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[00:44] 614Startups Nation, welcome to another episode of the 614Startups podcast. I have a very special guest. I am so excited. Education is a sector that I love to learn about and I know we got to get this right in this country. And there’s a lot of room for innovation, a lot of room for improvement. And I have a special guest to talk about education and some of the innovations happening here locally, and that’s Constance Borro of Mastery Portfolio. How you doing, Constance?
Constance: [01:12] I’m doing great. Thanks, Elio, how are you?
Elio: [01:14] I’m doing great. It’s so great to have you.
Constance: [01:17] Thanks.
Elio: [01:17] I’ve been looking forward to this conversation, it’s a long time coming. One of the crazy things about this podcast is getting people scheduled. I send out the scheduling email a long time before people actually appear on the podcast. So thank you so much for your patience and finally sitting down with me.
Constance: [01:32] Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Elio: [01:34] All right now, for folks who might not know who you are, why don’t you give us a little bit of your background and why you decided to start this company.
Constance: [01:42] Absolutely. So as Elio said, I’m Constance Borro with Mastery Portfolio, and we are a small startup company, providing software and professional development experiences for teachers around the country at this point, but potentially around the world, to really disrupt the concept of traditional grading that serves to rank and sort children into the A’s and then not A’s or the haves and have nots of the world. We really see traditional grading as sort of a root problem in the underdevelopment of our young people in this country. And it’s really underserving our entire sort of workforce of the future as a result. It stems from averaging and lots of misused mathematics that we could get into if you’re interested, but the bottom line is that kids just need to know what they need to work on. And when you tell them that in really specific terms, they’re motivated to do that work. When they know that their lack of mastery on a given day can turn into mastery the next day or a week later, they are motivated to go and make the best of themselves. So we’re building tools that allow teachers to really manage that type of an educational experience for kids in the classrooms.
Elio: [02:50] All right now, oftentimes the problems that we try to solve are either problems that we have or problems that we’ve seen. So where did this idea to create a company around the idea of changing or disrupting the way students are graded come from?
Constance: [03:04] Yeah, that’s a great question. So I didn’t realize until probably my 11th-year classroom teaching that my various Excel spreadsheets and Google Sheets and other ways of keeping track of student achievement data was sort of a workaround for a product that really didn’t exist, or that I hadn’t found. And so at my most recent post, which was teaching at Columbus School for Girls, I had the opportunity to work with a colleague who sort of said, “Let’s really build this out. Let’s make a prototype.” And then we built it into a web app called The Mastery Book. And at a school like Columbus School for Girls where we had the capacity to sort of throw money at the online grade book of our choosing for this standards-based or mastery-based model that I’m talking about, we couldn’t find a tool that was philosophy-aligned, or that would work for us. And we got on sales calls with company after company and asked, “Well, can you take away the average at the top? Does it have to boil down to a letter grade?” And they weren’t able to be flexible. They would say, “Oh, no, no, that affects all our other users.” So we decided, maybe it’s that these things are really traditional grade books masquerading as standards-based. And really, we need to build a new database from the ground up that allows for the flexibility and the type of feedback that we need in our classrooms, and that we know that other teachers in our network need too.
Elio: [04:26] Now, 11 years in the education field, I mean, at least that’s at the point that you got the idea for this, you and your co-founder. What got you in education? What made you go into that field? Why did you want to become an educator?
Constance: [04:41] Yeah. I had an experience when I was a senior at Yale, which was that I was a freshman counselor, meaning I lived in the freshman dorms with the newest members to campus. And there were a few students that I worked with who really had a hard time with the transition, and really didn’t have the same support network that I had benefited from growing up. And so for various reasons, without going into details, I realized not everybody is coming to this place of great privilege – Yale University campus – with the same tools in their tool belt or with the same resources and that’s really unfair. And in one instance, it resulted in a student not being able to finish her degree at Yale – she transferred. And so that just was really eye-opening to me that there’s a bigger way that I can have an impact. I really loved helping young people, and so I decided to apply for Teach for America. I was a 2008 core member in New York City and taught in high need New York City public schools for I believe it was 10 years and change total, leaving when I had my second child to stay home for a year.
