Updated: Jul 13
From the conception of Learkn to the pivot to Lirn, read about our core story and mission: to verify knowledge.
“We are not building an educational company, we are progressing humanity. Education is the fabric that progresses humanity.”
Autodidactism is a passion many of us have but gets suppressed for so long that we eventually forget about it. Think about when you were younger and you liked enjoying learning things you found interesting. It could’ve been learning about insects or geography. From most conversations I’ve had with people, mostly everyone can refer back to a time when they were younger and had an innate curiosity for certain things. Fortunately, on my end, I had the privilege to indulge in the ability to self-teach while I was still young, had the bandwidth, and could allocate time to this endless passion. It got to a point where it could’ve been labeled as a cognitive addiction. Every second, minute, and hour I would practice metacognition and use every second to learn something new. From the moment I woke up and psychoanalyzed my dreams, to doing real-time psychometrics during conversations, to the last beta brain wave before bed, I would be thinking about how I can self-teach myself more. How could I evolve my thinking? Thinking was my product and learning was my material.
Being young enough to have abundant energy yet cash strapped made me be selective on my spending. I mainly had to rely on free resources to learn. Thankfully, one of my greatest resources at my disposal was YouTube. The infinite abundance of information that the video search engine provides can be a gateway full of wonder. However, YouTube is not designed to be a gateway for learning, but rather for entertainment. The algorithm and user experience on YouTube is not optimized for people to learn. There is no cognitive protection, nor util activation of the working memory to convert information into long-term memory. YouTube churns and burns information to you through videos. (If you’re not familiar with the term, churn and burn, it is a business term meaning that something comes fast and leaves fast.) I digress from speaking of YouTube in a negative light because it can actually be an amazing resource to learn. During my youth, I realized that the concept of a video search engine platform that is optimized for learning could change the entirety of how we learn online. “What if there was a YouTube but optimized for learning?” was the question that got my co-founders intrigued to join the vision. None of us went to university and a great amount of the skills we learned were self-taught through YouTube. These were my people. The ones who have been self-teaching online and know how to make their own rabbit holes to learn a new domain. Now, of course, this process goes beyond just staying on YouTube, but starting on YouTube is usually the first step. The platform is great because it is free and it incentivizes content creators to upload content. It is a strong flywheel effect for endless content with a good business model. We didn’t know it at the time but the decision to build a platform similar to YouTube but optimized for learning was our portal to committing our lives to changing education forever.
Building Learkn (pronounced Learn, due to the kn making the “n” sound) became an obsession. I did not come from a technical background, so I had no idea how to create a platform from scratch. This led me down the rabbit hole of reverse engineering how to build a platform on AWS, code libraries, UX, content distribution networks, user authentication, and plenty more domains. Through good fortune, I was able to assemble a team that had the spirit to build this out. Marcos Chavez became my CTO, Luis Fausto became my CXO, Carlos Miranda became my CIO, and I was the CEO. With us identifying our roles, we are able to solely focus on our domains of work. Within a few months, we went from inception to launching. What was interesting about building Learkn was that we started to realize that we can solve a much bigger problem than we initialized for. On top of that, we were validating our concept of self-educating ourselves.
Realizing how big of a solution we can bring to the world did not fall from the sky. Our insights came from our users. One of the biggest principles in building a startup is to get your user’s feedback because it brings insight from people who you are solving a problem for. When we were conducting user research, we noticed that there was a common theme around the world. People from over 100 countries mentioned that they were educating themselves online but had no true form of validating what they learned. In other words, people were educating themselves online but there was no global education system. Becoming aware of this issue led to us realizing that even though we started off building a platform to create a better learning experience, we could now build a new education system for internet learners. We needed to build an internet learner’s identity. At the time we didn’t know how we were going to do it but we believed in the mission to get there.
