Houston Startup Harnesses Crowdsourcing for Education Causes

Schools are strapped for cash, especially schools serving children living in low-income households. Andyshea Saberioon, co-founder of Houston-based PledgeCents, has created a crowdfunding platform exclusively for those school to help them find the funding they need for basketball uniforms, the latest Artemis Fowl books (the kids love them), or a field trip to the art museum.

Saberioon says that the idea for PledgeCents came when he was watching a TV with his dad.

“Last summer, watching this show with my dad I was introduced to crowdfunding. I immediately called Ricky and asked, ‘How can we get on this?’”

Ricky Johnson and Saberioon have been best friends since eighth grade, Saberioon tells me, and they had always joked about starting a business together.

“Our families are entrepreneurial in nature,” Saberioon says, laughing. Building and “making something has always been a part of our lives…you learn that you get as much out [of launching a startup or business] as you put into it.”

In order to focus on PledgeCents with Johnson, Saberioon is in the process of moving back to Houston after living and working in Atlanta. The two friends are bootstrapping the education focused crowdsourcing platform, and Saberioon says geographical proximity is important in order for PledgeCents to get off the ground. That’s not the only reason, though, he’s heading back to Houston, a city known more for oil, the space shuttle, and one of the country’s largest medical centers.

“In Atlanta the tech startup scene has been booming with places like Georgia Tech,” Saberioon says. “There are more accelerators and incubators, and Atlanta seems to be producing some of the most innovative [funding] platforms out there.” But, he continues that, with PledgeCents, he and Johnson want to demonstrate that “you can still create a startup in a ‘non-tech’ environment.

“People get the wrong impression, that you have to be in New York City, Silicon Valley, or Boston [in order to launch at startup]. We’re trying to prove otherwise.”

Saberioon has been busy “proving otherwise.” PledgeCents had a soft launch back at the beginning of March with beta testing in Houston, followed by a hard launch in mid-April to coincide with the National School Boards Association Conference and Exposition, held this year in San Diego. Saberioon says that school administrators and policy makers at the conference responded positively to the idea of putting funding in their teachers’ hands and seemed excited to bring the idea back to their districts.

Neither founder is technical, Saberioon tells me. When I asked him about regional tech talent, he admits to finding a web development firm in NYC. “They’ve been great,” he says. “We can call or email them at 3 a.m. and they’re always there.”

PledgeCents’ successful campaigns, however, have come closer to home. To date two Memphis charter schools have the distinction of being PledgeCents first pair of campaigns. One school needed study carrels to seperate students during tests (no cheating!), while the other wanted to begin a teaching garden for hands-on science and nutrition lessons. Saberioon, who attended Rhodes on a basketball scholarship, says that as non-educators he and Johnson want to help schools because of his friends who have become teachers, many of them as Teach for America Corps members.

Small-scale, project-based crowdfunding is a cramped market. PledgeCents differentiates itself by pledging to release funds even if a project doesn’t hit its goal, which is a switch from many other platforms, even those aimed at nonprofits. Schools and overscheduled teachers are often weary of giving a lot of energy to promoting campaigns that don’t guarantee funds. Saberioon says that he wants to create a successful business–of course–but he also wants to help schools and students. To this end, PledgeCents sells branded bracelets and donates funds to worthy ed causes once a month.

“We aren’t just a website,” Saberioon says. “We want to create a better education system for youth.”      

LiveSchool Stakes Out New Ed Tech Frontiers, Part 2

[Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series]

Talking with LiveSchool’s Mattew Rubinstein and Jesse Feister, I get the sense that technology entrepreneurs who choose to pursue an ed tech startup receive some of the same insights that good teachers do after a few years: practicality and an increased appreciation for simplicity. Go into any classroom, be it a kindergarten or with high school seniors, and the happiest most productive students have teachers who know that the least complex directions, the most clearly thought out and articulated essay questions elicit the best from students. A confused child isn’t learning.

LiveSchool is a dyed in the wool ed tech company in this respect. They bring a real appreciation not only for what schools and teachers need, but how technology can be leveraged to help in education.

“I never taught,” Feister says, “but one of the first things we do–every employee, it’s a priority–is go into a school and see what it’s like, see how teachers use LiveSchool…I give Matt [Rubinstein] credit for really emphasizing that as a company value.

This concept shouldn’t sound novel. There should be some shared values between schools and ed tech companies. But this is a $7.76 billion industry. That’s big money for anyone, including entrepreneurs who may not have any experience in education who see increased funding for successful ed tech startups.

Feister says, “I have this experience of going to these ed conferences where there are a lot of vendors. You kind of get the sense for who cares about what they’re doing versus who looks at this as a business opportunity…You get that sense that there aren’t as many as there should be who go into a school and say this is a problem we actually care about solving, not just a market opportunity.”

Rubinstein agrees.

“We have a team,” he says “that really relishes learning about teachers’ experiences. I think that’s really important.”

This past February, education giant, Pearson, launched Catalyst.  Pearson sees its in-house ed tech incubator as a way to sniff out strong, pilot-ready startups. Call it robbing the entrepreneurial cradle. The multinational company doesn’t promise funding, but, instead, offers training and exposure for your idea and time that will be rolled into our products and branded with our name.

Rubinstein sees LiveSchool as an antidote to these kinds of amalgamating behemoths.

“For the past two decades–I’m just gonna say their name–with companies like Pearson there’s been this focus on comprehensiveness modules. By the time you get to the end user you have bloated, unusable software.”

Rubinstein doesn’t subscribe to this model of developing software for two reason. First, he believes that trying to be the “Rolls-Royce” of education technology makes for a complicated user experience. I ask if LiveSchool tracks grades, as well as behavior and school culture.

“It takes a tremendous amount of energy to do one thing very well for the user,” Rubinstein tells me. I think recent web companies have shown that, like Twitter. Post 140 characters; there’s a whole business in making that.”

Rubinstein gives the example of homework tracking, a feature that LiveSchool is phasing out. It was a project that the company’s developers had been working over an 18 month period, accounting for a third of their development time. However, this feature was only beings used by 5 of the 45 schools using the application.

“The calculus for us was really clear,” Rubinstein says. “Do we want to be at scale a solution for school culture or do we want to be a niche product for high performing charter schools?”

