Lightwell’s CEO and Founder talks tech, tools, and storytelling.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

She’s the founder and CEO of Lightwell (https://lightwell.pro/education), the makers behind Hullabalu and she’s creating a buzz and lighting up the world wherever she goes—including for students and classrooms.

Lightwell is the first pro creative tool to make interactive mobile apps with visual coding (Hullabalu’s original story apps have been built in Lightwell).

Suzanne’s original series, “The Adventures of Pan” has over 1.5M global installs, is a number one iTunes Books bestseller in over 48 countries, has been chosen as an Apple Editor’s Choice app, and has over 600 5-star ratings in the App Store.

Her interactive media startup is re-inventing storytelling through their new creator software, which is among the world’s first to empower creators by moving from asset creation to production-ready apps without requiring any coding experience.

Their investors include SV Angel, Initialized Capital, Vayner RSE, Technicolor, Rothenberg Ventures, 645 Ventures and Nas.

For students, Suzanne’s tool provides everyone a means of unleashing their own creativity.

For Suzanne, it’s a story she’s been working on for a long time.

You have an interesting story.

I was born in China and raised on the East Coast. After college, I moved to Palo Alto to start my first company and now find myself back in New York. My first company, Weardrobe, was one of the first sites for user-generated fashion – where girls would upload outfits of what they wore on a daily basis and share the stories of their fashion inspiration.

It was fascinating to see where girls got their inspiration, what they were wearing, how they told their own story through their clothes. As a business, it was an interesting platform to make fashion more discoverable and searchable.

I took that experience and built on it for my next company, really questioning where content platforms and storytelling would lead.

“I think we’re in a transitional time. And perhaps we’re always transitioning when it comes to technology in education.”  

We asked ourselves, if a company like Pixar started today, what would that look like?

We set out to create a new type interactive story, and were just crazy enough to create our own story, our own characters…we voiced them, animated them, and built this entire interactive adventure world called The Adventures of Pan.

As we built our first story, we realized how difficult it was, not only to create the content but to make the content interactive and build it in interactive app form.

The very first app took us nine full months to build with a full development team and art team.

And that’s a really long time. So we started to build our own internal tools to make the process and to make the workflow faster.

That’s where Lightwell was born.

Our second story app took us seven months. Our third story app took us five months. By the time we created our very last story app, it took us two weeks.

Two weeks with no developers to build the same app that took us nine months at the beginning with a full development team.

That was our AHA moment: We could create tools to empower everyone to be a creator instead of just a consumer. That’s what we’re building with Lightwell now.

Wow, love it. You’re obviously young, bright, entrepreneurial and yet a business veteran. You sold that company Weardrobe back in 2007, that was a while ago.

There are a lot of directions you could have taken, why now, edtech?

Great question. We ask ourselves that as a team too, what really, is edtech? Education is in this really interesting time now where there is technology integrated into everything we do.

Technology is used by professionals. It’s used in the classroom. It’s used by the teachers. It’s used at the district level.

What we’ve learned over the last year with Lightwell in the classroom is that, students and teachers are looking for the same tools and technology that is used by professionals in the industry. They don’t want tools that are simplified for students. That’s very exciting to see.

I think it’s awesome that Lightwell is being used in the classroom. The fact that it’s getting used in classrooms is less about us being an edtech company and more about where education is today.

Lightwell is a professional tool, a creative tool for anyone with an idea—to enable them to build the apps and tell their stories.

The skills and experiences that students have in the classroom will inform what they pursue after they graduate.

What ideas do they have? What can they create? What kinds of products do they use to build?

We’re just a creative software company building really cool tools looking to support the next generation of creators.

Awesome. Okay. I understand that completely. And that’s well put.

There are certain people that, after talking to them, you feel better after having conversed. I see you as one of those people. Who are those people in your life that have inspired you? Who and how?

Thanks. 

My parents. My parents have lived the American Dream and seeing how hard they worked has been a constant source of inspiration for me. They came to the States with less than a hundred bucks and built a completely new life for our family.

