A Q&A with SPARKON founder and CEO Bryan Starbuck. The Redmond, Washington-based startup, which provides ‘life maps’ called SPARKMAPS that assist young people with long-term planning, recently launched to the public out of beta. It was founded in 2012.
SUB: Please describe SPARKON and your primary innovation.
Starbuck: For young people, the most important thing in their life is finding their path in life. SPARKON visualizes their future by decoding their internal passion with personality tests. Young people then build their future, by using our learning videos. We give the young person and their parents a 20-to-30 page SPARKMAP, which are like interactive infographics explaining their personality types, what that means, and how to build their future. This includes recommending college majors and careers, and explaining why people with their personality types are most likely to enjoy them and how their unique strengths apply to those careers. We are great for 10-to-25 year olds.
Every section of the SPARKMAP connects to videos that are fun because they match their passions. They also contain learning, which helps them build their future. We have extensive tools for parents to monitor progress and utilize our motivational system to encourage the young person to make progress every month building that future.
SUB: Who are your target markets and users?
Starbuck: SPARKON is for young people, ages 10-to-25. Their parents can also connect in if they are under 19. We are for anyone that is curious about understanding or maximizing their future or those interested in pursuing their interests or passions—music, video games, etc.
SUB: Who do you consider to be your competition?
Starbuck: We don’t have any direct competitors. Khan Academy uses the same method of learning videos, but they focus on teaching school subjects. We think Khan Academy is wonderful. Their videos are in our product and we highly recommend using them to learn school basics. We are similar to Khan Academy, but for your life and future rather than only academics. This includes getting into college, choosing the right college major and career, building your other interests and rounding out the rest of your life.
Myers-Briggs personality tests can be useful for adults with a lot of work experience but aren’t relatable or useful for people without significant work experience. Our personality tests are great for young people, including people younger than 18. Ours are easy to understand and very relatable. One of our personality tests is directly designed for connecting college majors and careers.
Learni.st has some learning videos, but it’s for adults. It doesn’t have the future visualization or personality tests. They often focus on news or topical issues.
Udemy is for adults who are willing to spend higher amounts of money to invest in a serious part of their life, and primarily to build a very targeted technical or business skill.
Most learning products or similar products are for elementary aged kids or older than 25-year-olds, which makes it harder to find a comparable product.
eHarmony’s algorithms are actually driven off of insights that come from personality tests. We similarly are also heavily algorithm-based and work from insights into their personality types, interests and passions.
SUB: What differentiates SPARKON from the competition?
Starbuck: We visualize a student’s perfect future, finding their internal passion and their personality types. And then we build a learning curriculum custom to a specific person’s internal passion and plans for their future. Khan Academy has 4,000 learning videos, we have 16,000 learning videos.
We have incredible support for parents, who often want to help support their children to discover or efficiently craft their path in life. There are many educational products for elementary aged kids. We have fun videos for a more mature audience in middle school, high school and college.
SUB: When was the company founded and what were the first steps you took in establishing it?
Starbuck: We were founded in the beginning of 2012. We had silent beta versions where we iterated based on the feedback from parents and young people using our product over the last six months.
SUB: What was the inspiration behind the idea for SPARKON? Was there an ‘aha’ moment, or was the idea more gradual in developing?
Starbuck: I discovered, and became very involved with, computer programming when I was 11-years-old. I was a computer programmer coming out of college. I found a very unique pattern among other kids who found computer programming early in life: it gave us a serious passion, a fun and deep area to play until college—as well as our likely college major—and an idea for a career. It also showed us something fun that would likely be a hobby as an adult. This gave me, and people like me, clarity and a sense of confidence and security in my life.
I found that almost every other young person just didn’t have this level of confidence, certainty or vision for their future. Our goal is to bring this vision, confidence level, and clear path ahead to all young people, even when their internal passions vary widely.
SUB: How did you come up with the name? What is the story behind it?
Starbuck: People are driven by their inner spark or inner passion. Young people will naturally hop from YouTube video to video, or Khan Academy video to video, like stepping stones. We map out all of young people’s passions in their SPARKMAP, which includes short-term hobbies, academics, getting into college, career, and much more. We convert each of these passions into video stepping stones. We then get young people into the pattern of having fun going from video to video. They are meaningful videos because they build their future and have learning content, but they are always fun because they are aligned with the young person’s passions.
‘SPARKON’ is a term about loving the learning because it matches your internal spark—then wanting to surf on to more videos, like hopping from one stepping stone to the next.
SUB: You recently launched to the public. Why was it the right time to launch?
Starbuck: This is the first time we’ve launched under the SPARKON brand. We did our lean startup iterations with beta customers under a beta name. We found our product received the iterations we needed, based on student and parent feedback, in order to be a successful product. We determined this is the ideal time to launch our product.
SUB: Do you have plans to seek outside funding in the near future?
Starbuck: We have raised funding but aren’t disclosing it at this time. We will add more funding over time.
SUB: What have the most significant obstacles been so far to building the company?
Starbuck: We are 400 percent larger than Khan Academy, in the number of learning videos. Our ability to visualize student’s futures with personality tests and the extensive amount of learning videos took significant amounts of time to accomplish.
SUB: How does the company generate revenue or plan to generate revenue?
Starbuck: We have a free version for young people. Parents can pay $6.95 per month for a Family account, or $3.33 per month with an annual plan. Student accounts receive more features when their parents connect them to the family plan. Adult users who don’t have their parents involved can pay for our product directly. We also offer a 30-day trial for the Family account. We will enable our billing features soon.
SUB: What are your goals for SPARKON over the next year or so?
Starbuck: Our plans are to grow with the number of parents and young people using our product while continuing to add useful features to make the product even more powerful and useful.
SPARKON – www.sparkon.com