Editor's Note: Paul Perilla is a recent high school graduate who spent four weeks at EdSurge reviewing popular edtech products and interviewing the executives who built them. Below is a conversation with NuSkool CEO and founder, Abran Maldonado—the first in a three-part series.
Perilla: Tell me about yourself. Tell me how you started.
Maldonado: Around 2007 I was doing my masters at Columbia’s [Teachers College] half my day—and meanwhile my full time job during the day, 9 to 5, was working with rappers and producers, and doing artist management with artists like Too Short, The Game, Gucci Mane and all these folks. I’m dealing with these people on the daily basis and then leaving to study education at Columbia at night, every night. So then at that point, I realized I need to do something with this academy, with this juncture of what I know from entertainment and what I know from education.
I started doing workshops for teachers and for parents. Everything from breaking down song lyrics for them, breaking down video game content, and saying this is what pop culture is about and this is how you either use it in the classroom or you talk to your students about it or just at home… My entertainment work transitioned into public speaking and workshops with schools and parents, and even students on bringing entertainment into the classroom. And then that eventually grew into the platform, because teachers were asking for more online content to use in their schools.
How did everything, including your past, mold you into who you are now?
I come from a really big community-based household. My mom worked in the nonprofit world... I grew up listening to conscious hip-hop. You know, it was bigger than making money. You know what I mean? Giving back was always going to be a part of whatever I did. So growing up in that kind of environment and in that household, the music that I listened to, the people that I rolled with, there was always some type of element of giving back and doing something for people. So people sometimes look at NuSkool as like a social enterprise.
Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years with NuSkool?
I see NuSkool kind of growing in different ways. I see NuSkool growing into its own kind of media platform… I see possibly even having like NuSkool TV. Maybe having our own channel or our own show. And having a lot of different properties come out of our own umbrella. I still want to do something brick-and-mortar… where students physically go into a place and experience a lot of these things that we’re trying to do online. We call them labs, right? So maybe NuSkool labs, or maybe NuSkool academies. Maybe we can start opening up our own schools around the country that embed our curriculum and know our way of doing things.
If you don’t mind me asking, how do you make money with NuSkool?
The students are always going to be able to access this site free. But if you’re a teacher, you see a really cool lesson on there. And you read the article and like, “Wow, my students are really going to like that article… If teachers just want to pop in and pop out, and just set up their classes for the week, but not necessarily be committed for the month or for the year, we give them a daily pass, which is only $2. If you want to sign up for the month it’s $7, and if you want to sign up for the year, instead of it being $84 we take the summer months off. We don’t charge for summer. So it’s only $70. You get July and August free…
What advice would you give to a young entrepreneur like myself, or any advice you would give to anyone?
So I realize that sometimes you want your project or your mission to do too much. Right? Sometimes there’s too much that you want to resolve out there in the community. Sometimes you just got to pick your lane. So first picking your lane, picking what you do well, and then maximizing that… So you can’t be everything at once. You’ve got to pick what you think you do well or pick what you think there’s a void of, right? So there’s a need for something that you think you can provide, and focus on that.
Get all your ideas on paper… because if you’ve got a lot of ideas you might forget them… And if you have something, then just get good people who are smarter than you or as smart as you to see what role they can play, because you can’t wear all the hats. You’ve got to pick the one thing that you do best.
What do you think is the best feature in NuSkool?
What makes us different from everybody else is the content. We are the only ones that really say our thing is pop-culture… Our focus is that anything that the students are engaging with in their lives in entertainment or pop-culture, we have a unique way of looking at that same video game, that same movie, that same TV show on Netflix, that same rap song, and finding what’s called the teachable moments, and what student can actually learn from them… I identified that there are a lot of kids who listen to stuff or do things outside of the classroom where they’re gaining real skills, right? They’re actually learning from these things. So all I’m doing is just showing teachers how to use that in the classroom. So I think that’s our focus.
If money wasn’t an issue for you, and you just had billions of dollars, what tool would you add to NuSkool?
Some type of algorithm that’s better than Amazon’s recommendation engine, better than Netflix’s, better than Facebook’s way of interpreting or predicting what you’re interested in… So if there’s a way to, as a user of NuSkool, log on and then NuSkool just pops up like, “Oh here’s a Marvel lesson on entrepreneurship that we’re recommending for you!” Just because it knows my tendencies, it knows my patterns, it knows what I really care about, what I’m interested in. And we have a way of figuring that out per student, and it knows what level I’m at, right? So it knows which Marvel titles I read, which story lines [I like]. And for students, if you were a 6th grade student, NuSkool needs to be able to predict that you’re doing work at that grade level.