Born into a perpetually curious family, Kim Hanson was the subject of her dad’s cognitive experiments, even at a very young age. Her father, Dr. Ken Gibson, was a pediatric optometrist who, to fill time between patients, started training the brains of children. The methods he developed eventually evolved into the Colorado Springs-based franchise, LearningRx. Years later, Kim Hanson is CEO of the company, which today has 80 centers in the U.S. and a presence in 40 countries around the world.
Hanson spoke with the Business Journal this week about building brains and a brand — even while doing battle with the Federal Trade Commission.
Where are you from and how did you get to Colorado Springs?
I’m originally from Appleton, Wis. My husband [Wayne] and I got here 20 years ago. We moved to the Western Slope — he was on staff as a youth pastor at a big church there.
My mom and dad were living in Florida after my dad ‘retired’ from his practice. They visited us in Colorado and decided they wanted to move here. … They were going to move somewhere with an airport that was close to the mountains. They fell in love with Colorado Springs. I’m big on family, and it was sad to not have them around, so I was excited. We then moved to the Springs to be part of the family business.
Back then it was a cognitive training program before LearningRx. We licensed our training to places like doctors’ offices and hospitals.
How have you been involved?
I think cognitive or brain training kind of found me. My dad was always really curious about how people learn. Being the oldest kid, he just started doing experiments with me. When I was a few months old, he put me on an incline board to see if I would crawl faster. He taught me to read with flashcards in my highchair. That’s the wrong way to do it, and we know that now. But I’ve been taking IQ tests since I was 4.
What was your father’s background?
He was a pediatric optometrist. In fact, he was one of the first ones solely focused on pediatrics. He was also a pioneer in vision therapy. He had a brother who was a psychologist. When he grew up he was really smart but reading was difficult, so he wanted to answer why he was smart but struggled to read.
He would get together with his brother and they would talk about testing and improving skills. He started training people about 35 years ago. He was part of my grandpa’s [optometry] practice and was limited to kids. Back then kids didn’t go to the eye doctor often. He was always doing things on the side.
Talk about the training.
We work in seven areas and we’ve learned training is best when it’s one-on-one because then we can control intensity. It’s also important to do this in small steps, like a video game. We’re always working on something that’s challenging, but with success within your grasp. And you only compete against yourself. Also, we don’t work on what you can do, because you can do it. We’ll do a procedure until it starts to get difficult and that’s where we start.
Another thing we do is called loading. We’ll work on a skill and, when it’s solid, add another task on top. Now you focus on the new skill and the old skill becomes automatic. The key to training is to make these skills automatic. You don’t want to think about creating the picture in your head, you want to hear something and the picture is just there. We’re going for automaticity.
Who are your clients?
The typical person who comes to us is someone who is struggling with learning, either a lot or a little. Home life is probably frustrating. When you have a struggling child, it doesn’t just affect that person, it affects the whole family.
The first thing we do is look at why they’re struggling. We test seven skills like attention, memory, processing speed, logic and reasoning, Those are important to how you learn and perform. Then we create a plan and start training.
Most people will have a few weak skills, so we start to build those. We find their ‘can’t’ and that’s where we start to turn it into a ‘can.’
When you feel like you can do things better, easier and faster, you get more confidence. We don’t work on confidence, but it’s the No. 1 thing we hear about from parents. Just the ability to pay attention — we stretch it out. If we can take someone from 8 seconds and stretch it to 4 minutes, that’s life-changing.
What separates LearningRx from commercial tutoring?
We’re actually very different. They re-teach content you may not have gotten the first time. … They’re very academic. There are two parts to smart: the what you know and the how you process information. We’re on the how you process information side.
We don’t work on academics at all. We work on memorization, paying attention, picturing things in your head, figuring out how to solve a problem. What we do doesn’t just help you in school. Because if you can process faster, that can help you in everything. If you’re loading your dishwasher and you have better logic and reasoning and visual processing skills, you can fit eight more cups in. You can strategize how you’ll take out your silverware faster. It helps in all areas.
How does one become a franchise owner?
We have a process that includes a couple of qualification calls — we learn about them, they learn about us. We’ll also have a ‘discovery day’ where we’ll answer any questions and let them see our system and all the tools we have.
Our job is to give them the tools to be successful. Then they go through intensive interviewing. We’re looking for people who align with our core values. We work with pretty precious people, so we need precious people to work with them.
Talk about your encounter with the Federal Trade Commission.
That was a tough thing we went through last year. The FTC decided to go after the brain-training industry. It’s a newer industry, and it’s growing. It’s inviting.
They were claiming that we couldn’t change someone’s cognitive skill but we had proof and experts behind us.
They looked at the big players in digital, and we were the big player in one-on-one. What’s cool though is that we had such a huge body of evidence. We also had [randomized control trials], which is a new standard that was being set as we went. We came out of that experience very refined — there were other companies that went out of business.
We probably would have fought it in federal court, but they brought everything down to such a small claim [from $4 million to $200,000], it made sense to settle.
What’s your future in Colorado Springs?
We love doing business in Colorado Springs. We hold our national convention here every year. …
We work with a lot of ministries here, a lot of schools. We’ve worked with soldiers and hospitals. Colorado Springs has been an awesome place to do business.
As for the future, we’re about to hit a milestone of 100,000 brains trained. It’s something I’m super proud of — to take my dad’s legacy into the future is pretty cool. … I take the stewardship of it very seriously. But in the next 10 years, I’d like to hit 300,000 brains. n CSBJ