All posts in Startup Speak

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?