[quote style=”boxed”]I find that the best way to bring ideas to life is to inspire other really smart, driven people around you with a really good story about what the future should look like. No one has the capacity to do everything needed to get a startup off the ground, so your best chance of making it work is to leverage the emotional connections that people have with the problems or injustice they see in the world.[/quote]
Jason Lange is the CEO and co-founder of BloomBoard, a company dedicated to bettering the K-12 education space by providing a marketplace for personalizing educator development. BloomBoard uses the data collected from free observational and evaluation tools to create individualized learning plans and recommendations for teacher growth.
Where did the idea for BloomBoard come from?
I was working for NewSchools Venture Fund, a venture philanthropy organization that focused on education reform, while completing my joint Masters in Education/MBA program at Stanford. I wanted to better understand how education technology was going to revolutionize the K-12 education space and, as part of my work, I would spend hours each week interviewing educators about their biggest pain points and their experiences with technology.
In those conversations, almost every teacher, principal, and administrator I interviewed told me how painful teacher professional development was and how inefficient the system was at helping teachers grow. As I did a bit more research, it was clear that the greatest driver of student outcomes in the classroom was the quality of the teacher. It seemed odd that it was so hard for districts to train and scale high-quality instruction.
That’s really where the idea came from. If we want to ensure that future generations have the opportunities they deserve in this world, we have to figure out how to empower and support teacher growth as efficiently as possible. And that’s what we’re doing at BloomBoard.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
If I’m not on the road, I typically wake up around 7 a.m., when my 3-year old daughter jumps off my nightstand and lands on my chest. I’m in the office for back-to-back meetings starting around 8 a.m., wrapping up around 6:15 p.m. for a brisk walk back home to give my kids a bath and get them ready for bed. After that, I spend a few hours with my wife watching whatever show we’re binging on at the moment (thank you, “True Detective”). After my wife goes to bed, I plug back in from 10 p.m. until around 2:30 a.m. to answer emails and get more work done.
Fortunately, my early days as an incredibly unhappy investment banker showed me that I didn’t need a lot of sleep, so I actually don’t mind this schedule. I find that my biggest productivity tool is achieving (or at least trying to achieve) Inbox Zero, pioneered by David Allen in “Getting Things Done,” and using SaneBox to manage the seemingly infinite list of emails, tasks, and events that come in.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I find that the best way to bring ideas to life is to inspire other really smart, driven people around you with a really good story about what the future should look like. No one has the capacity to do everything needed to get a startup off the ground, so your best chance of making it work is to leverage the emotional connections that people have with the problems or injustice they see in the world.
Fortunately, in education, there are a lot of amazingly brilliant people who are willing to forego money and power for the chance to make a difference in the lives of others. I’m incredibly honored that so many of them have chosen to come work with us. Once you have those people on board, all you really need to do is get out of their way.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
Delighters excite me. The advent of the iPad created an unprecedented demand for easy-to-access information, and it also set a new bar for user experiences that are beautiful and seductive. Users no longer tolerate a subpar user experience when utilizing any sort of application. This has created a new sort of arms race for how to delight users as part of their normal engagement. Whether it’s “air swiping” at your phone to answer a call or being able to put a funny hat and mustache on the other caller in Google Hangouts, software developers are realizing that there are significant gains to providing simple moments of joy in an experience that otherwise has no reason to exist.
Software innovation is, unfortunately, still lagging in the education world. As users continue to demand the same types of experiences that they get from their consumer apps, it’s only a matter of time before the EdTech world realizes that continually trying to delight users is the only way to retain them.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I’m terrible at multitasking. While this is more the absence of a habit, I think my inability to really focus on more than one thing at a time is actually one of the reasons that I can get a lot of work done fairly quickly. I realized many years ago that when I try to do multiple things at once, I’m actually much less productive than when I simply work through one task completely.
My lack of ability to multitask is also the reason why I use my inbox as my to-do list and, really, as the source of truth for anything that goes on in my life. My wife finds it relatively annoying that my standard response when she asks me for anything is, “Can you email that to me?” The beauty of one’s inbox as the single source of truth is that it provides a really nice and (sometimes overly) linear view of everything going on. Add in the ability to flag, categorize, and set reminders based on priority, and you have the ideal assembly line for outputting work that needs to get done.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
In college, I painted houses and managed a small painting crew. It was hot, grueling, and mundane work. A few times a week, I would have to leave the site we were painting to go out and quote new job opportunities. I hadn’t really been trained on this task. In my first several quotes, I was so caught up in the calculations to ensure that I had the right amount of paint that I barely interacted with the homeowner. Needless to say, my hit rate was pretty abysmal.
