Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Teacher Turned Entrepreneur - An Interview With Adam Bellow

Two weeks ago Adam Bellow relaunched eduClipper. Unlike a lot of new ed tech services, Adam comes from a teaching background not a tech developer background. Last week I sent Adam some questions about the transition from teaching to ed tech entrepreneurship, how eduClipper got started, and his plans for the future of eduClipper. Finally, Adam offers advice to those wondering how to take their ed tech ideas to market.

1. Who are you? What’s your background in education?

I am a passionate, creative, curious educator. I, like you and your dedicated following of awesome educators, am a hardworking person who wants to make the world a better place in some way. I grew up in the 80s and was (am) a big nerd before it was cool. In addition to being an educational technologist, I am also a proud father to two wonderfully awesome boys and a loving husband.

I come from a family of educators. My dad was a 30+ year science teacher at Cardozo High School in Queens. My mom was an English teacher who became a High School Librarian for 26+ years at Mepham High School in my home district. When I was young I never thought I would be a teacher. I wanted to be a superhero and then when I realized this was not a feasible career choice I decided to become a filmmaker. But after college I realized a career in film was not likely so I went out looking for a job. I had been a camp counselor and taught several workshops for kids throughout my High School and College years and so I thought I would like to do something to impact young people. I applied to and got a job as an Assistant English Teacher at a wonderful school in New York City for students with language based learning disabilities. It was a truly wonderful place to learn from master teachers and try my hand at helping to craft learning experiences for students. After my first year at the school I went for a dual masters degree in general and special education. During my second semester of classes, I was asked by the Dean of the program to teach the educational technology course (under the radar) as an adjunct. I happily accepted and it was for this class that I created the version of eduTecher. After two years as an HS English Assistant, I got a job working as a “head teacher” at another school for 3 years. It was there that I really started to learn what it was like to be a teacher. In 2007 my two passions collided as I found a job and got hired as a technology training specialist for a school district on Long Island. It was the best job. I worked with over 400 teachers throughout K-12 and helped them create lessons infused with technology, shared great tools for their students, and both modeled and assisted using technology as part of a lesson. I also worked on semester long projects with administrators and students. It was a wonderful job. Budgets were getting very tight and my role was changing in the school so I decided to find another job. I took a role as the Director of Educational Technology for the College Board Schools. This was a job where I got to work with 18 schools across the country and help them plan for and infuse technology successfully. It was a challenging role and led to the opportunity to take a role elsewhere in the company as a Senior Director of Educational Technology and AP Student Services. Basically I was asked to help students who chose to take an AP course have a successful experience. It was a new role for the company and was rife with challenges. I won’t go into details here, but I am glad I had the opportunity to leave and focus on eduClipper full-time.

2. You wrote EduTecher for years before starting EduClipper. When did you decide to build EduClipper?

eduTecher was always a passion project. But as you know, you and I are not the only ones curating the web for great resources. For years I had been posting content that I found and aggregated. But when I started in 2007/2008 it was a different world. It was hard(er) to build a site and share. In 2011 I saw the new crop of community curation tools beginning to gain popularity, like Pinterest, and asked some of my close edtech friends what they would want to see built that they felt was missing in “the space” and it was clear that a visual curation platform for teachers would be a hit. But what has made me so excited about working on eduClipper is to get students to collaborate with their teachers and for students from around the globe to collaborate together to curate, share, and post the best resources. They are sharing the things that they find on the web, but also the great and valuable content that they are creating both for school assignments and out of sheer passion and interest in learning.

3. What did you learn about ed tech while writing EduTecher that you applied to the design of EduClipper?

I think eduTecher taught me a lot of things that went into the design of eduClipper. For example, how to treat users. Perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned, which is applicable to edtech as well as many other fields - is to listen. People choosing to explore a site or platform need to know that there is a person listening to and respecting them. There are sites being built by people that think they have a good idea for educators or students and so they build something and throw it out there online hoping that it works. Sometimes it does, which is great. But a lot of these tools don’t really address pain points or build a tool that is of true value to the “customer”.

I spent a lot of time brainstorming with teachers and kids both virtually and face-to-face to talk about what they wanted and needed before even beginning to have the site coded. As for respecting the users, I personally answer all Emails in a timely fashion - even when I am super-busy - because I know what it is like to need that help right now. There are a lot things that I formed opinions around on how to position the tool as well. I am aim to be very respectful when I approach teachers and students. I don’t want to push something on people. It is a great platform and is getting better each day, but that doesn’t mean it is perfect and for me to be successful, it doesn’t mean I have to (nor have the right) to bash others who are working hard on their platforms. Being involved in an education company, my goal is simple - I want to make teaching and learning better. eduClipper aims to enhance the educational experience in and out of the classroom and I think that in order to do this, we must produce a tool of value rather than of distraction.

4. What makes EduClipper different from other social bookmarking services on the web? I’ve described EduClipper as “what teachers wish Pinterest could be” and “like Diigo with a visual element.” Are those appropriate descriptions?

I think both of those descriptions are accurate for part of what we offer now. The homepage does currently resemble the cascading content view that was made popular by Pinterest and does have a “save anything” idea that Diigo and Delicious before it popularized. I aim to keep the social aspect of Pinterest, but make the platform safe and compliant for schools and classrooms of students as young as 5 years old. People say it is the Edmodo version of Pinterest, which may be somewhat accurate as well. We are uniquely positioned in the education space as we are both open as a network of content, but allow educators to control how much of the social features their classes/schools have access to. One difference that will be emphasized by new features we will be rolling out throughout the next few months is our focus on self-curation. I think Pinterest and Diigo mainly grab content from around the web to share. eduClipper wants to support student and teacher created content as they build and share public learning portfolios of content.

