This is the latest in my series of posts spotlighting underrepresented communities around the world and the entrepreneurs trying to help them. In this installment, I talk to Cliff Weitzman of text-to-speech app Speechify about overcoming disabilities, and helping kids learn faster.
For Speechify's Cliff Weitzman, school was always a battle. Due to his dyslexia, he spent much of high school in a special needs program, where college didn't seem like a viable option. Determined to achieve his goals in life, Weitzman doubled down, working as hard as he could to get the credits he'd need. He relied heavily on friends as well as audiobooks, which allowed him to enjoy books in a way he couldn't otherwise.
"In high school, basically what I would do is ask a lot of questions, and show up early and convince other people to come study with me so that I could explain what's going on in the chapter, and they could read the chapter out loud," Weitzman says.
Not only did Weitzman eventually get into Brown University, but he did it after teaching himself English (he's an Israeli immigrant) by listening to Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone 22 times. He faced learning difficulties throughout his school years since not all textbooks were available in audiobook format. This led him to create his own rudimentary text-to-speech software that could read books to him out loud. Over the course of college, he gradually improved the software so he could enjoy an unlimited selection of books.
From Side Project to Social Good Startup
Weitzman began to see more of a market demand for a text-to-speech app in college when other students asked about the software he was using. He made a video, which attracted tens of thousands of views, showing just how in demand the software was. While he was still in school, Weitzman continued working on the text-to-speech app as a side project. However, when he read about a new type of artificial intelligence research that would let him produce more realistic-sounding speech in his app, he dropped all his other projects and focused on developing Speechify.
"A little while after I started working on this, somebody told me about a dyslexia conference that was happening in Florida," Weitzman recalls. "I snuck into the conference and gave an impromptu presentation about Speechify. At the end, 15 of the schools offered to fly me to their locations, in the US and in Europe and the Middle East, to have me present to their kids about Speechify, and about how to learn by listening."
Few startups reach tremendous success without encountering a few obstacles along the way. For Weitzman, one of those obstacles came in the form of an important decision. Should he focus solely on those who have learning challenges? Or should he develop an app that caters more to productivity concerns of the population at large? Weitzman saw a growing demand for a text-to-speech solution that lets busy people read website content, email and other materials on the go.
"The solution is to walk a fine line where we build a product that doesn't make users feel stigmatized but empowered, and that at the same time brands the product in a way that makes it speak to both users with learning differences and those time-saving productivity users," Weitzman says.
In addition to freeing up people to read anywhere, Speechify can also dramatically speed up reading time for its users, since many find they can process information more quickly by listening than by reading.
"We've seen middle school students with dyslexia go from reading 120 words per minute to listening at 540 words per minute over the course of two weeks," Weitzman says.
"It's quite dramatic when I play it slowly and then speed it up, especially for kids when I tell them they can cut their reading time in half," says Jon Green, Head of School at the Hamilton School for Students with Learning Differences. "Hamilton kids know how many words they can read per minute."
The app has already grown rapidly. The goal is to keep that going so in the next couple of years, every person with dyslexia or a similar learning difference is using Speechify for reading. Currently, thousands of students use the app to read.
"I see a situation in which kids who previously felt ashamed that they learned differently, and didn't feel empowered and didn't feel smart, will feel smart and feel empowered," Weitzman says.
Diane Green, a learning specialist at Brown University's Alpert Medical School, believes the app will become increasingly popular with medical students who have a reading disorder. For those students, keeping up with the rapid pace of medical school has long been challenging.
"With the capability of using Speechify, these same students can listen to written information at a pace that is comfortable for them," Green says. "The students can see the text as it is being spoken, thereby significantly improving their reading of medical terminology."
Like many app-based startups, Speechify offers a pro version. The free version includes unlimited reading and playback controls. However, to access high-quality voices, capture text from a picture, and easily send documents as audiobooks to your phone, you'll need the premium version, which costs $2.99 per month. Weitzman says he isn't looking for investment currently.
With an app that helps challenged students as well as busy professionals, Weitzman wants to revolutionize the way people with disabilities read and learn. In addition to enriching the lives of young people, he's hoping it catches on with a larger audience by shrinking your reading list.
If you like stories about entrepreneurs helping out underserved communities, check out some of the other stories in the series. Meet the entrepreneur who started a reality TV show featuring Lebron James in an effort to boost small businesses in Cleveland. Or, meet the entrepreneur helping thousands of disadvantaged kids learn personal finance.