Mitch Weathers: Building a Startup from the Classroom

The 4th and final profile in the Teacherpreneur Spotlight Series that I’ve produced in collaboration with EdSurge.

“When students know what you want them to do, and they can do it, they tend to do it. You’ve built in a chance for them to be successful in your class and it has nothing to do with content mastery– It’s about acting like a student and students want that.”

Mitch Weathers was destined to become an educator. From his early years in college he knew he wanted to work with at-risk high school students. After a brief stint in the nonprofit sector with Young Life, where he spent time as Executive Director, Weathers decided he could have a greater impact helping kids be successful in the classroom. His teaching journey began in 2001 in Sacramento, and shortly afterwards he moved to Sequoia High School in Redwood City, CA, where has has been teaching science for the past 12 years. (He also serves as the Chair of the science department.)

The motivation to create Organized Binder came directly out of his experience at Sequoia, where he taught students who were coming to school everyday but often without completing any work from previous days. Somehow the students didn’t believe they could be academically successful, but Weathers believed otherwise.

“Much of our effort and emphasis in education is around content, yet, it quickly became clear that these students lacked the basic skill set to even access that content,” says Weathers.  Organized Binder is exactly what it sounds like: a physical 3-ring binder that houses a paper-based system to help educators ritualize the classroom, by setting clear expectations about class work and processes.

The system is composed of different color-coded pages that represent a set of best practices, thus clarifying expectations so students know what it means to be ready to learn. It establishes clear classroom processes to make explicit what some refer to as the “hidden curriculum”– learning skills unrelated to content (such as organizing papers created or handed out in class, taking good notes, managing calendars, and tracking progress towards tests/deliverables) that students often struggle with.

OrgB Pic

After prototyping the system for much of 2003, Weathers began to see meaningful improvement in learning and engagement with the students in his classroom. Soon, other teachers began to inquire about the Organized Binder system and the following school year Weathers led a pilot across all the 9th grade teachers and students at Sequoia High School, thus expanding the usage from 3-4 people to 50. “As I walked through various classrooms observing the Binder in action it became very clear the system was content agnostic.” Epiphanies like that really drove Weathers to continue refining the product.

While currently in paper form, Weathers is working with a couple of designers and developers, with input from several other educators, to translate the process into a web version with a mobile app for teachers which they hope to release this summer.

Beyond the School Walls

Growing the Organized Binder user base beyond Sequoia High School happened serendipitously.  In 2005, Weathers was asked to share his model at the California Teacher’s Association’s (CTA) Good Teaching Conference. Having never presented at an education conference before, he was a bit surprised when his proposal was accepted, and even more so when hundreds of people tried to get into his session. “About 50 people followed me down to the lobby after the session and the hotel made more copies of the binder pages because we ran out.”

Organized Binder is now being used in over 30 states and around the world, with both school and district-wide implementations. The results speak for themselves, where schools using the system are making over 100 point API gains, and EL and Special Education students earn huge gains on standardized exams. Weathers started off by traveling to each school to conduct training sessions himself. Over the years he’s built up an army of regional trainers to scale the business and provide support around the U.S.

Bridging the Offline and Online Worlds

Through his many training sessions with teachers around the country, Weathers has captured valuable insights into what teachers want and need in order to successfully integrate technology into their teaching practice. “For many teachers the issue with tech is that when you bring in new tools and you have the ‘wow factor,’ but then each thing becomes a discrete chunk in the lesson.” One of the challenges with integrating tech into classroom instruction is achieving lessons that flow smoothly. These insights are helping shape the digital version of Organized Binder and future training methods. “What I’m most excited about in translating this system online is that it will function very much as a virtual binder. That is so important to educators who have been teaching (and often using paper-based systems) for 15-20 years because they understand a classroom that functions in that fashion; it fits into their way of thinking and conducting their class.”

However, there are challenges around moving fully to virtual binder, such as cost, access to hardware & wifi, as well as the ability to actually see if a student is disorganized. With all this in mind, Weathers is designing a blended system that allows for both on and offline elements.

Balancing School and Startup

Weathers is straightforward about the lack of any work-life balance, having very little time for much beyond the classroom and Organized Binder. Weathers has impressively built Organized Binder into a sustainable business, with profit built into each of the school contracts, however, managing the growth is a different story. The question of leaving the classroom is a sensitive subject for him, but he openly acknowledges that juggling two full-time endeavors is not sustainable. “For years, standing in front of crowds saying that I’m a teacher and that I use this tool myself on a daily basis gave me incredible legitimacy. I’m getting closer to a time where I will have to leave the classroom or go part-time and I’m not sure what that will look like.”

As with any entrepreneurial enterprise, the trajectory is uncertain but Weathers is confidently optimistic about what the future holds for Organized Binder. You can keep up with his progress by following Mitch Weathers on Twitter @OrganizedBinder, get updates on Facebook and reach him directly at mitch (at) organizedbinder (dot) com.

