Learn. Link. Launch.

 

 

The Silicon Valley Education Foundation recently hosted their 5th annual #iHubPitchGames at Google. Through this home-grown version of an edtech accelerator, they have been iterating on the process of matching rising education startups with local schools to conduct ~3 month pilots, empowering teachers and students to provide direct and meaningful product feedback. In some ways this experience is a natural follow-on to more well established incubator programs, as several of the teams (Sown to Grow, Bird Brain, Peekapak and MathGames) are alumni of ImagineK12.

My favorite aspect of this event is the authentic focus on educator perspectives. School teams that applied for the fellowship were required to submit a ~60 sec video explaining how they believe technology can be used to improve a specific learning challenge they face in their classrooms. The event started off by sharing these videos to set the context for the 10 startups that then presented their products.

After watching the educator videos the entrepreneurs had 20 min to prepare a 2-minute pitch on how their products can address those learning challenges. The teams clearly knew how to present to an audience of educators, connecting their tools to the educators needs in the participating schools. After the pitch event, a subset of the companies are matched with more than 40 teachers selected from 11 districts across Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.  

While I haven’t had a chance to try out all the products, I was personally impressed with the project-based approach of Cashtivity (real world math challenges) and Cignition (neuroscience based math lessons). The flashiest software tool was clearly HSTRY (create interactive timelines), while MakersEmpire is helping schools unlock the power of their makerspaces.

The iHub program is one of the few structured opportunities for edtech startups to work directly with educators to get meaningful feedback during the early stages of product development. I’ll check back in with the teams in a couple months to see how the pilots are progressing.

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Embracing Schools as Customers

Often times the various demo days and edtech press all tends to blur together in a cloud of buzz words (a la adaptive platforms, flipped classroom), however, Imagine K12’s recent batch of edtech startups sounded distinctly different. With 13 teams presenting, one of their largest batches to-date, there was a noticeable shift in tone as many of the startups were not afraid to say they are selling to schools and are actually generating revenue. From the “ramen profitable” startup DeansList kicking off the day to YC and Zuckerberg-backed Panorama Education closing the show sharing they have “4,500 schools using their product, all of which are paying customers.”

As someone who has been following and working in this space for the past few years, hearing these stats are a welcome change. This not only indicates that the investor side of the ecosystem has matured and has a better understanding of the K12 market, but it also demonstrates that more and more schools are deciding to purchase and pilot new edtech tools.

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As for the teams themselves, the pragmatist in me likes more enterprise oriented startups like SchoolMint, while the optimistic side is drawn to efforts like Kodable. SchoolMint’s appeal comes from the basic idea that they are saving schools/admins hundreds of hours by digitizing a process that is currently entirely offline. (And the fact they are already on track to $100k annual revenue is a sign they are addressing a real pain point for schools.) Similar to another IK12 alum, Chalk Schools, these products seem obvious and I think in several years we’ll look back and wonder why schools took so long to adopt these more streamlined and efficient systems.

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Kodable believes that even before kids learn to read they can learn the basic elements of programming. My 3.5 year old and I have tried out the app and I hope more schools and parents will find engaging ways like this to introduce loops and conditional statements to their kids. Kudos to Imagine K12 and the teams for kicking off the year on this impressive note.

No VC, No Problem: How TeachBoost Built a Sustainable Business

A Successful Bootstrapping Journey

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Upon graduating from Imagine K12’s Winter 2012 program, TeachBoostfounder and CEO, Jason DeRoner, was faced with the challenge that most early-stage founders face: spend time raising money or continue building the product?

His meetings with VCs on Sand Hill Road were unfruitful, but he did learn one thing: “I realized pretty quickly that investors who aren’t familiar with the K12 space were looking for consumer type growth and not necessarily revenue…We assumed showing a bit of revenue was our ticket to investment when really it was about hockey stick curves and big markets.” Many investors suggested that he circumvent the cumbersome process of selling to schools.

