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EPISODE 063 : 05/26/2022

Anne Bryan

Anne Bryan is a transformative executive experienced in leading world-class software and non-profit teams. She was a founding team member for Circle, an award-winning screen time management and parental controls software. In 2020, Anne was named CEO at Circle, a position she held through to the company’s acquisition by Aura in December 2021.

Host: Ned Hayes and Ashley Coates
Guest: Anne Bryan

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Topics discussed in this episode

  • Detailed small business insights from Olympia, Washington
  • Small business resiliency and adaptation during COVID
  • Doubling community outreach during the pandemic
  • Opportunities for small business loyalty programs

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Audio Transcript

Ned Hayes [00:00:01] Welcome to Spark Plug, where we talk to smart people working at the intersection of business and technology. Brought to you by SnowShoe, your smarter loyalty leader.


Ashley Coates [00:00:12] Spark Plug is happy to welcome Anne Bryan to the podcast today. Anne is a transformative executive experienced in leading world class software and nonprofit teams. She was a founding member for Circle, an award winning screen-time management and parental control software. In 2020 Anne was named CEO at Circle, a position she held through to the company’s acquisition by Aura in December 2021. Her passion for education and children also led to her election to the Beaverton, Oregon, School District Board of Directors, where she served as Board Chair for three years. Welcome Anne! 


Anne Bryan [00:00:47] Thank you so much. I’m really privileged to be here today with you. 


Ashley Coates [00:00:51] We’re so happy to have you here. Well, let’s start off with talking about your career background. You have a long history in the field of education, including, as you said, the board chair of a school district here in Oregon and also nine years at Circle. Where does your passion for education come from? 


Anne Bryan [00:01:08] Well, many moons ago when I was attending college, I had the privilege to volunteer as part of a tutoring program in a school that was in a poverty pool area in California. It was a magnet school for science and technology, named after Robert (Ronald) McNair, who was the first African-American astronaut who tragically died in the Challenger accident. When I was serving in that capacity, I could see the huge need and also just felt a real passion for the students. And then when I was privileged to be a parent myself, I just found many different ways to get involved in various nonprofits around the Portland area. As I worked my way through various school systems, so I spent a lot of time in early childhood. I’ve spent time in high poverty schools. I’ve spent time helping music organizations and then working with the band program and then with Beaverton School District on their school board. It’s a longtime passion and one that I feel really privileged to have been able to help and be able to make an impact on mostly because I just really feel passionately that our students are worth it and that all of us can really help improve the systems that help them. 


Ashley Coates [00:02:23] That’s really wonderful. And then when you were a founding team member at Circle, you married your passion for education with technology. Have you always been interested in technology as well? 


Anne Bryan [00:02:33] My for pay work has been always in the tech industry. I started my career at IBM back when they were a large percentage of the tech industry, not just a large player, and then have worked in a variety of startups and including Circle. 


Ned Hayes [00:02:48] Great. So when you joined Circle, I’m really curious, what was the vision when you were first forming the company? 


Anne Bryan [00:02:56] There was a founding team and everyone was just very focused on how to improve the Internet experience for their people and their own families. So our founding CTO type, Bing Xiang, had invented a product that he was using in his own home, and his extended family, including his father in China, was looking around and said, we ought to be able to do better and type in. Can you please help everyone? Because we understand that these technologies can suck your time and attention and also provide a lot of value. So trying to find that right balance was something that the team always had the vision for. We were really trying to achieve giving people the tools so that they could make the right choices for themselves and their families. 


Ned Hayes [00:03:40] Got it. Now, I know that Circle has been acquired now, but how is that vision continued to be fulfilled moving forward? 


Anne Bryan [00:03:47] Right. So as we’ve developed the product, it’s kind of an interesting thing. When we first launched, there was this idea that we were really delivering a product that would be primarily targeted towards parents of teenagers. They were getting their first cell phones and that they would want to be able to help to teach their children habits. By 2021, what I would tell my staff, really what my vision is, is every family would leave the hospital with a car seat and a Circle because technology is just such a part of everyone’s life from a very early age. And we all could use a little bit of a nudge to have really safe habits. So whether you’re a new parent of that child, you’re wanting to have a little bit of assistance in being able to control what kind of content is coming into your house and the amount of time you’re spending on it. Another thing I always say is everyone needs a bedtime. So a product like Circle is really able to help give you that nudge, a reminder that, no, really, it’s time for me to walk away from that one thing so that I’ll be rested, be my best self tomorrow, and able to make the kind of impact on the things that I’m doing and learn what I need to. And Aura is really taking that product and making sure that can get to more people, which is great. I think for every acquisition that and that you’re hoping for? 


