Late in 2018, HMH decided to try something new. We wanted to turn to edtech innovators to find the next big thing for our world languages product line. Yes, we had conducted our own research; yes, we knew what customers were looking for (and what we were lacking); and of course we had our own ideas. But maybe, just maybe, someone else had already solved one or more market problems. So we decided to team up with LearnLaunch, an edtech incubator in Boston, to hold a contest to find the best solution for a problem in the area of world languages. The HMH/LearnLaunch Design Challenge was announced on January 31, 2019, at the LearnLaunch Across Boundaries Conference in Boston.
The Big Day
Fast-forward to March 1: we’ve narrowed the field from 38 entries to our top seven. Everyone is in the HMH Boston office for the finalists’ pitch sessions.
1PM: Finalists start to arrive. It’s interesting to put a face to the names of the proposals we spent a weekend poring over. Note to reader: Never end a contest on Friday at midnight and then promise to announce the finalists by 5PM the following Monday.
3:30PM: Pitch sessions begin. We have three judges (Eileen Rudden from LearnLaunch, and HMH’s Jim O’Neill and Paul Murphy) seated in a semicircle with each finalist presenting to them from just feet away. Each finalist gave their four-minute pitch followed by a Q&A with the judges for up to four additional minutes.
I was sitting in the first row of extra seats, and from the very first pitch, I was smiling like a Texan at Buc-ee’s. Every one of the finalists did a great job of outlining the problem they were trying to solve and showing how they solved (or intended to solve) that problem. After the second or third pitch, I was worried about how I was ever going to pick a favorite. I tend to be an easy grader, but obviously I couldn’t give all of them the highest score.
5:00PM: All of the finalists had completed their pitches, and the judges left to discuss who would be the winner. Though I was not an official judge, I’m the product manager for world languages so I was invited into the “war room” to listen in on deliberations with the judges.
Of all the finalists, Chris Hammer was the standout because he:
- Is a middle school Spanish teacher. He knows these problems because they are his problems!
- Already had the beginning of a solution in Charlala. His speaking practice tool solved a major problem that we uncovered in our research.
- Had passion and charm. Chris mentioned working on Charlala in addition to his day job, frequently working 80–90 hour weeks and working through the last three summers in order to get everything done.
- Was resourceful. When one of the judges asked Chris how he got his users, Chris replied that he bought a couple $50 Facebook ads. Now that’s the start-up scrappiness that we were looking for.
I remember reading Chris’s initial entry while working remotely at Starbucks on the Sunday before the finalist decisions were due. I went to Charlala.com to try out the demo and smiled when I recorded my video. But there was one part that I didn’t really get, the DrawRoom. In his live pitch session, however, Chris had a brilliant way of explaining DrawRoom using student-drawn emojis. In his example, he asked his students how they were feeling, had them draw their answers, projected their drawn responses, and finally, led a class discussion around everyone’s feelings based on the drawings—all in the target language! His example was hilarious and made his DrawRoom idea click for me.