By Ainsley O'Connell (Director of Strategy & Partnerships, Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship)
I arrived at Startup Weekend EDU in Washington, D.C. ready to dive in and work on someone else’s idea. I ran into my friend, who said he was planning to pitch a couple of ideas and encouraged me to go for it, even if I hadn’t prepared anything. After all, why not? Surely I’d been mulling over an idea that had some promise?
I realized that I did have something, I had been thinking for a while about the shortcomings of our existing tools for communicating student data to parents. Complex assessment data increasingly guides educators’ work, effectively cutting even sophisticated, affluent parents out of the conversation about their child’s achievement.
We’ve made some strides in the right direction with school-level data. When I showed New York City’s Progress Report format to DC teachers, they were impressed. But for a parent, that kind of summative data at the school level isn’t actionable.
And as I said in my pitch, in the age of the infographic, I know that we can do better. My mission: making student data fun for families.
That message resonated with the #DCEDU audience. As we narrowed down the list of pitches to form 12 teams, I found myself joined by two developers, two teachers, and an e-learning specialist. We spent the next 48 hours creating a quick and easy way for teachers to generate kid-friendly, individualized infographics displaying local data for students and their families. This is the story of how we got there.
With the remaining time on Friday night, we talked through where we wanted to be at the end of the weekend. I had a solid sense of my vision, but only a vague sense of how exactly I wanted the product to work and what teachers and parents would value. The pitch was so new, I hadn’t had time to think through the particulars.
As the team raised idea after idea, I grew worried. We were entertaining dozens of tangents, almost all of them promising, but we needed to focus on a relatively narrow track in order to succeed. Around midnight, I summarized our action plan as best I could, everyone volunteered for a workstream, and we headed out. I didn’t fall asleep until after 2am, my mind was racing.
Saturday morning, I was anxious to stop talking and start building and doing customer development. Having completed Lean Startup Machine over the summer, I knew how easy it would be for us to talk ourselves in circles while the hours ticked by.
I felt impatient, but the morning was productive. We mapped out a clear teacher workflow and determined what our developers would need to build in order to demo the tool. We prioritized the tasks that we thought would pack the biggest punch, we knew that we could mock up the rest. We also agreed on a simple, linear infographic format appropriate for displaying a student’s level of mastery (e.g., racecars approaching a finish line, climbers approaching a mountain peak, princesses on their way to a ball). I felt we were generally on the same page about the product.
Choosing a name was more challenging. I considered this a placeholder, I wasn’t interested in finding the perfect solution, especially given our time constraints. We spent an hour going back and forth before coalescing around 4eyeson.me, an allusion to the idea of both teacher and parent having ownership of a student’s performance. No one was in love with the name, but we tabled the discussion and moved on.
That afternoon we started to build the platform’s essential functionality and design our example infographic. I had also hoped to begin customer development: sending out a teacher survey in order to validate our assumption that communicating student data to parents is a major pain point, and putting very rough wireframes in front of teachers in order to better understand their needs and preferences.
The full team reconvened mid-afternoon, I realized that I had been speaking a different language than the teachers on my team, who were unfamiliar with lean methodologies. Rather than draft a survey and cobble together sketched wireframes, they had spent the time writing a mission statement and working on related, more “academic” deliverables. It was a tense moment. They didn’t feel comfortable reaching out to the teachers in their network until we had a more polished MVP; I tried to explain the importance of doing customer development long before a polished product exists. In the end they agreed to do the survey with the time remaining before dinner.
At the same time, our business model was completely up in the air, as mentor after mentor made clear. We talked about a freemium model with either:
- A cap on the number of infographics a teacher could generate for free, or
- A limited variety of infographic templates available for free.
But we didn’t like the idea of charging teachers, and given that we could imagine developing custom versions of the platform for specific school / district data systems, it seemed problematic to structure our revenue model around individual teachers.
We turned to other options, wondering if we could append advertisements for educational products or other items of interest to families. For low-income families in particular, we liked the idea of making it easier to follow through on an action step recommended by a teacher, “buy more books to read with your child,” for example. Mentors cautioned us to avoid advertising content or formats that would be viewed as inappropriate in a school context, but were supportive of the team’s move in the sponsorship direction.
The hours flew by. The team members who worked on development and design stayed past midnight as we worked to ensure our demo would impress the judges.
Sunday was a blur. We had until 3 P.M. to finish the last of the product development, give our infographic a professional sheen and “wow” factor, gather teacher feedback on the MVP, analyze our survey results, put some back-of-the-envelope numbers against our business model, create our presentation, and pull all the pieces together. My heart was beating fast, fueled by sugar and caffeine. We barely had time for one run-through as a team.
I started to relax as the pitches kicked off. After a weekend of working with our heads down, focused on our own chosen problem, it was inspiring to see what the other teams had accomplished. When I took the microphone, I felt ready and excited to share 4eyeson.me.
I had presented for my team at Lean Startup Machine, but the idea for that weekend hadn’t been my own. I had simply had the most presentation experience. It felt so different, and so satisfying, to present a solution to a problem that I feel incredibly passionate about.
For the judges, that passion shone through: We were named one of four finalists! (You can check it out for yourself -- we’re around 1:10.)
All in all, Startup Weekend was an amazing and exhausting experience from start to finish. I’m so grateful for my kick-ass teammates and I can’t believe how far we came in just one weekend. This idea would still be a draft blog post in the back of my mind if it weren’t for their contributions and the contributions of our mentors.
We’re planning to keep 4eyeson.me alive and would love to hear from anyone interested in helping get it off the ground. Hope to have more good news to report here soon.
Editor's note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below. About the guest blogger: Ainsley O'Connell is Director of Strategy & Partnerships at Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship. She has worked in journalism, consulting, education policy, and nonprofit management. Read her thoughts on education, startups, and storytelling at Rock the Boat. TIME Magazine columnist Andrew Rotherham has called her an "up and comer" in the education world. She holds a B.A. from Williams College. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.