5. It seems that every teacher has a story of being burned by a free service that either shuts down or starts charging for use. How is EduClipper funded? How do you plan to keep the service running for the long term?

Being a teacher and having both been burned by sites shutting down while my students were using them and also having to pony up money to get the needed or wanted features for certain sites, I can certainly understand user’s hesitancy to explore the options before digging into a new tool. Especially when it is one that asks you to give it your data. As someone who has experienced this personally I can say that what we have launched at eduClipper thus far (and many new features on their way) will be free. Period.

eduClipper is currently funded by two VC funds, Learn Capital, an investor in Edmodo amongst other big EdTech offerings as well as WTI which was a 1st round investor in Facebook. We are going to be looking to secure another round of funding to help us accomplish a number of our other goals and initiatives.

My personal goal is make eduClipper the best resource it can be for teachers and students. While we have plans to make a profit and sustain our free offering, we won’t be going after teachers and students to make money here. The service will launch new features and grow based on the needs and wants of the users. We are working on a robust dashboard that can aggregate and oversee the usage data of a school and feel that schools may want to implement and that may be at a school or site license. However, teachers will always have the tools they currently to to both set up, monitor, and moderate their students on a class level basis.

We are also exploring partner content relationships with several major educational publishers to see how adding their content to our site may prove to be both educationally and financially enriching for eduClipper.

And while my plans are large in scope for eduClipper - I don’t know the future and can only promise to respect and support the users of our site in any way possible. That is why we launched with a feature to Export My Stuff - where you can click a button and download the content that you posted to the site. Transparency is a big deal for me and I hope the users know that.

6. How much of the design and coding of EduClipper did you do? How much did you outsource? When did you realize you couldn’t do it all?

The first version of eduTecher was built by myself in iWeb. That was when the intended audience was 23 students. As the site grew, my brother-in-law took on more and more of the coding responsibilities and I did all the design and content. When we built the social platform for eduTecher in 2011, I did all the design work, but hired a team to code it. It was tough letting “my baby” go a little. I still did all the design and content for the site, but the code was no longer solely mine. I think there is a lesson in there - know what you don’t know and know when to ask for help.

eduClipper is a much more complicated animal than eduTecher. The MVP (minimum viable product) was mocked up by myself in Keynote and largely coded by an offshore firm in India. I would do some coding and bug fixes, but I was working full-time during this build and also was not proficient enough to do the heavy lifting. When I received funding to build the new eduClipper (which has been completely with different programming languages in addition to the new look and features) I knew I needed and yearned for a collaborative process between a team of developers here in New York City as well as a designer to help understanding user-flow and help create some custom iconography. As it turns out, I wound up doing a lot of the design work myself in the end because I am one of those detail oriented people who wanted it to look a certain way. For example, the emails and a lot of the site’s personality was designed by me. I love doing that work as it let’s me be creative and challenges me, but couldn’t do it all myself. But as I said before, I know what I don’t yet know. And eduClipper required a deep understanding of computer science and helping to build an elastic system that can support more than a million users, which we hope to accommodate by next year.

We are currently looking to expand our team, we need technical and non-technical people that are passionate about positively impacting education to join us and help make eduClipper even better as we take our next steps.

7. What advice can you give to a teacher reading this who has an idea for a new educational technology service/ application that they want to take public?

I think that teachers often times come up with wonderful ideas! After all, teachers are working in the classrooms every day and feeling the pain points of their peers and students. I think that edtech needs better and more genuine ideas to come from need and so I encourage educators to explore ways to build these out. My entrepreneurial side was born while working as a teacher so I know it can be both exciting and challenging to create and explore ideas that matter and can hopefully make things better for the classroom.

Rule number one - don’t do this for the money. I have thought long and hard about why I have found success (measured more in people finding value in my tools than monetary success) and the answer is motive. If you are solving a problem - do that. Try to figure out a way to make things better and not focus on becoming the next big thing. I think that this is helpful to get people started with creating valuable tools.

Rule number two - Work - Life - Balance. Read pretty much any article about people driven to create their own business and there is a common thread that is either explicitly called out as a lesson learned or a word of caution to the people that follow behind them. It is simply to ensure that you know the price you often pay. It’s true that nothing worth doing is without risk and it is seldom easy, but it is worth noting that one ought to prepare themselves (and their friends/loved ones) for fact that they will be working harder, longer, and more hours than they may be used to. I say this not to dissuade people off from doing it, but if you’re about to have a baby or have a lot of stress in other areas of your life it is worth considering before diving in too deep.

Rule number three - Reach out to someone who you trust to think it through and talk about next steps. That can be a close teacher friend who might benefit from the idea, students, or a person from an edtech company or tool you like or respect. You can ask them to sign an NDA if you are worried about them taking your idea and running with it - or can even ask if it is something they would want to develop with you as they might have more experience in that part of the space than you. There’s a lot to learn from people who have been there and done that. Know what you don’t know and when and who to ask for help.

Either way - never stop coming up with ideas to make education better - technology-based or not, that is what makes a valuable educator.