We scaled Learkn to tens of thousands of users and were growing at an extremely healthy rate but our business model went to garbage overnight. Just like YouTube, we were going to make money through ads and we were using Google’s Adsense program. Things were looking good but then one day I woke up to an email stating we violated some terms. To my knowledge, we followed all rules of the ad program and I did an appeal but they never approved us again. We had a growing platform but no way of making money from it. Some people recommended we charge a subscription but that was not the vision. It would kill our product because we wanted to create a network effect by being an aggregator. Charging our users from the get-go would kill the spirit of our product and company. We trailed on survival mode for a few months, until we found our saving grace. I mean we were dead broke. Surviving on EDD and living in our parent’s house. Thankfully we became aware of something magical called Blockchain.
We dissolved Learkn in 2020 because we knew we were out of money and we needed to start from scratch for our new initiative. Out of sheer luck, one night I was browsing GoDaddy for fun (as I used to do) brainstorming other ways to pronounce Learn and I came across Lirn.io and saw it was available for less than $100. I immediately purchased it and told the team, we have a beautiful new name. Lirn was the evolution of Learkn with a stronger vision. With Lirn, our goal became to verify education on blockchain and create a learner’s identity. We believed we were in the perfect window of time to seize this opportunity. Internet learners are now going to be able to verify the knowledge and skills they self-taught. The lightbulb moment came when I realized wallets were a form of identity in web3. When you go from Dapp (decentralized app) to Dapp you log in with the same wallet. It’s similar to how a passport is your identifier when you go to a new country and how your passport gets stamped to showcase you traveled to another country. Data getting added to your wallet is like your passport getting stamped. You can travel from Dapp to Dapp taking your data with you. I thought, “what if the data that gets tied to a wallet is solely around educational activity.” That became our north star and has led us to our current build. We became early pioneers by working with NTTs (non-transferable tokens). If you are familiar with NFTs (non-fungible tokens), imagine the same concept but NTTs have to be earned. This concept isn’t novel. Certificates and degrees are exactly like this but they are not on the blockchain. At Lirn, when we issue an NTT, we make sure people have earned their NTT. People can not buy nor transfer their NTT so if it is in their wallet, there is merit to that. Blockchain is allowing groundbreaking innovation to emerge but it will take time for it to get integrated into society. DeFi and NFTs had their run but I believe the next way for blockchain will be tied around identity. As the internet becomes more integrated into our lives, the protocols we use to interact with websites, databases, institutions, and any form of entity will change. The optimistic belief is that individuals are gaining more sovereignty and that is a worthy pursuit to support. We will be doing so by helping create protocols for internet learner identities.
Let’s take a second to discuss how education is entering a new paradigm. At Lirn, we are creating a true Proof of Education protocol. Defining objective truth on what it means to be “educated” is impossible so we decided to base our truth on three axioms. These three components cover the entire spectrum of education and they are knowledge, skill, and sentiment. Knowledge can be defined as conceptually understanding a domain. Think of how someone can understand the physics of how to ride a bike. The next axiom is skill and this entails the execution of knowledge that leads to an outcome. In this case, think of someone balancing themselves, pedaling their feet, and moving the handlebars to navigate the bike. The last piece is sentiment can be tied to how people perceive the bike rider. Perhaps this could be the most tricky. People can focus on aspects such as what type of bike the person is riding, what clothes the person is wearing, what tricks the bike rider does, etc. Sentiment is a personal perception. In the case of education, think of someone getting a degree from Harvard vs. a community college. Obviously, people’s sentiment towards the Harvard graduate is going to be more positive. That doesn’t discount the community college student’s knowledge, it is just a different sentiment.
By identifying these axioms, we can translate them into protocols and get users to adopt them. Using NTTs is the piece of technology that completes the puzzle. The process to verify knowledge can be systematized and rewarded and NTT for passing and the same goes for skill. As NTTs get more recognition, the sentiment towards them will gain trust. Imagine a world where social signals and employment will be based on the NTTs you have rather than the degrees universities are issuing. We’re not talking about something small here. Education innovation has been stifled for centuries and the esoteric keep the power dynamics in their circulation. It is time to decentralize proof of education onto the web. Lirn is the vehicle built for this mission. This is not a job for us, this is a life worth mission. Education is the fabric that allows humanity to prosper. Let’s Advance Humanity. Cheers to the future and may you learn endlessly, Agustin