But avoiding schools is a bad way to go about building an education product. And DeRoner knew he had to get in front of principals and teachers in order for TeachBoost, an observation platform that helps schools and districts differentiate PD for educators, to make the greatest impact. So he decided to return to his hometown in New York City in June 2012 and bootstrap his way to a self-sustaining business.

Doubling Down on the Customer

Many startups, especially in education, strive for the grassroots upsell (sometimes referred to as the “Yammer model”) where early adopters influence higher decision-makers to purchase the product. This model has so far worked for TeachBoost, whose target customers are principals. As more schools in a district sign up, district officials create and manage professional learning communities across schools using the tool. From an initial 8 pilot schools in 2011-2012, TeachBoost has grown its customer base to hundreds of schools in NYC and other districts (including six KIPP regions) across 17 states. And yes, these are paying customers.

“The intra-district mentoring and coaching that TeachBoost enables is very powerful” for increasing exposure, according to Jillian Lubow, the Director of Marketing and Educational Partnerships who formerly worked at Wireless Generation and Virtual Nerd. “We’ve seen principals literally drag their colleagues to our booth at various events to talk about how great the product is and exactly how TeachBoost is addressing a real problem for them.”

TeachBoost also turned to partners for help to expand its network and outreach. This summer, it worked with the Arkansas-based Principal Centerto launch the Instructional Leadership Challenge. The idea was based on the notion that school leaders want to be in the classroom more often but need tools, skills and time to make that a reality.

Through the Challenge, the Principal Center offered a variety of PD sessions to the selected participants and TeachBoost complemented that with free product training and licenses to their full product offering. The results were impressive. In just 2 months 550 schools participated, conducting hundreds of observations–with one school racking up an impressive 110 observations.

“This type of collaboration is a fantastic way to build national exposure while keeping with our customer-focused strategy and supporting school leaders who are looking to improve their teacher evaluation process,” said Lubow. “They immediately see the value, which makes them extremely willing to pay and share with others.”

All Hands on Deck

Another aspect that keeps the team customer-focused is that no one is 100% focused on sales. TeachBoost embodies a hybrid-role approach where everyone on the seven-member team spends time with both the product and customer, fostering collaboration and creativity.

The decision to have everyone spend time with schools established a deeply customer-centric culture, says DeRoner. “We spoke with principals day in and day out and the schools we worked with from the beginning became our advisory board. We ran prototypes and worked side-by-side to refine the product. That level of engagement drove this authentic customer evangelism that has fueled our growth. It is that authentic word-of-mouth marketing from trusted members of our principals’ networks that drives sales and adoptions in schools.”

Adds Lubow: “We have a very clear vision on how we can help schools and that sincere focus comes across very strong,” she adds. I’m not sure if we’d have that luxury if we had raised capital from the start and had to answer to multiple stakeholders.”

Overcoming the Bootstrapping Blues

But bootstrapping is not without its challenges. DeRoner says trying to run a company solely off revenue is “a bit like playing chicken with [financial] runway.” Lubow admits that her sales efforts are hampered by lack of resources: “It would be ideal to meet all my customers in person, but since that is not an option, we’ve developed some creative ways to train and connect with our customers.”

On the marketing side, there is no budget for PR, events, or videos, so all those efforts take longer. Lubow adds, “Given our customer base, it would be great to have one or two more folks on the team supporting marketing so that we can deepen our level of engagement with teachers.” Teacher engagement is a critical piece given the stigma around teacher observations and evaluations.

Despite limited resources, TeachBoost has built a network not only in the U.S. but overseas as well. In October, it received the GREAT Tech Award, an international startup competition organized by UK Trade & Investment that will help bring their platform to U.K. schools.

Looking ahead, DeRoner is thinking about giving Sand Hill a second go. “The thinking was not to avoid fundraising forever, but rather spend the first year or so focused on product and customers,” says DeRoner. “We’ve been able to grow and sustain a team of 7 and could continue to bootstrap, but now that our fundamentals are in place we’re thinking about ways to strategically step on the gas pedal, and that could include outside capital.”

