It's Surprising How Much Small Teams Can Get Done - Sam Chaudhary of ClassDojo

by Y Combinator1/24/2018

Sam Chaudhary is the cofounder and CEO of ClassDojo. They’ve raised $30M and have 30 employees.

Karen Lien is an Edtech Principal here at YC.


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Craig Cannon [00:00:00] – Hey, how’s it going? This is Craig Cannon, and you’re listening to Y Combinator’s podcast. Today’s episode is with Sam Chaudhary and Karen Lien. Sam’s the co-founder and CEO of ClassDojo, and Karen is an edtech principal here at YC. ClassDojo is a communication app for the classroom. They connect teachers, parents, and students who use it to share photos, videos, and messages throughout the school day, and in this episode we mentioned Imagine K12. IK12 is an edtech accelerator, and they now make up YC’s edtech vertical. Alright, here we go.

Karen Lien [00:00:34] – Well I don’t want to miss this story.

Sam Chaudhary [00:00:38] – You got a sly grin.

Karen Lien [00:00:41] – Just going to sneak back up to the top here. Little known fact, one of your first investors was Paul Graham of Y Combinator.

Sam Chaudhary [00:00:52] – Yeah.

Karen Lien [00:00:53] – Can you tell us about that meeting? What convinced PG to write you a check?

Sam Chaudhary [00:01:00] – Yeah, it was hilarious. That whole thing was hilarious. It actually started at Demo Day.

Karen Lien [00:01:09] – Imagine K12 Demo Day. PG was a guest.

Sam Chaudhary [00:01:13] – He was lucky to be invited, yeah right.

Karen Lien [00:01:15] – Not running the show.

Sam Chaudhary [00:01:17] – Yes. We’d presented last, and we’d been told the whole time that the goal was to meet lots of people and to get them to come by and talk to you, and so, a good way to do that is to have good metrics, and we were lucky, we had this good growth curve, but another way to do that is donuts. And so I had a box of donuts and I said at the end, that like, “Hey, we’re over there. There’s a box of donuts on the table. You guys should come by,” and so the presentation’s finished and we were kind of milling around, we were at our little stand thing and hoping that people would pop by, and who walks over but PG. And he goes to Liam, it was one of the metrics we showed, I think it was an engagement metric, he’s like, “I really like the look of that.”

Karen Lien [00:02:09] – Do you remember what that was?

Sam Chaudhary [00:02:10] – I don’t remember the exact one. I’m sure I’ve got it in the–

Karen Lien [00:02:13] – I think it was something about every three seconds–

Sam Chaudhary [00:02:16] – And people giving feedback or something.

Karen Lien [00:02:17] – A teacher’s rewarding feedback.

Sam Chaudhary [00:02:20] – Maybe. You remember better than I do, and I don’t actually remember it. I’ve got it in the pitch deck somewhere. I’m sure you guys have it, too. And so he’s like, “I really like that metric. Can you show me what the growth curve in that looks like?” And Liam, I can’t even imagine what was happening for Liam because we’d like read all of PG’s essays for ages. This is a legendary person turning up and just like having a normal conversation with you, and so poor Liam was just like, kind of like a, “Holy shit.” He’s like, “Oh, my God. My idol is here.” And Liam’s like, “Well I don’t have it to hand, but I can pull it,” and whatever, and PG’s like, “Oh yeah, you could just open a terminal and do it in there, right?” He like starts coaching him through, and Liam’s like an amazing technologist.

Karen Lien [00:03:06] – Very competent.

Sam Chaudhary [00:03:07] – Yeah, right? And then he’s like, “Oh yeah, yeah, I guess I’ll just do that, but it’s going to take a while,” and the donuts kind of bit us in the ass. PG’s like, “That’s okay, I’ll just stand here and have a donut.” You’ve got this high pressure data extraction happening for Liam, and in the end, Liam’s like, “Look, better than this, I’ll just email it to you like straight after this.” Paul gives us his email address, and he’s like, “That sounds good,” and he walks away. And so we go home like breathlessly excited. I don’t even remember like the rest of what happened at Demo Day, and we craft this email to PG, or Liam does. He’s like, “Hey, here’s the metric you wanted. “Look at the growth curve,” whatever. We send it off, and like nothing. Like crickets. And we’re like, “Oh, guess he wasn’t that interested,” like he was polite, right? But being relentless with this stuff, two days later, we email him again and the numbers were small so they were growing. We’re like, “Look, it’s grown like three x,” and again, like no answer. And we keep doing this for I think the best part of a week, like every day or two we’re just emailing another chart, another chart, and then, from Liam’s email, and then I get an email from Paul like a week later with one line in it where he says, “It is customary to respond to offers of funding.” And we’re like, “What does this mean?”

Karen Lien [00:04:32] – Indeed it is, yes.

Sam Chaudhary [00:04:33] – Yeah, and we’re like, “Yes, agreed. Did you want something else with that?” And then we check out, I think Liam has some kind of super juiced up Gmail inbox, whatever, and it’s like in a spam folder, like two days in, PG’s like, “Okay, I’m in,” and like whatever. “I’ll write you guys a check and just come around and pick it up.” And we’re like… We basically like spammed PG for the best part of a week after already handing over funding.

Karen Lien [00:04:59] – That’s great.

Sam Chaudhary [00:05:01] – Then yeah, Liam biked to his house to pick up the check, which was kind of cool. He was having a nap in the shed.

Craig Cannon [00:05:12] – That’s great.

Karen Lien [00:05:13] – Tell us about who uses ClassDojo and what problem they’re trying to solve when they adopt ClassDojo.

Sam Chaudhary [00:05:20] – Yeah, I think it’s important to understand like why ClassDojo even exists and then that gets like the problems that we’re actually helping people solve. The reason we started the company really is kind of thought that most kids don’t get the education that’s going to make them be happy and successful.

