UC Berkeley, Whaddup?

We’ve got good news for UC Berkeley students– you can now use Classlerts to get into classes! Simply sign-up & enter a CRN #, and you’ll be alerted via SMS / email as soon as there’s a vacancy in the class.

We’re from the Bay Area, so expanding to Cal was an obvious choice for us. University of California, Berkeley is home to over 25,000 undergraduate students and 350 different degree programs. We hope to expedite & simplify their class registration process as much as possible. Spread the word!

The University Startup: 3 Tips to Success

As many of you know, an education-based startup called U Could Finish was recently shut down by the University of Central Florida. Their IP address was blacklisted on the school servers, and the founder (a student at UCF) received 3 semesters of academic probation. Since this startup was one of our competitors, we’re quite familiar with much of what they’ve been through. The whole incident, as unfortunate as it may be, has taught us a few lessons that may be of use to other startups in the education sector:

1. Be ‘Disruptive’, not Disruptive

     Everybody wants to call their new technology disruptive (unless you’re on the cutting edge and already calling it ‘techcentric’), but if your technology interferes with an established organization’s framework, be prepared to justify or fight for your existence. If your site is constantly slamming servers with requests just so you can offer a slightly better service, you can expect a reprisal of some sort. Which leads me to the next point…

2. Don’t Shit Where You Eat

     If you have any sort of technology improvement, or even just an innovation in general, you can expect some pushback. It’s been my experience that people in a startup will receive a cease and desist letter at least once – I’ll even say, “If you aren’t pissing someone off, it’s not worth doing.” But in the case of the student at UCF, he didn’t just get a cease and desist letter – he got 3 semesters of academic probation. This applies to anyone trying to start a new app – if you do something that your school, your work, or your city doesn’t want you doing, you could be looking at more negative results in your life than positive ones.

3. Don’t Ignore Potential Allies – They Might Turn in to Formidable Enemies

     The final nail in the coffin for the UCF student who made the utility was that he didn’t ask permission from his university. I’d think this would be common sense by now, but I’ll say it again anyway: If you’re going to use something someone else wrote, ask permission. Luckily for Classlerts, we were involved with our home university, University of California, Merced, from the get-go via the Mobile App Competition. Because our success will also be attributed at least in part to our university, they are gung-ho for us to be everywhere in the nation. If we had taken the tack that the UCF student had, we might be in the same position he was.

Private Tools Advance Public Schools

Having been involved with Classlerts.com for some time now, I can’t help but be interested in the current debates on public education in this country. Having spent the majority of my life going through the public school system, I can’t help but be especially interested in the debate centered on privatization. I think that both sides of the debate are relatively absolutist because even in today’s public schools, the educational environment is augmented heavily by private enterprise, and even the best private schools are augmented by public enterprise such as roads, power grids, public libraries and museums, and fire departments.

The private enterprise additions to my public schooling are many: After elementary school classes finished there was an adjacent day-care center, during school I ate a lunch and read books created by a private companies, and before school I rode on a bus that was maintained and manufactured by a non-governmental entity. Everyone accepts these private additions to the public school system as a fact of life, and while individuals may have misgivings about some or all, the private entities solve problems well enough and cheap enough that there is no real reason to create a government solution. The public school itself doesn’t mind outsourcing these functions because they don’t change the atmosphere of the classroom, and generally lower the workload for the administration while increasing the efficiency of the school at large.

When I was talking to a school counselor yesterday about Classlerts, she mentioned that her school had already utilized some private services in order to decrease the load on the counseling department like Docufide. This service reduces the load on a registrar’s office by handling the printing and mailing of transcripts when students and ex-students request them. Docufide doesn’t modify or update the transcripts – it just offers a secretarial and administrative service that can benefit from true efficiencies of scale, technology, and centralization. The ability to de-localize transcripts via the internet was the main technological barrier for this sort of service to appear. When transferring PDF files became essentially instant and accessible world-wide, it was only a matter of time before someone created a third party system that was a read-only, faxable, more secure Dropbox for transcripts. This third party entrepreneurship doesn’t remove anything from the school system, and allows counselors and administrative staff to use their time on tasks that benefit students more directly.

High schools and colleges already have email- and systems administrators, and most have full-fledged I.T. departments. I’ve never seen a school that has not been assigned a cadre of emails under a .edu domain. However, email is largely used for teacher-teacher and teacher-administrator communications, with teacher-student mass emails being reserved to sporadic class cancellations or room changes. The majority of teacher-student communication is limited to face to face interaction that can only take place during set hours of instruction. If you ask any teacher how often they have to write the homework on a whiteboard, they will say, “Every day, for every class.” There is clearly a need for a better, more modern, more efficient channel of communication between teachers and students. But for each individual school to recognize and design that new channel of communication would take an intrapreneur, not to mention hours of manpower, at each school, and so few, if any, have moved past the communication tool of the 1990’s. Enter Remind101 – another private service that solves a problem in public education. Remind101 facilitates the communication between teachers and students by offering teachers a direct link to students’ cell phones via SMS. I’m not sure that the startup has overcome the “creepy” factor, or the potential for abuse/misuse by teachers, but bear with me, because I hope you’re beginning to see a pattern.­­