Ashley Coates [00:05:00] Absolutely. Well so, Circle provides parental control over screen time and content. So why is it important for parents to be able to control their children’s interaction with screens and with the Internet? 


Anne Bryan [00:05:12] I think it’s primarily because it’s just a firehose that can be overwhelming to a child if there’s not some sense of management that’s going on. And the other thing that we really see is families are interested in building habits that support their vision for the kind of family that they want to be. So maybe everyone wants to have dinner together and be able to look at your eyes while you’re having that conversation. So it’s more about a family lifestyle and finding the right balance for kids. 


Ned Hayes [00:05:40] Right. So finding that right balance is incredibly important, and there’s also the balance that you struck between hardware and software. So how did you transition from that hardware offering to a software subscription over time? 


Anne Bryan [00:05:52] Right. It was a definite challenge and one that was very important because it allowed us to be able to, well, two things. One, we were able to provide a solution that didn’t require the hardware, which made it easier for people to start with the solution and make it be part of their lives very seamlessly. Particularly a lot of people, a lot of customers. The last thing they want to do is buy one more thing for their house. But getting an app subscription is something that felt more of an easy access for them. And so we wanted to be able to provide that solution for them. And then I’m sure you’re aware the other advantage of a subscription product is you’re able to continue to really quickly put out updates for your software because you’re able to invest in your software. One of the things we were able to release during the pandemic was a feature that no one would have ever even imagined when the company was starting. We call it focus time, and what it does is it allows you to work on certain things, but not others at the same time for a certain period of time during a day that a parent would preset. So, for example, you could imagine whether your child is online school or maybe just doing their homework. You want them to have access to a rich variety of materials that are on the Internet. Also, you would like them not to be playing video games or watching their favorite YouTube channel. So those kinds of things you’d want to be able to allow while managing the content that they’re using during that time when supposedly they’re doing homework or maybe even attending class. 


Ned Hayes [00:07:21] Right. Well, I know when my kids were smaller, we used Circle and I found it really, really helpful to be able to understand their activity online and to be able to monitor that activity in a healthy way. I did want to take what you just said about understanding behavior and try to contextualize it in the face of some of the things that we’ve heard about Meta and Facebook and the negative effects of social media on children and adult mental health. Could you speak a little bit about what we found out since Circle launched? 


Anne Bryan [00:07:53] Yeah, a lot of what we’re seeing and research is that, for one, sleep deprivation is very real among teens, in particular, kids who are sleeping with their phones in their room and waking up to check them overnight are not going to be as prepared for the next day. And then there’s just a growing awareness generally that perhaps online time affects kids differently. But I think some of the things are just so interesting that even certain ages, if you’re a preteen girl, maybe it’s going to affect you differently than if you’re a 19 year old woman. So being aware of what it might be doing to us, and then it’s important to be aware of that business model for every company that you’re interacting with through your phone or other devices that will help a user understand what’s motivating them to provide your various data and information. 


Ned Hayes [00:08:43] Right. I think the classic story about online products that we’ve all learned now is if it’s free, you’re the product. 


Anne Bryan [00:08:49] That’s right. And then you always have to ask, how do I feel about that? For me personally? How do I feel about that for my five year old? And then as a family, what do we do to change our own behavior to accommodate that reality? 


Ashley Coates [00:09:01] I’m curious Anne, when you talk with parents or when you’re at Circle and you talk with parents about their kids consumption of technology, what were the biggest concerns that you heard from parents? 


Anne Bryan [00:09:11] When we first launched, the company was so small that we were all, of course, having to be all hands on deck, whatever it takes to get. So I’ll never forget maybe the product been out for a week or two and I was fielding customer support calls and we had a woman who was a single mom call and say, My teenager is playing video games at two in the morning. I can’t help them stop. I need to go to work. What can I do to try to help this? And for me that’s always been the, parents are frustrated. They’re wanting to be able to manage things in their home. They are having to look to what tools do they have available to them in order to manage. She was understandably so frustrated. The other thing I would say that we would hear from parents is that a parent who realizes there’s a problem when their child is 16 is going to have a harder time than somebody who starts using a tool like Circle early in their child’s life. Because just like other habits are online time and how we use it is crafted impacted by those rules that you have in your family and habits that you develop relatively early on. So I guess those are the things I would say is that there is a real pain point. And also to be very successful, the earlier you start the least pain, it’s going to be for everybody. 


Ned Hayes [00:10:28] Right. I see young kids with technology and I feel like they’re forming a lifelong habit that isn’t a good place to be to get in the habit at six years old of picking up your phone whenever you’re bored. That’s going to be a problem when later in life you have to be a little bit bored in class in order to be able to work past that and actually learn something. 