Karen Lien [00:05:40] – That’s bleak.

Sam Chaudhary [00:05:40] – That’s bleak, yeah, but what’s happy, the good thing about it is that I think the answer’s already there, like the answer isn’t some magic technology or magic policy. It’s actually, education’s really a product that’s made by people in classrooms and in homes, and so our job as a company then becomes to help people in classrooms and homes create a better education experience for kids. And so that’s really what ClassDojo’s been trying to do for a long, long time, like from the start of the company. And so the exact set of problems that we’ve tried to solve changes quite a lot, depending on the classroom, depending on where kids are, what kinds of things teachers want to do, but I’d say like probably the two main problems we solve today, one is that there’s this weird gulf between school and home. Kids go off to school for eight hours a day and a bunch of stuff happens in a classroom, and then they go home and a bunch of stuff happens at home, and kind of like the two halves of the day don’t really connect, don’t really talk to each other. But that’s really like a kid’s life growing up. It’s usually you’re like one of those two settings, and it’s a bit odd because in every other part of your life, you’re connected to the things you care most about, Instagram or whatever, but it’s very odd for parents that they’re not more connected to their kids for most of the day. And for teachers who actually really care about these kids, they don’t really get a view of what’s happening at home,

Sam Chaudhary [00:07:05] – and so that’s one big problem we try and help with is bridging that gulf and creating more of a connection between school and home. And then the second problem is a newer one, but it’s really this teachers have struggled for a long time to try new ideas in their classroom. The pace at which new ideas get introduced to classrooms is actually quite slow and it takes quite a long time for a teacher to try a new practice. They might have heard like personalized learning or something like a growth mindset, like a new idea and it’s quite tough, and so we’re trying to help teachers try more ideas in their classrooms and make it easier and faster for teachers to bring new ideas into their classrooms.

Karen Lien [00:07:49] – How does your product make that easier for them?

Sam Chaudhary [00:07:52] – Oh yeah, so for the first part, we basically just helped teachers share more of what’s happening at school every day.

Karen Lien [00:07:59] – Sure.

Sam Chaudhary [00:08:00] – Teachers could share pictures and videos of the school day home. This new bit was from a couple years ago where, and it wasn’t really a plan. It kind of emerged from something one of the teams was doing, so we spend a lot of time in classrooms, and always have, and we kept hearing this thing about social and emotional learning. There are lots and lots of teachers who really want to teach their kids things beyond reading, and writing, and math, but like softer skills, and it was really tough for them. It’s quite a fuzzy area. They’re like, “Well what do we do next? Do I want to teach my kids about curiosity, or creativity, or empathy?” These are important things for people to learn, but we don’t really know how to teach them. So a few years ago, we went down the road to Stanford and there is a professor there, Carol Dweck, and she’s got this, you know, right? I don’t know if everyone listening knows, but you know, and she’s got this idea called the growth mindset. It’s like a really famous TED Talk and she’s got a book about it, and it’s basically the idea that you’re not fixed in your abilities and that through practice and persistence, you can get better at stuff. But it’s amazing how many kids grow up without that idea really in mind, right? They’re kind of told, “You’re a math person,” or, “You’re not a creative person.” And these are really quite limiting mindsets, and so we wanted to see if we could help teachers just start with that one idea and see if we could help more teachers share this idea of a growth mindset,

Sam Chaudhary [00:09:30] – because they’d already talked about wanting it. We’d heard it from them. And so we went to Carol Dweck and her team and we were like, “Look, if we could get this idea to lots and lots of schools, what would we do?” And together we came up with this idea of making short stories, like animated shorts, three to five minute little thought-starters or conversation-starters, for classrooms. We produced this most hack job I think we’ve ever done. It was like eight weeks from the first conversation to getting this series done. We did it all in-house. It was like three people in a tiny room, but we made this series of like five animated shorts about growth mindset. You’ve got the kind that can be kind of like lectures. They weren’t really lectures. They’re just stories, and at the end of the story there was a question. It didn’t really give you the answer. It was just like the story like teeing up some interesting thoughts for you to discuss. And so we made this series and we distributed on ClassDojo, so every teacher who had a ClassDojo account, it popped up on the app one day for them. It’s like, “Hey, you can teach your kids about growth mindset.” And it was crazy because we’d never done anything like it before and we didn’t know how it’d be used, but we ended up with something like, I think those videos have reached like 50 million kids now in classrooms.

Karen Lien [00:10:49] – Wow.

Sam Chaudhary [00:10:50] – Which is just nuts.

Karen Lien [00:10:51] – Yeah.

Sam Chaudhary [00:10:52] – And so that was the first time we ever did anything about this, like bringing new ideas to your classroom. And then we did a follow up with Harvard on empathy, with Yale on mindfulness, and there’s more coming.

Karen Lien [00:11:01] – It’s literally teacher says, “We want to be able to do this,” and you say, “We’ll create it for you.”

Sam Chaudhary [00:11:06] – Or we’ll find experts. We’re like, “We’re not the experts on the growth mindset, but there are experts on it–“

Karen Lien [00:11:11] – It’s not just facilitating things that happen in the classroom, it’s actually providing things.

Sam Chaudhary [00:11:16] – It’s actually helping people move classrooms forward. If you really believe the thing that I said that most kids don’t get the education that they should get for now and the future, and you believe that teachers want to do the right things for kids, then I think it’s important to help teachers, not just do what’s already been done more efficiently, but actually help them do new stuff.

Craig Cannon [00:11:33] – Yeah, and how are you measuring the success of teaching your growth mindset?

Sam Chaudhary [00:11:37] – Yeah, that’s a really good question. There’s an input and an output measure, right? And the input measure for us was really just like do people use this?

Craig Cannon [00:11:46] – Okay, and so use meaning like use the app, watch the video?