Elio: [05:48] So, there are a lot of things to kind of pick apart based on what you’ve said, and your path getting into education. And Teach for America is this fantastic organization that really helps put very, very talented educators into schools that desperately need that level of educational background and maybe even approach, right? So, people with fresh, new ideas coming into those systems and trying to achieve better outcomes. In terms of choosing a career path, and I just want to kind of get into this, how does a teacher graduating from school or at least your colleagues that you’ve spoken with along the way, when making that fateful decision of where you could maybe go to have the greatest impact or maybe where you can go, and you can walk into a situation that’s ready-made with students who have the tools, how do teachers typically make that decision to go into? Is it something that you feel like people already know, “Hey, when I graduate, I want to go into this area”? What’s that process like for choosing where you’re going to teach?
Constance: [06:52] It’s hard for me to say because early in my career, I was surrounded with folks who had chosen to go into high need schools, and there was definitely a mission component to it. So I can’t really speak for teachers who go directly into maybe a more privileged academic setting. But I do know that even when I transferred to Columbus School for Girls, which, in a lot of ways, is an elite institution, there are still kids there who come from underprivileged backgrounds, students who are underrepresented in different ways, anything from racially to gender-wise to religion. So they’re always kids who need advocates, and I think that good teachers who stay in the field are the ones who really get their reward from advocating for those kids who need it the most. Kids with learning differences really need advocates, and so the more you learn about children, the more you’re able to be an effective advocate for those kids and sort of the more motivating the profession is, I think.
[07:44] I actually left the classroom this academic year, and I’m delighted to be able to work on Mastery Portfolio full time, but it really was out of necessity when I found out that my own children are in a hybrid learning model and don’t have full-time school, and someone needs to be home with them. My husband’s a pilot; he can’t exactly pilot airplanes from home. So it’s sort of an opportunity that I backed into, but I definitely don’t fit the profile of someone who teaches for three years and then leaves the classroom to be the administrator or start their own education consulting company. I really loved being in the classroom, and I love working closely with teachers now in my new role as we onboard new users with Mastery Portfolio.
Elio: [08:26] We’re going to take a quick break and be right back after this message from our sponsor.
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[09:20] I think it’s interesting – your background – that you taught in a high needs school. And as you describe it, and as everybody in Columbus who is familiar with Columbia School for Girls, we all understand that that is an elite educational institution. And now being a parent and experiencing what it’s like with hybrid learning and the importance of actually having someone there to assist with that process, share with us your assessment of education. You can start maybe just locally if that’s where you would like to keep it, here in the city of Columbus, [or if] you’d like to go statewide or nationwide. If you had to give us a grade in the traditional educational sense, in terms of delivering outcomes for students that actually prepare them for success beyond the classroom, and then also for job satisfaction from the teacher side, how would you grade our system in delivering on those two outcomes?
Constance: [10:16] Yeah. So if you ask me to give you a traditional grade, I would, of course, refuse because I think that’s unmotivating and not fair to the people who are doing the hard work, which is the teachers, the parents, the students, everyone who shows up every day to work hard for our kids. I think, here, I live in Bexley, and our superintendent just recently stepped down or announced her resignation, and I sort of jokingly said to some friends, “I have half a mind of applying for that position.” Because I really think if you listen to teachers, and you really dig in and listen empathetically to understand what’s the thing behind the thing behind the thing that’s really at the core of what they show up every day for, what they need to do their job effectively, and you listen to that feedback, and you seek to understand, you can make system-wide change.
[11:05] At Columbus School for Girls, I was working in the elementary school, and helped to redesign and revamp the lower school math curriculum that affects 10 different teaching faculty, 160 students. And just by understanding where everybody was, I was able to sort of bring people along. So that’s this mastery idea is that you hone in to understand the unique learning profile or sort of proficiency profile of every individual in your care, and you help them break down the steps that they need to master whatever it is you’re seeking out to master. So whether that’s understanding a new math program or whether that’s understanding your district and how to reach every kid– You know, I’m not really answering the question in that I’m not going to put a label but what I would do if I were to grade any given system is I would come up with five to seven really clearly articulated goals or expectations that we can all agree on as a community. And then I would evaluate how we’re doing on each one of those and what the next step is for us to get to that next level of mastery in each of those goals. And maybe in a given year, you pick one, maybe you pick two or three, but it’s not really fair to expect teachers to have seven discrete goals that they’re really moving the needle on, or more, in a given year.