Anne Bryan [00:10:48] Well, and what you just brought up is empathize with every teacher that’s working in our various schools right now because they are dealing with and trying to support kids who have a variety of habits and also a variety of attention spans. And certainly the pandemic has exacerbated all of that. 


Ned Hayes [00:11:06] Well, we’ve talked some about the negative effects of technology, but I’m sure there must be some positive ones. Do you see any positive experiences with technology that should be uplifting for parents and for children? 


Anne Bryan [00:11:18] Well, I’m sure you’re aware there’s just so many different positive things that we’ve seen. Certainly, the pandemic has both accentuated the positive and the negative as we see more ways of communicating, more ways of working, more flexibility about how we do those things. That’s true for people of all ages. And then I guess the other thing I would say that I’ve just personally seen firsthand is so many new teaching tools that are available. I have a personal passion for math and computer science and the tools that are available for teaching those kinds of things, particularly thinking about for children, are really just so many leaps and bounds where we might have been if you’re just working with a 2D graph or something. So the modeling and then the creativity, I mean, there’s really just no end to so many positive things as long as it’s managed with what I would say, just the human framework. Right. Every adult knows zoom fatigue is a real thing, right? So what do we do to craft our own habits and then model those for the younger people in our life? 


Ashley Coates [00:12:17] I know a lot of parents I chat with have mixed feelings about using screens to entertain and occupy their kids. I’ve seen tech used in restaurants and airplanes, for example, but I always sense a feeling a little bit of guilt or using screens in that way. I’m curious if you have any advice for parents around using screens as a behavior management tool? 


Anne Bryan [00:12:39] Really, what I would say is to consider, even before you consider your child’s use, consider your own. Right. So if you’re at a restaurant with your friends, does it seem okay to you to use your phones together? Or maybe everybody is like, well, I’m going to look up this one thing right now because we’ve been having a debate about it. And you can feel even in that interaction that there are some times where it’s like, no, it’s not okay, we’re here to enjoy dinner together. And then sometimes, yes, go Google that one thing. Why should we not know that? So I would encourage people to consider their own habits and how they want to be and then think about how does that extend to my child? The other thing I would always tell people is, in the end, a parent is always going to be the most important educator teacher for their child, and they should feel empowered in doing so. It is a huge gift that they have that opportunity to really help their child to learn and that they can feel empowered to do that. 


Ned Hayes [00:13:32] What you just said was, we need to look at ourselves first. So going back to the discussion about Facebook and about the harm caused to children that Facebook and other social media platforms have caused and their own research demonstrates this. I’m curious, what types of behavior should we be encouraging at a high level in adult society? Do we all agree that it’s appropriate to pick up your phone while you’re eating or not? I guess I’m wondering if we could up level the question. The civic society, what kinds of behaviors toward technology should we be thinking out loud about? 


Anne Bryan [00:14:05] Well, the misinformation is going to continue to be a hot topic where as a society, we’re going to have to be balancing the rights of free speech with things that are not true. And how do we educate each other on how to have civil discourse, when these are going to be ongoing, really important conversations. And the other thing I would say about that, and it’ll be an interesting question as a society, is we all look at each other and go, and who should be answering these? So I think that’ll be a really fascinating learning. Sometimes I think we really just haven’t been at this that long. It feels like forever that the iPhones been out. So how do we get to a place where we all agree and maybe we won’t is the other thing, I think reasonable people can disagree on some of this, and that’ll be an interesting journey. We collectively go on together. 


Ned Hayes [00:14:52] Yeah, well, there’s been one answer to this question. China has a policy that tools like Circle are in the hands of the government and they’re used everywhere all the time. Is that the right answer? Or maybe not. Maybe it’s a leading question, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on that. 


Anne Bryan [00:15:07] Well, I think it’s fascinating because there are whole societies who have decided that is the right answer. And I think many parents might have felt that same instinct at some point. So it’s not that they even managing that kind of control is many of us feel like, oh, I wish I had that. But also certainly within our own society, I’m grateful that is not our common approach. And I guess what I would say is interesting from Circle perview is there’s every idea in between. So it’s a really culture’s value that control of information and have that robust discussion about who should be managing information, how we protect privacy or not. Societies can have an impact. Individual citizens can have an impact on those conversations to the degree that they’re interested in participating. 


Ashley Coates [00:15:57] And I would love to actually ask you more about privacy Anne, I’ve been thinking a lot about consumer privacy, and many of our listeners are retailers. So we’d love to hear your thoughts on consumer behavior in retail stores and how data around consumer behavior is used. Any thoughts on how monetizing knowledge of behavior helps or hurts the world? 