Sam Chaudhary [00:11:50] – Yeah, do people watch the video? Do they do the activities in the classroom? Do they share at home with parents? And so that’s a quite good effort measure I think. The real truth of the growth mindset stuff is that the output measure is, from what we can tell from the research, they take a bit longer. They’re mostly like psychology research. It takes a bit longer to really see if people’s mindsets have changed. There’s this question that comes up a lot should you do stuff that people use? Should you do stuff that’s like high efficacy? I think it’s actually like a false trade off, but I think you have to be clear about what today we know how to measure and we don’t know how to measure. And the thing that we can measure is are people voluntarily adopting and using this? Is there a demand for this? And the thing that’s going to take a little time to figure out is, is the whole world now having more of a growth mindset? But what we do know is that, for 50 million kids, they’ve been exposed to the idea for a growth mindset and they’re using the words in the classroom and they’re using things like, “It’s not that I can’t do this. I can’t do this yet.” That’s kind of a cool starting point, I think. I think we’re far from done with it.

Karen Lien [00:12:56] – Yeah, great. From the beginning of the company, you’ve been very effective at talking to your users in such a way that you really understand their problems, I think, and you’re describing them now. As the company grows, you’re gathering this from your users and giving them the things they really want for their classrooms. Can you talk a little bit about how in that early stage before you knew what your product, or even maybe your audience, was, how you figured out, how you developed. What are strategies for developing that deep understanding of your audience? What are some specific things you did early on and that you continue to do to keep that connection so that you can be building the right things, solving the right problems?

Sam Chaudhary [00:13:44] – Yeah, that’s a good one. It’s a really important theme in the company. We talk a lot about empathy a lot. Before we even came up with the idea for the first product we ever built… I think something people might not know is that ClassDojo didn’t actually start, I mean you remember, Karen, we didn’t actually start as like a company. It came really from like I’d worked in education for most of life, like in classrooms, around classrooms. Liam, my co-founder, had been doing a PhD in computer science focused on technology in classrooms, and so it really came more like a passion for educationy stuff. And when we turned up in California to do Imagine K12, we basically didn’t know anyone in America at all. Like we had never lived in America, we never worked here. We’d met this guy called Jeff Ralston on a video call once, like Tim and Allen were on there, as well, and so it kind of enforced like a naivete in a way, like it kind of removed any sense of, “Hey, we know what we’re doing, and we’ve got the idea, and we’ll go and do an idea.” It kind of enforced to get out and try and understand what people who are actually doing this need, and so the first four, I think it was six weeks. Yeah, we were here for six or seven weeks before we launched the first version of ClassDojo, seven weeks. And in those seven weeks, I, it was mostly me, but Liam was involved too, I did basically anything to get in front of teachers, to get to classrooms and talk to people. On the easier side, some schools publish teachers’ email addresses just on the website

Sam Chaudhary [00:15:23] – and so I’d just email people. And it was kind of a weird email. It wasn’t like a pitch or anything. It was more, “Hey,” I told them a bit about us and I’m like, “We’d love to help in any way that we can with whatever you’re doing in your classrooms, and so what’s the worst problem that you face every day? Just please let us know.” It was like asking for a one line response. Just let us know what the worst problem you face every day is. I emailed a few thousand people, and it was like scraping email addresses. I had a friend at Teach for America. I got some of the email lists there. We had friends who were teachers in the UK and in Australia. We kind of emailed just as many people as we could. But the other thing, which was, if you step up the difficulty a bit, was we’d go to local schools. And so we were in Palo Alto, there was Gunn High School nearby, and I found a few teachers there who were willing to talk to me. I went to its summer school there in fact for a couple of days. They promised to like, “Hey, you’ve taught. If you can teach summer school for an afternoon, sure, we’ll chat with you after summer school.” I’m like, “Cool, I’ll do that.” We went to teacher meetups. There are these things called Edcamps. There’s actually one Edcamp which was really life-changing for us, which I’ll tell you about in a minute, but we went to these teacher meetups just like, as much as you can, to soak in the context of your users. That’s what we did. That’s what I did in the early days for a lot of it. We had a particularly horrific one once

Sam Chaudhary [00:16:51] – where we had to go to Los Altos School District and we were like pretty stingy Brits and so we didn’t want to get a cab, like Uber wasn’t around then, we didn’t get a cab, so we like biked for miles in the steaming South Bay sun to get there and turned up just dripping with sweat to this audience of teachers. So it was really, really, really lovely. But you kind of just do whatever it takes, right? When you’re two guys in a room and you need to get to understanding how you can actually help people, you do whatever it takes. I spoke to, I think, three or 400 people on Skype calls, face-to-face, in those seven weeks and emailed a few thousand more. And as the company’s kind of grown, that’s just become like an institution in the company. We’re only 30 people, but we may be unusual in that we have like research as a function in the company. Like there are researchers in the company who spend all of their time talking to teachers. We have lots of ways of bringing teacher context, and kids and parents, as well, but are bringing that into the office. Like the story’s up on monitors. We have community groups where we solicit feedback all the time, so I think that’s just an important part of how we build ClassDojo.

Craig Cannon [00:18:09] – Is that a vestige of you working in consulting or do you think it just like fits the company? Because I saw that you worked at McKinsey and this is a very common question that we get. “Hey, I’m working in consulting. Thinking about doing a startup. What do I do?” And it’s this consultant versus entrepreneur, like get your hands dirty mindset, right?

Sam Chaudhary [00:18:30] – Yeah, mine was a bit weird because consulting was kind of the anomaly for me. I was in my teens, and, Karen, you know this, but in my teens, the school I went to actually insisted that you teach as well as learn, so I ended up teaching for like 20 hours a week for six years from age 12 to 18.

Craig Cannon [00:18:48] – To your peers?

Sam Chaudhary [00:18:49] – To our peers, yeah. And it was crazy, but it’s also one of the most effective things you can do. It’s the low cost, high quality interventions is peer tutoring. And so we had this in our school, like I would regularly teach classes of 20 to 30 kids for around 20 hours a week.

