Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Laura Bresko, an edtech entrepreneur for the past 25 years. I’ve had several successful companies during that time. My partner and I sold/exited our last edtech company in late 2017.
We currently develop and market TeacherMade.com. It’s a SaaS platform for Teachers and schools to use when students need to practice what they’ve learned. Since most of those practice activities were once done with paper and pencil, TeacherMade helps educators turn their materials into digital interactives.
Students prefer to do their homework, classroom handouts, practice, etc. on TeacherMade because they get instant feedback on how well they scored. Educators love it because the app auto-grades student work and makes giving timely feedback to students a reality. Though we are still in the early days, TeacherMade is a fast-growing addition to the classroom.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I’ve been an entrepreneur in the educational technology space since 1993. At the time, I worked for a government research facility on large-scale software development projects for sensitive areas of the US Government. I had started working there as a graduate assistant in 1986 and just stayed on because I was learning so much. I primarily did the business modeling, wrote the user manuals, and delivered the training within the branches of government we were working for.
What I also learned during my tenure was how government contracting worked. So eventually I started my own consulting company and ran a couple of employment contracts through it, including the one for my job. The extra 25% tacked onto contracts for overhead costs gave me the seed money to start my first ed tech project.
After my company had a prototype built, I was able to get angel investors. And then eventually, the innovative nature of the product was noticed by a big fish, who swallowed up the company in 1996. Creatively funding the seed stage of the business was key to getting the company off the ground. Start-up money is the biggest barrier for many would-be entrepreneurs, but sometimes creative thinking pays off. For me, the answer lay in my place of employment. Don’t quit your day job-- just form a corporation and run your employment contract through it back to your employer!
The company wasn’t a financial success, though. It was too early. But it was pretty cool and attracted a lot of attention. Because of it, I met all kinds of people and learned so much about product development. I even met my partner, and that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t started the company. Sometimes risks are rewarded in ways that are more valuable than money.
My partner and I went on to develop a new company and products together, releasing them in the year 2000, while the dotcom boom was about to bust. We were completely self-funded through contracting work. By Labor Day of 2001, right as the dotcom bubble was imploding, we did a 7 figure deal structured as an asset acquisition to minimize the purchaser’s perceived liabilities during that difficult time.
In 2004, when we were done with all the terms of the earlier deal, we reinvigorated our corporation and released a new product into schools that grew from $0 in revenue to over $3 million annually. We sold the entire corporation in late 2017 to a private equity group. Since we had a restrictive non-compete in place, I decided to go into the classroom for a while.
I came up with TeacherMade while co-teaching in a 4th-grade classroom in the 2018-2019 school year. I wanted to return to teaching to experience firsthand how technology was being used for instruction daily.
What I discovered was that technology was being used mostly as a self-directed activity to undertake once a student had completed the work that the entire class was doing. For example, if a student finished their worksheet early, they were told to get a computer and work in one app or another. Technology was rarely employed as a teaching tool, but more as a reward. It was 2019 and I couldn’t believe it! Throughout the school, the real learning was still happening on paper!
Having been in the edtech space since its early days in the 1990s, and being a big proponent of data-driven instruction, I saw that Teachers were still, for the most part, manually identifying areas for student remediation, there was little enrichment going on, and personalized learning wasn’t really happening. Teachers needed better tools that they could use to support their lesson plans, cut down on manual grading, and provide feedback more expeditiously.
There were two main reasons for what was happening in the classroom with technology. 1) there wasn’t a 1:1 computer-to-student ratio, and 2) Teachers had their lesson plans, activities, handouts, homework, etc. on paper!!
I didn’t return to the classroom in the 2019-2020 school year. (That’s because those sweet little kiddos got me sick so many times that I just couldn’t do it, as much as I loved being there.) Instead, my partner and I started exploring my concept and doing the market research necessary to determine its merits.