Anne Bryan [00:16:19] Well, that conversation about do you enjoy a customized experience or do you think having a billboard that you drive by is going to be enough? And certainly it is more cost effective for the retailers and for a company to be able to advertise in a way that they know is targeted and they can pass that reduced cost on to their customers. So I would say that is the advantage. And I think also it being able to provide that customized experience which when I log on to Netflix, I’m glad that there’s “These are recommended for you” right? I mean, people do like that experience of feeling like people understand what it is that would like. There’s always that tradeoff then of, well, what am I missing out on? Because people are assuming that because I’m of a certain age or a certain demographic, live in a certain place that I’m going to like this thing. So I might be missing out on a whole lot of things that are not as customized. There’s that tradeoff. 


Ned Hayes [00:17:13] Yeah, it sounds like walking that line between providing contextual recommendations and knowledge about the person versus invading the person’s privacy. Walking that line is a careful balancing act. 


Anne Bryan [00:17:25] I would think so. For anybody who has given their personal data to their grocery store and sees what coupons get sent in the mail to them, there’s going to be that love hate relationship. Yes, I love saving money on this exact product. And also, it’s a little creepy that they know I like this one brand a lot. 


Ashley Coates [00:17:43]  If we can ask you, what do you think the future of privacy is for both children and adults? 


Anne Bryan [00:17:51] I don’t think I feel qualified to predict the future for very many things. I hope there is a greater inclination to educate ourselves about what various privacy rules mean, even basic things like I have a hope that people start to decline cookies everywhere, right? If they really do feel like privacy is a priority to them. But also I totally get that. It’s really easy to just have that, accept it and go on. I just think it’ll be a really interesting thing to see as we educate ourselves and try to decide what’s important. 


Ned Hayes [00:18:25] Right. So you were part of the startup scene here in Portland and you’ve had a successful exit. So could you tell us about your experience in the Portland tech scene? 


Anne Bryan [00:18:35] What my experience or observation is, and I don’t think that any of this is groundbreaking. It’s a vibrant scene where people are willing to help each other and excited to applaud each other’s success. The other thing that I found is we were able to hire as we scaled just a phenomenal team in Portland. And I feel like it was such a privilege that there was such a bed of really skilled people here who love Portland and want to stay. So I felt like that was a great thing to be a part of. I’m very curious to watch as we move into this world of remote work, how that impacts not just the Portland Tech scene, but everywhere. I guess the other thing I will say, I’ve noticed in particular, and I am passionate about opportunities for women in tech is that the last year or so? I believe because of their ability to work remotely, at least for Circle, made a big impact on the opportunities available for women generally. And it was an exciting thing to see. 


Ned Hayes [00:19:30] So as we look at what you’ve accomplished here, what do you see into the future for tech and children in the U.S.? Where do you think we’ll be in 5 to 10 years? Do you think it’ll be VR everywhere or VR nowhere? 


Anne Bryan [00:19:44] How much crypto will there be and will we be doing it in space is another question. I guess my own personal hope. I won’t even say it’s a prediction, but my hope is we can recognize the ways that children’s thrive and learn. So particularly for children in younger ages, we have evolved so that we need a lot of hands on activity playing in the dirt, building with blocks, cooking activities for measuring these kind of hands on experiences I personally believe cannot be replaced by technology. And I guess maybe we’ll be having VR sandbox play, but I kind of hope not. It’ll be an interesting thing to see how good we get at changing the texture so that they have that feeling as well, that in the end we are humans. So it is my hope that wherever tech takes us, we’ll have those kind of hands on and tangible experiences that I believe are really necessary for personal growth. And certainly there’s a lot of research that would back that up. 


Ashley Coates [00:20:45] Yeah, for sure. It’ll be very interesting to see what happens. Thank you so much Anne for joining us today. We do have one final question for you. What do you want your legacy to be? What would you like to be remembered for? 


Anne Bryan [00:20:59] Oh, the piece that I’m proudest about is a two fold thing. One is, I was willing to go try and do what was right for my community and children in particular. And in the process of doing that, have been able to elevate teams along the way and build them into really well-honed operations. And it’s been a real privilege to be able to do all those things together. 


Ashley Coates [00:21:24] That’s fantastic. Thank you so much Anne for joining us today. 


Anne Bryan [00:21:27] It’s a pleasure to meet you both. Thank you so much for what you are doing for SnowShoe and for Portland and the larger community and generally. 

Ned Hayes [00:21:37] Spark Plug is a wholly owned property of SnowShoe all content and copyright 2021 Spark Plug Media.