Just a few weeks ago, LiveSchool told those five schools using the homework tracking feature that it would be phased out over the next four months.

“It’s not that we don’t think grades and behavior deserve to live together,” he says. “It’s that, as a small company, we need focus on where’s the biggest need, where can we have the biggest impact.”

Mashups, however, offer LiveSchool an avenue to partner with other likeminded, substantive ed tech application. LiveSchool plays nice with Clever, a student information system that syncs across multiple applications. Rubinstein says that LiveSchool had to walk away from a potential school customer that wasn’t willing to work with Clever. MasteryConnect, a tracking system based on the Common Core, and Schoolzilla, a data stream analytics tools, can all be used over Clever to give teachers and adminstrators a more complete picture of a students’ progress.

So instead of spending time developing tools that are already available to schools, Rubinstein says that LiveSchool is differentiating itself from the other school culture platforms Kickboard (SouthernAlpha post on Kickboard’s founder here) and Class Dojo by offering the best user experience.

“For us, it’s about helping schools as much as we can; we see our role as the best school culture system out there, and then partnering with other folks who can bring in those other pieces,” Rubinstein says. “We don’t need to be the forest, we can be a really sturdy tree.”

LiveSchool wants to be that upstanding tree not only in the content of its code, but also when it comes to training teachers to use their platform. Rubinstein recounts a story from his time working at KIPP Nashville. The school, he says, flew a Pearson training rep out for the week and paid for his hotel room and expenses. It was boring and not very useful, Rubinstein says.

“We refuse to do that. We refuse to charge people for training. You’re not selling a product if there’s not training on the product,” he says. The economics are clear: we need to develop training resources, so we can provide training at low cost because we refuse to build a business model that actually treats training as a profit center.

Feister and Rubinstein tell me that they’ve invested over $10,000 in developing training materials for LiveSchool.

“It won’t be boring PD [professional development],” Rubinstein says. “The average teacher will find it more interesting than most inservices.

Ed tech applications like LiveSchool will become increasingly prevalent as schools look for ways to track their students and teachers’ success and challenges. Schools, though, are still places where children grow up–oftentimes, in our communities, under great duress–where teachers pour their hearts into making a lesson come alive. A company like LiveSchool incorporates this reality into its product, rather than steamrolling over it.

“A company like ours that looks at a specific slice of what folks need,” Rubinstein says, “but does it in a very broad way has an unprecedented opportunity using tech to centralize all that knowledge and help people have access to the freaking best tools out there.”

LiveSchool Stakes Out New Ed Tech Frontiers, Part 1

[Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series on Nashville education startup LiveSchool]

LiveSchool’s environs at Center 615 in East Nashville still have that “new office” smell. The ed tech startup has been busy this calendar year. Along with the move, the behavior tracking application closed a $1.65 million round of funding. The future is as bright as the freshly painted walls, and you can sense the purpose in their office, right down to the stiff carpet, like the potential of a baseball mitt that needs to be broken in. The sun filters through a tree outside the wall of windows, its leaves still that spring-green, just budding out color.

“We’re doing a daily stop action shot of Bolton’s,” Jesse Feister, LiveSchool’s Director of Marketing, tells me, pointing out one of the windows at the Nashville spicy chicken and fish landmark across the street. “We’re thinking of calling it ‘Spring Chicken,’” Matt Rubinstein, LiveSchool’s founder and CEO.

LiveSchool, which launched in 2011, may have just hatched, but they’ve already made waves in the ed tech community. 45 schools across the country, including nine in Nashville, currently use LiveSchool to track their students behavior. Rubinstein began working on the application when he was working as a data analyst and teacher at KIPP Nashville. He was sifting through handwritten notes and used his programming experience to come up with LiveSchool’s predecessor.

Feister hands me an iPad with LiveSchool pulled up. The interface is a digital version of your grade school teacher’s penciled seating chart, little rectangle with student’s names in them. Feister tells me to choose a student. Aesthetically, it’s clear that this is an app made for the tablet; the interface is uncluttered and the text is sharp.  I tap “Jennifer,” who sits in the third row and toward the back of the classroom, and I get a list of positive behaviors for which I can recognize Jennifer. It’s this consistent positive reinforcement and expectations, says Feister, that lead to a change in school culture.

“When something happens in the classroom, let’s actually get down to how the teacher records a behavior,” Feister says. “What we’ve found is that this needs to happen quick. Everything we’re building is based around the teacher’s experience.”

He directs me, next, to the “banking mode.” If we were in a classroom and Jennifer were a real student I would have said something like, “Great answer. Thanks for raising your hand, Jen. Two snaps.” And all of her classmates would snap twice to recognize her. But along with this immediate feedback, Jennifer would know that two School Bucks had been deposited into her account. At a school where I taught, a student could save up these merits until the end of the year picnic in order to buy the privilege of throwing a whipped cream pie in my face.

At the end of each week schools using LiveSchool can print out checks for students to take home. Most students use their points or bucks to earn dress down days or lunch with the principal, but students can’t “purchase” these incentives before their parents endorse their checks. These checks aren’t going to get lost at the bottom of a backpack and parents are going to get a weekly snapshot of how their child is doing at school.

LiveSchool has a dashboard called the LiveBar, a feed that teachers and administrators see as behavior is logged. This is especially useful if students need to leave class. Feister shows me how to check out Jennifer in LiveSchool’s hallway function. It’s a hall pass in the cloud: a timer starts, and an alert goes out to every staff person that Jennifer is on her way to the bathroom. This may sound simple, but if you’re a teacher, being able to see how often and for how long a student is out of class is valuable information.

“Even though teachers have that intuitive feeling about what’s going on,” Feister says, “it’s a lot easier to have those parent-teacher conferences when you have a little bit of data to back up what you already know and you’re being backed up by other teachers [tracking the same behavior].”

Everyone is already on the same page when they sit down to talk about how Jennifer may not be doing well in math because she keeps leaving class because, “Yes, Mr. Nemes, it is really an emergency.”

“We give teachers tools to communicate with parents that are a little bit more objective, at least objective enough to say, ‘I wrote it down as it happened.’”

This isn’t behavior modification for its own sake, though, nor is LiveSchool solely a communication tool between school and parent. Both Feister and Rubinstein say developing a school culture is the reason why schools want LiveSchool, and giving schools the tools they need to create that culture is what gets the LiveSchool team to their new office space everyday.