We looked at all the classroom SaaS products we could find. Though we found no direct competitors, there were adjacent products that did some of what we planned on doing. We took a deep dive into these platforms/companies, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of each product.
What we discovered through our research was that there was indeed a need for a product to address the deliberate practice that students engage in to learn the skills and objectives the Teacher was instructing on in the classroom.
There was an extremely popular and expensive product for making interactive lessons. There were many for taking assessments or concentrating on math or reading lessons independently. There were educational games that were also quite popular, but classroom practice and activities that sit at the core of student learning were still relegated to paper handouts. The biggest competitor in our space was… Google?!?%*? Yikes.
Success begins and ENDS with you. If you're not an expert at every facet of your business or have co-founders who are, the only recipe for success left to you is “luck.”
Building a better mousetrap than Google? Hmmm. It certainly gave us pause. We knew we could address the shortcomings that caused Teachers' daily heartache, but were market conditions favorable for a new entrant in the crowded edtech space?? As we were mulling over data about ed tech usage in the classroom, projections about educational computing, etc. COVID hit. All our reticence went out the window because we knew that remote learning would expose the shortcoming in the Google suite almost instantly. All Teachers were being forced to teach using technology, so usage was going up. And though it didn’t exist yet, Teachers were going to be searching for a product like ours.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
By the end of March 2020, school closings were happening everywhere. Teachers needed our product now. Google searches for “interactive PDFs,” “editable PDFs,” “online or digital worksheets,” went through the roof but there was no good solution out there.
Teachers were posting YouTube videos about how to use Adobe or Google Slides to try and roll their own. And, of course, Teachers who’d never used technology much before were now treading water in the deep end of the pool and sinking.
So traditional software design approaches and a long development cycle weren’t an option. My partner would build a module and I would give feedback. In this iterative fashion, we arrived at beta in late July and early August of 2020. We ran a structured beta test with 15 teachers of varying grade levels and subjects.
Though basic in functionality, we discovered that the app would meet the immediate, critical needs of classroom teachers everywhere. He polished it up based on the testers' feedback with the help of another developer (our first hire), while I taught myself how to build a website. We launched on September 8, 2020. (Learning how to optimize our website for search engines would take me a little longer.)
Describe the process of launching the business.
We reached out to an influencer who agreed to help with our launch. As a classroom teacher who promoted edtech, he had a mailing list of about 40,000, a similar number of YouTube subscribers, and a heavily backlinked blog. And he believed in what we were doing!! It was the right choice and we watched the number of users grow from 10 to 100 to 1000 in the first week.
Be very careful when choosing your words. Seek lots of input from your team. Never do any customer-facing communications in haste. Make sure your customer success managers know how to write in the company’s voice-- not their personal style.
We continued using influencers, spending money on Facebook ads (because it’s a popular place for teacher groups), and running Google Adwords campaigns. And, of course, we emailed our user list periodically.
By Christmas, we had over 100,000 users and the news was traveling fast! Teachers were posting their own YouTubes of how to use TeacherMade, talking it up in Facebook groups, and though we were building the plane as we were flying it, teachers were hopping on board as soon as they heard about it. We were doing our part to support education during the biggest switch to technology-centered learning that had ever occurred.
For the entire school year, the product was free. Because we were responding to the crisis of remote learning created by the pandemic, we felt that free was the way to go as the product matured and hopefully the pandemic came under control. We offered an “Open House” to all users of our PRO version, which officially launched as a paid product on July 1, 2021, for the 2021-2022 school year. Using a freemium model is de rigeur nowadays for SaaS platforms, but it’s especially risky in the ed tech space. Teachers are very reluctant to pay for software. Though we’re in our second year, it’s really our first in terms of revenue.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We’re in a unique, highly specialized marketplace. The usual marketing techniques don’t work well. Teachers are very cautious social media users. Because of ransomware and privacy laws, emailing school districts has a low delivery rate. It’s taken us a year to develop a multi-pronged prospecting approach that consistently reaches our audience.
