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This article was published on November 13, 2013

From Dyslexia to CEO: How my learning disabilities taught me to be a successful entrepreneur

From Dyslexia to CEO: How my learning disabilities taught me to be a successful entrepreneur
Brett Kopf
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Brett Kopf

Brett Kopf is the CEO and co-founder of Remind 101. Brett Kopf is the CEO and co-founder of Remind 101.

Brett Kopf is the CEO and co-founder of Remind 101, a communications solution for teachers, students, and parents.

Virgin, Apple, Ikea, Tommy Hilfiger, HP are all companies founded by people with the learning disability dyslexia. Hindrance or gift is in the eye of the beholder when it comes to a learning disability. Like anything else in life, it is what you do with it.

I was that kid. I was the envy or target among my peers because I got to leave class for a few hours to go somewhere else. My teacher was Mrs. Whitefield and the somewhere else was a quiet classroom where Mrs. Whitefield taught me the skills to manage my dyslexia and attention deficit disorder (ADD).

I started working with Mrs. Whitefield when I was a junior in high school and incredibly frustrated that despite working three times as hard as everyone else, I wasn’t getting A’s and B’s. I felt discouraged, and my confidence nose-dived. Working with Mrs. Whitefield gave me the tools to understand how to study with ADD and dyslexia.

Special needs teacher planted the seed for my company, Remind101. Now that we are off the ground, I am often asked what advice I would give to other aspiring entrepreneurs with learning disabilities. Here are some tips to keep in mind.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions

When you feel like the only person in a room who isn’t grasping a concept seemingly easy for everyone else to understand, you learn pretty quickly that if you want to keep up, you have to ask questions.

When I came up with the idea for Remind101, I was a university student struggling to manage my class load. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if students got text reminders about tests and assignments?

Because I had no idea how this texting/reminder thing would work, I stood on the sidewalks of Michigan State University (MSU) asking complete strangers for their syllabi. Then, I would combine the aggregated data of these 2,000 or so willing students into a spreadsheet to help notify them a week, a day, or a few hours ahead of upcoming exams.

If I’d been too intimidated to stand on a corner asking people to help develop my concept, this idea would have just remained a thought. Acting on your ideas takes courage, and you shouldn’t be afraid to accept help.

Listen to others’ needs

If it’s anything you can benefit from it’s that you must remember to 1) listen to your user, and 2) make a simple product.

Before launching Remind101, I spoke to more than 200 teachers via Skype, in-person coffee meetings, or phone calls trying to understand how I could help solve their problem. I gave them scenarios on how the app would work, and considered their input to problems that needed to be addressed.

Their answers helped us develop a better understanding as to how we can build a product that’s right for our target audience. The best types of apps aren’t always ones with the most features – they’re straight-forward, simple, and saves people time. Teachers are busy people!

Learn to have a thick skin

I look at my learning disabilities the same way other CEOs look at delays in product development or company setbacks – they’re just another hurdle in a chain of obstacles that need to be tackled on the way to success.

Fortunately, I had early support from people who believed in me and wanted to help develop the tools I needed to do what I wanted. Through my experiences – from special needs classes to learning to time manage in college – I had to become pretty self-aware to understand how exactly to use dyslexia and ADD to my advantage. It’s important to remember that my disabilities did not deter me from success – rather, they helped me find the skills I needed to rise to the top.

Although I have no problem asking questions, listening to others, or simplifying concepts, if we’re playing cards, I still don’t know if you’ve got a six or a nine. But that’s an easy one to get around. I just won’t bet my house on a card game.

Image credit: dpaint/Shutterstock

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