About halfway through the summer, my boss gave me a simple rule of thumb about the number of gallons of paint for a house of a certain size, and he suggested that I just ask a lot of questions of the homeowner to better understand the project. To my surprise, the response was phenomenal. It became clear that the more I could get someone to share information about his home, the more I could develop a level of rapport that would allow him to trust a 19-year-old to not make it look terrible.
In startups, you’re always working beyond your comfort zone. Learning to ask questions and develop relationships quickly is critical to earning the requisite trust that a customer needs to even consider spending money with you.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
I would curate relationships with investors more deliberately and purposefully. I had no idea that fundraising could be such a drawn-out process — especially in the K-12 education space — which was probably a bit naïve of me.
I think once you accept fundraising as an omnipresent, relatively painful part of the startup process, you can actually approach it with a fairly strategic perspective, like any other challenge. In an industry where investor education tends to be higher than normal, it’s critical to create, maintain, and cultivate relationships with investors throughout the entire company development process.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Ask for feedback on your product, management style, culture, collateral, and whatever else you can get feedback on. I find it can often be hard to get a “true” representation of the world from relatively informal requests for feedback. If I’m your boss and I never ask you how I’m doing, then the one time I do ask, you’re probably not going to be that candid with me. By asking for repeated feedback, people become much more willing and able to give you the information needed to grow a company quickly.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Using state-mandated compliance can be a significant driver for growth. In the education world, most of the incentives in the system are not outcome-based. The unfortunate reality in most schools is that administrators have to spend the majority of their time meeting compliance needs to ensure that the district gets paid and doesn’t get sued.
In our case, we provide free compliance tools to states and districts with the knowledge that 42 states have passed legislation requiring the use of a product like ours. This strategy has dramatically changed our sales cycles because it’s already known when a district is going to make a purchasing decision based on when its state mandates go into effect. Once we’re installed within a school or district, we can use the data we collect to help make more empowering purchasing decisions through our professional development marketplace.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I think the very first product we released to the market in 2011, under the name FormativeLearning, was a pretty big failure. To be clear, the product did what it needed to do in terms of validating our market while giving us time to rebuild the entire platform on our own codebase (as it had been previously outsourced), but I think we missed out on a lot of learning about how best to automate the workflow that was most cumbersome to our users. We spent a lot of time and money for little gain.
To overcome this, we brought in a brilliant user experience consultant, Stephen Anderson, who now works as our Chief UX Officer. We also hired a few amazing engineers who were able to rebuild our codebase in a matter of months with a user interface that people gravitated toward quickly. In the early days after our first release, the most common adjective people used to describe our observation system was “sexy.”
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I think there’s an interesting opportunity in the parental support space. It became very clear to us after our first child was born that we were simply not prepared for everything to come. As a parent, you don’t really know what you’re doing, so you just make it up as you go along and hope for the best (Ellie and Charlie, if you ever read this, please disregard that last statement).
In our own parenting, we rely on anecdotal advice from our family and friends, myriad parenting books, and my faithful go-to, “Super Nanny.” Parents are some of the most well-intentioned stakeholders on the planet. If technology can help support people in managing the complexities of their finances, then I hope it can do the same in supporting the rearing of our kids.
Tell us something about you that very few people know?
I have a strong love for animated movies and cartoons in general. It actually makes me really happy that my kids are now nearly the age where I can use them as an excuse to see these movies in the theaters and watch Saturday morning cartoons again.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
SaneBox: This is a simple email reminder software. I love that I can bcc a time period on any email that I send, and SaneBox will send me a copy of that email when the interval expires if the person hasn’t responded yet.
TINYpulse: This lightweight company culture check application gives our employees an anonymous way to share thoughts, feedback, and kudos on our work and where we’re going.
15Five: This simple weekly employee review tool is a great forcing function for people to talk about the important and less logistical aspects of what they’re working on during the week.
Fitbit Leaderboard: We have a “Million Step Challenge” in our office to see how many people can reach 1 million steps in 100 days. We have a Tour de France-style leader jersey (which only one person has actually had the privilege of wearing); it’s amazing to see what a simple daily pedometer reminder can do for pushing people to be more active.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
“Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver” is probably my favorite book about the influence a single person can have on the lives of millions. Sargent Shriver, the founder of the Peace Corps, Head Start, and the Special Olympics, was an incredibly impressive, yet relatively unknown, figure. He made an indelible improvement on the lives of millions of kids and families, without the need for personal accolades or recognition.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
Tom Vander Ark: One of our VCs and board members, he knows almost everything about online learning.
First Round Review: This is a great entrepreneur-focused blog.
Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.