Why I Left the News Business Behind to Focus On Our Future with GoNoodle!
From 2008 to late in 2014, I ran the digital business for CNN Worldwide. During that time, we built an incredible team of progressive leaders. We launched CNN’s foray into new categories like food, travel, music and culture. We made first-mover, cutting-edge partnerships with companies like Facebook & Taboola, Vice & Snap, and bought an amazing startup called Zite (which we later sold to Flipboard). Along the way, we nearly quadrupled the revenue of the business and doubled the bottom line. But, the work also had a dark side.
The big news business (and publishing in general) is based on getting clicks — user acquisition, engagement, retention & conversion in industry parlance. And, all too often those clicks come from appealing to the more base parts of our personalities. I won’t belabor it here, and this shouldn’t be novel to anyone, but t sensational stories of anger, despair & division usually drive more traffic than optimistic stories of compassion, creativity and cooperation. And when you add to that the variety of UX & design tricks employed to create engagement, you can find yourself waking up every morning with a feeling you’re doing more harm than good for society.
But it wasn’t until 2017, after reading article after article about the regrets some of the authors of Web 2.0 had about what they had created and then seeing this interview with Chamath Palihapitiya, that it really hit me that I needed to endeavor to do some good with all of the skills I had learned in almost two decades of digital media. And, as is often the case when you put your intentions out to the world, that’s when Lindsay Trout at Egon Zender called me about an opportunity that she said, “might seem out of left-field but may just be great for you.” That opportunity was to become the next CEO of GoNoodle. Three months later, and I’m in the role!
Like the news business, parenting is also fast-paced, constantly challenging, and in recent years, has undergone rapid transformation in terms of how kids consume media, technology and information. I’m a father to three school-age kids, and when I started out as a father, my daughter was still watching television, much like I did when I was a kid. But now my youngest doesn’t even watch television, and recently asked me if he can start a YouTube channel. Like many parents, I enjoy seeing how my kids connect with their friends (and sometimes me) through social media and technology. But I have also struggled with ways to get my kids to set aside their technology so they can move their bodies, play and interact in the real world.
So, what is GoNoodle? We are a transformational media and technology company dedicated to improving the lives of our children. We create videos and games for kids that get them out of their seats and dancing, jumping, stretching and practicing mindfulness. We want kids to be more active, more mindful, more engaged and more productive so they can become their smartest, silliest, strongest, bravest, bestest selves. Our services are used the world over, with over 14 million kids on our platform, and GoNoodle in over 80% of grade schools in America. I like to think of us as the biggest, most positive platform for kids that you may have never heard of.
Now the hard news. Kids in America (and increasingly, the rest of the world) are under a silent siege of stress & unhealthiness. According to Time, teens today are as sedentary as 60 year olds — a trend that starts earlier than we’d like to admit. The State of Obesity reports the prevalence of obesity is 13.9 percent among 2- to 5-year-olds, 18.4 percent among 6- to 11-year-olds, and 20.6 percent among 12- to 19-year-olds. So, in short, if we don’t establish healthy, happy relationships between our kids and physical movement when they are very young, we can’t reverse the trend.
GoNoodle is on a mission to attack this problem using unconventional weapons: technology, devices and screens. At first blush, this may seem counterintuitive. Since the advent of radio, to television, to console games, to portable video games and finally, the smartphone, it seems that technology has only served to make our kids more sedentary and detached from each other. But these devices aren’t going away — in fact, they are only becoming more distributed through and to kids. The average kid gets their own smartphone at age 10 and most have their own laptop/tablet at that age. Five of the top ten most subscribed YouTube channels target children.
In our view, the problem isn’t the technology necessarily, it’s what’s being made available to them and the financial incentives that enable it. As Natasha Lomas wrote eloquently in this Techcrunch article, “Where kids are concerned, the structure of the YouTube medium demonstrably rewards pandering to the most calorific of visual cravings.” In other words, the algorithm-driven, clickbait-oriented, money-for-views approach of social media platforms is doubly problematic when it comes to our children, who have yet to develop a sense of what’s real vs. satire, what’s authentic vs. fake, what’s healthy vs. harmful. That’s a problem that’s likely already playing itself out in the realities of young adulthood. As Chamath said in that interview, “Everybody [on social media] has to soul-search a little bit more about what you’re willing to do, because your behaviors, you don’t realize it, but you are being programmed.”
So, enough of the rant. We are incredibly optimistic about the future! We have an amazing team of people at GoNoodle who bring years of experience in education, media and technology to attack this mission. We create or hand-curate every piece of content on our platform and, working in collaboration with outside educational experts & organizations, ensure that all of our efforts get kids moving. Studies show our efforts are beginning to pay off: a recent study we commissioned showed that kids who played GoNoodle achieved a 23% improvement in reading comprehension vs. students who did not play GoNoodle.
And, our content is FUN! We know what we are up against in vying for kids’ attention — sugar always tastes better than fiber. So, we work really hard to be kids ourselves and find lots of super silly & creative ways to make content kids want to watch and play again and again. And where media consumption has historically been an individual experience — GoNoodle has cracked the code on make media communal — whole classrooms dance with us everyday and we hope many new friends and families will join in on the fun going forward. Now, we just need to continue to expand this coalition of the willing to help us grow and extend our good work! I, for one, plan to bring every ounce of my energy, experience and network to help GoNoodle grow in its’ mission to help our kids be their best.
Can we help parents alleviate that feeling of guilt they get when they hand their phone to their child to get some quiet time? Yes! Can we make content that kids love and is good for them? Yes! Can we build a global suite of products and services that help kids develop a positive relationship with technology and be more active? Yes! Can we help to bridge language and performance gaps in our schools? Yes! But, we can’t do it alone — so please join us as passionate leaders, teachers, parents and people who care about our future. We need all the help and partners we can get. If you want to partner with us, sponsor us, support our efforts or generally just let us know your thoughts about this space, you can find me at: email@example.com. I’d love to hear from you.