Who are you and what business did you start?
Elnaz Sarraf is the CEO & founder of the award-winning ROYBI Robot – world’s first AI-powered smart toy to teach children language and STEM skills. It also has been named one of TIME Magazine’s Best Inventions in Education, on the 2019 CNBC Upstart 100 list as one of the world’s most promising startups and on Fast Company’s 2019 World-Changing Ideas. Elnaz is also a Board Member at Consumer Technology Association, Small Business Council and member of Forbes Technology Council.
Growing up as a woman in Iran, Elnaz witnessed the limited opportunities, leading her on her journey in the U.S. to become an entrepreneur and create a technology that would empower children by providing universal access to personalized learning and an education that prepares them for a better future. With 15 years of experience as a serial entrepreneur, Elnaz leads ROYBI; an investor-backed EdTech company that raised $4.2 million in its seed round focusing on early childhood education and self-guided learning through artificial intelligence.
Before starting ROYBI, Elnaz co-founded and led a consumer electronics/IoT company, iBaby, serving as the company’s President. As an immigrant and female founder, Elnaz has made worthy accomplishments in a short duration of living in the US. Honors include being selected as Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center Milestone Maker, named the Woman of Influence through Silicon Valley Business Journal and Entrepreneur of The Year in Silicon Valley. She has been a speaker at several conferences such as the Mobile World Congress, ASU GSV Summit, Consumer Technology Association and more
What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I came to the United States when I was in my early twenties to start a new life. Knowing English and the American culture helped me adjust to American culture and excel in my studies. So I experienced firsthand, how learning a different language early in life can help reach your goals later on. We know that exposure to multiple languages at an early age is significant for children’s future success. Still, not every family can afford to hire private tutors or sign up their child at a language immersion school. Parents I met at different research groups often told me about their interest in an affordable and smart technology that can expose their children to multiple languages.
During a discussion I had with my co-founder, Ron Cheng, I learned about his shared interests as an engineer and a parent for a smart toy that can help his children with self-guided learning with fun stories and engaging lessons. Together, we decided to work on an education toy robot that can address this need for parents. With ROYBI Robot, we chose to utilize AI early on in our planning stage to ensure that teaching with the robot is interactive rather than passive. We want the experience of learning and interacting with ROYBI Robot to interest children more in STEM topics and curious about innovations
Describe the process of launching the business.
From the very beginning, we knew that we wanted to create an AI-powered robot that teaches, but our subject matter was quite broad. With some research and discussions with educators and professionals, we finally decided to narrow down our focus on language learning and communications. Because our team all learned English as their second language, we felt strongly towards early education and exposure to different languages and cultures. Communication skills are critical to any professional and personal success, so we wanted to teach a language alongside good listening and speaking skills.
Raising the first round of funding to build our hardware that showed our vision to the investors’ community was quite challenging. We realized that no matter how well we described our idea, getting support will not be possible without a physical prototype, so we decided to build a prototype. My co-founder and I started knocking on factory doors one after another to convince them to make only a few models for us that can help us visualize our idea. Once we had a factory onboard and a product in hand, we managed to secure funding.
After securing funding, we had to work very hard to structure our artificial intelligence algorithm. That was the most difficult part of our product development. ROYBI Robot has several AI components such as voice recognition, face detection, and emotion recognition. All these should work in combination to enhance the child’s learning experience.
Then, we launched our first campaign on Indiegogo crowdfunding in November 2019. That’s the time that Time Magazine named ROYBI Robot as one of the best inventions in Education. We officially launched the product to the market in May 2020 with some retailers such as Amazon, BuyBuyBaby, Best Buy, Walmart, and Sam’s Club.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Our first customers found us on Indiegogo during our first round of fundraising, and then gradually through word of mouth or the press coverages that we received. We launched our Indiegogo campaign in November 2019 for about 2 months, shortly after, we got surprised with a recognition from Time Magazine as one of the best inventions in education in 2019. We were featured twice on the magazine’s cover which led to many sales.
We also do social media and content marketing. We have found that videos as well as TV advertisement have work the best for us to reach our customers.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We’re strongly focused on creating a connected community where learners, parents, and educators can come together to make a larger ecosystem. This helps us to make ROYBI and its technology available to as many children as possible and to provide quality education through an interactive learning experience. Our goal is to make ROYBI Robot available to millions of children across the globe. Therefore, we are always looking for partnerships, distribution, and experts to help us grow the business.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Throughout my business, I’ve learned to be persistent but also be patient. When building a business, there are a lot of ups and downs that we go through. It is important to work hard but also understand that great things take time.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Google Suite, Zoom, Slack, and Dropbox are essential part of our company’s growth especially that most of us are working remotely from all around the world.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I like watching quick YouTube videos on a daily basis. The topics range from business to investing, real estate, marketing, and even motivational stories. I found short videos being more helpful for me since I do not have a lot of time to read books.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Stay focused and be persistent. Don’t give up easily just because you failed at a few tries. It may take 100 tries until you get it right