(This article was also published by my friends over at EdSurge.)

The Meet Education Project

Kudos to Nick DiNardo, member of the Pearson Online Learning team, on launching the Meet Education Project. This podcast series showcases educators and edtech innovators from around the country and I’m honored he invited me to share my experiences building bridges in the edtech community through TeacherSquare.  In our ~30 min chat we discuss the edtech ecosystem in the Bay Area and beyond, highlighting some of my favorite players Imagine K12, 4.0 Schools, EdTechRI and more.

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While podcasts may seem dated, I am actually a fan and find they are a great way to directly hear from some of the thought leaders in this space.  My favorite is Audrey Watters’s Hack Education series with Steve Hargadon, which I hope they’ll bring back sometime soon. (Their most recent one is from Feb 11, 2013.)  I put one on during a run and find it’s a great way to learn from others doing inspiring work in education. If you have any feedback for Nick or me, send it our way.

Ryan Kinser: From TV Production to Teacherpreneur

In the first of my ongoing Teacherpreneur Spotlight series with EdSurge on innovative educators who take initiative to experiment with new teaching practices and tech tools, we look at Ryan Kinser, 8th grade English teacher at Walker Middle Magnet School in Tampa, FL.

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Ryan Kinser stumbled upon his passion for education the second time around. After an extensive career in the TV production world he found himself recruited into the DC Teaching Fellows Program. After an incredibly challenging first year, leaving school each day exhausted and emotionally spent, Ryan considered that maybe teaching wasn’t the right fit. But, for some reason that did not sit well with him. “I loved the few moments that I was teaching and not just trying to tread water.”

After moving to Tampa, FL, like any good student he decided to give it another try. He found a Walker Middle Magnet School, a school with strong leadership that recognized the value of his business background, and this time was different. Through strong mentorship Ryan realized “I started to find out what kind of teacher I could be and I loved it. A big piece of that was mentorship, which is SO critical to attracting and retaining the best teaching talent.”

Ryan’s teacher turnaround story doesn’t end there. In 2010 he was a finalist for Hillsborough Teacher of the Year which helped him catch the attention of the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ). Ryan joined CTQ as one of their handful of teacherpreneurs in a hybrid role where he maintains his role in the classroom during morning hours and spends his afternoons focusing on his areas of interest: advancing teacher leadership, developing PLNs/VLCs and supporting the edtech ecosystem. The truly liberating piece is that CTQ works with the district and school to negotiate Ryan’s release for the 2nd half of the day, over which he has full autonomy to define his contribution as a teacherpreneur. Those afternoon hours are often focused on blogging, research as well as various speaking engagements and advising local, state and national stakeholders on the importance of empowering more teacherpreneurs.



Sounds pretty amazing, huh? Of course my immediate question was how do we create more opportunities like this for teachers across the country. CTQ has been looking at various ways to scale their efforts through their virtual community which current engages 1500 teacher leaders nationwide. In his teacherpreneur role, one of Ryan’s tasks is to think about working with other districts and next year Tampa will be rolling out 15 new spots supported with Title 1 funds.

Edtech Insights

You may find it surprising that a middle school English teacher’s favorite edtech tool is Code HS, a platform for teaching high school students how to code, which he became deeply familiar with after mentoring the Imagine K12 startup last fall. “We are rethinking literacy- what does it mean to write and create in an online world and coding is a big aspect of that shift.” In 2012 Ryan received one of 10 Magnet School of America grants nationwide, which he used to conduct a mobile app-building project with his students. This game is an example of one what student created during that project. Creating this opportunity for his students illustrates how teachers can (and must) fill in their own tech gaps rather than waiting for instruction or professional development to find them.

Beyond the tech, connecting in the offline world is equally important to supporting the teacherpreneur process. Having the chance to speak and travel to various education conferences (which could be it’s own full time gig) I asked Ryan which ones he found most beneficial. “I found the scope and number of teachers at ECET2 (Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching) really impressive.” Another one that stood out for him was FETC (Florida Education Tech Conference.) Both of these have already passed for 2013, but looking to the rest of year Ryan will definitely be at ISTE in San Antonio in June, and of course, EdSurge will be there, too. While these events can be effective what is really needed is for “more teachers to publicize what they are doing. There is such a silo of education, we don’t step outside our classroom doors.”