If you have a marketing budget and a product that people want, the usual ways of attracting customers work well in the short term: Facebook Ads, Google Adwords, PRNewswire releases, influencer campaigns, etc. But in the relentless immediacy of our daily digital marketing world, don’t forget the long game. SEO. It’s the best bang for your buck. At the beginning of Year 2, SEO is the biggest driver of traffic to our site. It took four months for Google to start elevating our website content for certain keyword searches. Now our authority grows every minute, as long as we keep writing and posting relevant content that engages our users.
Learn how to write your own content for your site and then do so every week, at a minimum. (As an English Teacher, please don’t tell me you’re not a good writer. You are; you just haven’t practiced enough.) You may not get to the point of knowing how to generate backlinks like a pro, but you’ll be able to recognize those who can so you won’t waste money when hiring a pro from UpWork or Fiverr to help you out. I can’t stress enough how important it is for founders to understand and win at SEO. Ignore it at your own peril. Outsource SEO work before you understand it and you’ll get taken advantage of while wasting very precious time. I know this now.
How do you learn SEO? I watched YouTube videos from Backlinko (my fave), neilpatel.com, and many others. At first, what I was watching barely made sense. As I learned, I was able to digest more and more until I could actually ask intelligent questions and understand the answers. Only then did our efforts become focused and efficient.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Teachers are back in the classroom, which is very different from Year 1. COVID school closures are mostly over so that’s not the driver anymore. Because we developed a foundation of users and focused on SEO, we are building a solid business and should be profitable in 2022. And we keep investing in our product development and marketing. SaaS is a never-ending pot of soup that’s always simmering; it needs constant stirring and new ingredients added all the time. You must pay close attention to your users’ voices and trends within your marketplace to continuously serve up a product that people want to consume.
Because we’ve only been charging money for subscriptions for 4+ months (no one is in school in July!), we don’t yet know key performance indicators like gross margins, cost of goods sold, customer acquisition costs, etc. Let’s just say that SaaS is very expensive and relentless.
There’s this simplistic idea out there that you build it once and charge for it forever. That’s simply not true. As user counts rise, all of your costs rise and new features must be built. Even when you reach some sort of stasis, you have to work to stay in front with increased advertising budgets and more SEO pushes.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Developing a friendly, empathetic voice for all customer interactions has been essential to our growth. It’s not enough to have a good product anymore! Your customers need to like and trust you if they’re going to be the kind of brand ambassadors and evangelists you’re hoping for.
Be very careful with choosing your words. Seek lots of input from your team. Never do any customer-facing communications in haste. Make sure your customer success managers know how to write in the company’s voice-- not their personal style.
And understand that the math for customer acquisition is not always upward sloping. Falter on any step of your recipe for success and watch your numbers plummet!!
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Our marketing website is built in WordPress/Elementor. Our app runs on AWS. We use ActiveCampaignfor email communications to our account holders. We use Salesforce as a CRM and Quickbooks Online for B2B billing. Stripe is our B2C portal.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
To quote a line from Hamlet, "to thine own self be true." Don't start a retail business if you're an introvert! Don't pick a market or product solely because you want to make a quick buck but your heart isn't in it. Know who you are and be hyper-analytical of your strengths and weaknesses. Then find the people who complete you. Solitary success is a romantic notion that has no real basis in reality. You need other people.
And never outsource critical business functions like sales and marketing. Not at the beginning! You must completely understand a process and know what works before you can let others execute on it for your company. Success begins and ENDS with you. If you're not an expert at every facet of your business or have co-founders who are, the only recipe for success left to you is “luck.” Do you want to bet your start-up bucks on luck? I surely don’t.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always hiring full-stack web developers who know Python/Django, React.
Where can we go to learn more?
TeacherMade.com is the most comprehensive place to learn more about us. All our social media addresses are listed on our site.
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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