EdTech Founders: The good, bad, and (how to avoid) the ugly


This piece is a part of Camelback's Ruthless for Good series, sharing different ways that individuals embody the spirit of our manifesto and what they fight for. We are on the lookout for innovative edtech tools and personalized learning opportunities -- if the stories of our edtech founders inspire you, please consider applying to our Fellowship.

Amanda, Camelback Ventures (CV): Earlier this month, we ran a series on the journey of school founders and today I want to explore some of those same themes. You all have fascinating individual stories and organizations which we’ll share over the next few months, but for this, I want to get into just the nitty gritty of edtech work.

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About the Camelback Fellows featured here:

  • Blair Pircon (BP) - 2016 Fellow, co-founder of The Graide Network, an online platform that connects teachers with on-demand teaching assistance and grading services

  • Sage Salvo (SS) - 2017 Fellow, founder of Words Liive, a digital platform and app that creates curriculum (and allows teachers to create their own) pairing contemporary music with classic literature 

  • Andrew Hill (AH) - 2016 Fellow, co-founder of LiftEd, an app that enables special education teachers and behavioral analysts to better create personalized learning goals, share and track progress, and more

  • Michelle Ching (MC) - 2017 Fellow, founder of Literator, a platform that collects student literacy progress in real time, provides solutions, and provides an administrator dashboard 

CV: So let’s start at the beginning. What was something you did early on in the process that you're really glad you did?

Andrew Hill (AH): I think I’d double down on the discovery phase. It becomes such an oversight for many tech founders. People are often afraid to put their ideas out there, like they’re scared someone’s going to steal your golden egg. And that’s not true. No one cares. You should hope that they’d even read what you send them, much less get it or want to “steal” it. Because we spent a lot of time in discovery, we really knew who our potential users and what their pain points were. So by Fall 2015, when I took LiftEd through an accelerator program for current Berkeley-Haas business students, we were able to make some decisions faster and with more confidence than other groups because we had the insights. We were easily able to map out problems and solutions side by side for different user groups. I can’t over emphasize how important that is. You don’t want to get analysis paralysis, but it’s worth researching before you get into designing and building.


"People are often afraid to put their ideas out there, like they’re scared someone’s going to steal your golden egg. And that’s not true. No one cares."


Sage Salvo (SS): I was doing a PhD at Howard, teaching and volunteering on the side. While doing so, I came up with the basic idea of Words Liive, to use popular music to teach literature. I thought I had a good idea that I was interested in pursuing, but I didn’t immediately default to, “Gotta go be a startup and quit everything!” Instead, I kept going back to schools to try and perfect my workshops before I named it and bottled it up and made a deck. First and foremost, it was important to me to create content that was actually useful for students AND teachers. This practice of exploring gave me clarity about exactly what in my program would work or not. If I had just jumped right away, I don’t think I would’ve gotten the same insights or built the same platform. Take that time to really master the insights.

Blair Pircon (BP): I totally agree with both of those sentiments. I would almost say it’s a pre-step, to interview user groups. At the end of the day, the only way to know if something is going to work is to try it out. The first real step for us was creating an MVP (minimum viable product), and finding a teacher friend that was willing to experiment and she sent us some of her kids’ essays. From working with real examples, we were able to identify what the grading process should be. We realized very quickly that the second part of the MVP was to figure out who teachers’ ideal graders would be. We found a group of teachers who read through fake hypothetical profiles to pick, and over and over again, they picked an undergrad or grad student who was pursuing an education degree. That gave us the information we needed to take the next step. So I drove to U. Michigan and pitched to an education major honors society. We were able to recruit some of our early Graiders there. We then used basic, free technology to communicate between the Graiders and our early group of teachers. The result was this extremely preliminary thing that was low-risk, high reward, and taught us so much about our value proposition and what we should pursue next. So just find what your little test is. I’m glad we did that early, before we put a lot of time and resources and money in.


"Find what your little test is, before [you] put a lot of time and resources and money in."


