical device, especially with the mark-ups that you have to pay to get something into retail. Those make it imperative that your cost of goods is extremely low. There were a lot of things I had to learn and understand, something I never had to think about with software.
How do you stay up to date with trends in your industry/field?
First of all, I’m on Twitter constantly and I follow a number people in the wearables space, the toys space,and the girls in tech space. I follow a bunch of people and get newsletters weekly. I keep an eye on all of the other electronic toys—there’s a lot of toys now. Keeping track of what educational research is saying about how to best teach children to code also matters or sometimes I’ll read things from psychologists or sociologists on what it means for children to always be in front of a screen—anything that might impact our product’s market. I spend several hours a day just keeping up with reading. It’s really important.
What are your top five applications or programs?
Twitter - It is absolutely the thing I’m on the most, although I’m embarrassed to admit it, because you know there can be a lot of stuff you get into that’s off topic [laughs]. It’s great for keeping track of people in the industry and also to tweet my responses to certain subjects.
Google Apps & Gchat - Our team is fairly geographically distributed, I’m in Toronto as well as our Chief Education Officer. Our CTO is in San Francisco and our Chief Marketing Officer is in Hong Kong. We tried a number of things but we ended up using Google Apps and Gchat. The reason I like it is everything is easily searchable, whether it’s a doc or an email or a message from a chat window, it’s all in one place.
Google Keep - That’s where I like to keep my to-do lists. I like that as you check it, it actually crosses it out and drops it to the bottom.
Microsoft Word & Excel - Just because I do a lot of the operational work of the company I’d say that the rest of the time I’m in Microsoft Word writing documents, I’m in Excel working with spreadsheets so just, boring business stuff.
Gimp - Gimp because we are a poor startup and Gimp is free. (Thank you Gimp development team!) I use it to sketch out ideas for the product, for marketing materials, or other graphics that we need. Our graphic designer turns these into beautiful cool fun artwork.
Best way to stay on top of email?
I’m such a bad example and no body should listen to me but I use Gmail as sort of a catch-all. I never delete any emails unless they’re just total spam, so I’ve got emails going back to like 2006. It’s all there and I know it’s always there and I can always search for it. No organization whatsoever.
What is your best time-saving trick?
My five second rule. If I can do something right away, if I can do it in five to 10 minutes, I just do it. I don’t add it to a to-do list, I just do it and then it’s done. That really keeps me on top of things. It also helps make you feel like you’ve accomplished something.
What does your workspace look like?
I usually work from home, but I can work anyplace with wifi and an electrical outlet.
Structure of your typical day, how do you divide your time?
Right now I’m in that kind of frenzy period of a startup, which, I’m sorry to say lasts about three years. I wake up at 5 in the morning thinking about everything we have to do with the company. I check my email that’s come in overnight since our team is all over. Then I look at my list on Google Keep and I pick the task that has the closest deadline and work on that. Since we’re all in different places I open up my Google Chat window and we just have that running throughout the day. I work until about 7, I have dinner and then I spend the rest of evening reading and keeping up with all the feeds. Probably I get to sleep around 1 am. So it’s not a very healthy lifestyle but this isn’t my first startup so I’m going to die young. We’ve got three years and then either we’ve made it as a company and then yay! Or it’s time to close doors. Either way, in my experience, that’s about how much time it takes.
Why do you do what you do? What makes everything worth it?
I really love what I do, like all of the startups I’ve been in. I really love what I’m doing. It’s interesting, and exciting you’re always learning something new. There’s that aspect of it. As far as why I like startups, it’s because I really hate having other people tell me what to do. I like thinking of something and getting people to join me and it’s fun. You work, work, work and then hopefully there’s a reward at the end of the rainbow. No one thinks it’s going be a pot of mud or else they wouldn’t do it.
What is the greatest piece of career advice/wisdom you've ever received?
You’ve really got to be willing to make it way more than a full-time job. I live breathe, eat, and sleep my startups. If you have a partner they have to be along for the ride. A lot of people have trouble with that; it’s really all consuming. So you have to be willing to do it and your partner has to be willing to do it.
Who would you like to see featured on Ways We Work?
Tiffani Ashley Bell. She started this thing called the Detroit Water project, which is to help people in Detroit pay their water bill. It was a few months ago, the city of Detroit was just turning off people’s water and she went out, and made this website where people can pick a family and pay their water bill. She’s using tech for good!