School culture is something that’s part of the fabric of charter schools like KIPP, Nashville Prep, and STEM Prep, often contributing the success students have in well run charters, but LiveSchool is making a real effort to reach out to non-charter schools, as well.

“There are 60,000 plus Title I schools,” Rubinstein says, referring to first section of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education act, which legislates special help for schools where over 40% of the children come from low-income homes. Tennessee receives federal funding for 1171 Title I schools. As Rubinstein talks, you get the feeling that he’d be making a better pencil if he thought it would help disadvantaged students.

“The mission for us is–I will say this unabashedly–I’ve watched as some of the toughest kids to manage from a charter school roll out, and the next month I pay a visit to the zone school and there’s that girl, there’s that boy. These are tough, tough kids. By far the toughest kids in the class. So I think for us, we want to be on the side of people who are working hard for all kids.”

Rubinstein admits that it’s easier to sell to charter schools because their administration is more nimble and thinks outside the box, and their staff is usually primed for tools like LiveSchool. But this won’t stop him from trying to get LiveSchool into as many teachers’ hands as possible.

“For us, it’s kinda a philosophical issue, if we’re going to pass them over because it’s shorter term business gains.”

In fact, many of the schools who are using LiveSchool are now turning to Rubinstein and his team not only with bug reports on the application, but for advice on how to build a successful schoolwide culture.

“Once we engage with a school, they very quickly look to us for some of the best practices that we’re seeing in other high performing schools around school culture. It amazes me that a school that’s been in that community for 50 years doesn’t have that kind of core, that repository of what they’ve been doing, what works.”

This is an ed tech company (if you’ll pardon the typographical subtly) becoming an ed-tech company, a startup really inhabiting the new spaces technology can open in schools, creating value for everyone involved, but most importantly students.

***

Part 2 of this post will explore some of the technical choices LiveSchool has made that exemplify this deepening approach to ed tech, and how those choices have given shape to their business.

Disclosure: Solidus, which is an investor in LiveSchool, is also an investor in SouthernAlpha

Treehouse Looks to Scale the Learn-to-Code Movement

At the beginning of April, Orlando-based Treehouse wrapped up a $7 million Series B round of funding. While the learn-to-code company is looking forward to moving into high schools, Alan Johnson, Treehouse co-founder, says that the last three years have been all about helping adults move into web and software development careers.

“You get an email from somebody and they’re like, ‘Hey, I learned this thing from you and I got a job and I’m no longer working at a factory,’ which is totally a story we’ve heard,” Johnson says. You hear these stories and they kind of blow you away. We wanted more of it.”

It isn’t easy to design asynchronous courses, no matter the subject. Treehouse has high production values. There’s the voiceover screen captures, but there are also flesh and blood instructors (not to mention a tree frog puppet) walking around a set. Perhaps even more importantly, the teaching content is organized to encourage project-based learning, that is if you’re learning HTML (which is a free set of classes on Treehouse), then you build what you want on a text editor on your machine, not a module on the site.

This very goal-orientated approach, in place of a more coding language approach, sets Treehouse apart from the likes of Codeacademy. In addition to how to build iOS or Android apps, Treehouse offers content for students who want to learn how to start their own business.

Johnson and co-founder Ryan Carson worked together on Carsonified, a UK-based events startup specializing in tech conferences. Carsonified’s Future of Web Design began this past Sunday in Las Vegas. These conferences were the ground from which Treehouse sprouted.

“At these events Ryan would hear from people, ‘Hey, you know, I wish we could continue this learning online somehow so the conference didn’t have to end.’ At the point we were already catering to really professional-already-in-business kind of people.”

Johnson says that something unexpected began to happen when they started building this idea into a website. Initially dubbed Thinkvitamin, the website was aimed at professionals who wanted to sharpen their skills or pick up a new coding language, but Carson and Johnson began to hear murmurs of people who had signed up for the site without any prior coding knowledge because they were unemployed or underemployed or just plain didn’t like their job. Johnson says it seemed like an opportunity.

The questions they asked themselves, Johnson says, were: “How could we make this more beginner focused and how could we build a focus around changing lives, so it’s not just education for education’s sake? Instead what if we were a lot more aggressive with things and said, ‘Let’s take someone who knows almost nothing about technology and get them to the point where they can really get a job?’”

Take South Carolina. When they began what would become Treehouse, Johnson and his family were living in Greenville. “You can’t live in South Carolina for a month without hearing about the textile industry and how it’s totally fled the South,” Johnsons says. Treehouse is designed to take people from nothing to getting a job in the $805 billion tech industry.  

Coding Bootcamps, such as Nashville Software School, promise the same thing–a job in the tech sector. Often intense, full-time two or three month programs, bootcamps appeal to many aspiring developers due to the apprenticeship ethos at the heart of what bootcamps do. You won’t get that mentoring kind of relationship from Treehouse, but you do get scale, value, and convenience. Treehouse offers a tiered, commitment free membership structure. $25 a month  buys a basic, Silver plan, and $49 covers the full monty, Gold plan.

“The idea of someone working an hourly job, or even a salaried job, [and] not having $10,000 extra to throw down to go do one of these bootcamps is why we feel like our price is a lot more palatable,” Johnson says. “The scale is a really big deal because we’re trying to give people a really premium product without having to say, ‘Do I do this one [bootcamp] in Chicago? Do I do this one in Boston?’”

Johnson and Treehouse does subscribe to that apprenticeship idea, though, that some of the best teachers are experts in their field and that iterating a simple piece of code into an elegant program is how to learn. And when it comes to Treehouse, Johnson says, it matters that their teachers not only know their stuff, but they have to look good on camera.

Learning is changing. While it’s tough to argue that geography or affective and professional relationships don’t matter, our professional lives are becoming increasingly defined by what we know and what we can produce, and our social lives are expressed online.

“The reality is that most of the people in the industry, if you ask them, they learned it online, it’s just that they have a degree to go with it,” says about learning moving online. It doesn’t mean that the degree taught them what they needed to know…It doesn’t make sense to go and spend 120K to get a degree that you don’t need.”

Treehouse has about thirty employees based in Orlando. “Orlando is a really good place for video. It’s easy to find video pros there, and it’s been pretty reasonable to get people to go to Orlando to do teaching for us,” Johnson says.

