You wouldn’t think dance would be useful training for an entrepreneur, but former dancer Sara Winter has just launched a tech business in a mostly untapped market.
Winter launched Squag, a social space for children with autism or those who communicate differently. For the past 11 years, she has worked as an aide to her austistic nephew, who she calls “spectacular” and the strongest person she knows. Kids like him are totally underestimated, she says, which compelled her to build Squag to help them express themselves and communicate – in an almost artist-like way – as well as develop friendship and connection.
Winter maintains that there is similarity between art and business and says her background as an artist and performer facilitated her entrepreneurship.
“You’re always self-starting as a performer, it’s a sort of a personality trait. You create your path–you have an idea of what you want to do. People say, ‘that’s really hard.’ It didn’t occur to me that it’s really hard, I’m just going to do it.”
While working in the field of autism, Winter realized that many kids were proficient with tech, but most environments were not designed for those who communicate differently. So she learned a bit about social networking and tinkered with the self-expression aspect, and out came Squag.
“It’s the way I’ve approached everything: if I felt something should be there, I created it. I’ve always been like that,” she said. Winter and her family, who helped build the product, felt that kids were underestimated in their daily lives and needed a new tool to be better understood and reached.
“I think business can be approached as an artist – if you surround yourself with people with different skill sets, it’s a collaboration,” she said. “I surround myself with people whom I trust; there is art to that.” So she choreographed a developer, graphic artist, and her nephew, which resulted in a totally different looking site, created with the sensory preferences of autistic people in mind so that color and sound can be modified.
Designed for kids eight and up, Squag facilitates self-expression as well and communication with parents and creating peer relationships. There’s a “mirror” that provides a method of self-refection -literally and figuratively. The screen shows a room with a mirror front and center, computer, bookshelf, and journals. Kids can post photos and videos (from a curated library), write journal entries, or put up their artwork, and parents and peers can comment. As Winter says, it allows for people who communicate differently to relate to others.
Parents can communicate with their child, and starting this summer, Squag will add peer-to-peer communication. Together kids and parents will identify what kids want to talk about – tree frogs or music, or what have you – and the site will provide a selection of other kids to connect with. The goal: to give kids a safe place to be themselves, build original ideas, and gain confidence about having friendships.
The revenue model is simple: customers pay for it, on a monthly basis. Joining the community costs a family $5.99 a month, or $7.99 for a premium membership. One dollar of each membership will be donated to Squag’s charitable partners – groups that focus on autism. Several organizations also serve as advisors. Connecting to non-profits is key, as Squag is one of the first Canadian B-corporations, which means it uses the power of business to solve problems. Winter explains the rationale behind a B corp: “We wanted to have a charitable component, but also have control over the user experience.”
Charity is involved, but Squag is a real business. The market size is about $1M in North America. Winter cites that 1 in 88 children have an autism diagnosis. Kids with other issues, such as ADHD or anxiety, might want to communicate on Squag as well. Siblings are also welcome.
Winter explains that she wants to build confidence in children, make them feel they’re not alone, and empower them so they don’t have to endure the hardships others have. She explains her dream: “that kids can find each other safely and build confidence with friendship. People say kids with autism have deficits – I believe they just haven’t been given the right environment.”
With a mirror, desk, and bed – and a place to share – Squag might be just the right place.
This piece originally appeared on vitaminw.co