When I was young, I didn’t understand all the lessons they taught me, and why they insisted on doing things a certain way. But looking back now, I can pinpoint certain parts of my personality or certain characteristics of what makes me a good leader to things that my parents instilled in me as a kid.

I’ve also been super fortunate in my career with who I’ve worked with—the cofounders that I’ve started companies with, colleagues who worked with me and investors who have supported me—I’ve been lucky to have been surrounded by pretty good people.

Are you Pan?

Am I Pan?

Funny question. I think I have more of Pan in me than I’d like to admit. 

Pan has a little bit of me in her, but I think everyone has a little Pan in them.

When we first created Pan, we had spent a lot of time doing research on different heroes in children’s media and children’s stories.

Specifically, I cared a lot about female heroes and role models. Growing up, I was always looking for heroes that reflected me or reflected my values.

When we looked around at existing female heroes, we didn’t find many that let a co-ed cast. Female heroes tended to either be solo heroes or lead a cast of other females.

So that was something that we wanted to create with Pan. And we wanted to have fun with it.

In general, I think everyone’s got a little Pan in them. She’s kind of mischievous and adventurous, and a little bit gluttonous.

What else do you have up your sleeve? Your creative sleeve? —Or can you say?

Suzanne: I think that there are more ideas than there is time in the day!

As a team, we always joke about fun app ideas and side stories. There are definitely stories and character ideas that we wanted to work on on the side or over the weekend. But before Lightwell, it was just not possible.

So there might be some interesting side stories that we might be coming out with just for fun, because it’s so much easier to do it now with the tool.

Interesting. What sort of inspirations have led you to … What sort of story or side story?

We created a lot of backstory for the world of Pan and Hullabalu which is still sitting in the archives. So we have some scripts, and we have some characters, and story lines that we’ve created and written that we haven’t produced yet.

We have our hands full with Lightwell right now, but maybe one day in the future we’ll break them out of the library!

You studied economics, for some synonymous with boredom. And now the antithesis, you’re involved with a highly creative activity. So how do you account for that? And does that help to instill discipline into something that’s a very open ended type of process?

Yeah. That’s a good question. I never thought economics was boring, but I can see why some people do.

I think Economics gives you an interesting way of looking at the world.

I think I’ve applied my background in Economics to the discipline of storytelling through my approach. While storytelling and creating cartoon characters sounds like this wild and crazy ride, it’s actually a very disciplined process.

There’s a lot of research that you have to do first to figure out what kind of story do you want to tell. What do your characters stand for? What kind of story arc are you drawn to? What are you trying to accomplish with your story?

Storytelling is actually a very structured process. And I love that.

And then once you have that, once you’ve created the initial foundation of the content and the story that you’re creating, then how do you go and actually design that character, and then animate that character, and then voice that character, and then put it all together into this interactive story app?

You have to be disciplined about your process to execute on it well. Creativity with constraints is a beautiful thing.

Storytelling is one of humanity’s oldest forms of learning, you might say.

Yes. And it’s what will outlive all of us.

And now we’re back to education, and you used quite a bit of technology. What do you think technology’s role is in education?

That’s a hard question to answer, because I think there are many different ways technology is going to change education and change the world.

I think a lot about how technology will augment what we can do. Whether it’s helping teachers in the classroom teach more effectively or helping students communicate their ideas more clearly.

Looking back on the projects that we had to do as students, like putting images on poster board or writing book reports, that’s not even close to what students have the ability to create today. What they’re able to create is so much more interesting and exciting.

Students are learning coding and cyber security in computer science. They are building apps in art class. They are making robots battle in science class.

They’re learning with all these different creative software tools. They’re learning how to paint with VR.

Having access to all these professional tools really levels up what the finished product that they can put out into the world. Fostering skills of the future if you will.

I heard one example recently where a teacher had their students learn to program and fly drones in the classroom. Then they used that skill to create a small side business, to fly drones and take aerial footage, charging by the hour.