And, if you’re an entrepreneur interesting in the Southeast’s startup ecosystem, there’s a quirk in the geography when you consider Treehouse; when Johnson says “there,” he means “way over there” because he lives with his family in Portland, Ore. He moved to the west coast in concert with his co-founder and Treehouse CEO, Carson, relocated from the UK back to the US.

It has something to do with the weather. The South was just too hot, Johnson says. He volunteers that it wasn’t just the weather that took him and a number of the Treehouse executives away from the South. Portland offers something they couldn’t find here.

“The culture for us was just a really good fit,” he explains. “There’s a really good sense of community and neighborhood here that I didn’t feel like I had as much in Greenville. I had great friends in Greenville, but it wasn’t always my neighbors. The way the city [Portland] is set up–we have sidewalks, its walkable, you bump into people. I see people everyday because we’re walking our kids to school or to the market.”

Johnson’s admission gives me pause. I didn’t have too much luck finding any studies (my hunch is, though, that they exist) linking innovation with multi-modal transportation or dense urban neighborhoods, but a cursory look at some data (take a look at the 3 million to 500k tab) suggests that the chances are better that you won’t meet your potential co-founder while you walk your kids to school or cook up an idea with a developer as you walk to the coffeehouse. That may not matter to some entrepreneurs, but it may be just the right brew of conversation and informality that others need to be successful.

Chalk it up the paradoxes of a new age that a blog covering tech in a specific region has the opportunity to consider a potential challenge courtesy of the insight from entrepreneur who has built a totally online teaching platform and moved across the country.  

Wherever they hang their hats, Treehouse is doing something special for coding and coding literacy, and they’re doing it with quite a bit of integrity and creativity.

“At its core Treehouse is about helping people and changing lives. We’re obviously a for profit company, and we actually feel pretty strongly about that because we really want to be on a firm foundation where we’re not always asking for funding,” Johnson says. “We want the economics to work because we think that’s the way to make the business last forever.”

A Seriously New Angle on Higher Education Financing

Student loan debt is around $1 trillion, according to data released last month by the New York Fed. Count it, that’s twelve zeros. Policy wonks and media reports are connecting this historic debt to the continual lag in the housing market, and the overall economy.

Ty McDuffie, co-founder of Raleigh-based StockofU, has built a platform to help students pay for college without going into debt. It’s a simple idea on its face—call it a Kickstarter for undergraduate education.

“We’ve created a stock market for students,” McDuffie explains, “an opportunity for students to treat themselves like their own corporation with a number of shares that they can sell.”

Students create a profile on StockofU. All the obvious information is there—major, GPA, interests, clubs, community service—but students also have the option to upload notes from their classes or study group appointments. StockofU users can comment on others’ notes or discussions.

“We put the student squarely in charge of their own destiny,” McDuffie says.

StockofU assigns dollar values to everything a student does. While he and StockofU’s CTO, Ken McGuire, are still tweaking the righteous algorithms that will make this meritocratic marketplace tick, the idea is appealing. No good deed goes unnoticed.   

McDuffie says StockofU germinated at the confluence of two ideas. First, McDuffie heard about an undergraduate who, in order to finance his college education, built The Million Dollar Homepage where he sold a million pixels for one dollar apiece. Second, a phrase coming across the radio triggered a eureka moment.

“Driving along listening to the radio, I heard this term everyone has heard. ‘Invest in your kids’ future.’” McDuffie, who strikes me as the archetypal idea-man, recalls thinking, “If I could make something kind of interesting for people to invest in students they don’t even know and help them pay for their college education, I might come up with something pretty cool, help lower the college dropout rate, and help people feel good about contributing to students they don’t even know.”

Students who don’t finish college—especially African American and Hispanic students—cite financial strains as the primary reason for dropping out. McDuffie’s motivation for starting StockofU, like many other ed tech entrepreneurs, starts with proposing a solution to a problem.

Initially, McDuffie saw things pretty linearly. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, Rotary Clubs, churches—really, any good-hearted soul with some cash to burn—could find a student and help them pay for college by buying their shares. Conceivably, students who had higher share prices would garner the most support. At the end of each semester, StockofU cuts a check to the student’s university.

With this model, McDuffie thought he’d make money by charging a transaction fee, à la PayPal. However, in exploring the problem of financing a college education, McDuffie’s idea evolved from a service for students to a value added product for those same students’ universities and potential employers.

Nashville may be the “Athens of the South,” but the Research Triangle boasts the likes of Duke, NC State, and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. McDuffie says that the proximity of these institutions have made developing ed tech easier. StockofU offers a portal institutions can use—for a subscription fee—to track a variety of student metrics and compare these data to other universities. Since community service and work done outside of the classroom is valued in addition to academic performance, StockofU has also developed an online system for tracking what students do with a good chunk of their free time, the Holy Grail of student development.  

“In building the overall website, we’ve reached out to some of the colleges and asked them what info is important to them, what kind of info they would want to find on a website about their students. McDuffie says, “All of the schools [StockofU reached out to] are trying to increase donations to their students and to increase graduation rates. We’re able to track where donation to the students are coming from, what major these students are in, what time of year the donation are done.”

It’s still worth it to go to college, but the way new graduates find jobs or are found by employers has changed with a constricted labor market. It’s tough for twenty-somethings and potential employers to find the signal in the noise, McDuffied says.

“One of my nephews graduated with a very high GPA from NC State. It took that dude seven months to land an interview after graduation. We were thinking if we create a mechanism by which these students could build a relationships with corporations early in their collegiate career and give these corporations a long-term view of how students are doing over a long time, then we can shorten that amount of time that it takes from graduation to getting a job. We change it from a student saying, ‘Ok, doggone it, I’m close to graduating, so now I have to send out a 100 resumes,’ to now people will actively search for these students during their sophomore and junior years.”

StockofU, says McDuffie, has built a platform that gives employers an objective snapshot of students, a service that companies say they want. McDuffie tells a story about a meeting he was having with the president of a Raleigh financial forecasting company. As McDuffie was telling him about StockofU, the man sitting across from him abruptly stood up and walked out of the room. McDuffie recalls wondering, “Was it my breath? Did I not bathe today?”

