Feedback is fundamental to any learning process. For many teachers it can be a wearisome labor of love, one that stretches into holidays and weekends.
Kaizena, based in Waterloo, Canada, believes it can help teachers deliver more feedback on digital assignments while saving time. Named after a Japanese word for “continuous improvement,” the startup has so far received positive reactions not just from educators, but also from investors in the form of a $900,000 seed round.
Participants include NewsSchools Venture Fund’s Seed Fund (before it created a separate firm for its for-profit investments) and Horizons Ventures, the venture capital firm of Hong Kong’s wealthiest tycoon, Li Ka-shing. Joining them are Umang Gupta (former Oracle VP and chairman of Keynote Systems), Jeff Weiner (LinkedIn CEO), Tom Williams (Better Company) and Victor Alcantara (Mountain 7).
Kaizena’s growth, says co-founder and CEO Maxwell Brodie, is “one of those stories where you start with something very small and discover you’re on your path to something bigger.” When it graduated from the Imagine K12 accelerator in 2013, the startup (then called 121Writing) offered a simple tool with a simple feature: the ability to highlight text in a Google document and leave audio comments.
Most people speak faster than they type so the tool had early promising utility. But when teachers used it, they saw another upside. Brodie notes that Kaizena makes leaving feedback both more practical and more personal: “For students to hear their teachers’ voice means the world. It means the teachers care.” The company cites a litany of research supporting the value of audio feedback.
In addition to leaving voice recordings, teachers—or fellow students—can also add text comments and include links to resources that help students understand the problems with the selected text. These comments and links can be saved and re-used (much like creating a macro in Excel). Brodie offers a range of use cases from comma splicing and thesis statements on English assignments, to science lab reports and foreign language essays.
In the coming months, Kaizena plans to add a library of pre-loaded online resources that teachers can refer to in their comments. Teachers will also be able to share their own resources and pre-set comments with others.
Kaizena is integrated with the Google ecosystem and works with Drive, Docs and Classroom. There’s no support yet for another popular word processor—Microsoft Word—but Brodie says that’s in the works.
In the two years since the company’s debut, Kaizena has built a user community of thousands of teachers and students across more than 80 countries. According to Brodie, half of those are high school educators, 25 percent serve middle schools, 20 percent work in elementary schools and the rest in higher education. He says growth has come mostly through word of mouth, primarily through teachers sharing the tool via on Twitter, a channel favored by other Imagine K12 graduates notably including ClassDojo and Remind.
And like those tools, Kaizena is free and “does not have any concrete plan regarding revenue right now,” says Brodie. He subscribes to Umang Gupta’s belief that early-stage education companies can successfully leverage the freemium model, and describes Kaizena as ultimately a “consumer product” that “optimizes the user experience for one key purpose.”
Kaizena’s mission—to ease the pain of giving feedback on documents—is straightforward and clear. Whether or not it’s a feature that other companies—like Google or Microsoft—can replicate and add to their products remains to be seen.