GOING BACK TO (ELEMENTARY) SCHOOL
Kakkar first learned of the state of learning in U.S. public schools by listening to his teacher friends lament about how all of the kids in their classrooms — often as many as 30 in each class — were at different levels. “In a classroom of 30 kids, not all of them are in the same place,” Kakkar says. “And so how does one teacher reach all of the kids? To me, that sounded like a problem a computer program could fix.”
Almost a year after Kakkar graduated with his MBA — and after the launch of another failed vocabulary app — he spent a little more than a month in Gwynns Falls Elementary School in Baltimore testing out a math app. Starting in a friend of a friend’s classroom, Kakkar began testing a way to automate math problems to each student’s specific level. Kakkar soon experienced first-hand what his teacher friends had told him. According to Kakkar, it’s “very likely” about a third of fifth grade students in a classroom are at least “two or three grade levels” behind.
“That teacher is going to have so much trouble getting those students up to speed,” says Kakkar. “Because, one, they are behind. Two, they are behind in a lot of different ways. And three, she has students that aren’t as behind and are going to be easier to get to grade level. Those kids are probably going to get ignored.”
As those kids get ignored, Kakkar explains, they just start shooting for D’s on tests. And then?
“You start to be the person who walks around saying, ‘I’m not a math person,'” he explains. “Or worse, saying, I’m not a smart person. That’s an awful thing to happen to someone.”
FROM A BALTIMORE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL TO A SILICON VALLEY ACCELERATOR
So Kakkar spent April of 2013 going into Gwynns Falls and installing the latest version of his software onto the school’s iPads. Then he pushed the iPad cart from classroom to classroom and had the students test out the app. “I got to hang out with the teachers. I got to work with these kids and help them learn. I got to see what they think, what they like, what they don’t like, what resonates with them,” Kakkar says. “And then I got to go home and hack together a bunch of more stuff.”
Each night, Kakkar went home and tweaked the app. Now, almost four years later, he says a lot of the key pieces still used on Front Row’s math app were born in that Baltimore elementary school.
Sensing they were onto something, Kakkar and Kurilin were accepted into the Imagine K12 incubator in San Francisco’s Bay Area. Now part of the Y-Combinator Ed Tech program, Imagine K12 gave the two a little funding and a space to further test their software. They were also able to hire a former teacher to help with the content. “He was looking for his next adventure,” Kakkar says of the teacher, their first official employee. He pauses. “And he agreed to work for almost no money,” he adds.
TRANSITIONING FROM AN ‘EXPENSIVE HOBBY’ TO AN ACTUAL BUSINESS
With the math software in place, they sent the math app to about 100 teachers, mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area along with a few in Wisconsin and New Jersey. And it exploded. “You could actually see these random splotches in the country where it was spreading,” Kakkar says.
“I think the mistake people sometimes make is thinking of teachers as different from any other kind of professional,” Kakkar continues. “Teachers are no different from programmers or designers.” For example, when designers or programmers find a tool that makes their jobs easier, Kakkar explains, they get excited about the tool and share it with all of their programmer and designer friends. “That’s exactly the Front Row story,” Kakkar says. “We got in front of a few teachers and they really liked it. So they told a bunch of other teachers about it, who told a bunch of other teachers about it.”
The early popularity led to a $1.3 million Seed round in early 2014. But the team stayed small because they weren’t actually selling anything. The trio was continuing to perfect the free app before unveiling a paid version. So they didn’t hire a fourth team member until the middle of 2014.
“As another education tech entrepreneur once put it, when you give software away to a lot of people for free, that is just a really expensive hobby,” Kakkar laughs. “So all we had at that point was a really expensive hobby. And you don’t pour gas on the fire at that point.”
PRODUCT ROLLOUT, REVENUE STREAM IN
In March of 2015, Front Row hired its fifth employee and then raised a much more substantial $5.3 million Series A round in May of the same year. That was also when they rolled out their paid product and started seeing some revenue. Since, Front Row has taken off. They have introduced a language arts app and Kakkar says in the next few months they will be rolling out a social studies app. In a few months, they’ll also be moving their 35 employees to a new office space in San Francisco. “We’ve spent very little of our Series A money. And that means we can really increase the team size,” Kakkar explains.
Still, the growth hasn’t come without some pains. For instance, the team went at least two years without selling anything. “That’s a really scary thing, because until you start selling something, you don’t know if this is a business or just a way to burn money,” Kakkar says, noting they are still set more on growing the products more than profitability. So until then, this was just an efficient vehicle for burning money.”
Kakkar says they tried at least 10 different pricing schemes to meet wide-ranging school district and state budgets that would largely be paying for the product. Pricing models varied from fixed prices for an entire school to variable priced components of the product to tier pricing to bundled pricing to hybrids of almost all of those models. “We’ve tried so many things,” he concedes.
‘EXPERIMENT AS MUCH AS YOU CAN’
While the free product is available for all teachers, the paid product seems to be pricey. Teachers may schedule meetings with Front Row Education for quotes. Kakkar says a “general ballpark” figure is a few hundred dollars for the math application — though a quick Internet search reveals some teachers using crowdfunding to raise thousands of dollars for the program. Still, Kakkar maintains, the free app remains a focus and is what drives the paid product.
As for the lesson for current and future business students, Kakkar says to keep trying and expect failure.
“Try stuff in business school. Experiment as much as you can. Try building things,” he advises. “Maybe it will become the thing you build. But there is a really good chance it won’t. The experimentation is what taught me the most.”
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