It’s exciting that they’re learning these skills and have access to the kind of the technology that they can take and apply in the real world.

That’s true with Lightwell, too. A student could learn app creation, and then go to local businesses and say, “Hey, I can go build your store an app for a hundred dollars.” Then walk down the street and do that for another business. That’s a real life skill set that they can use outside of the classroom.

That being said, I think there’s also an overwhelming amount of technology that we have to be thoughtful about. What works for what setting, and what’s the right tool to put in front of students?

“We live in interesting times,” is a phrase that you might apply to any century, but I think it’s especially fun to apply it to right now. What is the state of education today, and what makes you think whatever you’re going to tell me?

I think the state of education is—in a transitional time. And perhaps we’re always transitioning when it comes to technology in education.

Education is one of the most important industries to spend time improving on and building technology to improve the education space is rewarding.

There are a lot of new tools and software being used in the classroom, and there’s a very large spectrum of what teachers are choosing to integrate into the classroom.

In general, I’m optimistic about where are are with technology in education. There is still a ton to be learned about what are the most effective and useful tools in the classroom. Some teachers are really excited and some teachers are more hesitant. It will take time for the best tools to bubble to the top, and by then, there will be new technology for us to consider.

Are you with Lightwell for the long haul? And how long is long in today’s rapid change world?

I am with Lightwell for the long haul. I’m also really lucky that I have a strong team that I’ve been working with that shares my vision.

The long haul is hard to answer because – the world is changing very quickly.

Even the larger companies in the space are identifying problems and launching new products at a faster pace. The benefit of being a lean team is that we can move very quickly and respond to our customers and the market.

We have been in this space for a long time. I mean, six years isn’t exactly a long time, but in the world of technology—you know, the iPad only came out about a decade ago. We’ve been around and building apps for the majority of the time that the iPad has been out.

We’ve been thinking about tablets, mobile, and interactive content for a long time. And we’re still really excited about it. So, we’re here to stay.

What are some of your thoughts about technology trends that will strongly influence or change education?

I get really excited thinking about two specific pieces of where technology is going to change education. One is very relevant to what we’re doing, which is software and creative tools that enable a wider range of skills.

Lightwell is one of those tools. We hope to see it in a lot more classrooms, and want to empower a lot more students to understand how easy it is to create interactive content and apps.

That’s still something that is scary right now for a lot of people. I don’t know how to code. How do I build something? Or how do I get it out into the world?

We’ve seen that building websites has gotten a lot easier over the last 5 years. And we hope that mobile will be the same. So that’s one space that we’re excited about.

Lightwell will be releasing as a creative tool on Chromebook this summer, so that even more students and schools will be able to access it. It’s an exciting challenge to pack so much feature power into an Android app that runs on even the lightest hardware devices. We can’t wait to see what students do with it! You can sign up for a free trial and stay in the loop for when it launches.

The other thing I’m interested in is how AI is going to help teachers in the classroom. Whether it’s identifying students that need more help than others, or making it easier for teachers to do some of the more mundane tasks that they already don’t have enough time for in the day. There are a lot of ways that technology can automate things for them so that they can spend more time working with students and teaching.

Yeah, it sure does. Alright, well, Suzanne, I don’t have too much more for you except for this question. Is there anything that you were hoping we would discuss, but we didn’t touch upon it and you wanted to say something? Or maybe there’s something else that you wanted to emphasize and here’s your opportunity for that.

Yeah. I think we covered a lot of interesting topics, so thank you Victor, for coming up with the questions and having this conversation.

The main thing I hope to see more people asking is: “How can we use technology to challenge students to be creators of their own story?”

I’d like to see more conversations around how to integrate technology across multiple disciplines outside of computer science and coding classes. There are many different ways that we should be integrating technology into humanities, visual arts, and science.

This generation has grown up on the mobile medium, and they should be challenged to create for it as well. So I hope to see a lot more of that.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com