McDuffie says the man walked back into the room with three of people, including the head of HR. “‘What did we just discuss yesterday in our staff meeting?’ ‘We were discussing,’ the head of HR answered ‘that we needed a better way to qualify collegiate applicants for positions in the company.’ So the president of the company points at me and says, ‘This guys has built this already and he doesn’t even know it.’”

Companies will pay to have access to quality graduates who fit their culture. CourseShark, the undergraduate scheduling application featured on SouthernAlpha a few weeks ago, came to a similar realization when monetizing their service. When students create a profile on StockofU, they are asked to seriously consider any internship offers from their top three corporate “shareholders.” McDuffie says that connecting potential employers with promising students on the front end of their education makes more sense, especially for minority students who traditionally don’t have as much access to corporate or professional culture.

StockofU is in beta testing. McDuffie hopes to fully launch the venture this coming fall semester.

“I’m dragging my feet,” McDuffie says. “The site is operational. It just doesn’t look the way I want it to look right now, and, you know, that’s important when you want to get people’s trust and people’s money.”

McDuffie and his co-founder are on the lookout for a good UI or UX developer. When I asked him about tech talent in the Triangle area, he echoed what I’ve heard from many others in the Southeast. The talent is there, but things feel “fractured.” McDuffie has been attending area startup events, such as Exit Event and Startup and Play, and doesn’t pull any punches when he looks to the Raleigh’s tech future.

“My goal in playing in this technical sandbox is to replace Silicon Valley with the Triangle Area,” he says. “I really think it can be done. It’s just a matter of us pooling these resources together…especially with all the colleges here.”

As StockofU gains traction, McDuffie plans to begin a number of other ventures. He wants to partner with Black churches to bring coding education to African American children. He also plans to begin a series of networking events to encourage and cultivate African American tech entrepreneurs.

Haystack EDU Plays Matchmaker for Teachers, Schools

On the phone with Haystack EDU founder, Tom Hayes, I can’t help but think of my well-worn copy of Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach. “Good teaching,” Palmer says, “cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”

As I talk to more and more entrepreneurs like Hayes, I’m beginning to think that you might be able to get away with replacing “teaching” and “teacher” with “entrepreneurship” and “entrepreneur.”

That sense of identity and integrity come through loud and clear as Hayes tells me about Haystack’s recent showing at last month’s New Orleans Entrepreneur Week.

“We had some success,” he admits.

That’s a little bit of an understatement. The ed tech startup took runner-up in 4.0 Schools education pitch and first place in the Power Pitch, a competition open to every industry at the event. As the Power Pitch winner, Haystack was awarded annual funding.

Haystack, which launched in mid-March, hinges on the principle that teachers and schools need a way to connect beyond “technique,” that proclivities and mission and vocation have something to do with a teacher’s success when it comes to measurable results in an increasingly data driven (here and here) education landscape.

A social networking enterprise at heart, with Haystack Hayes has built a space for teachers to tell potential employers who they are, what they’ve done, and how they’ve done it. First and foremost, Hayes sees his application as the first steps toward a “differentiated market,” akin to baseball free agency, for teachers.

“I had long believed in the importance of what it means to be a teacher and how society doesn’t always recognize teachers for what they are,” Hayes says. “There’s a lot of different ways that teachers aren’t recognized or given the prestige they deserve for what can be a very challenging job.”

But Haystack aspires to be more than the educator’s LinkedIn. Like so many of the tech and education innovators who call  New Orleans home, Hayes wants to re-imagine the way we think about education in the United States. Wanting to make life better for bedraggled or idealistic teachers isn’t an end unto itself, Hayes explains.

“The best teachers who have left the profession say they would have stayed if their top need would have been met,” Hayes says, referring to recent TNTP report, “The Irreplaceables.” “To me that indicated that fit is of the utmost importance. Trying to get that match right on the front end—between the teacher and the school—would potentially lead to people staying in the profession and staying in their schools a lot longer.”

Each year 600,000 teaching positions need to be filled. That’s sixteen-percent of the total teaching profession. And that’s a big problem to solve. According to Hayes, teacher retention is all about matching educators with the right schools.

Haystack proposes an equation where everyone comes out ahead. Schools pay a subscription fee to have access to this self-selecting, mission-driven market, and teachers find positions at schools where they’re valued for their unique craft, contributions, and ability to achieve the results schools are looking for. As of our conversation, 35 institutions had signed up in order to view the 400 teacher profiles on Haystack.

Many of those schools looking to match with great teachers are charter schools, Hayes says, but he thinks more large urban school districts will follow the lead of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New Orleans, and move to a portfolio pledge, a model which, among other things, favors site-based hiring. With hiring decentralized it won’t take long for principals will get wise to where to find the best teachers: Haystack.

Down the road, though, Hayes wants to help teachers re-imagine their craft, perhaps to rekindle that sense of identity and integrity in a profession that can feel thankless or cynical.

“While we’re initially focused on connecting schools and teachers,” he says, “there’s this notion that this has to be around full-time jobs. What I ultimately want to create is the place for a teacher to represent themselves professionally and both find and be found for opportunities. I’m trying to create the mindset that creating the profile here is a good professional move…By keeping this up to date and showing who you are as a teacher and the unique value-contribution teacher that you are, who knows what opportunities might come your way. You might not even know what to look for.”  

I don’t know if Tom Hayes was looking for New Orleans, but he and the Crescent City have been a good match. Katrina made landfall a week aftere began his two year stint as a Teach for America corps member in New Orleans. He helped start a KIPP school for evacuees in Houston, returned to New Orleans, where he aided in cleanup as part of a FEMA-TFA partnership, and taught at one of the first New Orleans schools to reopen, O. Perry Walker High School.

A graduate of Stanford’s Joint MA/MBA program, Hayes returned to New Orleans with the idea that would grow into Haystack, an idea he had the opportunity to hash out over the course of a month in the 4.0 School Lab.  

“4.0, they have really hit upon something that’s interesting. Ed specific accelerators [such as Imagine K12] get people at the stage where they have a pretty hashed out business idea and they want to ramp up.” 4.0 Schools is different, says Hayes, because “they want people to question the way things are and start to explore using really small bets ways to improve upon things…It’s really helping push people to not accept the status quo and giving them the tool belt to help them think about the ways we can change education.”

While Hayes admits that finding technical expertise in New Orleans has been a challenge at times (Haystack, he says, is on the lookout for a CTO), the city has been a good place to be as a tech entrepreneur.

