This is a year of change for Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D). In March the Roszel Road-based nonprofit got a new CEO, Andrew Friedman, and on April 11 a new name, Learning Ally.
First as Recording for the Blind and since 1995 as RFB&D, the organization built its reputation by converting written works into audio books. The organization features a collection of more than 65,000 digitally recorded textbooks and literature titles delivered through Internet downloads and assistive technology devices. Its digital accessible information system (DAISY) allows the blind listener to navigate an encyclopedia, which is impossible using conventional audio recordings requiring linear listening.
As Learning Ally, the organization looks to broaden its appeal and reach. The new name (and new slogan, “making reading accessible for all”) serves as the first strike in an all-out effort to expand the organization’s reach, products, and potential for procuring major sponsorships and agreements, Friedman says.
Friedman joined RFB&D two years ago as CFO after career stops at marketing firms Rosetta andSimstar and at ADP, a payroll processing firm headquartered in Dayton. He now takes a part aggressive, part benevolent approach to enriching the 63-year-history formed by RFB&D. A name change signals the beginning of a rebirth.
“The rationale behind it is it’s the right thing to do for our users,” he says. “One of the issues with being Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic was that it actually puts our users in a box. We’re looking to be their friends in education, hence the name. It takes the stigma away from kids who need access to content in different forms.”
RFB&D spent two years doing research on the name change, and the strategy Friedman used was borne of his years at Rosetta — “what do our users need from us, what do users expect from us, and how can we best position the organization?”
One thing he learned was the need for keeping up with technology. Apps for Apple’s iTouch, iPad, iPod, and iTunes are in Learning Ally’s arsenal now. Since late February its books have been available through the iTunes store. A downloadable app will show up on mobile devices and users can go into their E-libraries and load books.
“We’re moving to as much of a mainstream model as we possibly can, reaching our students in the formats that they use day in and day out,” Friedman says. “Would you rather learn on an iPad or a clunky old record player?”
Friedman says that college kids will set the bar for speed, requiring that Learning Ally keep up with the need for features like skipping tracks. College students, after all, often need to absorb the most information in the least possible time. This is familiar ground for Friedman, whose division at ADP was built on delivering financial information systems to brokers as fast as possible.
“We always needed to be using state-of-the-art technology, whether we were using phone technology, moving to satellite technology, and then to Internet-based technology, because we needed to be as effective and efficient as we could,” he says.
In years following “the dot-bomb” Friedman was once again exposed to the latest as Simstar and Rosetta, two companies pioneering modern-day Internet marketing and evaluation methods, kept up with current technology and pushed for new users. Friedman admits that many of the innovative ideas surrounding Learning Ally’s next steps seem to draw from Rosetta, Simstar, ADP, and the rest of his corporate trail. Learning Ally’s internal IT framework is meant to implement new tech waves but not create them.
“Simstar and Rosetta are steeped in technology,” he says. “How do you use technology and how do you use the understanding of your customer to develop the best solutions? If you break down what Simstar and Rosetta do, it’s understanding your consumer through behavior-based segment analysis, and then delivering the solutions they want.”
Friedman grew up in Tappan, New York, north of Manhattan. His father is an optometrist who specializes in children with vision-based learning disabilities; Friedman’s mother worked in her husband’s office.
The former CFO of marketing giant Rosetta, based at American Metro Center in Hamilton, Friedman earned his bachelor’s in business from Tulane University in the mid-1980s. He then worked at a small CPA firm in New York for a year and a half. But although insights into how businesses work proved valuable, he wasn’t passionate about accounting.
Friedman moved on to Moody’s Investor Services, a buyer rating agency, working as a senior accountant. He was promoted after 18 months, becoming manager of accounting for Moody’s $250 million Internet division.
Friedman left Moody’s to join ADP. In five years — the longest he has ever worked at any one company — he became director of finance for a $500 million division specializing in financial information assessment. Next Friedman forayed into the publishing industry, splitting time over the next decade between Primedia and Peterson Publishing and with his own firm, iFos.
Primedia, Friedman says, “gave me insight into the world of venture capital firms. When I moved to Peterson, I took tech-growing responsibility out further. I was the CFO and ultimately, by the time I left, I was director of operations so I had literally everything reporting to me other than a small portion of the sales organization.”
In 2000 Friedman left publishing to work as CFO for Simstar, an interactive marketing agency that was acquired by Rosetta in 2005. He oversaw its growth from a startup to a $20 million business by 2005 and he says the plan was to get the business in position for either a partnership or sale, “because there’s only so far you can go as a single entity.”
After the Rosetta sale Friedman continued on as the CFO. The task then was to figure out how best to combine Simstar and Rosetta and grow the business into one of the largest privately held marketing agencies in the country.
Friedman became the interim CEO of RFB&D earlier this year. He was confirmed in March and is currently touring Learning Ally’s 18 locations nationwide.
Friedman sees parentally oriented products as a new frontier at Learning Ally. When a kid is learning differently, he says, parents’ ability to cope is critical to the child’s development.
“How do you teach a child to learn through listening?” Friedman asks. “How do parents know what their rights are at a school? How does a parent know how to transition a child from the K-8 environment into the high school environment? All these factors are incredibly important to make sure that our population is successful.”
But reaching kids involves more than just connecting with parents. “The school market has also not been the easiest to deal with,” Friedman says. “We’ve done an excellent job of transitioning what we’ve done in the past, which was essentially a school-by-school approach. We’re taking a very different approach to get to the schools at a much higher level, from the state and departments of education, and then work our way down, which is a much more effective way to do it,” he says.
The potential for cooperation with learning assessment centers or places such as Kumon or not-for-profits such as YMCAs or Boys and Girls Clubs is huge, Friedman says. Now that the rebranding is complete, Learning Ally will tackle this side of things.
“If we can have an impact on education and level the playing field for kids who learn differently, I’m not sure what else I would want to accomplish,” he says.
#b#Learning Ally#/b#, 20 Roszel Road, Princeton 08540; 609-452-0606; fax, 609-520-7990. Andrew Friedman, president/CEO. www.learningally.org.