Craig Cannon [00:19:08] – What was your subject?

Sam Chaudhary [00:19:08] – There’s all of them.

Craig Cannon [00:19:09] – Everything?

Sam Chaudhary [00:19:10] – Yeah, yeah, I mean you’d go across physics, chemistry, economics, maths. It’s really one really fascinating school, but so I taught for a long time and I got to college, and I was an economist, I’d become a math person, I thought I would carry on to the PhD in that, and I ended up going to teach straight after college instead. All the conventional consulting banking didn’t really appeal that much, but then McKinsey are very good at the CRM system kind of follow up in there and they track where you go. And I was like, “Oh, I’m going to teach,” and they’re like, “Oh, we’ve got this education team here. You should come and join and do some education work.”

Craig Cannon [00:19:47] – Really?

Sam Chaudhary [00:19:48] – And they were kind of advising governments on how to set up education systems. I went there and I spent a bunch of my time there in education, and ultimately the reason you just said is the reason I left, that I think there’s only so long, like if you’re used to getting your hands dirty, there’s only so long you can advise people and not actually do the work.

Craig Cannon [00:20:03] – Yeah.

Sam Chaudhary [00:20:04] – And so I think that was more the way that I’d always been. Consulting was the left turn a bit, but it wasn’t for me forever.

Karen Lien [00:20:14] – So, you talked to these hundreds of teachers and released this first product.

Sam Chaudhary [00:20:19] – Yeah.

Karen Lien [00:20:21] – Tell us about the early days of growth, what you think drove that, and how that’s shifted over time. Have there been transition points where ClassDojo went from kind of this growth engine to this other one? How have you anticipated or managed those transitions, and what do you do now? But tell us about that early growth.

Sam Chaudhary [00:20:44] – We had our first seven weeks, or six, seven weeks or so, of talking to teachers, building little prototypes and things, and then week eight, I remember this because it was a Sunday morning and we put the first version of ClassDojo live for anyone to sign up for. And it was quite early on Sunday. It was something like six or seven in the morning and there was this Edcamp in Oakland. An Edcamp is really just like a group of teachers coming together at the weekend to talk to each other about new things they’re trying out. It’s kind of like teacher professional development camp, but they’re doing it at Skyline High School in Oakland, and we were in Palo Alto at the time, and I woke up at six, seven, I was like, “Oh man, I’m exhausted.” We’d been sprinting all week to get this product out and I was like, “Oh, we should probably just blow this off. It’d be nice to have a lie in.” And I don’t know what it was but I posted, I think it was on Facebook, and I posted like, I also didn’t have a way to get there. I was like I can’t bike that far. The cab’s going to be rally expensive there and back, and so I posted on, I think it was Facebook, and I was like, “Is anyone going towards Oakland today? On the off chance anyone’s going, I’d live a ride.” And then turns out, another person from our Imagine K12 class, Chris Streeter in fact, was, and he was like, “Yeah, I’ll pick you up. I’m going.”

Karen Lien [00:22:02] – No excuse.

Sam Chaudhary [00:22:03] – I was like, “Oh, I guess I’m going to Edcamp now.” So it’s a get lesson to be the hardest working person in the room, but Chris picked me up, went to the Edcamp, and they were just starting. There was something like 80 or 90 teachers there, and we were just chatting. They were like, “Oh, you’re not a teacher. What are you up to?” And I told them about this thing that we’d been working on, about ClassDojo, and they’re like, “Oh, that sounds really fascinating.” And then two or three of them were like, “Oh, I might check it out and tell some friends about it, as well.” And so we kind of had these two things, they’re the people we’d already spoken with who, you can imagine the most magical experience you can get is someone turns up and says, “Hey, we just want to solve a problem for you,” and then goes and builds something that tries to solve the problem. That’s a good experience for you. That’s really white glove kind of service, so a bunch of people got that. That was the 400 teachers or so that I’d spoken with. And then this new set were like, “Oh, that might work for me, as well.” And then they started using it and they like tweeted out. Twitter was actually big for us in the early days. They started telling their teacher followers and friends about it. A few of them turned out to be quite influential, thought leader-type teachers, and so by the end of that first week, we had something like 80 teachers using it every day. And we were like, “Well this is amazing.” 80 was like just an unimaginable number for us.

Karen Lien [00:23:25] – And this is in the summertime when–

Sam Chaudhary [00:23:27] – This was like right at the end of the summer. I think we got to the last week of July or first week of August.

Karen Lien [00:23:33] – Schools are not really in session, but summer school–

Sam Chaudhary [00:23:35] – This is one of the secrets was like teachers are already preparing for what’s coming at the end of August. They’re already trying things out, they’re already setting up classes and all that kind of stuff. This was kind of crazy. We’re like, “Wow, there’s people like actually picking this thing up.” And then what happened was, from then through Demo Day, which I think was like, was it end of August or early September?

Karen Lien [00:23:57] – Early September.

Sam Chaudhary [00:23:57] – Yeah, so it was roughly a month, like four or five weeks or so, and it’d gone from like 80 teachers to like a few thousand people using it, and we were like, this has just blown our minds. “This is kind of crazy that it just spread.” And all of that was purely through the product. We didn’t advertise through the product. It wasn’t like some clever viral flow web. It was like one teacher using it or saying, “This will solve a problem for me,” and then spreading it to other teachers. And so we’d find one teacher at a school would pick it up and then it would travel through the whole school. And that happened a lot in the early days. hat was kind of early stuff. We weren’t doing a huge amount on trying to drive growth. It was more just building a good product. But a little bit later, probably the biggest turning point, and it’s this thing that continues this day, was we went to observe a teacher’s classroom in Bessie Carmichael Elementary here in the city, her name was Jenna Kleine, and so we went to sit in her classroom, and we were like, “Wow, she’s a pretty awesome teacher.” She was a science teacher, just great classroom and whatever, and she was using Dojo, and we thought nothing more of it. We had a bunch of research notes, went back to the product team as I remember. Two months later, I get an email from Jenna and she was like, “Hey, I’m thinking of transitioning out of the classroom and I’d love to come do an internship with you guys. Would you be up for that?” And we were like six people at the time or something like that.