“One of the leaders of ed tech in New Orleans is Kickboard, and the more companies like this establish and attract talent to the region—it just creates a more vibrant ecosystem. My hope is that we contribute to that at some point as well.”

Rural Tech Teacher Wins Apps4VA Educator Award

Kendall Nicholson, when talking about STEM education, says that he “likes to throw an ‘A’ in there, for ‘Art or Aesthetic,’ to make it STEAM,” a common edit being made these days.

However you spell it out, Nicholson, the sole technology teacher for Franklin City Public Schools, may be onto something in the classroom. In February, this teacher from a small city in Virginia’s Tidewater region, was named the winner in the educator category of Apps4VA HAC4EDU Challenge.

Apps4VA is an innovative approach to analyzing the commonwealth’s education data (which I wrote about here this past December). Let’s face it, education data isn’t as sexy as Wall Street futures or consumer buying habits. This private-public partnership between the Virginia Department of Education and the Center for Innovative Technology puts state education data sets at developers and students’ disposal and asks them to come up with apps that solve real problems. There’s a prize, of course. More importantly, though, it’s an open source, entrepreneurial  approach to big data in education and a way to attract tech talent to a pressing problem that affects millions of children.

High stakes testing in the nation’s public schools and the accompanying data are likely here to stay. Teachers, school districts, students, and parents have begun to take the reality of these evaluations in stride, as just another part of going to school.

“We test day in, and day out,” Nicholson says. “I hate to say that, but that’s just the reality of the way our school system works. It’s just the way assessment is moving in education: it’s no good if your students don’t test well. Our kids are really acclimated to the idea of the VaDE [Virginia Department of Education] and what the needs of students across the state of Virginia…I guess I can say across the United States, and how important this education is and obtaining these goals and standards are.”

Franklin City is one of the smallest school districts in Virginia, with just over 300 students enrolled in its high school. It’s also a Title I school district. Nicholson was recognized in the educator category for guiding all fifteen of his students through the process of accessing the data available of the Apps4VA site, and then meeting the requirements of the competition in way that was engaging and meaningful for his students. Students were not required to code, only to conceive of creative applications for the data.

“When I initially introduced the project, I’ll just be frank,” Nicholson says, laughing, “they [his students] were like, ‘Whoa this is so much! Can we really do all this?’”

Nicholson differentiated his instruction, helping students choose data sets and conceive of apps that they could successfully complete. Ultimately four students submitted their Apps4VA projects. The rest of class completed, what Nicholson calls, Apps4theGap: applications that covered needs that may have been overlooked by the parameters of the project.

One student envisioned at application called “Testy,” which targeted certain core competencies students were failing and provided remedial games and practice. The double entendre of the apps name, Nicholson admitted, wasn’t lost on him. He laughs it off, as any high school teacher has to, from time to time.

As he describes the students who entered their projects into the Apps4VA competition, you can hear the pride in his voice. One of the apps, “Parent Talk,” used dropout rate data sets to target parents of children at risk for leaving school. The student envisions being able to provide articles, advice, resources, and a forum for parents. Another app, “Future School,” used a wide range of data sets and presented them to parents in the process of moving.

“He [the student] reasoned that this a big thing when families move, the school district,” Nicholson says. “He took this amalgamation of student data so parents knew about the school they were choosing. I thought it was a great. Even better than something like Great Schools, which just gives you a number based on parent reviews.”   

Nicholson received the educator award because of how creatively and thoughtfully he presented the project to each student, transforming something that was at once daunting and onerous (who likes test data?), into something engaging and fun.

“One of the things I liked most about this is that it caused my kids to synthesize information,” he says. “Not only did they have to look at the data sets and gain some knowledge, but they had to comprehend what they were reading. And, then, they had to figure out how the information could be applied in a real life situation and analyze it. It filled almost all of Blooms Taxonomy because when they finished they had to evaluate if it was legitimate or not.”

That ‘A for Aesthetic,’ transforming STEM to STEAM, Nicholson explains it as the ability to transfer skills from one problem to another, to see the details and the big picture, and to work collaboratively and meet a goal.

CourseShark Spins Students’ Course Hay into Job Gold

James Rundquist, a senior set to graduate from Georgia Tech this May with a degree in Computer Science, and Anastasia Marchenkova, proud recipient of a GT B.S. in Physics, aren’t looking for job like many of their peers. They’ve both already got one as founders of CourseShark.

This story doesn’t feature the Cambridge theatrics of Facebook (when we talked Rundquist struck me as an affable, easy going guy), but the application they’ve built has the potential to change the way college students approach the course catalog.

The dorm room startup has become something of a millennial motif, a reimagining of American ingenuity, so it’s somewhat refreshing to hear Runquist describe how he started CourseShark as a college freshman at Arizona State University.

“I had no concept that there were potentially thousands of classes that you could sign up for every semester,” Rundquist recalls. “I was just walking around my dorm, the whole hall, and everybody was using different methods. Some people had these crazy excel sheets, and other people had Post-it Notes all over their walls. They filled the white boards. They were filling the community boards with potential schedules. ‘What classes are you taking? What classes should I take?’”

These aren’t trivial considerations. Classes fill up in an instant. Schedules at many universities dictate if a student will graduate in four years. The California legislature is considering a bill that would allow college students to take MOOC classes for credit because some students in the UC system wait years to get into required, intro-level classes.

“‘There has to be a better way to do this,’” Runquist recalls thinking. “The only tool the the school offers is essentially the list: ‘Here’s a big table of classes we’re offering.’

“So, I just kinda sat down and, using some of my web development experience, and just built a simple interface that could pull down all the classes and present them Google Calendar style…It was just, here’s visually what this potential schedule looks like.”

The response from his dorm was immediate, with his friends clamoring for enhanced features. Runquist says when he transferred to Georgia Tech he spent his first semester in Atlanta working on CourseShark. Classes, he admits with a chuckle, took a backseat.

CourseShark may have remained a dorm room project, though, if he had missed the entrepreneur class where his professor asked if anyone had a something they were working on. After hearing about CourseShark, Rundquist’s professor convinced him to enter GT’s InVenture Prize. The prize: an invitation to participate in FlashPoint, a startup accelerator sponsored by GT.