[12:18] So I think there’s a lot of accountability put on our teachers without a lot of good tools in place, without a lot of clear expectations in place, and good modeling, and good teaching by the folks who supervise teachers. That said, I’ve had some fabulous mentors, and we do have some fabulous administrators out there. So I’m not trying to use somebody as a scapegoat here, but it’s a very complex system, and I think it starts with clear expectations and empathetic listening.
Elio: [12:43] And you gave a very nuanced answer there because this stuff is nuanced, right? A teacher’s experience in one classroom or with one principal or within one school or school district varies greatly, and it’s hard to generalize. And I’m going to take it, yes, you won’t give a traditional grade because it’s unfair. And typically, when the question is asked about student achievement, usually a lot of the blame is laid at the feet of the teacher. And I can almost hear you hearing me ask, “How well are teachers doing?” but that’s not essentially what I’m asking. I’m asking about the system that both teachers and students exist in. As it’s currently structured, how would you grade – and grade is kind of a loaded term for our conversation here since we’re going to go into the value proposition of Mastery Portfolio, but in terms of the system delivering job satisfaction fulfillment for teachers, and the system delivering students who actually have the academic pedigree to succeed in life beyond the classroom, as a system, in your observations, generally, is it delivering on those two things the way it’s currently constructed?
Constance: [14:09] I would say we haven’t mastered it yet but I wouldn’t use that word yet because I have faith that we can all improve and learn. And that is the premise of good teaching and that’s the premise of our company. That’s one of our company values. I think we have all the ingredients, we’re just not mixing the concoction in the right way perhaps.
Elio: [14:31] Yeah, and that’s fair.
Constance: [14:32] So, I’ll leave it at that because there’s a lot there. But I think if you look historically at– My most experience is in New York City, so I can speak to that district more but my students in the South Bronx, for example, yeah, they were below grade level in reading, but their prospects for graduating high school were much better than their parents’. So their parents were the products of an even more broken education system in the 1980s. So I think we’re making progress. I think we have a lot of work to do but the more we can do our research and learn from other models around the world that have worked well, the better. But at the same time, context matters. And our country has a lot of challenging history that other countries don’t necessarily have that affect all kinds of dynamics in the classroom.
Elio: [15:18] Understood. One more definition and then we’ll get into the core mission of Mastery portfolio, your product and your market, and how it works. You use the term traditional versus standards-based assessments grading, can you define what traditional means in the way you’re using it versus standards-based in the way that we’re going to use it going forward?
Constance: [15:40] Yeah. Traditional grading is a grading scheme that relies on points and averaging to determine a student’s final mark. So for example, if you take three tests, and on the first one, you get a zero, and on the next one, you get 100, and on the next one, you get 100, then your average would be a 67, which is you got two-thirds of the total possible points. Now, granted, those might have been on three different topics that have nothing to do with each other, but in a traditional grading system, that would be the grade that you land on. And you would not necessarily have an opportunity to go back and change that zero to something else. Also, I think it’s important to note that you didn’t actually demonstrate 67% mastery on anything. You bombed one thing and you nailed the other two things. So why would we report your grade as a number that isn’t even representative of any of your work? So that’s what a traditional system does. And it has all kinds of sort of downstream ramifications such as GPAs, class rank, college admissions, etc., where you sort of live and breathe by these numbers. And so, the stakes are really high to make sure that your numbers, whatever that means for your point system and your grading, set you up for success for your future.
[16:56] A standards-based grading is a framework where a teacher articulates the skills that you’re expected to show. So instead of test one, test two and test three, it would be mastering positive and negative numbers and the next one, multiplication, and then the next one, equations. And so now that you know what the skills are that are being assessed, if you bomb positive and negative numbers, but you nail multiplication and you nail equations, then the feedback to you is, “Oh, I have to actually go back and relearn how positive and negative numbers work, and once I do, I know my teacher will let me re-test in a different capacity, maybe with a different version of the test or with a project and I can demonstrate my mastery. And as long as I do that by the time the semester closes, let’s say in December, then I can have mastered all three of those units, and I can have 100 for my grade because I’m not going to be dinged for not knowing positive and negative numbers in September because I really hadn’t much experience with them at that point. So as long as I do my job and learn all the course material by the end of the course, I get credit for that knowledge, which is my current level of knowledge, which is what you would want a kid to leave your course with.