Michelle Ching (MC): As a teacher (and from my own experiences), I was getting frustrated with system-wide issues that wouldn’t be easily or quickly solved by policy changes. Edtech to me felt like this opportunity to impact the wellbeing of students and schools faster and more effectively. But edtech can be very intimidating, especially in the Bay area and you’re coming from a classroom background.

I had the idea to go to a hackathon, and that was one of my first forays into tech. I found a great group of people and we actually won the competition. It was really fun, but ultimately, not the long term right vibe. This was a group from Silicon Valley, and I was this social justice, education person. We had different reasons for doing this work. One guy on the team who would’ve become my CTO at one point said, “I suppose we have to care about ‘equity’” -- with the air finger quotes and everything. I realized early on that I needed to find a team that believed in equity as a core value, and I essentially became a solo founder for 5 months and took time to explore. Because I stepped back from my initial group and spent some time building up my own knowledge, I met two amazing people who later joined my team. For us, values mean everything. Three years later, I know 100% that was the right choice and know that because I found a mission-aligned team, I am empowered to be my most authentic self with the work. In retrospect, I wish I had made that decision even faster, to be laser focused on being a social impact, mission-driven for-profit.

CV: On the flip side of that question, what was an early mistake or something you would do differently given a second chance? There’s a lot of hype in the entrepreneurial space to consider mistakes as these cool, super-worth-it learning opportunities.

AC: Great question, and our biggest mistake was definitely in the technology itself. At the time, I didn’t really understand K-12 and how technology purchases work in school districts. I also didn’t know how dramatically the landscape would shift literally in just two years. Early on, we put a hard stake in the ground to build native iOS on iPads, because in 2015, that was everything. And sure, iPads are still top 3 for cool tech tools, but the market is pivoting so much and is more segmented. Microsoft stocks are up. Chromebooks literally overtook the iPad the next year and have not slowed down. Android allows for a lot of freedom. That happens. The most important thing right now is to make sure that you are cloud-based, cross-device compatible. Now, we’re in the process of migrating. Technology means a difficult balance between being flexible and committed.

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BP: If I had to pick only one, or the biggest one, because there are many...we knew very early on based on feedback that our number one challenge was figuring out how to make this a sustainable operation and how to successfully sell in the K-12 market. While we’ve ultimately been successful from trial and error, I wish that I had gotten more expertise in K-12 sales earlier. I wish I had spent more time finding the right advisors and been comfortable early on to use money to get strong expertise to help us. In business school, I learned a lot about how to try to prove hypotheses to de-risk the business and increase value. You have to figure out what the most important things are for you and figure out what you need to do to get answers to those hypotheses.

MC: It's hard to say, because we definitely see the mistakes as a constant learning opportunity. We spent a lot of time developing products. It took us a while to learn how much and how often to engage the right questions with our users. We've always been very user-oriented, but it's very easy to be caught up when you're solving your own problem (something I had faced myself as a student and later as an educator). You have an idea of how your users feel, so you don’t always feel the need to frequently consult. We learned that we needed to be looping stakeholders in more frequently.

SS: I think building capacity is hard, and something I and a lot of other founders of color struggle with. I wasn’t sure where to find people, so I looked at my list of friends and just got people to help me out. You know, okay this person can do a website, then this friend is a teacher and can do a workshop, and this person does accounting so maybe they can help with the books every now and then. I should’ve focused earlier on being more intentional about hiring strong, committed talent, and learning how to manage them well. Being in our position, we often point the finger at the dominant White culture for hiring people in their own networks, but my default was to do the same thing. I think talent has to be prioritized.

CV: That actually leads me to my next set of questions. As you built capacity, what was your priority with your first hire? How did you handle incorporating tech/creative talents, through in-house or outsourcing? Why did you hire the way you did?

AH: Loaded question, but I think it’s a good one. If you’re building a tech product and not a technical person yourself, it’s natural that a strong engineer will be your first hire. The challenge is that a lot of people want to say their first engineer has to be a rockstar, but you have the least amount of leverage with the least amount of money you're ever going to have. You end up with this dichotomy wondering, how am I going to build this crappy minimum viable product with a rocky engineer to convince other people to give me money and join me?

