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    Taking Back Tech: Why I'm Building Pinwheel

    by Dane Witbeck

    Pinwheel Co-Founder

    “What are you going to build next?” my former business partner and co-founder asked me as I left Meshify in October 2018. It was a good question, and I didn’t know.

     

    I had been thinking about that question since 2016 when our first startup, Meshify, was successfully acquired by MunichRE (MUV2.MI). This question was a huge driver behind deciding to become an angel investor and spend a significant amount of time and money on that endeavor. Building deal flow of early stage companies to evaluate and invest in provides a higher level overview of the startup and technology landscape. Smart entrepreneurs educate you in all sorts of fields. In total, I reviewed more than 1,000 startups since exiting Meshify in October of 2016 and have invested in 23.

     

    So after all of that, why start Pinwheel out of every possible industry and technology trend I’ve seen? As both an entrepreneur and investor I’ve learned that compelling and winning companies have strong answers to the following questions. Here are mine for “Why work on building a mobile OS for elementary-school aged kids?”

    What do you believe that others do not, and you're right?

    The prevailing wisdom of the day is to hold off on providing a phone to your kids for AS LONG AS POSSIBLE. This was the logic I bought into as well, until I stopped to really think about it.

     

    As parents, it’s our job to teach our kids correct principles and give them a foundation while they’re still in a safe space. Technology is inevitable in their lives, so they desperately need guidance from us.

     

    I realized that the real issue is not that we shouldn’t give kids “a phone” at an early age, it’s that we shouldn’t give them an addictive experience built to tether them to a screen above all other considerations in the world. We shouldn’t stunt their emotional well-being, and prevent them from making authentic connections. We shouldn’t rob them of the magic inherent in discovery and curiosity that defines a healthy childhood. None of these things are required to be present in a phone, they just happen to be present in phones as we know them today. All of these negative consequences from “the phone” stem from a broken business model for kids.

     

    So why don’t we just opt-out and avoid technology entirely or go with a completely dumb phone with nothing on it? Well, a lot of people are doing that, and today that’s a rational choice given the terrible options. However, as parents, it’s our job to teach our kids correct principles and give them a foundation while they’re still in a safe space. Technology is inevitable in their lives, so they desperately need guidance from us. There is a job to be done here that is simply not being done for families or the larger ecosystem of well-intended app developers that focus on kids.

    Why are you deeply passionate about this?

    This one is simple, I’m a dad. Like every parent, I love and care about my kids above everything. Technology WILL be a part of their future, it’s inevitable. So am I happy with the technology options available for my kids today? If you’re a parent, you need read no further, you know the answer. Building my life around serving kids and families is as natural to me as drinking water, and it has the benefit of being deeply important to a lot of others as well.

    Why you? What's special about you that makes you the bestperson to build this company?

    There are several things that make me the right person at the right time for this company. How many entrepreneurs have built a previous company that includes: a platform on which other apps are built, a linux-based piece of hardware, shipping/logistics management, designing both the embedded software plus the controls backend software and had a successful outcome from that endeavor? How many of those people are parents with kids at the right ages to live the problems everyday? On top of this, I’ve been an avid student of intersection of productivity and how technology can best be leveraged as a tool in my own life since my teens. I’m in a unique situation with a very specific tech background and personal history. Now I’ve put together a team with very complementary skill sets and equally unique personal histories that provide insights for us to follow. We’re a dream team for this mission.

    Why won't big tech just crush you?

    One may be tempted to sit back and wait for the big tech companies to realize this and fix it themselves. After all, they’ve offered lip service to these issues and they seem to agree with the problem (or at least the PR problem).

     

    If I wait, my kids will be grown and will have lived through hell getting there.

     

    The issue is that their businesses are already built. Their models are already set. Their relationships are forged and their cultures ingrained. No, we can’t wait for big tech to fix itself and stop advertising-based business models. If I wait, my kids will be grown and will have lived through hell getting there.

    If this is so great, why hasn't it been done before or why has everyone who's tried failed?

    Timing. It’s a really important thing for startups. Too early and you miss the market being “ready” to accept your vision of the world. Too late and you have competitors with a head start. Research has become extremely compelling as of late in the area of how addictive apps hurt kids. Parents are seeing it first hand, and they’re ready to jump ship.

     

    Eventually, more and more adults will want to jump on the “100% paid software” train themselves.

     

    There is also the rise of the “subscription” economy. Calm, Headspace, Spotify and many others have proven that consumers are now ready to take the money they are saving in their budget from cord cutting and apply it broadly across several needs in their home. Wireless bills have also dropped in the last few years, leaving more space to be filled with new subscriptions. Adults may not be ready to abandon the “free ad-driven software” model for themselves, but they sure don’t want to send their kids into that world. Eventually, more and more adults will want to jump on the “100% paid software” train themselves. Where will they turn? Interesting question, isn’t it…

    The world is ready for something new.

    An old business model which has produced negative externalities becomes an opportunity for an upstart to do something better for the rising generation. Like electric vehicles, environmentally friendly supply chains, or meat made from vegetables, Pinwheel is building something better for the next generation. 100% paid software is the future. It’s a different approach at our foundation. We’ve decided to start where the problem is most acute, the habits not yet formed and the solutions greatly lacking. We’re starting with our most precious resource as a society, our incredible kids.

     

    Pinwheel, Good Tech for Curious Kids.


    Dane Witbeck is a serial startup founder and venture investor. He previously co-founded Meshify, an Internet-of-Things startup that builds hardware and software for residential and small business risk monitoring. Meshify was acquired in 2016 by publicly-traded insurer Munich RE (MUV2) out of Munich, Germany. Since 2016, he's supported 23 startups as a venture investor. Dane studied engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and then studied business at Stanford's Graduate School of Business. When not building startups, Dane can likely be found coaching a kids sports game, painting small nails, cooking with little helpers, or camping and 4x4ing in his '69 Bronco with the family.