PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The first ad that Alan Tortolani put on his educational gaming app for school children earned him 17 cents.
Now his family’s Providence-based company, ABCya.com, says it boasts more than 45,000 paid subscribers and received upwards of 1 billion page views and 120 million visitors in just the last 12 months.
The success story of Alan and his wife, Lisa, was the centerpiece of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s State of the State speech Tuesday night.
“The real credit goes to the people of Rhode Island, people like Lisa and Alan Tortolani,” Raimondo said during the address, which highlighted a number of Rhode Islanders’ inspiring stories. Lisa sat in the front row, flanked by her friend Kathryn Dunkleman and First Gentleman Andy Moffit.
Although Lisa is a New Jersey transplant, Raimondo used her story as an example of a deep love of Rhode Island. Alan was a Burrillville native, and brought Lisa here to start their business.
“He felt that Rhode Island was the place that a small business could take off,” Lisa told Eyewitness News in an exclusive interview. She said Alan created the first game when he was a student teacher in 2004, and soon realized his fellow teachers were using the game without knowledge he had made it. Alan decided to put Google Ads on the game.
“And he said, ‘Babe, today I made 17 cents.’ And I was amazed. I was amazed,” Lisa said with a smile.
By 2010, their game “Math Bingo” was No. 1 in its iTunes app store category. Soon they started hiring employees, expanding and creating more than 350 education games for children in grades pre-K through 5.
Lisa said her husband was passionate and outspoken – even telling the governor about the challenges he faced starting a business in his home state.
“When I met Alan, it was clear to me that he loved Rhode Island, but he didn’t shy away from telling me that it sometimes it frustrated him,” Raimondo said in her address Tuesday. “Our maze of regulations drove him crazy, and it was sometimes too hard to find people with the right skills.”
But Alan pressed on, and was looking toward the future when tragedy struck.
“Nine months ago, on a Friday, Alan called Lisa while he was heading home from work,” Raimondo said. “Before they hung up, they said, ‘I love you,’ just like they always do. And after that, Alan went out for a bike ride. But Alan never came home.”
The 40-year-old had collapsed and died, leaving Lisa to take care of their three young children and sustain their thriving business.
“He was so important and so special and I want people to know that,” Lisa said.
Despite her roots in New Jersey, Lisa said the community in Rhode Island has kept her strong in the face of grief.
“Just about every day for the past nine months or so, there has been dinner on my front porch, lunches for my kids and very often on a Saturday morning there will be a man or woman outside my window mowing my lawn or picking up my leaves or shoveling snow,” Lisa said. “I don’t think that can be understated.”
Alan’s passion for his home state is now clearer to Lisa than ever.
“I think he was right,” she said about Alan’s hunch that Rhode Island was the right place to start their business. “I think that ABCya is proof that someone with a great idea, a dream and some tenacity can succeed.”