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Adam Bellow: Journey of a Teacher turned Entrepreneur

One educator’s gritty journey to turn a pain point into a product and company. Profile #3 in the Teacherpreneur Spotlight Series that I’ve produced in collaboration with EdSurge.

Adam at Desk

“I never thought I would be a teacher”

Adam Bellow decided early on in life that he wasn’t going to be a teacher, even though both his parents were respected educators. As a self-proclaimed ‘nerd,’ Adam started programming BASIC when he was 7 years old on an Apple IIe.

But life plans aren’t set in stone. After completing film school with a minor in sociology in 2003 he was an assistant teacher at The Churchill School (a school in Manhattan for students with language-based learning disabilities). In 2005, Adam took over teaching a class, “Technology in the Special Ed Classroom,” to 22 eager graduate students at Hunter College. Over the next couple of years, he started to piece together a “terrible catalogue of sites using iWeb,” in his words, and in 2007 the first version of eduTecher was born. “I thought of it simply as a place to organize resources for my class,” Bellow remembers, “and then when I eventually saw hits coming in from Australia and China I realized was meeting a need for a larger community.” His entrepreneurial spirit began to blossom.

Evolution of eduClipper

eduClipper Screenshot

The countless positive testimonials motivated Bellow to continue eduTecher as a side project while he worked full time with a series of teaching jobs, technology training positions, and as Director of Technology for the College Board Schools. In 2009 Bellow launched one of the first edtech iPhone apps, eduTecher Backpack, and the momentum continued. “I was curating the web for educators and it was cool to see the community organically grow.”

In 2011 he added a custom social network component and began spending more and more time building in new features. “I thought about what it would mean to work on this full time. I put out a survey to my edtech friends to get their input on what aspects of eduTecher I should rebuild and possibly even build a business around.”

The feedback was overwhelming and he learned that what educators valued most was the simple, visual curation element that eduTecher had offered. Around this time, Pinterest was gaining popularity, which led him to think about how he could optimize the “clipboard” experience specifically for educators.

Bellow built initial mockups for the rechristened eduClipper in Keynote and in early 2012 outsourced the project to developers in India through Elance. He convinced his wife to let them put some money into this project and began working night owl hours to test out his idea. “It was rough…On a typical day, I’d wake up around 3 am to work on my startup until 5 am, before I left for a full day of work. Then once I’d tucked the kids in at night I’d jump back online. I was sleeping  around 3 hours a night and it was not sustainable.”

However, all that hustling paid off by June 2012. He had hoped that the first iteration of the site, intended to be a proof of concept, would attract 200 users. Instead, he got 20,000 a month. He realized he was onto something and decided to pursue the project full time.

He was blown away. “The number of accounts created and positive buzz around the potential was a clear indication that I had to explore the possibilities. I made the transition from educator to entrepreneur; however I had no knowledge of startups beyond watching The Social Network and religiously reading TechCrunch and other related blogs.” Connecting with the growing edtech community was a significant driver in his success and after a serendipitous encounter with Jeff O’Hara, co-founder of Edmodo, during a trip to Chicago, Bellow was more motivated than ever to build his own product and company.

Bellow is currently gearing up for a major re-launch of eduClipper slated for June and expand his user base beyond the 25,000 that he currently supports; at last count, there were 16,000 on the waitlist.

Show Me the Money

Balancing his schedule between teaching and product development was grueling. But for Bellow, nothing prepared him for the plunge into the fundraising world in the New York venture capital scene. “At first it felt like a waste of time,” says Bellow, who felt awkward revealing that he didn’t have all the answers. Over time, he became more comfortable going to investors for advice after having met many who supported his vision for change. And he realized, “who wants you to succeed more than your investors?” 

Bellow is getting ready to close his seed round which includes some luminaries in the edtech space.

Lessons Learned

Consistent with the Valley’s spirit to embrace failure, Bellow is quick to admit that he made a ton of mistakes along the way. “The trick is to learn quickly and keep going.” In thinking back on what helped eduClipper come to life, Bellow offers these few bits of advice:

  • Focus on real pain points. “Don’t just set out to build something cool. If I set out to build Pinterest for educators that would suck. Start with a real problem and understand that pain point that you’re trying to resolve.”

  • Community is at the core of everything. “Even before there was a real product, I focused on talking to people and being accessible. Growing my network in the startup space, especially around edtech, has been invaluable especially fumbling through our failures.”

  • Education is about people. “Our core values, as you can see from the sign on our door, is that teachers and students come first. If we started from the perspective of trying to make a ton of money it would never work.”

Fellow educators often ask Bellow if he misses the classroom, to which he replies, “I still think of myself as a teacher. I train a ton of people in schools all the time. I miss doing that legitimate work with kids, but I think that what we are developing is designed to help kids and teachers get results everyday.”

Adam will be the keynote speaker at ISTE in San Antonio this June. You can follow him on Twitter at @AdamBellow.