Elio: [18:02] So I can assume that maybe the traditional grading companies that would provide something like this, maybe see in– You know, one, there’s no incentive – everything is kind of grades-based and that’s the way it is. But also, that means that at any given point, lessons would need to be structured in a different way because everybody might not be showing proficiency in a particular area that we might be covering in “this chapter”.
Constance: [18:35] Yeah.
Elio: [18:36] So how does Mastery Portfolio help a teacher whose class is demonstrating proficiencies at different rates in different areas all simultaneously? And how does Mastery Portfolio help that teacher manage through that? Which is what I think is the real value here, that a teacher feels confident that at different proficiency levels, I could still keep this class on track. How does Mastery Portfolio help with that?
Constance: [19:07] So in our first app, which is called The Mastery Book, a teacher is able to create assignments like she would in a traditional grade book, but every assignment has to have a standard attached to it. So in other words, you shouldn’t be giving your student an assignment or an assessment or an exam or anything, an essay, without articulating to the student what the skills are that are being assessed. And so when you tag those standards with your assignment, and then you go to enter a grade, you’re not going to enter, “Oh, the kid got 100 on the essay”, you’re going to enter “M” for mastery on claim and evidence, “M” for mastery on transitions, “D” for developing on grammar and mechanics, “D” for developing on an introductory hook or whatever the skills might be that the students were working on for that essay. And so then that gives the student like I said, the feedback of what they need to work on and what they’ve mastered. It also allows the teacher to then sort by standards.
[20:02] So let’s say the teacher wants to do a mini lesson on writing an engaging hook at the beginning of your essay, she can literally just search for that standard, click to sort it A to Z and see those mastery levels and pull the kids who still have “D” for developing in that skill. And that can be her small group for hooks, while maybe the rest of the class is continuing their independent drafting. So it allows for a level of differentiation within the classroom that teachers don’t often feel that they have the tools or the time to manage because we say “Good data in, good data out.” So if you put in your mastery data, then you can get those small groups out with just one click on our app.
Elio: [20:41] That’s fascinating to me, and it’s so easy to understand. But traditionally, I think again, identifying a different way of doing things the obvious is not so– There’s always a core establishment that opposes disruption.
[21:01] Thank you for listening. We’re going to take a quick break and be right back after this message from our sponsor.
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[21:39] As you’re proposing this new way of grading students, what is the market telling you? Because from the parents’ standpoint? Yes. Sounds great, right? My kid is not going to be labeled with this average, and me having no real understanding of what their level of comprehension or in this case mastery is, in this subject. I assume mastery based on a grade or lack thereof, right? Students are like, “Well, yes, I mean, this makes sense. I’m really, really good at this stuff.” But especially with math, right? If you miss one of the skills early on and the lessons keep progressing is why a lot of people drop out of math because all of these skills build on each other. And if you don’t develop mastery at a certain level, we may lose them later on in terms of their love for math or science or some of the “harder sciences”. But I know that there’s an establishment like there is an establishment in anything that either benefits from, or they don’t want to change. What is the market, the purchasers of this, the actual teachers and administrators and school districts that have to buy this? What has been their response to this way of approaching education?
Constance: [23:03] Yeah, that’s a fascinating question because the response from teachers and from parents has been exactly what you just said, “Wow, this is awesome. It’s simple, but it’s powerful. It makes sense to me. This is how I want to be teaching anyway. This is how I want my students to be learning.” But the parents and the teachers are not the ones who pull the trigger on purchases in the building. So part of our job as a company is to figure out how to paint that picture for administrators. And so we have a charter school on the north side in Columbus, for example, that we onboarded this fall, and we went in and worked with all their teachers, and their administrator was sitting in that room for those trainings, like three days in a row with us, for the entire thing. So she’s really invested in her teachers; she brought us in. She sees the value of a standards-based model for her students. I think a lot of administrators are motivated by this framework but they have to pass the red tape of the districts, right? You can’t necessarily change your grading paradigm in your individual site if there are 30 schools in the district, and everyone is supposed to be on the same page. So I think some people have their hands tied there but then at the same time, some districts are adopting standards-based grading wholescale.
