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From taverns to ed tech

How do two brothers who grew up on the streets of New York City and could not read until the age of eight, end up building one of the largest pub chains in Las Vegas, sell it for a lot of money and then design a computer program to teach kids how to read?

If you ask nearly identical twin brothers Phil and Tom Boeckle, they will say that it took a lot of street smarts, intuition and just plain work.

“Here’s what I tell people,” said Phil Boeckle. “When a kid’s eight years old, and he throws a football, he’s got a talent, right? Well, at eight years old, we knew how to make money. We were natural entrepreneurs.”

“At ten years old we were actually business guys,” continued brother Tom.

In October 1982, the Boeckle brothers opened their first PT’s Pub on Palm Street on the east side of Las Vegas, near the point where St. Louis Avenue turns into Palm Street. By the mid-1990s, PT’s was known as a place to hang out, have a beer, shoot pool and lose track of time.

It was a concept that had legs.

In the spring of 2002, Phil and Tom Boeckle sold their 23 PT’s locations to Golden Gaming founder Blake Sartini.

They could have ridden off into the sunset but they didn’t. Being the driven, entrepreneurial type personalities that they are, the brothers went to work silently planning their next venture.

Fast forward to 2011 and the brothers hit upon an idea for a computer software and hardware combination that would teach children how to read based on the principals of phonics. The product is called Square Panda and it is designed to teach, engage, and entrain early learners (ages three and up). The phonics-based playset uses letter toys and multi-sensory apps to explore early reading skills.

Their motivation comes from childhood experiences that bore some similarities to those of the young Andre Agassi some 2,500 miles west in Las Vegas. While Agassi’s education was cut short to chase a pro tennis career, the Boeckles’ problems came earlier — from first grade to sixth grade, they did not know how to read.

“I never had the proper training for Pre-K, and I always said to myself, if I ever become successful, have the money or the time, that we are going to make a change,” Tom Boeckle said. “We’re going to change the world and try to correct a problem that hasn’t been corrected.”

“It’s a real handicap not being able to read,” said Phil finishing his brother’s sentence right on cue.

The two men in their late fifty’s, standing side by side, with just a hint of grey showing through their finely coiffed hair, look more like body builders than computer software giants.

“Think about it now,” continued Tom. “If someone doesn’t sit down and work with you on a pre-K level, who’s gonna teach ya. I mean, a lot of kids aren’t taught at all. Their parents let them out to play and do all kinds of other things but don’t give them a scholastic background before they enter first grade; it is very hard for them to catch up when they do enter school.”

“We came from a really poor family, were pretty much on our own,” said Tom. “But we always went to school,” continued Phil as if tagging in. “We weren’t very good students, but we went to school.”

The two co-founders run the company from their Las Vegas office and have a research and development division in Silicon Valley. They also have a development office in Hong Kong. To date, the company has approximately 48 full and part-time employees, mostly in California. However, after the product launch, the brothers anticipate that the company will grow really quickly. They expect to be employing a large number of people in Nevada for sales, marketing and customer service positions.

The product captured the attention of Andre Agassi, who has not only invested in the product but is a member of the Board of Directors and a spokesperson.

“Square Panda is unique and has the potential to create a generation of confident readers,” said Agassi. “I know one of the most important skills for a child to possess as they enter kindergarten is a basic understanding of phonics. If you can teach a child basic reading, then the child will begin their educational experience with self-confidence. We are excited to team up with Square Panda to launch this revolutionary new learning system.”

After the formal launch of Square Panda, the brothers will be concentrating on their next invention. They would not comment except to say that it is a unique and extremely sophisticated learning device. “It’s no better than Square Panda; it’s different,” said Tom.

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