We talked to Hasan Zafer Elcik of Otsimo about its games that support special education and the impact of COVID-19
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Hasan Zafer Elcik: I believe these times have been equally confusing and frustrating to everyone. Many people had to put their dreams, plans, and hope to a shelf indefinitely. On top of this, we had to stay far away from the people we love. We are scared even to hug our grandparents. However, we need to stay strong, healthy, and safe. This is exactly what we are doing. In a family with a special needs child staying home was a completely different challenge. We stay home apart from essential shopping, and I don’t go to the office unless I must. It has vastly changed our routine.
My brother has severe autism, and children with autism are highly dependent on their routine. Any unexpected change in the routine causes frustration and anger in the child. The special education centers are currently closed, so my heart is with all the strong families who needed to rebuild their routines at home. My family and I know how hard it is. We are lucky to live in a big enough house so that we all have our own space when we need it. My parents are very dedicated to my brother’s education, so they are also more used to staying home than me. For my teammates and me working from home has not been easy. At first, it was different and fun, but gradually it was lonely and demotivating. Hopefully, we’ll get through these times safe and sound.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Otsimo.
Hasan Zafer Elcik: A close and genius friend of mine and I founded the company when we were both enrolled in computer science. We were participating in hackathons and trying to create a solution for different problems at first. As we met new people who were in the startup ecosystem, they motivated us to develop a solution to an actual problem close to our hearts. My brother was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, and I was 10. So I wouldn’t be lying if I said I had this idea for a very long time by the time we founded Otsimo. I have also been learning from my brother’s teachers on how I can help him learn things, so I was already familiar with a lot of concepts to at least develop a prototype. The idea was to design an educational game that helps special children to learn. We designed it as an app for smart devices because when I got my first smartphone, I realized how long my brother could stay focused on it. We figured smart devices are the vehicles for us.
To briefly introduce, Otsimo Special Education is a gamified educational app. This means we design educational content in a gamified context so that children stay more engaged and focused. We currently have 1500+ games and exercises combined, which are carefully developed with special education professionals, speech-language pathologists, and pediatric psychologists. Our content focuses on triggering improvement of the motor and cognitive skills that eventually aims to help children reach their developmental milestones. We personalize your curriculum according to your child’s current skills. There, you can also track the progress, and we provide you with a detailed analysis of which skills your child has improved playing the games. We approximately release a total of 5-6 games per month, so parents don’t need to worry if the games are updated or if it’s currently relevant to our surroundings.
How does Otsimo innovate?
Hasan Zafer Elcik: The problem I wanted to solve was from my very own personal life. I knew this part of the issue was untouched and, more importantly, unnoticed. In the US, 1 in 54 individuals have autism spectrum disorder, and the closest thing to a cure we can provide them is early and intensive education. In my home country, when you break down the numbers to how many children with autism are able to satisfy this need, it’s not even 5% of the total number. Imagine how much potential we lose against these odds. However, I know we can fix these odds. Our team consists of young enthusiastic professionals. We have a pediatric psychologist and a special education specialist in the house, along with top of the class developers and marketers. We’ve trained the whole team in the traditional methods of educating children with autism; everybody is familiar with the techniques.
On top of this, we are constantly searching for new ways to combine with these methods and implement them in our apps. For instance, in Otsimo Speech, we use machine learning to help children get better at talking, and we took video modeling to a new level where children get a chance to interact with their peers. This is where Otsimo innovates. We realized a pain, combined existing research and methods with modern cutting-edge technology tools to ease it. We designed a concrete and new solution to the problem. We not only enable an affordable and accessible educational system but also one that is objective and scalable. Small resources lead to helping hundreds of children with special needs.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Hasan Zafer Elcik: Since we develop mobile education software, the demand for our subscriptions saw a huge increase. We were one of the few lucky companies that had it. Given that special education centers are closed, everybody searched for an alternative that enabled homeschooling. Our apps are a great fit, whether you want to use them to support your therapy sessions or pursue a personalized curriculum only by using them. Our team had a very busy couple of months because we needed to create new material for our users to use at home. Also, we offered the highest discount we’ve ever introduced in our annual subscription. In short, we used the best resources we’ve got to support the families of special needs children.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Hasan Zafer Elcik:Being a social impact-oriented company has its perks and its complications. At Otsimo, we put social impact in the heart of everything we do. At the end of the day, what counts is how many children we’ve reached and how many we’ve helped. This has a habit of leading us to a crossroads. We often find ourselves trying to ethically balance our range of social impact and the company’s sustainability. Almost every decision comes with a tradeoff, so it wouldn’t be a stretch when I say we usually face difficult decisions. When we founded the company, the goal was to help every single child with special needs access the affordable education they rightfully deserve. Any social impact startup would agree that with limited resources, you are not able to grow as fast. Sometimes you utilize your resources for social impact at the expense of sustainability; sometimes, it’s the other way around. The biggest challenge is always finding a healthy balance.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Otsimo in the future?
Hasan Zafer Elcik:Since we are a B2C company, our business touches the lives of people directly, and we are in close contact with the families of Otsimo. Knowing you help make lives better at the end of the day is rewarding in so many ways, especially when our users share their experience with the apps that changed their lives with us. In this sense, we team up with people whose internal motivations are bigger than their external motivations. Thriving with a team full of heart is so valuable; you see these amazing young professionals believe in our cause and try to go above and beyond of what is expected from them. Being around such a team helps me through the most stressful times.
I’ll always be proactive in finding solutions to more accessible and affordable education for everyone, especially children. And I know I’m not walking alone. Otsimo and I are the start of it, but I’m sure of the snowball we’ve created. As awareness increases, we’ll touch even more lives.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Hasan Zafer Elcik:Otsimo Special Education offers an extensive curriculum that allows children to improve skills ranging from reading to maths and art. On this, we don’t have a 100% matching competitor in the app market. There are other apps designed for kids, some aim to teach reading and writing, and some aim to improve speech development. As competitors as we are, we also learn a lot from each other. It’s inevitable that your competition isn’t also your collaboration. Since you have to create and come up with new ideas fast, it also keeps the motivation up in the company. We’ve been doing this for a very long time and developed know-how in the company. But every day, somewhere in the world, a new technique or technology is discovered that we can also implement in our apps and optimize the games accordingly. We always have to keep up with these developments as well.
I had a dream of democratizing education. After Otsimo Special Education, we also designed an app for speech therapy. This was our first step in where we could offer education both for neurotypical children and children with autism. Because simply put, if a child cannot say the letter “r,” he can also utilize Otsimo Speech. Extending the new areas means we get to reach more children. That’s the key to staying in the game, using your know-how, and not being afraid to be more.
Your final thoughts?
Hasan Zafer Elcik: We’ve learned a lot during this pandemic. The key take always on our end is there’s always room for improvement. We were challenged in ways we haven’t been before, and as hard as it was, it also expanded our horizon. We have been trying to increase autism awareness and have been running a marathon for accessible education. In this sense, the pandemic broke the prejudice against online education. While we had to stay in our homes, we also brought the whole world to our apartments as well. Suddenly yoga, education, cooking class, everything we once thought was impossible from afar was put to the test and was tried online. No matter the situation outside, we got close to each other every day. Please believe that this, too, can be online, thus, more accessible and eventually more affordable. This is Otsimo’s vision for tomorrow.