Early on, someone gave me advice that ideas were a dime a dozen, especially right now. Five years ago, you could pitch an engineer who wouldn’t know anything about design or an MBA or product, but that’s not the case any more. Silicon Valley has changed everything, and a lot of technical founders want to do those things themselves now. So, when I was pitching engineers, I focused on selling them the why. Our why was incredibly strong. We knew where our value was, we knew the people we were impacting, that educators were burning out, that special education students deserved better. There was a lot that actually made this a really interesting, unusual project. I had to hone my pitch early on, and just hit up all the networks I could find for an engineer that would have value alignment. If someone comes at you asking for insane amounts of money or equity right off the bat, that’s a red flag. For socially driven edtech teams, the mission has to come first.  


"The challenge is that a lot of people want to say their first engineer has to be a rockstar, but you have the least amount of leverage with the least amount of money you're ever going to have."


BP: In my opinion, this is the most crucial question to be asked. As the Founder and CEO, one of my most important responsibilities is who is on the team. My number one priority was getting the right co-founder on board. A co-founder is incredibly important because this person is your true work spouse in many senses of that word. My first true hire was Liz Nell, who was actually my college roommate. Not only was she the absolute perfect person for the job based on her skills background and tenacity and appetite for the work, but she was also the right person because we already had a strong foundation of trust built.

Liz and I were able to make some headway being non-technical founders just by being really scrappy and creative. Even before Liz had fully signed, my second priority was to get a strong tech lead. I started looking around Chicago for someone who might be a good partner, and spent a lot of time going to events and just having coffees with people. Unlike with Liz, I didn’t have a technical expert that I had known for half my life. So I took a year to get to know Karl before he officially became our CTO. To the extent that you have the luxury of really getting to know someone before you make a big decision to bring them into the team, I definitely recommend that. One great way to figure out if it was a fit was just by doing actual work together; Karl consulted and did some side projects with us. It gave us a lot of confidence that he could do what we needed and we all enjoyed work together.

MC: The most important first hire of a small team is to get all the bases covered with tech; I luckily found two great people to join me, as I mentioned earlier. And after that, you need to look for someone who can pick up the slack, wherever that slack on your team is -- and for us, it was actually to get an executive assistant for me. It's really important to recognize that the CEO is supposed to drive the team forward with strategy and big picture vision, and to make sure that s**t gets done. I realized that I was handling a lot of things like managing invoices or scheduling meetings, things that I wasn’t great at AND that were actually stopping me from focusing on high level ideas. Now we have someone who is very tuned into our company's objectives and has an understanding of all the relationships being managed; that has been so critical. I don't think we would have scaled as quickly without making that decision. I believe that startups should hire early for those practical tangible things that can get lost with a visionary leader. While it’s great to build a product, you need to have someone who’s actually getting customers to use that product, and then keep those customers happy. So, don’t forget that while there’s tech in “ed tech,” you still need sales and customer support. That's a non-negotiable at this point.


"While it’s great to build a product, you need to have someone who’s actually getting customers to use that product, and then keep those customers happy." 


SS: I realized early on that I just had a knowledge gap about this field. I knew a lot about education and music, and I knew I could do some kind of app or online service, but I was a complete novice about tech. I didn’t know the difference between UI and UX, or what make a lead engineer a distinct role. I would get coffees with engineers and they’d be like, “Wow, you need fullstack and front end design?” And I was like, “... I guess?” I realized I had a lot to learn, so I spent time buckling down to learn what I was trying to do and then see what I actually needed before I went around trying to hire people. I learned a lot by just talking to the engineers themselves, people who were down to really lay it out and discuss what skill sets were valuable and necessary. Don’t be afraid to just ask.

CV: As you know, our applications for the Fellowship are open now, and we’re excited to see more edtech projects come in. How would you say the Camelback Fellowship most impacted you and your org?

