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"My father is dyslexic, he learned English in the 70’s from Lennon and Dylan. I turned that into a learning app"

Interview

"My father is dyslexic, he learned English in the 70’s from Lennon and Dylan. I turned that into a learning app"

Michael Peled was a dyslexic child who managed to become an outstanding student. His father was his inspiration, a successful dyslexic entrepreneur who worked for years in the U.S. thanks to the English he picked up from the radio. The secret of this magic has become Singit, a kind of educational version of Spotify, which teaches tens of thousands of children English with the help of Billie Eilish and Harry Styles

Roni Dori | 08:02  27.09.2022

Michael Peled's (21) journeyin the Israeli education system started off on the left foot. "I was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 5, and from that moment my childhood was taken away from me," he tells Calcalist. "I was in an endless war with the Ministry of Education, from kindergarten to high school. At first, I wasn't allowed to enter first grade because 'the child doesn't know how to read or write,' and actuallyI didn't know how to read or write until sixth grade. I didn't go to parties and I didn't have extracurricular activities as I came home every day to private lessons.

"My main disorders are difficulty in reading and writing and, to this day, I have spelling errors. At one point I studied 19 hours a day, and the matriculation exam required an unreasonable effort from me, which you cannot ask of a 17-year-old child. My matriculation in Bible studies, for example, took six hours. Beyond the time extension, they had to make a transcription of the text because my writing was incomprehensible to anyone but me, so I had to sit in front of someone and read my test to them."

Michael Peled. Michael Peled. Michael Peled.

"My main disorders are difficulty in reading and writing and, to this day, I have spelling errors. At one point I studied 19 hours a day, and the matriculation exam required an unreasonable effort from me, which you cannot ask of a 17-year-old child. My matriculation in the Bible, for example, took six hours. "Beyond the extension, they had to make a transcription of the text because my writing was incomprehensible to anyone but me, so I had to sit in front of someone and read my test to him."

How did you manage to overcome the difficulties?

"I was lucky enough to be born into a family with means, which could invest NIS 100,000-200,000 a year in private lessons which is absurd in my eyes," he explains with a shrug. "It's crazy that in a class of 40 students teachers will teach everyone the same way. Forty brains don't work in one way, each brain works in its own way. I, for example, had to learn methods to 'trick' my dyslexia, like remembering what a word looks like inside a book to know how to write it."

Peled's frustration with the education system was particularly great, because he knew he was not alone - the extended Peled family numbered no less than seven people with dyslexia, including his father and his 16-year-old brother. "My father is mega-dyslexic, and in Bat Yam in the 1970s they probably called him by a different name," he says. "I couldn't understand how it fit with the fact that he had worked most of his life in the U.S., so one day I asked him: 'Seriously, how did you learn English?' And he explained to me that his best teachers were John Lennon and Bob Dylan. He would sit in front of the radio, listen to songs, and thus learn new words and how to pronounce them."

This surprising answer ignited Peled’s imagination, by then already part of the Weizmann Institutes program for gifted students. Peled decided to devote his final project to developing a platform for learning English, which is based on listening to songs on a streaming platform. Today, five years later, this platform is Singit - a software for learning English approved by the Ministry of Education for grades 5-9, which is used by 60,000 students in 800 schools across the country, and is facing its first funding round and expansion to Latin America and the private market in Israel. "Our vision is to change the ways of learning in schools on the widest possible scale, without any child paying for this product," says Peled.

Have fun memorizing

What does Singit actually offer? It is a music streaming application, just like Apple Music or Spotify, with the addition of features that help learn the language. For example, the students can choose the most recent song by Ed Sheeran or Beyoncé, read its lyrics on the screen, and when they come across an unfamiliar word, click on it and get its translation on the spot, including possible uses of the word in a sentence. "Basically we gave the child an app that looks like Spotify, and that under different circumstances they would have paid a lot of money for," says Peled. "And so without them noticing, they are learning English."

