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Developing Minds Want to Know: Q&A with Farb Nivi, creator of Learnist

by Brad Spirrison

Farb Nivi, founder of GrockitGrockit is a social learning company based in San Francisco, CA. In May, the company released the web-based Learni.st and today it’s available as an app for iPhone and iPad. Learnist is like a collaborative, multimedia and interactive e-book that makes sharing what you know and learning from others fast and easy.

In this installment of Developing Minds Want to Know, we talk to Farb Nivi, the founder and Chief Product Officer of Grockit about what inspired him to create Learnist, how he harnesses innovation, and his advice for others who want to create winning apps.


Key Company Facts:

Name and Title: Farb Nivi, Founder and Chief Product Officer of Grockit

Company: Grockit (the creators of Learnist)

Location: San Francisco, CA

Size (Revenue and/or Employees): ~30 employees

Primary Apps/Platforms: Learni.st web app, Learnist for the iPhone and iPad


APPOLICIOIUS: What inspired you to become an app creator?

FARB NIVI: I have been an educator for over a decade. Ten years ago I was successfully using social learning as an instructional design within the classroom when I started to notice all of the mobile-enabled communication engrossing teens. At that point, I started to think about making Grockit, my company’s first product. And after helping millions of people prepare online for high-stakes tests, I started thinking more recently about how we can apply social learning to mobile through app development. That’s when Learnist started to take shape in my mind.

Here’s a video from Grockit which introduces some of the concepts behind Learnist:

APPO: How long have you been developing apps, and what is the most significant difference between now and when you began?

FN: We built simple Grockit Test Prep apps a few years ago. We were initially focused on building simple drills into a mobile experience as study aids, not really trying to tap social learning on mobile apps. As tablets and smartphones have gotten more advanced and the social platforms, like Facebook, have become more robust on mobile, I see the opportunity to make mobile social learning the primary instructional design for almost any type of knowledge sharing.

APPO: What apps (outside of those that you develop) inspire you the most and why?

FN: Flipboard is absolutely addictive. I can’t stop using it – the user experience has influenced a number of apps. And, Snapguide purely for its functionality is a fantastic learning resource.

APPO: Where do you see the most innovation in the app sector?

FN: Publishing. Users are innovative when it comes everything from publishing books to creating posts and personal media. And, startups and entrepreneurs are incredibly innovative in their approaches to publishing content optimized for discovery and utility. But, by far, the most innovative apps are tapping into the innovation tethered to hardware advancement – specifically, easy media creation and production.

APPO: How do you harness that innovation in your own titles?

FN: Learnist lets users curate content into sequenced “Learnboards” that help other people learn just about anything. People can collaborate on Learnboards, suggest adding videos, blog posts, Wikipedia pages, podcasts, entire sections of books from Google and Amazon. People using Learnist create interactive learning mashups that look and feel like The Daily Prophet in the Harry Potter series.

APPO: In such a crowded space, explain how you generate awareness and drive downloads to your applications.

FN: We’re very lucky in that our Learnist web app was well received, and Grockit has helped millions of people around the world. This gives us some credibility with educators and experts. Folks like Bill Gates have referenced and supported our products and efforts. And, we were invited to be one of the first “lifestyle” app developers for Facebook, so we’ve been building expertise in social as much as learning. But all of that doesn’t really matter unless there is good product fit with customers. People are excited to learn things – they talk about things they learn, and where they learned it. The difference is that now when a person wants to share Learnist with their friends, they don’t have to go to Facebook and invite someone, or remember to send a funky URL – they can just say, “it’s in the App Store” and people can literally start downloading the Learnist app on their iPhone or iPad right then.

APPO: What are the biggest technical constraints that exist today in the app sector?

FN: For us, we’re all about identifying experts and creating high-value social learning. So, naturally, we’d love for users to be able to share a catalog of media titles – books, podcasts, music, newspaper subscriptions, etc. – with Learnist so that we can interpret interests and expertise, and ask the user to confirm our interpretation for content and relationship recommendations. Only one tablet company that we’ve talked with would consider provisioning that kind of request for permission. We’re hopeful that the entire category migrates that direction. It’ll be very helpful for everyone creating apps.

APPO: How do you (or will you) make money from your application?

FN: We will have a lot of ways to make money. We get pitched business and partnership ideas daily – almost all unsolicited. We’re a lean startup, so we’re 100 percent focused on creating product and customer fit right now. Listening to our customer has created minor successes so far, so, we’ll keep listening and they’ll point us to a business model that isn’t limiting or inhibitive – gotta trust the user when they’re engaged and care enough to make recommendations.

APPO: What advice do you have to those working on their first applications?

FN: Well, the first thing that we did was ask all of our awesome investors for advice. We took a ton of meetings and got really, REALLY honest feedback about working with specialists in design and development, and how to create continuity, etc. That was all very helpful. Additionally, we asked our web developers work on iOS apps – it turns out a few pairs really have a talent and affinity for iOS development. But, it’s probably most important to be mindful of the form factor when building different experiences for both the iPad and iPhone. We want all of our apps to work well, but keeping the use cases separate and focused is critical to making apps that have distinct value for each customer. That’s how we’ll achieve high engagement across the web, tablet and phone.

APPO: Where do you see the app sector one year from now? Five years from now?

FN: I don’t see how the app sector can do anything but grow. If analysts can’t accurately predict growth in tablets and phones from year-to-year, than there is no way to predict app growth. But, I’m incredibly encouraged by the growth in educational apps – it’s a fast growing category. And, with the growing prevalence of tablets in schools K-12, the only limit on U.S. growth rates is the birth rate. And, when it comes to technology adoption, the U.S. leads, and the rest of the world follows.

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