[24:17] And so what we’re trying to do right now is just get our product into the hands of teachers because we know teachers are doing the good work that’s going to help students, which is our mission at the end of the day. But also, teachers talk and once they see something and use something that’s fabulous, they will go to their administrator and they will say, “Look at this. Look at all this fabulous data I have on my students. Look at their achievement. Look at how much their state test scores have gone up since last year.” And those are the pieces that really speak to an administrator because the administrator is responsible for student achievement at the end of the day, as measured by those state tests. So when you start to move the needle there or you can sit in a classroom and see the difference between teacher A and teacher B, “Oh, what do you attribute this difference to?” “Well, I’ve been innovating my grading practices, and here’s a tool I’m using. Here’s my new framework.” And so that starts to pique the interest of an administrator. And those are the folks who, at the end of the day are going to make the purchase or not.
Elio: [25:12] Now, I don’t want to get you in hot water, all right? This is your market so you can give me the political answer but this is where politics of education also come into play, right? That innovation can’t happen fast enough because you have bureaucracy. There’s a tool here, teachers love it, parents love it, but you can’t have it because you can’t get it through the bureaucracy. But you can go to a charter school and this is where it all comes to a head, right? Public school system versus taking money out of the public school and putting it in charter school. But you as an innovator, you’ve been successful in deploying your technology into a charter school, maybe because they have a little bit more flexibility on how they employ things like this. So you can give me your best political answer possible if need be, but in terms of innovation in education, do you see bureaucracy being a hurdle in terms of fast iteration like we need to have in order to really make big leaps forward?
Constance: [26:16] The only bureaucracy that could potentially be a hurdle for an innovator is if you are not up to speed on your FERPA, COPPA, other sorts of legal, student privacy type things. Making sure that you’re all buttoned up there with your product, and that you’re not compromising student data, that’s all that you need to do to sort of get approved by a district. Once you’re an approved vendor with a district, individual principals, unless their hands are tied by what learning management system or technology they use from someone above them, they can a lot of times implement a small program like Mastery Book because we are like the teacher record keeping tool in the classroom day to day. But if a teacher needs to then input the mastery ratings into sort of some final semester grading system, like a power school, or one of the other bigger LMSs, they can do that.
[27:12] So I don’t see there being a hindrance to individual teachers adopting, or even principals allowing a team of teachers to adopt a tool like what we’re building. When we get bigger if we decide to go the learning management system route, and we become a whole database for all student data, including addresses, student IDs, these things that we don’t need in our app right now, then I could see that being a bigger obstacle, although we’re not there yet. So that’s not the focus of my research right now. So I can’t really speak.
Elio: [27:46] Yeah, I can’t put the cart before the horse. I get it.
Constance: [27:49] Yeah. But I do think in general, good teachers innovate. And we have a phrase in education, “Ask for forgiveness, not permission.” So go ahead and use Mastery Book if it’s going to make your life better as a teacher and if it’s going to serve your students. And if your principal asks, “What’s all this? What are these colorful reports that you’re printing that these parents are raving about? I didn’t approve this.” Then you say, “Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize.
Elio: [28:14] Okay.
Constance: [28:14] Now, teachers should go out and get themselves in trouble with their principals because I’m giving this advice but that’s just to kind of paint the picture that teachers will do whatever it takes to reach their students, I find, even if that means kind of going around the red tape a little bit in ways that make sense.
Elio: [28:31] And I love it because it’s a tool. It’s like any other tool. It’s like them going to the App Store and finding something that helps teach a lesson or that’s illustrative. They have the ability to access tools to do their job better. So the question now is, who is the paying customer? So let’s say Mastery Portfolio is on the App Store, I download it or I download it from the site, and I’m using it and I love it. Parents love it. Students love it. I’m showing it to my administrator. Who’s actually the customer? Who’s buying this? Who’s paying for it?
Constance: [29:01] Yeah, so right now, we’re still innovating our business model but as of right now, the basic features of the account are free to any teacher. We are developing additional, we call them widgets, which are little pieces of data or ways of displaying data that you can print on report cards for students, or load into the students’ experience when they login to see their mastery. And so certain widgets are sort of a la carte for purchase. So if you want the pie chart that says the total number of standards and shows the data this way, you pay $1 to unlock that type thing – in-app purchases. But you can by all means use the program and get a lot out of it for free without even ever making an in-app purchase.
