ClassOwl graduated from the first class of Pearson’s Catalyst accelerator in early 2014. Since the Pearson Catalyst team was one of RocketSpace Corporate Services' first members, we were well placed to watch as their shared success blossomed.
Coincidentally, their story illustrates perfectly one of the ways startups and corporates can work together for mutual benefit. Read on for an interview with Julienne Lam, co-founder of ClassOwl, about their story so far, their time in the Pearson Catalyst accelerator, and their experience at RocketSpace.
John Pryor: Julienne, how did the idea for ClassOwl start?
Julienne Lam: We started ClassOwl during our sophomore year at Stanford University. It was built basically out of our frustration as students. We were constantly disorganized and there was no good system available to help us stay more organized, focused, and connected to our classmates and instructors. The communication systems we used were outdated and actually made communication more difficult... so we thought about what we wished we had as students, and ClassOwl was born.
JP: How did StartX (the Stanford University accelerator) help you develop your idea and turn it into a fully fledged product?
JL: When we built our first version of the product we marketed through our friends on Facebook and other students that we knew. Before we knew it, we had a couple thousand students using ClassOwl so we knew that there was demand for what we had made. At this point we decided to apply to StartX, the Stanford University Accelerator. We spent the summer of 2011 at StartX, whose staff introduced us to mentors (including Jason Shellen, who still advises ClassOwl), legal, and other support services. Every Thursday we would get together with other founders at StartX and share war stories. By the end of the summer we had a much more robust product.
JP: How did you hear about the Pearson Catalyst accelerator, and why did you think it would be a good idea to work with a corporate accelerator?
JL: When we left StartX our understanding of what ClassOwl could do was still limited to Stanford University and our friends at other universities. When we finished at Stanford, Pearson reached out and said that they were interested in potentially partnering and integrating ClassOwl as the first company in their newly launched Catalyst Program. As the world’s largest education company, Pearson has huge distribution power and could potentially get ClassOwl in front of a lot of students.
JP: How is Catalyst structured from a programming perspective?
JL: The Catalyst Program offers participating startups grants and additional resources (typically in the range of $10,000). Startups are invited into the program by a sponsor within the organization, and then work with that sponsor to find a business challenge within Pearson that can be solved using their technology. The goal is for this relationship to eventually become a commercial arrangement, but Pearson helps you a lot with resources and connections with key players in the education space along the way.
JP: What is the most valuable thing that you learned from participating in the Pearson Catalyst Accelerator?
JL: Pearson really helped us learn a lot about emerging trends in education and user behavior. Pearson has a lot of touch points and a huge amount of data from which to draw insights. Participating in Catalyst gave us a really clear understanding of our product capabilities, who the major players are (our prospective customers, investors and exit partners) and we also learned a lot about working with large corporations. Pearson is looking at startups more than other education companies. They have their fingers on the startup pulse and are constantly scouting the startup landscape.
JP: So, what happened when you graduated from Catalyst. Did Pearson continue to support you and did you actually form any partnerships in the end?
JL: Yes! We formed a commercial partnership with their “OpenClass” product, and we’re actually working with other internal teams right now with more potential partnerships hopefully coming soon. The Catalyst program team is based at RocketSpace so Pearson also helped us with desk space both during the program and after we graduated.
JP: Can you talk a little bit about your time on the RocketSpace campus?
JL: Working at RocketSpace was the first time we ever worked out of a startup coworking space that wasn’t associated with a college. Being surrounded by tech companies from different industries, backgrounds, and at different stages was hugely advantageous. The proximity to other ecosystem players like corporates, governments, incubators and VCs helped us a lot. The real advantage that RocketSpace has is the community - the people we work with every day make their own connections, interests and opinions so accessible. The exposure to diversity of other people and industries was fantastic. We made the most of it, managing to get mentorship from some of the members at RocketSpace. We found the community events were a great way to meet people and form deeper relationships.
JP: Thanks Julienne, for the kind words. Last question, what advice do you have for other startups considering a corporate accelerator or other corporate partnerships?
JL: As a startup, it is really important to know exactly what you want out of the relationship. A startup and a corporate might want to work together but there may not be a direct need for the partnership. Sometimes this can backfire and corporates can spend a lot of time growing partnerships that aren’t really needed. I would also say that a startup should only agree to partnerships once the expectations and objectives are clearly stated. Honest partnerships mean things can happen much more quickly.
JP: Thanks Julienne, is there anything else you would like to share?
JL: While we originally started ClassOwl to help students, we realized that the real influencers and drivers of our product were teachers. In our early pilots, we found that the teacher implementation of our product led to fantastic results for our students, including improved performance and communication, better grades, less stress, and fewer late assignments! We’re now looking for teachers interested in trying out our product at www.classowl.com or on the iOS app store. You can get a free account with the registration code: ROCKETSPACE. We’re looking for feedback and hoping to improve the product even more before we launch publicly this fall.
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