As a student going through the hustle and bustle of a high school journey, I found both teachers and students often groping for useful information that would help them gauge student performance or information in relation to a peer group. It hadn’t escaped my attention that given the myriad systems used to capture every aspect of student life ranging from attendance to academic performance, schools were sitting on a wealth of information that could come in handy in any number of ways. I found myself lamenting that some of this mountain of data was not available to improve instruction, curriculum design, student counseling, teacher training and much more. LearnSprout aims to help users discover this ‘lost world’ of data trapped in Student Information Systems (SIS).
With the increasing focus on freeing up ‘big data’, and the proliferation and adoption of APIs in multiple domains, LearnSprout’s offering for the K-12 sector appears to be serendipitous, opening up several new avenues for data sources used by app developers in the Education Technology sector.
The venture found its bearing under the tenacious stewardship of Franklyn Chien. Chien reminisces easily and expansively about his journey from a childhood in the sunny climes of Hawaii to a double degree at University of Washington on a full scholarship. Subsequent jobs at Microsoft and DeLoitte offered little more than varying degrees of drudgery. The final stop on his corporate junket was Facebook in 2007, where he worked on a number of products, with monetization being the primary thrust. Chien’s idealism and introspection are difficult to miss. “I got tired of it eventually. With all the breaks I got, I had do something with a bigger impact on the world outside of making money for Zuckerberg.”
Education, the great leveler, was an immediate calling. “It opens and closes doors with finality. It was integral to my success and was the most fundamental element to my growth.”
By the end of 2011, Chien’s enthusiasm had rubbed off on his friends and cofounders, Joe Woo and Anthony Wu, who had comfortable perches at Microsoft and Google. The three agreed to hunker down in earnest and define a distinctive product for the Education sector. The first mile of this unchartered course provided the customary ambiguity and frustration as they built an assortment of experimental apps, and used these as a currency for conversation with over a 100 educators to better understand their needs.
As they built the apps, a consistent impediment to their efforts was the inability to easily retrieve required data from the school SIS. Teachers could do little more than point to their source data system with a helpless shrug. Eventually, this led to the ‘eureka’ moment around providing a ‘once and done’ gateway to islands of SIS data.
Imagine K12 facilitated introductions to schools and districts to help develop the product further. As they spoke to other developers at Imagine K12, they realized that everyone wanted easy access to SIS data but stopped short of making this their problem statement.
“Big data is problematic. It can be very manual, and take a lot of time. There is a great deal of data fragmentation. Ideally someone should be able to integrate with a student data system in a few minutes.” Developers who use the LearnSprout API today can do just that. According to Chien, they can complete an integration in less than 5 minutes, allowing them to leverage data in their applications that they would otherwise be unable to harness.
Chien is both reflective and cognizant of the limited window of opportunity that life usually affords for risk taking in the form of launching a startup. “We were all in our mid-to-late 20s. The time to do a startup was right then. It’s much harder after you hit 30 because you have family, responsibilities and so on.” Timing the jump well provided a longer runway both for them and for the venture, which allowed them to focus on their startup without too many distractions on the side.
Just a few months ago, LearnSprout hit a telling milestone of 4,000 adopter schools, touching the lives of over two million students. The more meaningful metric is the developer and end user community that can enter through the APIs, and the larger impact that LearnSprout-dependent applications have on the Education community by leveraging the big data that it offers.
For Chien, this is just a milestone, a stepping stone to even greater bandwidth of service. “As an entrepreneur, you are never happy with the niche you are currently serving; you want to keep evolving and solving more and bigger problems.” More immediately, ‘back to school’ month is always a period of frenetic activity and excitement; one that the entire team is looking forward to.
Imagine K12 proved to be a timely springboard by quickly connecting them to an active ecosystem of educators, districts and students. This become a foundation for rapid growth of their network and testing ground for their ideas and experiments.
Chien sees a lot of smart people, time and money being invested in this space. He sees lasting innovation and success eventually in the industry, even if it’s going to be a rough ride in the medium term.
Through the excitement and promise of success, Chien doesn’t fail to observe that ‘starting your own company is a roller coaster ride of emotions.’ No company that he knows of has ever been clear of hardships. “You go through a lot - investors turning you down, customers leaving, schools being cautious, unexpected competition - the possibilities are endless.” But even if it has been hard, it’s the ‘coolest’ thing he has done.