Category: lifehack

My road to entrepreneurship, #edtech and eHighlighter

I started my first business, AllCollegeStorage, six years ago when I was a Freshman at Amherst College. In 2012, AllCollegeStorage provided summer storage and shipping to 14 colleges and boarding schools throughout the East Coast. While the business is going great, it is highly seasonal around the beginning and end of the school year, which has always allowed me to have additional bandwidth. At the beginning of my Junior year of College, I also started a sister company, AllCollegeLaundry, and joined the two together under the parent company All College, Inc. Facing graduation in May 2011, I had to decide if I was going to stick with the entrepreneurial route, or head off to banking or consulting like many of my peers. As you can tell, I chose the former.

Even though All College grew 150% last year (my first at it full time – without the distractions of schoolwork, college life, or varsity lacrosse), I had some new found time to think, look, and yes, start another venture.

While All College is my baby, and I am passionate about the entrepreneurial path in almost any direction, logistics itself is not something I am particularly passionate about. As any one who knows me can tell you, I am passionate about technology, and perhaps mobile devices specifically.

Where it all started – tech snob since age 7

I put all of the blame for being a tech snob on my father (in the best way possible). When I was a child, he was always getting the latest PDA. I would play with it when it was new, and then inherit it myself when he moved on to a newer model. Anyone remember 1994’s Motorola Envoy? That was my first PDA (I was 7). When the Palm Pilot v1.1 came out, I became the owner of v1.0, and was bringing it to class in the 4th grade. That evolution continued with the first wireless Palm Pilot (7th grade), the iPAQs (high school), and finally reached a great culmination with the iPad my senior year of college.

I think it was those first PDAs, and my application of them in the classroom, that cemented my passion for what we call #edtech. My stance on technology is that anything that can be outsourced to technology absolutely should be outsourced to technology. Here’s my favorite illustrating example. Some people say that they do not like a GPS because it makes them worse at getting around when they do not have one. My response – do you feel the same way about a map? The wheel surely makes us worse at carrying heavy stuff when we don’t have one, but I think we can all agree on the beneficial merits of the wheel use.

I’ll admit, I get a lot of eye rolls to that spiel. Is using a wheelbarrow really the same thing as an iPhone in the classroom? Should tech be in the classroom at all? My take is that there is NOTHING new about technology in the classroom. Technology in learning is as old as pedagogy itself…chalk, the printing press, the written word and even language itself are examples of technology.

Our primary biological advantage as humans is our ability to innovate – to assemble all the patterns, categories, and resources at our disposal in novel ways. Outsourcing tasks away from our “meat brains” to technology (like Evernote is trying to do with memory), it allows us to reduce our cognitive load. This freedom then allows us to do what technology cannot – come up with new ideas, to see the world in a way no one else has, to write a paper that has never been written before.

In the immediate future, every student will have a smartphone in their pocket, and with them at all times. We just need the mobile apps to support these students in productive ways. (For further information on this topic check out Project Information Literacy’s study “How College Students Manage Technology“)

Which brings me to the topic of my new startup, Research Habits Digital. While I believe mobile applications in the classroom has (and will have) nearly ubiquitous application, we have to start somewhere. Our current focus is on optimizing the discovery, research, and collaboration process. Clearly tools like Kindle, iPad, and JSTOR are resources that have laid the foundation for this digital revolution. This adoption of complete digitalization is perhaps a precursor to a next level of collaboration tools. While some, like McGraw-Hill’s Brian Kibby believe there is imminent “total transition from a reliance on print textbooks to a full embrace of digital content and learning systems”, we don’t see it that way. The fact is the majority of academic research is still done on paper. This delay stems from two factors – supply and demand.

Supply side – only 11% of books have been scanned to date, and copyright concerns are stalling complete digitalization. And its not just books that will need to be digitized. For example, of the 55 million objects in circulation in the the New York Public Library (the largest circulating collection in the world), only 20 million of them are books. Furthermore, every academic institution in the world has a multitude of paper sources that will take decades to obsolesce.

Demand side – in a recent survey I conducted of 3,962 higher ed students across 180 colleges, a whopping 77% said they preferred studying from paper (19% computer, 3.5% tablet). This was not an access issue – if you cross section the 500 respondents who own iPads, 71% still prefer reading from paper. While preference does not always match practice, respondents said that 65% of their reading actually occurs from a paper source. What did they like about paper? It was less distracting, easier to read, and easier to highlight. What did respondents like about computer? Search-ability and note taking ability.

Launched August 2012

Joining these two worlds in the goal of our first product eHighlighter. Our motto “eBooks benefits. Paper sources.” means students can read from the available and preferred paper media, while getting the digital benefits they desire like search-ability, easy annotations, citation management, and collaboration. The App uses your iPhones camera to allow readers to highlight, annotate, and share their notes.

eHighlighter launched on the App Store at the end of August. We quickly reached 10,000 users and have a 4.5 star rating on the store. And while the app is fully functional, it is our MVP, and I might even go so far as to say it is a public beta. The product is currently free for download and unlimited use. We are now working hard on our first feature release, which will include the most called for features and some UI refinements.

We certainly have a multitude of directions that we could go with this product, and a backlog of feature requests, including calls for an Android edition. We hope to continue to release additional features and products as we move forward, but for the immediate future, we are a bootstrapped company, with a single developer. Of course if the right investor came along, we might be able to ramp up development, but my top focus now is keeping a unified and streamlined vision for product development.

Validating startup ideas are all about reducing risks. We believe our v1.0 has eliminated the risk “will people use and value this product”. Our biggest question moving forward is “will our target customer pay for this product”, and following from that “do we have the right target customer”? Finally, we working with the reality that while there is boom in edtech investment, is there really a boom in edtech revenue? After all, higher ed students are not exactly flush with disposable income. Accordingly, we are evaluating multiple avenues for monetization. We truly believe that our product, and the multitude of highlights and source information that it generates, can translate to some valuable analytical information for students, educators, and publishers alike.