Startup Spotlight: TeachersConnectJune 19 2016
This week we’ve got Dave Meyers – CEO & Co-founder of TeachersConnect, a platform committed to creating a safe space for teachers to share experiences and to find the support they need for prepping – and teaching – throughout their careers. As a MassChallenge & LearnLaunch alum, Dave shares his personal experience as a teacher turned entrepreneur – and the joys and frustrations that come with all aspects of running a small company.
Dave: In partnership with teacher prep programs across the country, TeachersConnect is laying the groundwork to ensure a world in which teaching is never a solo activity and “teacher prep” stays with their new-teacher alumni for as long as they want. TeachersConnect is an in-person and online network that gives new K-12 teachers a safe place to ask their most pressing questions—even the embarrassing ones—and get answers from a trusted network of peers, mentors, and experts who understand the real-world classroom challenges. TeachersConnect also creates a way for teacher prep programs to build deep, lasting relationships with their graduates and to gather the data they need to meet new standards and improve their courses swiftly and purposefully.
GH: What was your Eureka moment: how did TeachersConnect get started?
Dave: My background is in teaching. I taught elementary and middle school for 11 years, helped create a non-profit that taught teachers how to teach writing, and had the pleasure of being a mentor, coach, and developer of digital curriculum for over a decade after leaving my own classroom. This experience brought me into hundreds of schools throughout the country, and allowed me to gain a clear understanding of the urges and needs of teachers–particularly young ones. It also provided me with rock solid evidence to confirm that, despite popular press and common mythologies, the vast majority of teachers is driven to make improvements every single day. Unfortunately, there are all kinds of forces preventing them from growing. One of them is a potent lack of feedback and the absence of guidance from people who are not colleagues or supervisors. I’ve been working on that challenge for years. And I’m not alone–there are so many individuals and organizations doing tremendous work on this front.
The Eureka moment was a conversation with Joe Moore, the about-to-retire President of Lesley University which is nationally known for its teacher preparation programs. Along with TC co-founders Hakan Satiroglu and Katy Tynan, I had the privilege of asking President Moore about the accomplishments he was proud of as well as some of the things that nagged at him–goals that seemed perpetually out of reach. One of the first things he mentioned was that despite some real innovative bids and the strong collective will of many among the faculty and administrators, it was clear that Lesley needed to do more to support their new-teacher graduates in their first few years in the classroom. I don’t want to quote Joe because I can’t remember his exact words, but he said something to the effect of everyone knowing that the early years of teaching can be incredibly overwhelming (causing some to quit before they get a chance to be good, and preventing many who stay from really being great) and that Lesley was working hard to help their early-career graduates thrive. He wanted to be sure that Lesley was graduating teachers who start strong and have the disposition and resources to become great, and he and many others in the School of Education, including Dean Jack Gillette, wanted Lesley to play a primary role in that.
At that moment, we realized we had complementary problems. On the one hand, we had early-career teachers in need of non-evaluative feedback–a place to ask even embarrassing questions of people whom they were not trying to impress for good evaluations or reappointment. On the other hand, we had teacher prep programs who were motivated to provide ongoing value to their graduates and who were in a perfect position to give the non-evaluative support the teachers craved.
We cobbled these realizations into a business hypothesis, took the hypothesis on the road to test with other teacher prep programs, and quickly realized we had an idea worth pursuing.
Dave: Begging and borrowing at first-benefiting from the talents of some very creative and committed people who spent early mornings, evenings, and weekends interviewing teachers, creating pitch decks, and building prototypes.
Our first bid to hire a Co-founding CTO was a minor disaster. We had a job description out there, and five of us were involved in the interview process–screening candidates, meeting with them, and checking on references. We settled on a finalist who had amazing experience and came very highly recommended by several people–including coders who had worked for him in the past and raved about wanting to be on his team again when we were ready to build one. So we hired him. He started on a Monday and by Wednesday late morning, we’d fired him. Fortunately, I have not had to fire many people in my career, but every time I have, I’ve lost lots of sleep over it. This one was easy; I slept like a baby that night.
The very next day, Marcel Ollmann, our current Chief of Technology and Product Development, found me on LinkedIn. He was a teacher. He is a self-taught programmer. He’s got design and marketing skills. He’s charming, analytical, skillful, and creative. He’s perfect for us.
GH: What is your company philosophy driving your company culture?
Dave: Here are some factors:
- We want to make that any individual can instigate change.
