My personal experience as a student user of Remind 101 came in my Multivariable Calculus class at Palo Alto High School. As the class was scheduled early in the morning when it was too early for students to be checking their email accounts, Remind101 presented an easy and efficient way for my teacher to let us know about changes in the day’s syllabus, reminders for tests, and potential traffic delays. I thought it was a handy tool for my teacher without giving much thought to the element of safety and security the model provided for student-teacher interactions. In an interview with the founders, I learned that the importance of safety and privacy was one of the key discoveries that led to the company's rapid growth...
Remind101 rides on the substantive intellectual horsepower of siblings Brett and David Kopf. Brett’s journey took him to Michigan State where he majored in agricultural economics and had his first brush with entrepreneurship in his sophomore year as a consultant. David studied networking technology at DePaul and later gravitated to a self-immersion in Rails development. As with many successful ventures, Remind 101 originated in a founder’s personal pain and needs. Brett’s battles with learning disabilities and dyslexia led him to look for effective and timely reminders of ever-looming tasks and deadlines. This resulted in an effort on David’s part to build simple tools for notifications before assignments and quizzes to help his brother.
David asserts that it was an uphill battle trying to be entrepreneurial in Michigan. When they got together to make a go of it in Chicago, it became evident quickly that the terrain did not favor young entrepreneurs in pursuit of an idea. Brett’s relentless online research charted a course for their entrepreneurial journey, though finding an audience for their story still proved difficult until they entered Imagine K12.
The decision to quit their day jobs was surprisingly easy, especially for David who had never swum in new venture waters. “I was working from home for IBM. It paid well but was never fulfilling. I didn’t even know what an incubator was until a few months before I applied to Imagine K12,” says David.
Brett’s enthusiasm clearly helped. “I woke up one morning and told David - you have no choice, we’re leaving.”
Imagine K12 was much more than a milestone for the duo, it helped Remind101 turn a corner. David is quick to point this out. “Everything failed at the company until Imagine K12 began to help us. Once we got into the incubator everything took off at once.”
The early days were not without anxiety. Brett still reminisces about the uncertainty and doubt that plagued them the night before their big TechCrunch Disrupt presentation, “The night before we launched on TechCrunch, in front of 2000 people, we were pacing back and forth in our digs. We wondered if we should really go through with this. We were already thousands of dollars in debt - should we shut the site down? Our mentors had anticipated this and told us that it would be scary but we should still keep things going.”
David chuckles at the recollection of his brutal indoctrination into coding. With just a couple of Java courses in college behind him, he plunged into 16-hour days of self-training in Ruby-on-Rails and willed himself to become a rails programmer in 90 days. As with all successful teams, David and Brett are cognizant of their individual strengths. Brett is quick to clarify, “I can’t code. David’s far better at applying logic. I enjoy talking to teachers and figuring out what problems to solve.”
The early days at Imagine K12 echoed with a single message from their mentors. “They kept on stressing the need to talk to your users to design a really good product.” While David burned the candle at both ends coding the product, Brett skyped at length with over 200 teachers in the span of a few weeks. All this effort precipitated the users’ biggest pain: "There was a communication problem. We then built the product that combated this problem.”
Before Imagine K12 accepted them, Brett had tried pitching it to students in Michigan State and signed up 1500-2000 students but couldn’t get traction. “Our product wasn’t simple enough, and we weren’t listening to the needs of our users. So we had to rip the entire site down and start from scratch.”
The importance of speaking to users rings home with David’s example, “Initially I thought, I want students to be able to reply to their teachers. We thought ok, let’s build it. I didn’t think we could build it. That’s the reason we didn’t do it. It’s amazing we didn’t do that, since we realized later after speaking to users that 2-way communication removes the whole safety component of the conversation, and they could have an inappropriate conversation. The reason a lot of teachers sign up with us is because there is no way you could have an inappropriate conversation. It’s tempting to focus on features instead of just listening to users and really solving their problem.”
With several hundred thousand users across the US and Canada, and visible signs of a business model, Brett and David now find time to focus on evolving the product to make it ‘more portable and friendly.’ For now, they are laser-focused on their core proposition - making communication easier. ‘There will be enough time later to diversify into other domains,” says David.
Competition doesn’t seem to unduly worry them. “A few other companies such as Blackboard are in the frame. But they’re administrative and corporate in nature and grow from the top down. We’ve built our company organically from the ground up and have a much stronger connection to the user base.”
The support provided by Imagine K12 is often reiterated. Brett reflects, “We’re not joking, the reason that we’re in the position that we are in today is all because of them. If you move from Chicago and try to break into the SV network, it’s really hard without any sort of gateway. Our mentors really understood how things work. Fundraising aside, the people here understand how to design and build a product really well, regardless of the specific domain that it falls in. To be able to work with Tim, Geoff, Alan on a daily and weekly basis and get a constant feedback loop of critiques was supremely helpful. All the other companies in the network were helpful too."
David adds, “You form a really great network of people. Just the structure of an incubator program - deadlines and a demo day where you need to get traction and pitch your idea - is really good and really motivating, but the mentorship, the guidance, the speakers, the funding - enough to justify quitting jobs and move out here. They allowed us to concentrate 100% on Remind101.”
With venture capital beneath their sails, hiring is underway at Remind101. With seven employees and the proverbial dog already, they have no illusions about the struggle to find top-tier talent in the valley, “We know hiring will be hard moving forward - it’s hard for everyone.” But hiring is critical to executing their product strategy and rollout over the next few months. “We will be doing 10-15 things - all designed to make the site easier to use,” says Brett. “There will also be a huge speed improvement.”
Months of hard work afford the duo a few moments for reflection, “No company in the EdTech industry has managed to grow to the scale of a company like Dropbox for example, which has raised millions of dollars and is on its way to IPO. Imagine K12 is great because it enables us to create some really good companies to address this sector. We don’t necessarily like to say we’re revolutionizing education; we think we solve one really big problem in education. If you look at the big scope of education, there are lots of problems, and we take one of those problems and solve it with Remind101.”