Sam Chaudhary [00:25:30] – We’re like, “I don’t know what we’d do with an intern,” you know. We’re like, “Sure. We’ve probably got support or something that needs doing,” like, “You can come and help out.” And so she joined for the summer and she was doing a bunch of support stuff, and at the end of the summer, we’re like, “Well I guess she’s going back to teaching now.” And she came to me and said, “Sam, I think we’re really missing a trick with community.” And I was like, “What do you mean community? We’re building product.” And she was like, “No, no, no. I found this thing where you’ll get one teacher in a school who loves this and then spreads it to other teachers, and it’s a real pattern and here’s how the growth rate of…” She’d done basically a whole analysis of how schools with an influential teacher whose friendly word grow faster than other schools. And she’d set up the Facebook group for a bunch of, she’d done all this secret work, basically, in the summer on community stuff, and I was like, “Uh, yeah, I guess we could extend the internship for a few months and just see how it goes,” but this was like one of the big secrets in the company was like teachers are amongst the most underserved people in the world. If you think, the average teacher, they get into this job, which is pretty underpaid relative to most other jobs you could do, it’s often underappreciated, it’s really tough, and you’re on your feet with like 30 kids all day. That’s a really tough job. And so if you turn up and you’re like, “Hey, we’re going to be the people who really listen to you and help you

Sam Chaudhary [00:27:10] – change your classroom to be the one that you’ve dreamed of,” rather than feeling like you’ve got your hands tied the entire time, it turns out they tell people about that. And Jenna built this crazy. Not crazy, I shouldn’t say that, but it was like a community of teachers who were just so enthusiastic about changing their classrooms and helping other teachers change their classrooms.

Karen Lien [00:27:32] – Just making these connections among your users–

Craig Cannon [00:27:34] – I was going to say can you explain how that dynamic actually works? So you say you’re looking for a teacher who will be an advocate in any particular school, right?

Sam Chaudhary [00:27:42] – Yeah.

Craig Cannon [00:27:43] – How are you finding them and then what happens from there?

Sam Chaudhary [00:27:45] – Yeah, so usually they’ll find ClassDojo and then we support them to spread the word a bit more. Jenna made this community called the Mentor Community, and the mentors are basically like a first teacher in every school that we’re in who finds ClassDojo.

Craig Cannon [00:27:57] – Okay.

Sam Chaudhary [00:27:59] – We still don’t do that much to spread to new schools. Like it jumps through social networks and stuff.

Karen Lien [00:28:02] – So primarily organic.

Sam Chaudhary [00:28:04] – It’s all primarily organic, and we still don’t pay for user acquisitions, so it’s all word of mouth, but once it gets to a school, then we really support that mentor to spread the word and to bring other teachers along, if they think it’s good. We don’t want like a top-down implementation. We don’t want the principal to grab it and push it onto everyone. We want it to spread like in a grassroots way, and so Jenna built this whole community, which is supportive of each other and supportive of spreading the word. And it’s a community with a purpose, which you class as a movement, and that’s like a really powerful thing. The turning point for us was Jenna. And if Strategy One was just like good product, obsessively listening to people, and serving them, Strategy Two then was building a supportive community that is excited about a different future for education, and I think that’s like a secret, community stuff. I don’t think many companies really understand that.

Craig Cannon [00:29:01] – Did Jenna stay with you?

Sam Chaudhary [00:29:02] – Yeah, she’s still with us today.

Craig Cannon [00:29:04] – Nice.

Sam Chaudhary [00:29:05] – Yeah, she’s awesome.

Craig Cannon [00:29:05] – Good job, Jenna.

Sam Chaudhary [00:29:06] – Yes.

Karen Lien [00:29:08] – That’s awesome. Jenna’s with you and you’re more than six people, but you’re still a small team.

Sam Chaudhary [00:29:15] – It’s still a pretty small team.

Karen Lien [00:29:18] – Can you give us a sense of the reach, your reach now in terms of the product?

Sam Chaudhary [00:29:24] – Yeah, we usually talk about the percentage of schools that we’re in. In the US, we’re in like 90% of K-8 schools in the country now, which is about 100,000 schools or so.

Karen Lien [00:29:35] – Okay, you’re in about 100,000 schools. And so there may be one teacher–

Sam Chaudhary [00:29:40] – Maybe one. More and more it’s like whole schools, but it’s at least one being active. And then this is actually the first year that we’re bigger internationally than in the US. We’ve got more schools outside the US now using it than in the US.

Karen Lien [00:29:54] – More than 200,000 schools using it then? Okay, got it, and about half those in the US. You’re used by all of these schools, and you guys raised over $30 million in funding, but you’re still a team of just 30. Well, is that unusual given where you are, and was it a conscious decision to keep the team at this size and run lean? Can you tell us about that thinking and kind of how you make that work, if that’s unusual?

Sam Chaudhary [00:30:28] – Judging by the way you’re asking, it sounds pretty unusual.

Karen Lien [00:30:32] – I think so! I don’t know, actually, is this the right question?

Craig Cannon [00:30:36] – No, absolutely. Yeah, I think it’s– The average company would be much bigger–

Karen Lien [00:30:40] – I think so, right?

Craig Cannon [00:30:40] – In terms of head count.

Karen Lien [00:30:42] – Yeah.

