This is big. Maybe even bigger than, say, a pile of 15 million dollar bills.
Remind101, which provides teachers with safe way to send text messages to their students and parents, just landed a $15 million investment led by the Big Kahuna of Silicon Valley, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. Partner John Doerr is joining the board. Other investors include The Social + Capital Partnership and First Round Capital. Social+Capital partner, Chamath Palihapitiya, will continue as a board member. That brings Remind101’s total raise to $19.5 million.
This marks Kleiner Perkins’ first investment in a company that caters to the K-12 market. The firm’s other education investments include Chegg, Coursera and Codecademy. (Word on the street: Another investment may also be in the works.)
Doerr has invested privately: He was one of the founders of the nonprofit NewSchools Venture Fund along with his wife, an earlier supporter of the nonprofit Khan Academy. He has also invested in math curriculum company, DreamBox.
But Kleiner’s entry into the K-12 space, which already has seen heavy hitters including Andreessen Horowitz, New Enterprise Associates, Sequoia Capital, and Benchmark, underscores that edtech is evolving into a more mature industry.
And nope, Remind101 doesn’t have any revenue. Yet.
Since the company got started in 2011 by brothers Brett and David Kopf, the organization has grown its community of users to a whopping 10 million people, including 600,000 teachers--an estimated 15% of US K-12 teachers.
“I think this is a golden moment for edtech entrepreneurs,” said Doerr, in an interview with EdSurge. It is, he noted, a “transitional moment in learning.”
Spotting true “transitional moments” makes all the difference. A map of the ebb and flow of ideas would look like squiggles on an EKG. For instance, AT&T pioneered the idea of “picture phones” in the 1970s, predicting sales of a million in 1980. It was a bust. Intel Corp. similarly talked up its ProShare video conferencing technology in the mid 1990s--and also met with yawns. Skype changed the world attitude toward fusing phone calls with images--but not until after the year 2000.
A Transitional Moment for Learning
What makes this moment “transitional” for learning, Doerr says, is the fact that so much of the technology now getting applied to learning and schools already pervades the rest of our lives.
“It’s very easy to take the base for granted but the conditions didn’t exist [even five years ago] for Remind101 or for Coursera,” he says, pointing to the creation of the app stores and emergence of high-quality videos on the web as pivotal.
And cell phones. Two decades ago, many teachers felt isolated in their classrooms because they lacked any way to communicate with the outside world--even a simple phone. Just about every teacher now has a cell phone handy.
But communicating with parents and with students in a way that safeguards everyone’s privacy was a challenge.
What Remind101 Does
As a college student at Michigan State University, Brett Kopf, who was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and dyslexia, struggled to stay organized and on track when his assignments were due. He realized that a messaging system that could send him reminders would help. His brother, David, whipped up a prototype. Usage of the system spread on campus and the brothers decided to try to turn the idea into a business.
As members of the first cohort of the Imagine K12 edtech incubator in 2011, the Kopf brothers refined their idea, talking with several hundred teachers about what would make the product work well for them. “We spent a lot of time on small things,” Brett recalled--even down to such details as making sure that any PDFs that described how the system worked would print in black and white, not color, because teachers frequently don’t have access to color printers.
“It’s a pleasure to work with teachers who are our core users,” Brett says. “They been dealt a bad hand,” in part because many of the technologies they had in the past were not optimized for class.
Many teachers feel that parents--as well as their students--could use a few more nudges to be involved with schoolwork. In a recent study by the School Improvement Network, 89% of the 2,100 educators surveyed said parents “are not doing enough” to help their children succeed in school.
“Every teacher should use this system,” Doerr added. “I can’t see any reason why students and parents shouldn’t use this system.”
Brett says that he wants Remind101 to be “forever free” for teachers. “We’re not going to take away anything that we offer for free. We’re just focused on building the product and growth.” Eventually he says that Remind101 will sell accounts to school administrators and even to parents.
To Be Free Or Not To Be Free? That Is Edtech's Question
A difference is emerging in the edtech community over how companies should grow: Those that must be adopted by school or district administrators are driving revenue as well as customers. These, for instance, would include companies such as Clever, BrightBytes, Schoolzilla and Securly.
By contrast, those that offer tools that individual teachers can adopt are typically pursuing growth without worrying about how to charge customers. Along with Remind101, other high growth companies such as Edmodo and ClassDojo (a fellow Imagine K12 alum) have focused on customer growth over revenue. NoRedInk similarly has said it plans to stay free and focus on growing customers.
Remind101’s lack of revenue, Doerr says, “didn’t deter us. As long as they have some ideas and belief about how to make the company sustainable.”
“The easiest path is alongside or around the side the education institution. Go straight to the teachers, to the students and to the parents,” Doerr recommended. That approach--of reaching out to the people who will use the product every day--isn’t unique to education, he added. “I’d say the same thing if you wanted to serve people in the enterprise.”
To maintain the enthusiasm of investors, edtech companies will need to demonstrate that they can return an investment “eventually,” Doerr says.
“I’m looking for liquidity events as independent companies. Coursera should someday have an IPO. I don’t know why Remind101 would not.”
Doerr, says Brett Kopf, “is a real Mensch.”