ClassOwl Founders Fly the Coop, Seek New Home for Student App
The team behind ClassOwl has found a new nest and the founders are looking for a new home for the school planning tool that they’ve built for students.
The three remaining core members of ClassOwl, which once numbered 12 full-time employees, have joined Branch Metrics, a San Francisco, CA-based startup behind “deep linking” technology that allows developers to create and share mobile links and referrals to specific content that lives within apps (as opposed to websites).
Still uncertain is the fate of the ClassOwl assets, which the team hopes will be acquired by a suitable party. Sam Purtill, ClassOwl’s co-founder and former CEO, insists the tool will remain fully functional and operational for users until the team finds a buyer. If the search is unsuccessful, he says users will be given a three-month shutdown notice and the option to download all their data.
The story behind this transition may have a familiar ring: A group of students builds a product to address pain points they and their peers felt, only to find out that what’s best for the end users is not always best for business.
The company was founded in 2013 by four Stanford undergraduates who wanted to create an assignment and time management app to help students organize their workload. The tool functions as a digital syllabus where teachers can create assignments, outline the steps to complete them, and share them with the class. Students can comment on tasks and communicate with their peers and teachers. By breaking down schoolwork into concrete steps, the team hoped to help students better manage their schedules.
At its peak, ClassOwl was used by tens of thousands of students in more than 800 schools, roughly split between K-12 and higher-ed. The company briefly operated in London as a member of Pearson Catalyst accelerator, which partners with startups to fill product gaps in the publisher’s vast suite of learning tools. In July 2014, the team closed a $850,000 seed round.
But for all its efforts to create the ultimate student planner, the team members concede they neglected to involve one critical stakeholder in the product design process: the teachers, who are in charge of creating syllabuses and materials. They were the linchpin to making the app work. “No matter how good of a planner or communication tool we built,” says Purtill, “if we couldn’t guarantee that the information was correct, then there was no way that a student would use it.”
Students learned how to use the app quickly but ClassOwl found that getting teachers onboard was a time-consuming process. Without teacher buy-in, many schools were reluctant to pay for the tool. The company got a handful of schools to pay a licensing fee to integrate ClassOwl with their learning management and student information systems—but the work turned out to be neither sustainable nor enjoyable. “We spent a lot of time building customizations that ended up defining our business model,” says former president, Julienne Lam.
At the end of the day, the team wanted to build a consumer-facing product for students—and wasn’t prepared for the arduous work of selling to schools. “We started the company to help students,” says Lam. “We weren’t built for enterprise sales.”
The ClassOwl team’s omission of teacher input in the product development process may seem naive, but they’re hardly alone in learning the hard way that the end users are usually not the buyers in this industry. “Our major product mistake was building for the students when we should have been building for teachers the whole time,” says Purtill. “We would have built a different product if we had teachers at the core of focus group.”
That may be easy to say in hindsight—but it’s no guarantee that the tool would be any more successful.
Despite the difficulty in getting schools to pay for the tool, the company did find a small silver lining. Beginning in January 2015, more people began adopting ClassOwl to manage their activities outside the classroom. The team noticed the app was used by students and coaches for extracurricular activities such as sports teams, clubs and events. They considered raising another round to support this pivot.
But the team ultimately decided against it. “This new route wasn’t the reason we started building ClassOwl in the first place,” says Lam.
Last month, the core ClassOwl team—Purtill, Lam and Evan Groth—decided to join Branch Metrics, whom they became acquainted with earlier this year when ClassOwl was looking to add some deep links to its tool. “They made us an offer that was really great,” says Lam, “and because we knew the power of their product, it was something that we didn’t want to pass up.” Branch Metrics recently closed a $15 million funding round and boasts big tech clients including Microsoft and Yelp.
Lam says her time at ClassOwl provided her with a valuable lesson about time and attention. “The number one thing I would recommend to any entrepreneur is to make sure you focused on one very specific problem instead of trying to solve many at once,” she shares. “Anything that splits your focus and distracts you early on is not worth it.”