This experience goes one step further with various exercises: the child can, for example, record themselves pronouncing a sentence from a song, and the application will give them a score on the pronunciation, and explain how to pronounce it correctly, if they are wrong. The teacher can engage the students in finding new words they learned in a certain song by clicking on the screen or by completing them with missing sentences. And the app also tests word translations while playing them in a song.

How does a lesson actually look in the classroom?

"The option that most teachers use is to project the app on a screen with a projector, then they give the students homework that they can do on their own via a phone or computer."

How is it personalized to each individual brain in the classroom if it's screened through a projector?

"Each of our lessons consists of words that the teacher wants to teach using a certain song, but once the words have been marked for the students in the app, we teach them using other songs. For example, if you like Bob Dylan and John Lennon - I'll recommend their songs that contain the words you need to learn. Our recommendation is that a teacher uses us twice a week, mainly to remind the children that they have this product in their pocket, and they can use it in their free time as well.

"I had the chance to meet more than 3,000 teachers last year, and I always ask them the same question: Who are your best students in class? And they always answer that it is not the kids who listen the most or who are the most focused in class, but the kids who play computer games or listen to music, that is, those who have daily interactions with the language after school hours, and that's exactly what Singit does."

How did your experience with dyslexia affect the development of the software?

"After experiencing several English teachers, I discovered that what works best and makes the most sense is to learn a language by speaking it. In a normal classroom the deal is 'open a notebook and read, repeat these lines and write them' - however, this is not suitable for all children and is not fun for them in any way. On the other hand, when you hear a song, you can repeat it many times and go over the words again and again, and it's a pleasant experience. The children hear real English and don't read it from a book. They can work on their speaking at their own pace without involving a teacher, and, at the end of the day, they take a hobby of theirs and use it to learn things that are interesting for them anyway."

Is this an app suitable for children with dyslexia?

"It is an app that is suitable for everyone. 90% of our users are ‘regular’ children. However, we have a unique test for dyslexic children and children with attention disorders, which works with them exclusively on the audio of the song.

"We worked a lot with students and teachers during the development stages, and we learned a lot from them. Some of our applications seemed obvious, but we changed them, because in the end when you work with a 50-year-old teacher who is not used to working with a computer or smartphone all day, you have to make the product accessible to them too, even at the price of compromising on style."

Is there a big difference between the children and the teachers in terms of musical taste?

"Of course. The most played artist on our app - and by far - is Billie Eilish. But the teachers don't like to teach with her as her pronunciation is unclear. But I guess that's also why she's the most played artist - the students also just don't understand what she's saying."

So who do the teachers like to listen to the most?

“Adele”.

Millions in the stock market as a soldier

Peled was born and raised in Savyon, the son of Ayelet, a chef, and Roni, a real estate and capital market entrepreneur, who made headlines in 2006 when he purchased the mythical "Frishman's Pit" complex, on the corner of the Frishman-Dizengoff streets in Tel Aviv, and built a tower ("I wanted every dyslexic child to look up at it and realize that they can be successful too," he told Calcalist in 2012).

After graduating high school with honors, Peled enlisted in the cyber unit of the Air Force and, at the same time, began studying for a bachelor's degree in economics and accounting at the Open University while investing in the stock market. "At that time I was sitting in the office of Gilai Dolev (an investment analyst and veteran technology investor in Israel) and I learned from him. He and my father's partner, Eli Zamir, accompanied me from 2017 and taught me about the stock market world. They both just took me under their wing - I don't know why, it seems they just liked me. Luckily for me, it was during the IPO fever period of 2019-2021, so I made an awfully large amount from my investments."

And what did you do with it?

"Fortunately, I don't like luxury cars that much. I'm a mega-nerd that likes 'Star Wars,' and that's awfully cheap," he laughs. "But I had the idea of developing Singit into a company, and it gained so much attention as a final project - that I decided to go for it."

Didn't dad train you to be an investor like him?