Finally, Classlerts. We’re a class-registering service/app that takes the pain out of registering for your classes. Similar (and out of pride, I’ll say lesser) services have popped up around the country at various schools, but it looks like we’ll be the first to receive true mentorship and funding for expansion. When we’re at most schools, the old form of registering for classes will be antiquated. Why would a 21st century institution still rely on paper forms for getting in to a class? Why do teachers still have to write homework on a whiteboard? And why are schools still spending money on personnel that are largely dedicated to maintaining, printing, and sending paper transcripts? I think it’s because the public sector is often satisfied with ‘good enough’, because they don’t have time to catch a breath and ask, “What’s better?”

What do I mean? Well, I don’t think that public sector entrepreneurship isn’t worthwhile, but it’s easy to see that it doesn’t really happen. Have you ever heard of a DMV sign-in app? How about an app that will dial the direct number to the local Police Department, based on your GPS location? These are two ideas that I just spit off the top of my head, but it’s clear that the effort to develop them will probably not be done in the public sector – at least not in the America today – because there is very little reward. This leads me to believe that the advancement of the public education system is going to come from outside, from individuals and techtrapreneurs who can get outside of the local district, look at the meta landscape of the school system, analyze broad needs, and find solutions that utilize new technology to be more efficient. We’d never expect a teacher to teach a class without textbooks. So why should we expect students to cart around paper forms to register for classes?

 

Classlerts comes to UCSC – we’re now live at 3 UC campuses!

Classlerts is proud to announce functionality for students at University of California, Santa Cruz! It’s exciting to be on a team that is turning an idea to a business. Initiative is the fuel of startups. It’s not just about the first step, or the second, its about the whole race. Its sort of like a giant game of QWOP where as soon as you get the hang of just walking forward, the rules change, and now you’ve got to learn how to jump hurdles. Each member of our team is like a muscle group on the QWOP-dude, and each person has to be ready to go and do their part when they are needed. If we misfire we still move forwards, but sometimes you fall on your face.

We finally win one- at first-ever, undergrad mobile-app challenge!

Last year I coded a script that sent me a text-message whenever a vacancy occurred in one of the classes I was trying to get into.  As with most universities, mine was notorious for scheduling class registration periods at drastically early times (6:00 AM – 8:00 AM). I really didn’t want to wake up early to snipe a class that other students were competing for, so I used the script to make my life easier. It wasn’t long until my friends found out about the script and encouraged me to turn it into a service for students. Classlerts was born that spring, and I launched the website into a pre-beta phase in order to garner some user feedback.

At first I failed
As an ambitious, young entrepreneur, I wanted to scale my business into the big leagues. I decided to apply to YCombinator; a startup incubator that invests $10k-$20k in several dozen businesses every round. I didn’t have any sort of business/marketing plan or an executive summary, so in reality it was a script kiddy’s fever dream. However, I was desperate for funding and determined to put myself & my company on the map, so I applied anyways. Needless to say, YCombinator rejected my funding proposal, so I put Classlerts on hold for a few months and instead focused on co-founding a crowd-sourced video website, Viewlo.com. Once again, YCombinator summer applications opened up and we pitched our idea. We pitched like we’d never pitched before, and brought about a new energy with Viewlo. However, it just wasn’t quite enough and soon we received another rejection letter.

But then I worked
I spent the rest of summer polishing up the Classlerts website. I was determined to make it big on my own. After all, I didn’t need validation from anybody else to continue with coding. It wasn’t until the end of summer that I heard about an upcoming opportunity at my university: The Mobile App Challenge. It was obvious that Classlerts would benefit from both the competition and the development of a mobile app for smartphones, so I decided to sign-up. UC Merced was the first undergraduate campus to host a mobile app competition and it was by-far one of the best startup experiences I’ve had. Alongside my team members, Tony Belmontes and Peter Howell, I had the opportunity to meet with VC’s, talk to other entrepreneurs, and learn how to pitch & develop a product from the ground-up. It was an arduous, 6 month journey, but we learned alot and took full advantage of the program.

And it paid off.
The winners of The Mobile App Challenge were announced last Friday, and Classlerts took home the grand prize. We were both stunned and ecstatic with the results! As a reward, we received a $2,500 scholarship… which is spectacular, but for us it was never about the money. After all- we’d just started a business from scratch that helped students solve a big problem in their lives. Even though we were originally rejected by one of the top angel investment firms in the nation, we didn’t give up. We sought out our niche at the roots and found a way to shine through. The lesson to be learned here is that there are always more ways to be resourceful; you just have to continue looking for them. Much thanks to the entire Classlerts team, Career Services staff, Mobile App Challenge faculty/participants, and Classlerts beta testers. We couldn’t have done it without you.