Startup Diaries: The Conception of Marie's Words Inc.

Nicholas Bradvica and his sister, Marie, started Marie's Words Inc. in 2010, when Marie was a junior in high school and studying for the SATs. Today, Marie's Words is a global business.

If someone had told me a few years ago that I would be traveling around the world and selling a revolutionary, family-created learning product, I would've thought that person crazy. Yet, just two years after founding Marie's Words, our visual vocabulary flash cards are in classrooms and homes in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Middle East, with over 2 million cards sold (...and we would be on all seven continents if penguins could read!).

Today I want to describe how Marie conceived her idea and, furthermore, how -- with the help of her family, friends, and many professionals -- we made her homemade flash cards a global English tool for learners of all ages.

February 1, 2010, was another cold but beautiful morning in Boston, Massachusetts. Marie Bradvica looked out of the 747's frosted windows as it rolled onto the runway. She was returning home with my father, George, from a visit to Harvard, one of her prospective colleges on the East Coast. Her goal was to attend an Ivy League school and to play softball, but there was one thing holding her back: the SAT.

She had a 4.0 GPA, played on two varsity teams (soccer and softball) since freshman year, documented hours of community service, and served in school clubs and organizations, but none of this seemed to mean anything to colleges without an impressive SAT score. It was as if nothing else mattered. Surely, she thought, a multiple-choice test on two subjects was not the best way to prove her aptitude for college. Fortunately, she discovered the key to success on the test was visual language.

What is visual language? It is the idea of learning through visuals, colors, pictures, artwork, and mnemonics, so that memorization is an association of ideas and concepts rather than boring, monotonous text like the flash cards she had bought at the time to help her study, which provided only the word's spelling on the front and a simple definition on the back (not to mention, many of the cards contained errors). She had become frustrated to learn words one day and forget them the next. That's when she started to highlight "words within words" and sketch illustrations to help her remember the meanings. For example, she noticed that the word altercation also has the word cat in it. Thus, she remembered that an altercation is a noisy dispute or conflict by drawing two cats fighting and by writing fight under cat. She continued to illustrate vocabulary words until she had memorized several hundred.

Her visual mnemonics (or memory devices) worked so well, in fact, that she turned to my dad on the plane ride and asked him what it would take to make Marie's Words available to everyone, for she knew that there were millions of others like her who needed a fun, colorful, visual, and hands-on approach to learning. My father, seeing the brilliance of her illustrations, agreed to help her start a company to sell her visual flash cards. These became known as Marie's Words.

Although Marie was certain that her visual language tool was helping her, she wouldn't know the extent of it until she took the SAT again that spring, hoping to improve on her first score of 1790 points out of 2400 possible. However, Marie didn't just improve her score. She obliterated it, raising it 260 points from a 1790 to a 2050. This kind of improvement is almost unheard of, since most students only improve their score on average by a few dozen points (and many remain the same, or do worse). Because this method worked so well for my sister, our family decided that we couldn't keep the secret to ourselves. We wanted everyone to share the exceptional learning opportunity and to achieve the same, if not better, results!

Roughly 10,000 hours and many months later, the first of her visual vocabulary flash cards was hot off the press in sunny San Diego, far away from the icy windows of Massachusetts, where she would return to attend Boston College as a freshman in 2011. Since that fateful plane ride, Marie's Words has helped students as young as 4 and as old as 98. Her visual flash cards have helped students with ADD and ADHD, dyslexia, Asperger's, Irlen syndrome, Down syndrome, Alzheimer's, and other gifted or multi-sensory learners. One mother, after watching her young daughter read aloud Marie's Words, smiled with tears in her eyes and said to me, "This is the first time my daughter has ever read on her own." This experience, among countless others, makes the whole process worth it.

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