[29:45] Another revenue stream that we have is if you think about an individual teacher using The Mastery Book, that will have data for their students in their classes for that year, but the teacher next door might have the same students, but teaching a different subject. If you want to be able to run a report that sort of coalesces both teachers’ data, so something you would think of as a traditional report card, where you have multiple subjects kind of across teachers and classrooms, that kind of function would be at the level of a school. So then the school would be deciding, “We really see value in this. We want kids to be able to see their data across classrooms, not just from one individual teacher.” And so then they would talk to us and set up a school subscription.
Elio: [30:29] I think this is amazing. And it’s so fascinating that through just scoring differently, just grading differently, you’re able to actually achieve the outcome of education, which we all know is mastery, right? The ability to not only understand the subject matter, demonstrate competence, and in some cases, the ultimate mastery is being able to teach it to someone else, and have them understand it as well. So this is fantastic. Short term goals over the next 12, 18 months, two years, what are some things you guys are hoping to accomplish?
Constance: [31:06] Yeah, so this is a really exciting 12 to 18 months actually, for us. We have enough schools and enough individual teachers using our products and giving us feedback that we can really iterate fast, but also stay controlled. In the spring, we’re hoping to do a much more public launch where we are prepared to scale and can onboard as many users as needed for the coming school year. I think this year, teachers have a lot on their plates with hybrid learning, remote learning. They’re learning new management systems, they’re learning how to assess online. So there’s a lot of value that we’re trying to add to the community through our blog posts and other resources that we post on our website, masteryportfolio.com. But going into next year is when people are really going to see, “Okay, there is no going back. I can’t assess the way I used to. I can’t just give a test at home because I don’t know if mom’s doing it or babysitter’s doing it, or older sister is doing it. And so this idea of truly assessing what a kid knows and can do is like a catalyst moment right now for that, and that’s exactly what we do. That’s exactly what our tool is for – teachers who are trying to do that artful work.
[32:17] And so coming into next school year is when teachers are going to be, and I think administrators too, are really going to be reevaluating how do we do grading and reporting? What does it even mean? I mean, what does a grade even mean when you don’t have the kid in the classroom to see what they’re doing and how they’re doing it? So this is an exciting moment right now for education, for our company. It’s a stressful moment for teachers and students and parents. I’m not trying to underemphasize that but we are here to help and I encourage anyone to reach out to me directly at email@example.com with questions. I’m happy to help anyone in their practice in getting through this year and see how we can work together.
Elio: [32:57] Well, Constance, thank you.
Constance: [32:58] Thank You.
Elio: [32:59] I appreciate you spending this time with me. I close out every podcast with my one takeaway, but there are so many. One, you give me a reason to hope. And not because looking back on the ‘90s or ‘80s, the educational system failed that generation of folks, I think I’m encouraged at least in the Bronx, in the schools that you educated in, that progress is being made. Graduation rates are going up and mastery is improving, which is wonderful. I think my one takeaway from this is that solving a problem and solving it in a way that’s intuitive, that just makes sense, is the key to having a startup that truly has growth potential. This startup, Mastery Portfolio, has the opportunity to impact people in a way that could really change the future of our educational system, which really excites me because I’m big on education, and everything in my life I owe to my parents making that investment very early on in those formative years to give me the education for success for the rest of my life. Constance, thank you again, and thank you everyone for joining us on another episode. Peace.
[34:18] That’s a wrap. You can find this and all our episodes on our website, 614Startups.com, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Anchor, and all your favorite podcasting platforms. Don’t forget to subscribe and write a review. If you would like updates sent to your inbox, you can sign up for our weekly newsletter on the website. To engage in the 614Startups community, follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at 614Startups to join the conversation. For sponsorship opportunities and collaborations, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[34:55] It takes a village to do a podcast and I would like to say a special thank you to my friends at Waveform Music Group. Andy and Carlin have been working with us to enhance the production of 614Startups and we’re so happy with the results. Outside of podcast production, Andy and Carlin are experts in sonic branding, songwriting, and music production for companies and creatives. To learn more about them, go to their website createwaveforms.com, that is createwaveforms.com.