Startup Spotlight: Cashtivity

Jan 29, 2017

Startup Spotlight: Cashtivity

Jan 29, 2017

This week we spoke to Marissa Di Pasquale, CEO and Founder of Cashtivity. Cashtivity is an edtech company providing fun, real world project based learning Challenges for the K12 math & STEM classroom.

GH: What is Cashtivity?

Marissa: Cashtivity is an education technology company. We provide fun, real world project based learning Challenges for the K12 math & STEM classroom through our award winning collaboration platform. The Challenges connect students directly into real world situations where they learn math skills by being creators of their own math content. Students learn the math because they own it!   Just like a student can create art in the art class, or build a robot in robotics, student can now build their math through Cashtivity Challenges. The days of students being bored and checking out of math is finally over.

GH: What was your Eureka moment and how did Cashtivity get started?

Marissa: Cashtivity got its start through a convergence of factors:  I was watching my daughter totally immersed in project based learning;  her capabilities to express entrepreneurial ideas flourished because her teachers encouraged this through interdisciplinary learning.  From this, we developed a tool to help students build a business. From there, we pivoted into the math classroom. We met hundreds of teachers who overwhelmingly are seeking ways to link math & STEM to  real world contexts. They don’t just want the content, they want the content delivered in an engaging way so students can work together to create & share ideas, collect data, make predictions, discuss, analyse & reflect on their learning- just as we do outside the classroom.

GH: How did you build your team?

Marissa: Our HQ is in Boston, at the LearnLaunch campus, we stayed on in Boston after graduating  from the LearnLaunch accelerator program earlier this year. We also have our product development team based in Melbourne Australia and our instructional design team – our faculty – are hubbed out of Boston and San Francisco. Our team is small & tight, we work side by side, with our feet on the ground alongside teachers and classrooms to learn, build & measure to meet teacher needs and student preferences.

GH:What is the company philosophy driving your company culture?

Marissa: We have a specific set of values, we learn, design & ship product to deliver teachers with student success.  The student journey is one of a social learner – and our job is to understand this as intimately as we understand the prevailing academic standards in math & STEM.  We are the merger of multiple cultures.  By being design led, we care deeply about the student and teacher experience. Ultimately, that is what we believe will win in the market: this is especially true when teachers are consumers and schools and districts are influenced in their procurement by what works, ie. by what is being used, rather than what is being sold. We believe in the power of designing digital products which focus on the user experience, which are easy and intuitive and deliver extraordinary engagement.  We also believe in student autonomy, voice and choice.  And we design to invite the teacher in as the driver of the experience.  If you get the teacher and student experience right, if we deliver on the purpose and classroom need, then the rest of our company’s work flows.
Being design led may sound controversial for edtech.  It shouldn’t be. That’s how great companies like Slack (in enterprise) and Airbnb (in consumer) have developed.  We’re in the student’s corner,  we look after both the student and the teacher.  We care about the student holistically – their learning inside & outside the classroom and learning for life. That’s what informs the examples our team incorporate into the Challenges.

For the teacher, our purpose is to engage learning examples which are relevant for today’s world, a world which is unprecedented in its rate of change: the paradigms of education are changing in the face of this reality. So we are curating a middle school bundle of Challenges so these learning experiences – lessons – are ready to go, packaged and bowtied for the math teacher. Each Challenge works in the 45 min class, are standards aligned & amazingly easy to implement on any device. With the Cashtivity digital library in the classroom,  teachers can focus on the important roles of learning facilitator, educator, mentor.

GH: Startup life is full of failures and “make it work” moments–can you identify how you bounced back from one of yours?

Marissa: I think it certainly helps to have a rosy view of the world – I see the world through rose tinted glasses.  I wrote a blog piece for Fred Wilson at USV on this point. Startup life is a professional’s job. Our job is to flow with that. Our team certainly has faced its fair share of challenges : pardon the pun, we should contribute some of these to write a Cashtivity Challenge! For example, when we shifted from entrepreneurship education to focus on math education, essentially we had to start from scratch although we had gained a mountain of knowledge – we were schooled!

We also consciously engaged in authoring math content. We did this so we could be part of the conversation with math teachers and we wanted to get good at – really good at – curating interactive content on the Cashtivity collaborative platform. These shifts were necessary to position the company inside the fabric of education,  not on its fringes. With entrepreneurship education we would have continued to serve on the fringes, which would not have satisfied our need to create a universal value proposition for students, teachers and classrooms everywhere. So we are creating unique programming as well as developing the platform.   Any great platform operator understands that it’s all about the content. And nurturing content talent is a long term goal of ours, but first, we want to showcase what type of programming can be done, and that’s why we are invested in content as well as the platform. That’s no different to Netflix commissioning unique Netflix only programs. That’s our model and that’s our starting point.

GH: What did you learn from your first users?

Marissa: From our first users, we learned about the business of teaching. What a teacher does and how a class works. Where the classroom budget gets assigned and how it gets there. What teachers spend money on and why. What are the demands on the teacher. We have enormous respect for teachers. They are the bedrock of positive education. We also learned from our first users to start designing from the student experience, rather than from the administrative needs of teachers.  Because if you start from the student experience, you tap into infinite potential.

GH: What has the Boston ecosystem provided you?

Marissa: The Boston ecosystem seems to still be evolving in terms of edtech funding and its place in the world as a global creator and provider of education technology products and services.  I guess that may be because Boston has historically been a place where people have come to – for the institutions and the brands in education – rather than a place where education – and now digital education – has had to be shipped from. This is changing. There is room for expanded clusters of investors,  for patient capital, and importantly, for a long range vision of a global edtech market to be shared and backed. Boston is unique in its many talents and if it wants to, it can certainly spin out companies which serve both US and global demand for edtech. Boston certainly has all the ingredients and the talent.

GH: What is the best/worst piece of advice you were given along the way?

Marissa: Best advice – focus on the student experience first, and everything else you need to do will flow from there.
Worst advice – I think any advice a startup receives that isn’t actionable has its challenges.

GH: What was the best thing that happened to you last year? 

Marissa: Being invited back by Deborah Quazzo from GSV to pitch Cashtivity as a Venture Track company at the 2017 ASU:GSV Summit. This would only have been possible from our graduation from LearnLaunch and having a strategy for a marketable product & investable company.

GH: What does the future hold for Cashtivity? 

Marissa: Our vision is to be the no 1 learning company in STEM, sparking student’s entrepreneurial spirit, their mindset and skills for the 21st century. We want to be as successful as Google is in education!   We are partnering with extraordinary groups, like the Silicon Valley Education Foundation (SVEF) to bring Cashtivity into classrooms in Northern California. That’s our starting point. Our team can’t wait to make the future happen – and work with like minds – including investors – to bring awesome learning experiences to math & STEM classrooms everywhere.

Learn More about Cashtivity here.

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