BP: Because I started as a Camelback Fellow very early on in our journey, it was really formative. It helped me think about the formation and structure of an organization, convinced me to get culture right early on, sequencing our strategic priorities in a way that made sense for a very early stage company. The Camelback Fellowship was just such excellent guidance on the huge range of strategic decisions that the Founder/CEO needs to be thinking about. One specific example is that at my first Camelback Summit was the week before I was bringing on my co-founder Liz. At that Summit, our workshops were about identifying key jobs, how to prioritize hires, choosing responsibilities, even as tactical as how to delegate and set up weekly reflections. I applied all of that knowledge directly during the week after at my co-founder retreat with Liz.

AH: The most awesome thing about working in social impact is being surrounded by like-minded peers who are all trying to innovate in education, regardless if the channel is edtech or a school. That’s very rare, and special. Adding in the layer that everyone in Camelback is a minority, a woman... that enables you to have really raw, authentic conversations about struggles you’re having in a notoriously difficult market. It makes me think of how we can solution together rather than live in our own silos. Camelback is so unique in who it supports, and really, just so plugged in. Camelback came in so early to my journey with LiftEd. I had no idea about 99% of the nonprofits, venture capital firms, investors, etc who were in the K-12 space -- and Camelback had connections to all of them. That’s pivotal. People still get hyped and recognize Camelback, and what that means about our work and who I am.


"Everyone in Camelback is a minority, a woman... that enables you to have really raw, authentic conversations about struggles you’re having in a notoriously difficult market."


MC: I’ll second that -- the community is incredible, and I am so grateful to have this network of amazing people who are prioritizing equitable education. In education and ed tech specifically, it is super critical to see diverse leaders leading innovation. Historically, we're just not represented in leadership positions. In edtech, leaders need to have empathy for teachers and students in the most high need, most high poverty schools -- those are the communities that need the most innovation. They’re the ones who should be at the center of our work, who would benefit the most from creative, relevant, effective new edtech tools. Building edtech tools that are just cool or increase existing skills have the problem of potentially increasing the privilege gap, especially if it’s only available to schools or parents who already have money to support their kids.

There needs to be a more intentional and clear understanding of education within the edtech space -- there can no longer be this disconnect. Our role in edtech is to honor the expertise of great teachers, and give them useful tools that help them feel they can stay in the classroom and keep being great teachers to best serve their students. My most worst nightmare for ed tech is that it leaves people, the real people, completely out. That’s thoughtless, and something that people who put equity in air quotes, who only know privilege, will continue to do. It’s why I believe Camelback's work and mission is invaluable. It’s more than a program that just gives you a warm fuzzy feeling. We need this.

Michelle Ching, bottom right, in Oakland with teachers from Acorn Woodland Elementary as they onboard Literator. Photo from Literator

"Our role in edtech is to honor the expertise of great teachers, and give them useful tools that help them feel they can stay in the classroom and keep being great teachers to best serve their students."


SS: The ability to connect with people I wouldn’t have been able to connect with otherwise. Anyone can make an intro, but if it’s not a warm intro or if I don’t feel like I have a social capital to be myself, then the intro’s value diminishes. But Camelback has the unique ability to put us in front of important people in a way that is very comfortable and real. I think the experience overall is also just very empowering and taught me how I can be my authentic self as a founder.

For example, the Ruthless for Good message really resonates with me. There is this attitude around social good that it’s like “a weaker” version of business or capital, or this expectation that people shouldn’t be allowed to make a profit just because they’re working in education. I don’t think that’s true. I think we can still be major players doing a lot of good, AND make a lot of money and distribute that wealth. I believe edtech can show what it means to do well and do good. To me, that’s part of the spirit. Ruthless is not associated with weakness -- that’s the unrelenting pursuit of changing the world. And the Camelback family is just that -- ruthless for good.


"I believe edtech can show what it means to do well and do good."


Are you an edtech founder? Apply to the Camelback Ventures Fellowship!