Sam Chaudhary [00:30:42] – Yeah. Yeah, no, it’s certainly something we’ve thought a lot about and it’s definitely intentional. There’s a few things for me. One is that, I think it’s always surprising how much small teams can get done, and I think there’s actually large diminishing returns for very, very large teams. For Dojo, we’ve kind of been informed by, there’s a great book called Team of Teams on this. I keep plugging this book everywhere.

Karen Lien [00:31:11] – Plug away, yeah.

Sam Chaudhary [00:31:12] – It’s basically, how you create. I’m really interested in this as just an area of personal interest, how you create high performing teams. This book talks a lot about two concepts, empowered execution and shared context. A conventional way of building teams is that you hire the VP who then issues the instructions to the troops and the troops go and execute. In fast moving or more uncertain environments, it’s far more interesting to have a team of leaders who are capable of making decisions quickly and moving quickly. What we’ve done instead of building very large teams is build, like, the 30 people are structured in, even smaller teams, right? We have product development teams which are anywhere between three to 10 people. A mix of engineers, PMs, designers, et cetera. We try and have each of the teams having a clear mission that they all believe in and are empowered to execute on. They’ve got all the information. Internally, in the company, everything is public. Board decks are public, financials are public. You have all the information to make a globally optimal decision about what you should do next, rather than just getting a sliver of information and having to march forward on that. That’s actually how you get the most from people, when people are really bought in on a mission they believe in and they feel like the owners of that mission. We’ve obsessed a lot over building that kind of culture. I don’t think we always get it right,

Sam Chaudhary [00:32:41] – but we’ve seen great returns to really obsessing over the right kind of culture. We could certainly do with many more people on the team. I’m not saying that this is where we’ll stay now. In fact, our first recruiter just joined last week. I’ve done all the recruiting so far. But I do think the small team thing is really undervalued. If you can get small, high performing teams working, you can scale those a lot. It is actually something that Amazon talked about a lot with the two pizza teams and things. If you can get small, autonomous teams.

Karen Lien [00:33:16] – What is the two pizza teams?

Sam Chaudhary [00:33:17] – Oh, like, the whole team could be fed with two pizzas.

Karen Lien [00:33:19] – Oh, I see.

Sam Chaudhary [00:33:20] – Yeah.

Karen Lien [00:33:20] – Okay.

Craig Cannon [00:33:21] – I can eat two pizzas, that’s why I do all the podcast on my own. What would you advise people who want to adopt that same strategy, but they’re also used to doing all the stuff? They’re like, “I want to do all the recruiting, because so far I’ve recruited 30 great people.”

Sam Chaudhary [00:33:37] – Yeah.

Craig Cannon [00:33:38] – How do you train yourself to let go?

Sam Chaudhary [00:33:41] – Yeah, I think specifically for me as CEO, I think it’s, there’s this great thing in Dalio’s Principles of, what you job becomes, and he’s got this diagram which is basically goals, machine, results. Machine is people and culture. Periodically, you kind of want to step back and think about, the design of the machine and what your role is in the machine. Benedict Evans actually has a good post on this about Amazon. He calls it the machine that builds the machine. I loved it. This is an important thing, to be able to get some distance and reflect on what the appropriate role for you in the company is. I think actually Sam Altman said this, that you get to about 25 people and your job shifts from building a product to building a culture, and it kind of stays there. That’s so true, right? The reason I’ve just replaced myself with an actual recruiter is that that’s not the right job for me anymore. There are other parts of the culture that I need to focus on and build. To answer your question, it’s having a retrospective loop on what your role as CEO is, but designing the whole machine and then your part in that machine.

Craig Cannon [00:34:55] – What other books have been helpful for you in developing a leadership and product strategy?

Sam Chaudhary [00:35:02] – Oh, there’s a lot. We’re a pretty obsessive reading culture at Dojo. We have a book club every month. Most people like doing, I think, an hour or so of reading a day, at least. Yeah, it’s quite good. There’s been a few. I’ve talked about Team of Teams. Extreme Ownership is another good one. There’s kind of the conventional, the Zero to One and all that–

Craig Cannon [00:35:26] – The startup-y books.

Sam Chaudhary [00:35:27] – The startup-y kind of books, yeah, that everyone will point to. I’m trying to actually pull out my Kindle and think of what some of the unusual ones are. I really loved Principles when we read it a while ago.

Craig Cannon [00:35:37] – Yeah.

Sam Chaudhary [00:35:38] – It’s certainly a little bit extreme, but I think it’s quite good. There’s one called The Evolution of Everything. The main message from it was that, it’s very easy to believe the world is designed in some way, and embracing emergence in the company. For instance, the growth mindset videos I spoke about. That was an emergent idea. That wasn’t the CEO saying, “We have to do growth mindset videos.” That was one of our product development teams came up with this insight and now that’s a major part of what we do at Dojo. Embracing the idea of emergence is really, really important.

Craig Cannon [00:36:14] – Do you draw inspiration from books that aren’t about business?

Sam Chaudhary [00:36:17] – Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot. There’s one that I’m reading at the moment called The Diamond Age, which seems quite good. I’m quite early on in it. The ones that are coming to mind for me now are all the ones that I’ve read recently.

Craig Cannon [00:36:30] – Yeah, yeah. That’s everything, yeah. Karen, I have a quick one. What was Sam like in the early days? What do you remember about him?

Karen Lien [00:36:41] – In the early days at Imagine K12, sure, yeah, because we met when you moved to America to build this startup, but you didn’t know what this startup was yet, just thought it was going to be in education.

Craig Cannon [00:36:51] – It’s just valuable, brcause so many people listen to podcasts or watch videos, even the authors you’re talking about, right? Oh, this is Jocko’s book, he’s so hardcore. What’s the workout plan? He’s just some guy, right? He was an 18-year-old at some point, and the same is true for all of us. That perspective would be interesting, if you remember it.

