(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second article in a two-part series that focuses on a South Knoxville business and its team that provided the foundation for the winner of this year’s “What’s the Big Idea” competition. This article is all about “Sing and Spell,” winner of the competition. It also launches a multi-part series spotlighting other competitors in the event.)
By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
It only takes a few minutes to realize that the team behind “Sing and Spell” is driven by the passion for what they are trying to accomplish, not the financial gain.
It starts with the team’s leader – Cathy Vangieri, a former elementary school teacher experienced in teaching English to young children whose native language is something else. Before she became a classroom teacher, Vangieri had experience in the music industry with MTV and children’s programming with the Nickelodeon network.
There’s also Todd Carter, the father of three daughters – including six and eight year olds – who brings that personal passion to the table. Other equally motivated team members include David Grimes, Mark Radice, and Joe Vangieri.
Together, they have formed a company named Children’s Media Studio, and its first product is “Sing and Spell.” Cathy serves as its President and Content Director, Carter is Director of Media and Technologies, Radice is Creative Director, and Grimes is Director of Marketing.
“When we looked around and saw our skill sets, we saw a real opportunity,” she said. The four are part of DigiTrax Entertainment that serves the karaoke, cable and broadcast television industries as well as providing a state-of-the-art recording studio for musicians.
The ideation for “Sing and Spell” started about two years ago, and the company was formed last fall.
It is a remarkable team with complementary capabilities to those Cathy has. For example, Carter has more than 30 years of experience in the video industry with a specialty in animation, while Radice worked with the legendary Jim Henson on “Muppets at Walt Disney World” and then went on to write more than 200 original songs for Sesame Street.
Carter recalls that Radice rewrote the “ABC Song.” As they listened to his version of the popular children’s song, they found it really catchy. That sparked an interest in creating a character to sing the new version. They started with an animated grasshopper named Al Phabet.
“We had a sketch made, then Todd brought the animated grasshopper into the lab to make him move and sing,” Vangieri said. After that, they were off to the races with their idea.
The tagline for Children’s Media is “Education Made Fun.” Cathy describes their first product “Sing and Spell – Learning Letters” as “a fun, engaging experience for pre-readers.”
There’s a teacher appropriately named Missy Cathy and lively characters like Al Phabet who sing their way through the 26 letters of the alphabet. As such, there is a song, written by Radice, for each letter. The approach involves helping the pre-readers learn letter sounds, see and hear different words that include the letter, and practice letter sounds by singing fun songs.
If you are going to reach youngsters, chances are it will be through an app. Thanks to “What’s the Big Idea,” the team now has an app that was developed during the 48-hour event. It is in beta testing at Google Play.
“We loved being part of the 48-hour launch, learned a lot, and met great people,” Cathy said. “We had all of this content already, but we were in need of the app.”
Now, with its app, the “Sing and Spell” team just needs to raise $260,000 to fully develop and market its initial product that she calls the “Learning Letters” series. The app offers two free sample letters and their original alphabet song; the remaining alphabet lessons and songs can be unlocked for $4.99. This will hopefully entice parents of pre-readers and learners of English as a second language to download the “Sing and Spell – Learning Letters” app.
Next up will be other apps, not just for young folks but also for other age groups. They include classic nursery songs, Christmas songs, and religious songs.