"I was always directed towards the stock markets. I was brought up to be a Wall Street broker, and I was supposed to study economics at Columbia University. In the end, I turned out to be the black sheep of the family," he laughs. "But seriously, with all due respect to the satisfaction of seeing another company go public, when a parent calls you and says: 'Where was this product when I was in high school,' it's much more exciting."

In 2019, Peled founded Singit in a partnership with Benny Rosner, who was his commander in the army, and currently serves as the Chief Technology Officer (CTO). From the beginning, the two realized that the big challenge of establishing the platform is not technological, but financial. "Learning English through music has existed, even in Israel, since the 1970s, since the days of 'Suzy Surprise,'" explains Peled. "The reason why no one has yet developed an application for this purpose is that it is very difficult to make this product profitable, when you have to pay for the use of the copyright for every playback of a song. According to our calculation, we would have to pay $15-20 per year for each student."

How did you solve the issue?

"In the U.S., if you are defined as a company that wants to make a social impact, you receive tax benefits, so for six months we negotiated with all the distributors to reach a situation where we paid similarly to Spotify for every student. At the beginning, I approached all the biggest licensees in the world - Sony, Disney, Warner etc. None of them answered me, but I'm a pestering Ashkenazi, so I didn't stop until they answered me. Today, Spotify pays just like us, 0.0002 cents per play, only our app has a little less streamers than them," he laughs.

In 2020, Singit received a long-awaited approval from the Ministry of Education and was implemented in schools throughout the country. Today the company employs 13 people, and is facing its first funding round in preparation for its two major challenges for the coming year: expansion to Brazil and Chile and entry into the private sector in Israel. So far, its activity has relied on the NIS 2 million provided by Peled. "It's a relatively small sum for the amount of time we have been working on the product, so I'm stingy," he laughs. "My ambition is to reach an IPO within three to five years."

Peled's greatest pride is the data collected on the students' use of the application outside the classroom. "We currently have 20,000 active students throughout the year who have two, 8-minute sessions a week, regardless of teachers," he says. "An average user learned 200 new words through the app during the year, and outstanding ones learned 1,000-2,000 words."

Peled may have registered a breakthrough with the Ministry of Education, but in the private market Singit will face a host of old competitors, including Duolingo, the market leader with 300 million users worldwide, and the Israeli Lingopie.

But Peled is optimistic and confident that Singit's growth potential is very large. According to a survey commissioned by the company and conducted among 400 students, only 16% said they felt confident enough to speak English; 68% said that the way English is taught in schools does not help them speak any better; 63% said they lack experiential interactive learning within schools; and 50% said they were unable to speak English properly.

Is your ambition to be the next Duolingo?

"Our audiences are very different. We went after the institutional market, and we proved our superiority when we showed that once you connect a teacher to the application, the rate of use is higher. Duolingo's reports show that only 7% of those who have installed the application use it regularly. In contrast, we have 60% usage, and our retention rate remains stable throughout the year. I assume that when we expand to the private market we will see similar data there, but in the institutional market these are completely different data."

What is your goal if not to beat the competition?

"I'm not as interested in the profit as I am in the impact - I want to make English the second language in Israel and see what that will do to its economy a few decades from now. We call ourselves a high-tech country, so there is no reason for an Israeli child not to finish their 12 years of school with fluent English. The best way to help high-tech is to ensure that 99% of Israelis can have a fluent conversation in English."

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This is fairly pretentious and will require a great deal of time and resources.

"I am patient. As a dyslexic child, I got used to working eight times harder than the child next to me to receive the same grade, and this built me up and made me the CEO I am today - so I have no problem even sleeping in the office if necessary. There are companies in the educational field that raised $100 million in their first year, and did not reach even 100 schools, and I was able to reach 800 schools with less than that. I run very fast, because I work very hard. As soon as you bring a product to a teacher that really helps them, it makes all the difference."

Has your father already demanded a percentage of the idea for the company?

"Not yet, but it's all his," he laughs. "As far as my father is concerned, this product is his dream from a very young age, and there is nothing better than seeing him, or my little brother, who is also dyslexic, use my product and enjoy it. It's the most fun in the world."

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