Karen Lien [00:37:12] – Early days of Sam, I remember you’re very easy to talk to. Sam is very easy to talk to, and so that kind of stands out and I think was probably part of what made that early learning from customers so possible. But yeah, I remember those early months, it seemed like a very stressful time because you didn’t know exactly what demo day was coming, the product didn’t exist yet, the idea was taking form, but Sam and Liam would just kind of show up and be like, “Yeah, we’re working. We’re getting all this, we’re talking to all these people.” And we’re kind of wondering, what’s going to come of this? What’s going to come of this bet? And here came ClassDojo. I have this vivid memory of Sam, you’re talking about your frugal British nature, Sam wearing glasses with–

Sam Chaudhary [00:37:59] – Oh no, I knew you were going to bring that up.

Karen Lien [00:38:02] – Only one side of the glasses was still holding them to his face. The other side was missing–

Sam Chaudhary [00:38:07] – Yeah, that was bad.

Craig Cannon [00:38:08] – Is there a word for that? The love of patching things together? In the UK? You see it with houses too.

Sam Chaudhary [00:38:14] – Yeah, you know, there’s the idea of the crazy British inventor.

Craig Cannon [00:38:17] – Yeah, yeah.

Sam Chaudhary [00:38:18] – There’s like, the one person to shadow over. I think that’s actually Liam, that’s not me. There should be a word for it, yeah.

Karen Lien [00:38:26] – And it wasn’t quite patched, it was just dangling onto his face–

Sam Chaudhary [00:38:30] – There’s no patching.

Karen Lien [00:38:31] – The glasses still seemed to serve their purpose. It turns out you don’t need to…

Sam Chaudhary [00:38:36] – Really proud days.

Craig Cannon [00:38:39] – What has changed since you guys just start… I’m sure you had some degree of vision, right? In the beginning, what you thought the product would be. What changed? What were some big realizations?

Sam Chaudhary [00:38:49] – Oh man, yeah, that’s a big question too. What’s been amazing is, the core thesis that I said at the start that, I actually think education is made by people, not by technology, and the role of technology is in service of people, supporting them. That thesis hasn’t changed. From those early conversations, it became pretty clear that the best way we can have impact was by serving teachers, helping them connect with the kids and parents, and then helping them improve their classrooms. That would be a way to both have impact and to scale. But the thing that’s changed the most is the actual products that we’ve built. ClassDojo has never been a one product company. The first problem we ever worked on was helping teachers build a better classroom culture. That was just a product for teachers to use inside the classroom. Later on, it became far more important for us to share beyond the classroom to include the whole community, families, also other teachers and the principal of the school. That became much more of a networked product than just a single player kind of thing. Then, the thing that changed after that was that network could then be used to share more and more ideas. That was probably the latest evolution. The product, has changed a lot. The thesis for the company has stayed largely the same.

Craig Cannon [00:40:13] – Okay. And were there learnings that may be counterintuitive that, I guess it could be for ed tech specifically, or just a startup in general. I’m always curious to see what people pick up along the way that they didn’t expect at all in the beginning that you would advise other founders to keep in mind.

Sam Chaudhary [00:40:32] – Yeah, I actually wrote some of these down. Let me just pull one of these up. Yeah, I thought about this one, brcause I saw it. One of the ones for me was this thing of, we talked about it a bit, but the small teams thing. The whole way, we’ve always been pushed by investors to just, like,”You’ve got to hire more people and grow faster,” and whatever and you think about this a bit from the realities of the education world. You work in school years, so there’s no point you being alive for three out of the 12 months of the school year. You better be around in 12 month chunks. I don’t know if that’s counterintuitive, but it’s not obvious from the outside. You’d be like, “Well, we should just hire people in January.” It’s like, cool, but if that means you run out of money in June then you don’t get another school year.

Craig Cannon [00:41:19] – Yeah.

Sam Chaudhary [00:41:20] – So, that was good. It’s been surprising, it’s always surprised me how much small teams can do. That was a big one for me. Another one for me was the emergence thing. There’s a narrative in Silicon Valley that, some kind of forward looking visionary will come down from the mountain with a plan and give it to the troops and the troops will just go and execute it. It may be true, right? There may be people who are just that brilliant. I think that is the case in a few instances. But for us, I think we’ve got a lot of mileage out of just embracing the idea of your job isn’t to minimize the chaos, but to empower people to think big and to be bold about the things that they might do. The only way you can really do that is, one, by making the company a psychologically safe place, and the teams a psychologically safe place. If you’re always being judged on success and failure at every moment, it’s really tough for people to think big.

Craig Cannon [00:42:25] – How do you do that? Because that’s an issue everywhere.

Sam Chaudhary [00:42:28] – Yeah, one actually interesting thing we did recently, it wasn’t so much for products but it was across the whole organization. We started a running log of all issues in the company.

Craig Cannon [00:42:40] – Okay.

Sam Chaudhary [00:42:41] – This is really weird, right? It’s internally public for everyone to see, and anyone can add to it. You can add anonymously, you can add with your name on it. It’ll be everything from like, “Hey, the prodigies aren’t clear,” to “Hey, like we’re really creating too much trash,” to “What happened with X project that we never heard about?” The idea is that we really value building a culture where we can be real with each other. And it’s never in a hard or arrogant way. It’s actually in the most empathic way. We all think this mission is really, really important. It’s really important that every kid in the world gets better a education in a reasonable period of time. We’re all here to do that, and so any issue that’s standing in the way of doing that, like, it’s far better to drag it out into the light where it can be solved than to have it fester quietly. Building the kind of company that quickly surfaces and resolves issues rather than letting them fester is really important. That one practice, it’s recent, but we review that log every week. That guarantees that there’ll always be action taken on it. We’ll prioritize and we’ll take action on it. We do it in Asana and you can follow along, so if you submit an issue, you know it’s going to get worked on. The idea is not a new one. It actually came from, there’s a plant called NUMMI Plant which was the partnership between Toyota and GM. It went from one of the worst car production factories in Fremont to one of the best in the world, and it did it

Sam Chaudhary [00:44:09] – by really empowering the people doing the work, and they would guarantee that any suggestion you put in the suggestion box would be acted on straight away, and if it couldn’t be acted on for some reason, they would publicly announce it within a week why it couldn’t be acted on. You imagine what a factory looks like, it’s not that. It’s like, you just do your little slice of the assembly line and move on. Anyway, I’m digressing a bit, but I think that was really counterintuitive. The standard narratives about what great companies and great leaders do, which is set the vision, tell people what to do, was so far off for us. And there’s strong parallels with classrooms. I think great teachers don’t tell the kids what to do.

