From 2013 to mid-2015, Rohan Vaidya worked at Facebook, where he helped the company establish and build a New York-based engineering team. Vaidya respected Facebook’s mission and appreciated the famous perks. But this September, he joined Teachers Pay Teachers (TpT), a much smaller company that enables teachers to share and sell their learning materials with other teachers.
“Facebook is an amazing company that has everything you could think of, including free food and fun stuff,” he told EdSurge. “It was not an easy decision to leave. But by coming to TpT, I could still have that similar mission and impact and also the opportunity to build and grow—not just products, but also the company.”
Vaidya isn’t the only techie moving to TpT. Over the past year, the company has attracted more than 25 new employees, including a number from prestigious tech firms such as Facebook, Foursquare, Google and Kickstarter. When asked why they made the change, these recruits said they shared Vaidya’s belief in the company’s mission, community focus and growth prospects.
Brynne Zuccaro, who formerly worked at Foursquare and now heads marketing and communications for TpT, is inspired by the company’s goal to empower educators to teach at their best. “My grandfather immigrated to the U.S. and always believed education was the path to success,” she explains. “I love that we’re using tech to connect teachers who sometimes aren’t connected. I think that’s so compelling.” Jared Cohen, former vice president of operations at Kickstarter and now TpT’s vice president of product, is motivated by TPT’s dedication to its “teacher-author” community. “Putting community first,” he points out, …“makes you feel like you’re not just building a tool; you’re also helping people achieve things.”
For Sha-Mayn Teh, who spent 12 years at Google and now co-leads TpT’s engineers, the opportunity to build an engineering team and culture from scratch was an incentive to join TpT. “I had the experience of scaling up at Google,” says Teh. “I wanted to bring that [knowledge] here, as well.”
“Scaling up” is a phrase that few people would have once associated with TpT. The site launched in April 2006 as the bootstrapped creation of Paul Edelman, a former New York City public school teacher, and was acquired that December by Scholastic. TpT grew slowly under Scholastic until 2008, when the economic downturn and budget cuts threatened its closure. Edelman bought TpT back in March 2009 and kept it lean and independent until 2014, when he began seeking outside investors.
Adam Freed got to know the company during that process. “I met Paul through a potential investor and started talking to the team to learn more about the business,” says Freed. Growth was a key part of his vision, and Freed had plenty of experience from having led international product efforts at Google and serving as Chief Operating Officer at Etsy, the online craft marketplace.
In May 2014 Freed joined the TpT board. Around that time, TpT’s marketplace crashed for several hours during a site-wide sale. The company numbered 23 full-time employees and consultants. None of them were engineers. Freed, who took over as CEO in August 2014, describes the outage as “a clarion call”. “We were just way too small a company to support the level of business that TpT had grown to,” he says.
Supporting TpT’s 2.4 million active members at the time demanded a more robust team. (TpT now has 3.6 million active members and 1.8 million marketplace items.) Freed tapped Kirsten Nevill-Manning, a former colleague at Google who also led Facebook’s international HR and recruiting, to head TpT’s human resources efforts. “I wanted another partner who had seen real growth [at companies],” Freed explains. “Kirsten knows so much about how to vet talent correctly and build and shape people.”
Since Nevill-Manning joined in December 2014, TpT has added people in areas ranging from engineering to customer support, data science, design, finance, human resources, marketing and product management. The company now boasts 60 full-time employees and consultants and moved offices this April to make room for new hires. Freed expects TpT will change offices again within the next year to accommodate future growth. Several open positions in London, Sydney and Toronto signal the company’s ambitions to expand overseas.
To sustain its growth, TpT upgraded its marketplace servers and other core technology. The company says critical metrics, such as site uptime and response time, have improved as a result. TpT is also rebuilding its mobile apps to have greater functionality and researching ways to refine its marketplace search results. “Before, we were a somewhat tech-enabled education company,” says Freed. “Now we’ve built a tech company underneath the education company.”
Developing this infrastructure requires top tech talent. TpT sets itself apart in the notoriously competitive tech recruitment market by emphasizing applicants’ ability to make an impact on society, the online education industry and TpT as a company. When Freed meets with job candidates, he tells them three things about TpT:
It’s a mission-driven business;
And it’s profitable.
Teh says engineers should have a passion for education and be “very curious and able to problem-solve.” Cohen says candidates must “care about what they’re building,” realize their role is less about disrupting things and more about empowering people and “listen first” to what TpT’s teacher community needs and wants.
Listening to teachers is a crucial part of upholding TpT’s values. TpT requires employees to shadow a teacher in a classroom at least two days a year. The company has also been hiring former teachers and people with education degrees to work as “community developers” (soliciting feedback from TpT sellers) and customer support representatives. “There was a fear that we would recruit the tech people we desperately needed and forget we also needed to keep growing our educator base,” explains Freed. “But we know we have to have educators working here.”
Nurturing company culture is a lesson Freed learned at both Etsy and Google. “When you’re going through rapid growth, you have to be really mindful about who you are, who you’re trying to be and whether you’re living your values everyday,” he notes.
Though time will tell whether TpT can keep its hiring standards high as it expands, the talent it has assembled is already luring new recruits. Shem Rajoon recently left the DIY electronics startup littleBits to work in product design at TpT. “I was like, ‘Man, why are all these people from innovative companies here?’” Rajoon says. “That reeled me in; I was intrigued. When people come together like that it’s usually something big.”
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