This is the third of my ongoing Teacherpreneur Spotlight series on innovative educators who take initiative to experiment with new teaching practices and tech tools. This week we take a look at Adam Bellow, a former educator in New York who founded his own startup, eduClipper.
“I never thought I would be a teacher”
Adam Bellow decided early on in life that he wasn’t going to be a teacher, even though both his parents were respected educators. As a self-proclaimed ‘nerd,’ Adam started programming BASIC when he was 7 years old on an Apple IIe.
But life plans aren’t set in stone. After completing film school with a minor in sociology in 2003 he was an assistant teacher at The Churchill School (a school in Manhattan for students with language-based learning disabilities). In 2005, Adam took over teaching a class, “Technology in the Special Ed Classroom,” to 22 eager graduate students at Hunter College. Over the next couple of years, he started to piece together a “terrible catalogue of sites using iWeb,” in his words, and in 2007 the first version of eduTecher was born. “I thought of it simply as a place to organize resources for my class,” Bellow remembers, “and then when I eventually saw hits coming in from Australia and China I realized was meeting a need for a larger community.” His entrepreneurial spirit began to blossom.
The countless positive testimonials motivated Bellow to continue eduTecher as a side project while he worked full time with a series of teaching jobs, technology training positions, and as Director of Technology for the College Board Schools. In 2009 Bellow launched one of the first edtech iPhone apps, eduTecher Backpack, and the momentum continued. “I was curating the web for educators and it was cool to see the community organically grow.”
In 2011 he added a custom social network component and began spending more and more time building in new features. “I thought about what it would mean to work on this full time. I put out a survey to my edtech friends to get their input on what aspects of eduTecher I should rebuild and possibly even build a business around.”
The feedback was overwhelming and he learned that what educators valued most was the simple, visual curation element that eduTecher had offered. Around this time, Pinterest was gaining popularity, which led him to think about how he could optimize the “clipboard” experience specifically for educators.
Bellow built initial mockups for the rechristened eduClipper in Keynote and in early 2012 outsourced the project to developers in India through Elance. He convinced his wife to let them put some money into this project, and worked night owl hours to test out his idea. “It was rough...On a typical day, I’d wake up around 3 am to work on my startup until 5 am, before I left for a full day of work. Then once I’d tucked the kids in at night I’d jump back online. I was sleeping around 3 hours a night and it was not sustainable.”
However, all that hustling paid off by June 2012. He had hoped that the first iteration of the site, intended to be a proof of concept, would attract 200 users. Instead, he got 20,000 a month. He realized he was onto something and decided to pursue the project full time.
He was blown away. “The number of accounts created and positive buzz around the potential was a clear indication that I had to explore the possibilities. I made the transition from educator to entrepreneur. However I had no knowledge of startups beyond watching The Social Network and religiously reading TechCrunch and other related blogs.” Connecting with the growing edtech community was a significant driver in his success and after a serendipitous encounter with Jeff O’Hara, co-founder of Edmodo, during a trip to Chicago, Bellow was more motivated than ever to build his own product and company.
Bellow is currently gearing up for a major re-launch of eduClipper, slated for June 2013, and expand his user base beyond the 25,000 that he currently supports. At last count, there were 16,000 on the waitlist.
Show Me the Money
Balancing his schedule between teaching and product development was grueling. But for Bellow, nothing prepared him for the plunge into the fundraising world in the New York venture capital scene. “At first it felt like a waste of time,” says Bellow, who felt awkward revealing that he didn’t have all the answers. Over time, he became more comfortable going to investors for advice after having met many who supported his vision for change. And he realized, “who wants you to succeed more than your investors?”
Bellow is getting ready to close his seed round which includes some luminaries in the edtech space.
Consistent with the Valley’s spirit to embrace failure, Bellow is quick to admit that he made a ton of mistakes along the way. “The trick is to learn quickly and keep going.”
In thinking back on what helped eduClipper come to life, Bellow offers these few bits of advice:
Focus on real pain points. “Don’t just set out to build something cool. If I set out to build Pinterest for educators that would suck. Start with a real problem and understand that pain point that you're trying to resolve.”
Community is at the core of everything. “Even before there was a real product, I focused on talking to people and being accessible. Growing my network in the startup space, especially around edtech, has been invaluable especially fumbling through our failures.”
Education is about people. “Our core values, as you can see from the sign on our door, is that teachers and students come first. If we started from the perspective of trying to make a ton of money it would never work.”
Fellow educators often ask Bellow if he misses the classroom, to which he replies, “I still think of myself as a teacher. I train a ton of people in schools all the time. I miss doing that legitimate work with kids, but I think that what we are developing is designed to help kids and teachers get results everyday.”
Adam will be the keynote speaker at ISTE in San Antonio this June. You can follow him on Twitter at @AdamBellow.