Now let’s hear a bit from Ryan directly:

With the explosion of social media tools no one has to wait to attend a conference to learn about a new tool or share their favorite trick. What are your favorite social communication tools?

I love Twitter and that’s how I get most of my information. I lurked around for 9 months before I sent my first tweet and often share that with teachers that are new to Twitter. It’s easy to be a lurker, which is low-risk and potentially high-reward. With my VLC work I am a big YouTube and Google+/HangoutsOnAir fan. Honorable mention to Edmodo, SlideShare and LiveScribe.

What advice do you have to new teachers and/or aspiring teacherpreneurs?

They have to be their own advocate. Do the work and make sure it’s needed by someone else. Be a self-advocate. Get connected with other teachers, with social media it’s impossible not to connect someone that knows someone else. Once you’re doing the work you’re passionate about, find the people who can advocate with and on your behalf.

Also, teachers need to be vulnerable and learn alongside their students. If you’re not adaptable, then there is no use for you in the classroom.

What efforts would you like to see that would truly advance the role of teacherpreneurs?

Meetups are important in regional pockets but what I’d love to see is a widespread exchange program– teachers rotate through an edtech program which also allows entrepreneurs to spend time in the classroom. I’ve been working closely with CodeHS to connect them with my educator network and would love to see this type of edtech-educator exchange on a grander scale.

One program I created at my school to help teachers get more comfortable with tech is small group office hours. I get 10-15 people together and we have a casual and customized conversation about Google Hangouts, Dropbox, etc… They are optional but I invite specific groups of teachers based on their needs and discuss how certain tools can make their teaching lives easier. I hook them by asking questions like “Have you thought about expanding the walls of your classroom? Stop by for 20 min and I’ll show you how.”

(Ryan Kinser can be reached at rkinser@teachingquality.org and followed on Twitter @RyanKinser. He also blogs for CTQ’s TransformEd and Impatient Optimists.)

Connecting Edupreneurs

On Thursday I met with an amazing group of aspiring education entrepreneurs who are the most recent members to join the FounderDating network. Over the summer FounderDating, in partnership with Teach For America and with support from New Schools Venture Fund, launched their first vertical-specific initiative for people interested in solving problems related to teaching, learning and education in general. I was happy to be a part of the team that brought these individuals together and Thursday night’s kick-off event was full of some great conversations and early relationship building.  It was really exciting to see how many teachers applied (which was partly due to partnering with TFA) but also illustrates how educators are playing more active roles in shaping tools and solutions they’d like to see in their schools.

I believe that efforts like these that bring together high-quality individuals from diverse backgrounds is what is going to lead to truly innovative solutions that we are all hopeful for in the education technology space and I’m glad I was able to support building this network.

Tech in the Classroom, Really!

“If I can do it, you can do it”

Huge shout-out to Angela Estrella for organizing a fabulous Tech Menu Day for her HS teachers this past Wednesday. It was great to volunteer with several other usual suspects from Imagine K12 and see how teachers are training each other on integrating tech into their classrooms. Resembling a mini-edCamp, the format was fairly simple– teachers, many with iPads in hand, were asked to choose 2 sessions from a menu of options introducing best practices for tools like Google Apps, Evernote, Symbaloo, Dropbox and Remind101 which took place between 730-9am on a late-start day. I was in the App Smackdown session where one of the science teacher shared a couple of her favorite apps- PickMe and Educreations and then opened up the floor for attendees to share their picks. The language teachers were big fans of Quizlet already and SplashTop was a general favorite of the crowd.

The feedback from the teachers was incredibly positive with many of them asking for more sessions like this to stay current on popular apps and share tips on using iPads and other devices during instruction. Observing teachers sharing their expertise is particularly exciting for me as it’s the main focus of my work with my own startup, TeacherSquare.