- Ownership over a project implies accountability, not control.
- Good decision-making implies alignment, not consensus.
- Curiosity trumps correctness.
- The process of seeking information is as valuable as the actual information uncovered.
- We want to relish surprise.
- We value (and seek) non-traditional, quirky, unique professional and personal experiences in our hiring practices. We also seek out candidates in non-traditional ways.
- We seek employees and contractors for whom drive or belief power the work–not compliance.
- Everything we do–product features, communications, user-research experiments–has to be done for the benefit of our users (Teachers)
GH: Startup life is full of failures and ‘make it work’ moments – can you identify how you bounced back from one of yours?
Dave: The teacher prep program that helped us test our very first scrappy little prototype has gone completely silent on us. They–and the graduates with whom we were working–expressed only interest and enthusiasm with the project. They volunteered lots of time, effort, and information, including several meetings in which the Dean provided me with some fairly sensitive information about their budget so we could begin developing a pricing strategy. I thought we’d be able to count on them for the pilot. Instead, we haven’t gotten a peep from them. I’ve never heard from the Dean or any of the faculty with whom we worked. They’ve ignored my emails and phone calls completely. I really have no idea what happened, but it’s clear that we failed at something.
But we forged ahead, and today we’ve got partnerships with seven paying pilot clients.
GH: What did you learn from your first users?
Dave: Teacher prep programs are deeply appreciative when you can give them a channel to show their current students and new-teacher alumni that they understand how complex and overwhelming it can be as a teacher and that they have both the desire and the resources to help their graduates face those challenges.
I’ve also learned from both teachers and teacher prep programs that they relish the opportunity to help shape a brand new product and service that will benefit them and millions of their teaching colleagues. They love that they can have an idea, and pick up the phone or send a note (via the TeachersConnect network) to share it with us.
GH: What has the Boston ecosystem provided you?
Dave: When I left my last job, one of my first stops was checking in with Hakan Satiroglu, a partner at LearnLaunch. Hakan and I had met a few times at social events and I knew he was a great networker and imaginator. In addition to becoming one of the drivers in the formation of TeachersConnect, he suggested that I begin working at one of the public tables in LearnLaunch. Sitting at the table, near the kitchen and the phone booths, allowed me to strike up conversation with a whole slew of great folks, some of them LearnLearch denizens, others more interloper-ish. Each interaction taught me something: who’s got great ideas; which ideas are sticking; who’s funding; why are they funding; what do individuals and companies do when they’re struggling. Through these conversations, I learned about MassChallenge. We applied, became a finalist, and I’m proud to say that we really used that time incredibly well. As a lifelong educator from Boston, it was such a boon to be in a stimulating environment of entrepreneurs from all over the world and from every industry. And it was a catalyst for us; we received catalyzing mentorship and our first foundation grant to hire Marcel and build an MVP. That experience also put us in great position to be part of the fourth LearnLaunch Accelerator class–dramatically different from MassChallenge, but similarly stimulating and key to our growth.
GH: What is the Boston ecosystem lacking from your perspective?
Dave: Not much. There’s talent, there’s investment, there are other entrepreneurs who are anxious to share their experiences, and there are organizations (like The Capital Network, and Massachusetts SBA) that provide incredibly valuable workshops and services in everything-start-up. I certainly can’t complain. It would be nice if there was some tax relief for early-stage start-ups, or perhaps a standard set of incorporation documents that was both solid and affordable, and sure, I wish there were more seed-stage investors, but really, Boston’s got a lot to offer.
GH: What’s the best/worst piece of advice you were given along the way?
Dave: I can’t think of much bad advice. Good advice: Talk to EVERYONE about your business idea, and watch how they respond. It helps you refine your message and understand which words and phrases resonate with what kinds of people.
GH: What was the best thing that happened to you last year?
Dave: We got some pretty significant funding from a foundation. It was both a vote of confidence and a way to fuel product and team development.
GH: What does the future hold for TeachersConnect?
Dave: We’ve got seven paying pilot partners using (or about to start using) our MVP product. This was important to us as a validation point; we wanted to make sure that people would be willing to pay for the problem we’re solving. I think we’ve confirmed the need. Now that we’ve got engaged partners who have gotten involved with us in large part so they can help shape the product and service, we’re in the midst of an intense series of interviews and observations with our users–a user research experiment that will help us prioritize our roadmap and build the next version of our product.