CourseShark didn’t win. But they applied to FlashPoint anyway and were admitted as one of fifteen ventures in the cohort.

This is where Anastasia Marchenkova comes into the picture.

“We’d always been talking about how cool startups are,” Rundquists says, “so I asked her if she wanted to help in the accelerator.”

Marchenkova has deferred her graduate admission to a number of Physics programs to work on CourseShark, and her enthusiasm and confidence in what she and Rundquist have built is palpable.

Working in FlashPoint, a lean startup model, involved some reverse engineering in a sense, Runquist says.

“We kinda took a step back and were like, ‘Alright we have this scheduling tool and we have people using it, but we don’t really know why they’re using it. We can make assumptions that it saves them time, but we didn’t know how to leverage that to make it into a real business.’

“Now we’re moving it away from scheduling toward recruiting. As students leave college we want to help them get into the jobs that are available based on their experience through college.”

“It turned out,” Marchenkova adds, “all of the information we were collecting about students is extremely valuable to recruiters. They would give anything to get access to that information.”

Colleges and universities cannot give out information to companies wholesale due to FERPA. CourseShark uses a crawler to access university’s calendars, that CourseShark then makes more accessible to its users. In the course of their customer discovery at they iterated, Rundquist and Marchenkova have realized that college students don’t mind if their education data, classes (if not the grades) and resumes, are shared with interested parties if it means landing a job.

“We put in a popup, Marchenkova says, asking if CourseShark could share students data, “and we found that 70% of people said sure, take my data.”

When I admitted that some people may balk at this, Marchenkova said that was the response of–much older–members of their FlashPoint cohort.

“Facebook came out to high schools the year James and I started high school,” she explains, “which means we grew up in that generation where nothing is private, and, so, no one our age really cares. Everythings public, and you better have that public facing profile for the employers, too.”

As they look toward the future, both Marchenkova and Runquist  are grateful for the opportunity to have participated in an accelerator, but in general they think Georgia Tech could have done more to help them.

“They [GT] talk about being the next Stanford for startups, but I don’t know,” Runquist  says.

It was the questions they had from their cohort and the connections they made that, they feel, will serve them as they begin the next chapter of CourseShark.

Rundquist says this iteration has features that make it even easier to see what classes your friends are taking in order to schedule classes, lunch, or time to work on your startup. Available at a number of universities, the largest being Texas A&M, CourseShark hopes to add users.

Rundquist and Marchenkova are counting on those users to migrate to their new job site, Jokudo. Recruiters and companies–a number of Fortune 500 companies with whom they’ve been in discussion, Marchenkova says–are eager to pay a subscription fee to access this kind of data to find just the right employees.

As for these two co-founders, they don’t need to hunt too hard for a job.

“The ideal thing would be for us to raise a round,” Marchenkova says. “We know exactly what our milestones are, we know people will use it, we know people will buy it.

“I always had this, ‘I’m going to sell you something mentality,’” Rundquist says. “I just didn’t realize that was a potential course of action until college when I realized I could start my own business. Companies aren’t just these big behemoths of organizations that you just join. You can start one.”

How to ‘Educate’ Entrepreneurs

It’s lunchtime when I arrive at Nashville’s Hillsboro High School. The halls have the feel of current or a riptide, a whole school full of students and teachers surging toward their classrooms or the cafeteria. I’m turned around for a moment and have to ask a passing student to point me to the main office. A few students are talking to a teacher who is leaning back in a swivel chair. Hailey Wright  spots me right away from the corner of the office.

“Are you here about Zeumo?” the senior asks, crossing the small room to shake hands with me.

Saying hello, I hope my eagerness doesn’t betray just how relieved I am to have found the office. It sounds a silly, I realize, but there’s something frenetic and a little primal about a high school in the middle of the day…maybe I’m just getting to be an old fart.

Hailey leads me up a flight of stairs and into another office. The space is a little cluttered. Stacks of old signs and papers have taken over the corners. Hailey sits me down at a long, scarred table. Right by the microwave there’s a rickety flip chart with ‘Zeumo’ written among a network of circles and lines.

“So, this is where we meet for Zeumo,” Hailey says, motioning toward a chair for me to sit down. “The others should be here in a second,” she says sitting down across from me.

When Hal Cato, Zeumo founder, introduced me to Hailey to get a perspective on Zeumo and the rest of the student team at Hillsboro High School, he told me to be prepared to be impressed. In developing and launching his school-based social network, Cato and his team have made it a point to work closely with the Zeumo’s target demographic—actual students.

“It’s really strange,” Cato said, referencing a big publisher and (now, by necessity) ed tech concern, “that their mission statement doesn’t even mention students, but it mentions teachers, administrators, and districts.”

As the bell rings, Hillsboro juniors Austen Freeman, Jesse Minor and Landon Ferrett walk into the room.

All four students are excited about Zeumo and what it means for their school.

“You can’t hear the announcements,” Jesse Minor says. “People are too loud or the P.A. isn’t working right.”

Jesse is in the play. Austen is in a member of the National Honors Society. High school students are busy. Zeumo, they say, lets them not only control the information they receive, but it streamlines their time at school.

Landon Ferrett, who has been involved with developing Zeumo since this past summer, says it makes running meetings simpler and voting on decisions, such as which volunteer site the club should work at, easier.

“It’s convenient,” Ferrett says. “Getting every single student together in a room is difficult because we usually run every club at the exact same hour.”

Summer Tao, the group’s other senior, has come in as we’re talking.

“Sometimes I’m late to school,” she chimes in, “so I miss the early morning announcements. There’s no way for me to catch up, and I have to ask my friends, ‘What happened to my team, what happened to my club?’ and sometimes they don’t know. So, I have no idea what’s going on in the school. With Zeumo, I can just log in through my cell phone or any device with wi-fi and I won’t miss any announcements. It’s a way for me to broadcast my announcements, so I don’t have to text everyone. I just have to post on Zeumo and people can respond by posting.”

They’re giving me the hard sell. It’s working. I’m convinced, I tell them. Zeumo is a great product, but I’m interested in their roles developing the platform and implementing it at their school.

“We sat down on the first days,” Hailey says, “and we picked the teachers we thought would be really excited. We were like, “We need your help!” We’ve had so many teachers who have gone out of their way—and counselors—to, like, really use Zeumo the way we initiated and asked them to.”