This offline Tumblr was one of my favorites, seeing how students translate their online experiences into their offline classroom environment. The envelopes represent the private Tumblr messages while the post-its are the wall, which is available for public consumption.

Meeting Angela at my first Teacher Tech Talk back in March has been truly inspiring and I’m excited to continue to support her efforts to make technology work for her teachers and we are also in discussion of having a RemixEd event at her campus.

Community Drives Retention

As any of my readers know, I care deeply about cultivating diversity in the edtech ecosystem, with an emphasis on empowering educators to be at the center of the movement. So I’m always happy to have the opportunity to share my perspective with the ImagineK12 cohort just as they are building their startups and encourage them to engage educators at all levels of their work. Generating buzz offers a short-term high (and sometimes a spike in user numbers) but building a community drive retention which can lead to an enduring organization with real impact.

Here are the slides from my presentation and click around because I linked  to many of the resources I mentioned. Please let me know if you’ve tried any of these strategies and/or what has worked for you to create community within the fragmented K12 space.

Connecting Educators and Edtech

In partnership with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, I hosted my second Teacher Tech Talk event yesterday which focused on how some schools and educators are using Google Apps for Education (GAFE). Rushton Hurley, a member of the first cohort of Google Certified Educators and Founder/ED of NextVista.org, kicked off the event highlighting some of his favorite aspects of GAFE but more importantly shared an inspiring message for how educators should approach integrating technology.

“It is impossible to stay on top of current technology solutions… So don’t worry about it! Find what works best for you and use it in a way that allows you to tap into your inner explorer.”

Kim Brown and Tim Sato from Portola Valley School District shared specifics around how they deployed the Google Engine and Chris Buja from the startup, Hapara (fresh out of Imagine K12,) provided an overview of how their Teacher Dashboard makes it dead-easy for teachers to manage and optimize the GAFE experience across countless students and documents.

If you are interested in learning more about Google Apps for Edu, I recommend checking out the upcoming GAFE Summit July 12/13 in Santa Clara and reading Richard Byrne’s (FreeTech4Teachers) GAFE Guide.

If you are an educator and looking to get plugged into the edtech startup scene, check out the Launch EDU conference June 12-13th at Microsoft in Mountain View. Please email Megan Dickey at megan@launch.co for a free ticket.

Thanks to all who attended and helped spread the word. It has been truly energizing to see the growing interest in this community, and brainstorming ways to bridge the educator and edu startup worlds. Keep an eye out for details for the next Teacher Tech Talk event coming up in July all about Formative Assessments in the Cloud.

Calling All ‘Teacherpreneurs’

I’m excited to be hosting my next Teacher Tech Talk event later this month, in partnership with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. These events stemmed from my growing interest in bridging the gap between classrooms and the education startup world, and the larger vision is to empower ‘teacherpreneurs,’ who are the ones that will truly drive change in our current education system. Here is the invitation so please help spread the word to any aspiring ‘teacherpreneurs’ you may know!

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Are you an educator interested in learning how to better integrate tech tools into your classroom? Do you have an idea for a fabulous edtech product that you’d like to share with the startup community? Do you just want to connect with other teachers thinking about these questions and edtech in general?

Join us for our next Teacher Tech Talk event on Wednesday, May 30th from 4-6pm in partnership with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The vision is to co-create a community of educators and entrepreneurs to collectively design and implement solutions to improve teaching and learning for all students.

This event will focus on Google Apps for Education and will feature Kim Brown, Lead Technology Specialist from Portola Valley School District, and members of the technology start-up, Hapara, (fresh out of Imagine K12) which specializes in deploying Google apps in classrooms and schools.

In addition to hearing from these speakers, you will get a chance to talk about the opportunities and challenges associated with technology tools for education and the issues educators are encountering in the classroom that either need to be addressed or share solutions that can be scaled more broadly.

Hope you can join us! Please RSVP.