You can feel the energy of all of the students at the table elevate, as they recall the challenges of finding those “early adopters” and how to hook users.

Jesse Minor could be making a pitch to investors when he says, “In order for a student to be captured by Zeumo, there has to be content on the platform for them to access. When teachers post things—even simple things—for students to see, that helps, but especially when they use features when they filter things because, you know, the point is only sending students things they need.”

“I have a teacher today,” Hailey says. “After school, I’m going to meet with her club to teach them how to use it, and I didn’t even know that she knew what we were talking about. It’s cool that the word is spreading. It’s neat to be the one’s who started that.

Along with a great resource for schools, Hal Cato and Zeumo may be pioneering a new way of learning, a new model for students to imagine and creatively reshape their own educations. By being part of a honest-to-goodness startup, these students may approach their lives after leaving the halls of Hillsboro High School differently.

“When I first met Hal,” Austen says, “he told me that I’m not just here to work for him, I’m not here to just give him my insight, I’m here to help him launch a business.”

Government and media are doing a call and response number on education reform (this recent primer in the Washington Post on the the history of high profile ed reform is a must read). In many cases, schools are turning to technology to leverage and scale great teaching or to mine student. My conversation with these five students, though, suggests that, perhaps, students are hungry for a different kind of learning all together.

“We’re helping promote a business and something that’s going to be real,” Landon says. “We’re not just doing a little project. We’re doing something real and big.”

Hailey agrees and elaborates on how the Hillsboro Zeumo team has been a part of the development process.

“The cool part is,” she says “that everything that is on it [Zeumo], we have approved in a way. If we didn’t like, we said, ‘We don’t like this.’ If we said, ‘We wanted this,’ we got it. We’re excited about that because not a lot of people our age can say that they helped start a company.”

Turning to talk to Summer, her fellow senior, Hailey says, “Hal has told us that this isn’t the end of the road, even though we’re graduating…I hope there’s more opportunity for this thing because it’s been fun.”

Summer nods and says that on her resume, which she’s including in her college applications, Hal has told her to put “Co-founder” as her job title at Zeumo.

The bell chimes, but before we all launch back into the hall Hailey recalls, “The first thing out of their mouths was, ‘You’re our business partners.’ We thought at first, ‘You’re just messing with us,’ but then we realized, ‘Yeah, we are.’”

I snap a quick picture of the group before they head off. Look closely. That realization—“Yeah, we are”—is written all over their faces.

Attached: photos (students gave permission to be quoted and photographed) From left to right: Austen Freeman, Landon Ferrett, Hailey Wright, Jesse Minor, Summer Tao

Ruzuku gives shape to what you know

Abe Crystal, co-founder of Durham-based Ruzuku, tells me that the name of his Research Triangle startup comes from Swahili and translated means, “To provide structure or support.” Ruzuku (all short ‘u’ sounds there) offers infopreneurs a clean, no fuss way to share what they know with the rest of the world and make a good living while they’re at it.

While MOOCs (some recent, thoughtful coverage at Wired) have shaken up the world of higher education, and iPads are promising to flip or gamify K12, Ruzuku takes aim squarely at you grownups.

“We’re not serving institutional education,” Crystal says. “We’re not targeting either K-12 or higher ed, but rather personal and professional development. People who are primarily offering courses on Ruzuku are primarily authors, professional speakers, coaches–life coaches, peer coaches, executive coaches–and people with a niche expertise, with a blog and a following.”

Crystal goes on to say that Ruzuku offers adults structure and accountability to be successful acquiring skills that institutional education doesn’t or can’t offer. You can go beyond what you’d learn from a book off the self-help shelf or a one day professional development workshop. Plus, you can learn about leadership strategies or writing the next great American novel on your own time, in your pajamas with a cup of coffee or after putting the kids to bed.

Ruzuku’s success is testament to the demand for this kind of education. In March 2012, when Ruzuku entered the Durham accelerator Triangle Startup Factory, the startup had around 30 customers, Crystal tells me. In June 2012, Ruzuku launched, and, less than a year later, the platform can boast 350 “guides” offering over 1,500 courses to nearly 10,000 registered users.

“Perhaps the more interesting number, though,” Crystal says, “is that the experts in aggregate have earned over $800,000 in their classes and coaching programs hosted on Ruzuku. It just shows you the potential of these courses.”

Crystal settled into the North Carolina Research Triangle during grad school at UNC Chapel Hill. His background in user experience shows as you move through the front end of Ruzuku.

“We’ve gone through three major design iterations over the year, “Crystal says. “We’re never satisfied, of course, but it’s definitely better than your typical enterprise education app, like Blackboard, for sure, and we think it’s close to the level people expect from consumer web apps today.”
  
A modular structure that will be familiar to anyone who has used other asynchronous platforms. While you may cringe if you’ve ever tried to build or take a course through Blackboard, Ruzuku feels and looks intuitive from both the students’ perspective, as well as the instructors’. Threaded conversations aren’t a slog. Currently, if guides want to incorporate live conversations or demonstrations to complement structured content, they have to use third-party applications, such as Skype or join.me. Crystal says there are plans to incorporate those features into an iteration in the near future.

I ask Crystal to describe how working in the Research Triangle, and the Southeast to a larger degree, has shaped his and his team’s work on Ruzuku. He takes a few seconds to consider just what he wants to say before answering.

“Even with the emergence of projects like Triangle Startup Factory,” he says, “the funding ecosystem here is not nearly as advance as New York or the Valley. We’ve been trying to raise money up and down the East Coast, and that takes a lot of time.”

As Crystal continues, you can almost hear the TSA announcements and the talk radio underneath his voice, residue of trips out of town, up and down I-95.  

“Basically, I had to stop working on the product to make any headway. It’s [raising money] a big distraction,” he says matter of factly. “That can be true anywhere, but they have a denser network of investors in New York or the Bay Area.

“I think the idea that you can go through an accelerator here, then go out and raise a big seed round, that’s not really the reality yet. Probably what startups here should be looking to do is bootstrapping or bootstrapping plus accelerator funding to get to some level of traction that will make them really interesting to investors.”

It’s clear that Crystal takes this all in stride, and that he believes what he and his team have built is as good as any similar product available.

“Really, though,” he says, “you have this attractive idea and this all-star team that they [investors] think is too good to pass up.”