Craig Cannon [00:44:50] – Yeah.

Sam Chaudhary [00:44:51] – It’s a nice golden thread from inside the company to out of it.

Craig Cannon [00:44:55] – That’s a great insight. I used to work at The Onion, and when everyone, it’s something that’s not necessarily obvious, but The Onion doesn’t have bylines. And that anonymity is amazing for creativity.

Sam Chaudhary [00:45:07] – Wow, yeah.

Craig Cannon [00:45:08] – Because it’s so easy. You’re like, “I don’t know, this might be a little racy, or this is super weird, like, I don’t know if I want my name behind this headline.” Doesn’t matter, it’s all by The Onion, or it’s by made up people.

Sam Chaudhary [00:45:20] – That’s super cool.

Craig Cannon [00:45:21] – It was so handy. To your point, if people could submit issues anonymously but also see it tracked, super helpful. Especially, a place like YC, same thing. We could do a better job.

Karen Lien [00:45:35] – Your product serves, it’s in a sensitive space. You have a sensitive audience, right? You’re used in schools by teachers teaching young children and everyone’s very interested in what young children are touching and what kind of lessons they’re receiving. A few years ago, you went through some kind of court of public opinion trials. I want you to share about that because every company has to worry about how they’re perceived and that court of public opinion, but it’s really amplified when you’re dealing with an audience, when you’re serving customers that include young children. I wanted to see if you could share a little bit about that story and what you learned from that as a company in terms of how you manage that side of–

Sam Chaudhary [00:46:32] – Yeah, totally happy to share. Imagine K12 had an amazing role to play in this. No, no, no, not in a bad way. Five or six years ago, there was this new cohort of ed tech companies that just launched into the world. It was a really uncertain world for all of us. You guys were also building Imagine K12 and there was lots of learnings there. There were lots of learnings for us. We did the conventional thing which was, like, build a product that people love, get it out to lots of people, focus on that. All of us did it, because that was what we were, you know, that was the conventional wisdom of the Valley at the time. I think it was a few years in. I forget exactly which year it was, but there was really this sudden, like, “Oh my God, there’s all this technology in classrooms now.”

Karen Lien [00:47:26] – Parents going, “What is this?”

Sam Chaudhary [00:47:26] – Is it good, is it bad? Et cetera, et cetera. Lots and lots of debate and discussion about it. It really dragged a few things out into the light for me. The naive way to build products is, like, well, just build a great product and everything else will take care of itself. You’ll most often hear that with who don’t want to do sales, for instance, but this one wasn’t sales at all. It was actually clear communication. As a company which, you know, we have a lot of introverts in the company and I used to be very extroverted but more over time, you kind of forget that that’s actually really, really important. It’s important to do what you say and say what you do and to be clear in your communication. A few years ago, you had a bunch of young startups who had suddenly got to scale, or some scale, interesting enough scale that it was relevant, who had boiler plate terms and conditions or privacy policies, or hadn’t updated the website, and we’re guilty of all of these, but hadn’t updated the website to actually describe what you do, or had catered to one audience like teachers, but not to districts. I think the thing that started to solve–

Karen Lien [00:48:40] – What was the criticism that you guys were dealing with?

Sam Chaudhary [00:48:43] – There were lots of criticisms for, I think, not just for us, the whole industry, but for us, it was what happens with kid’s information? There’s actually two points here. One is communication, the other is what’s your business model? The first one on communication is important for everyone. The second one, if you go back a few years now, the main example people had was a business on the internet was Facebook or Google. These were the companies that often got held up. They were like, “Oh, those companies literally take user information and give it to advertisers.” When companies that are working in classrooms, I don’t think that’s acceptable at all. That would be a really bad way to build and fund an education technology company. First, it’s important to be clear and crisp in your communication, and I think many of us weren’t there. I know a few of us at least, we wrote all of our policies in sixth grade language, or sixth grade level English, just so that anyone could understand.

Karen Lien [00:49:53] – Privacy and your terms of service?

Sam Chaudhary [00:49:54] – Yeah, because legal jargon is legal jargon, and it’s confusing and weird for everyone, but if you write it in, like, “What does this mean?” That goes a long way. Also being clear on, like, hey, this isn’t an advertising company. Your data is not going anywhere. It’s yours, you can delete it, you can change it. If you don’t delete it, we’ll delete it after X years of inactivity or something. Because we don’t need it, it’s yours. We don’t need it to sell ads against. The second thing was making sure your incentives are aligned with your users. For us, actually, the best business model in the world is also the oldest one in the world which is, like, “Hey, we’ll make some stuff for you, and if you really like it, you can buy some of it.” You know? Which isn’t rocket science, but that’s all we’re saying. We’re like, “Hey, we’ll make a bunch of stuff for teachers and for parents,” We’re particularly interested for parents. Most parents don’t really have very good choices. Most parents in the world, you have the choice of if you want to do something good for your kid’s education, if you’re in the top 10% of the population, you can send them to private school and pay $30,000 a year. But if you’re not, like, what do you do? We’re like, well, if we could give you a better choice to make there which is also affordable, et cetera, we call it the Education Bundle, for your kids, would that be interesting? And parents are like, “Yeah, that would be really interesting.” I think just being clear about these things is something that we weren’t guilty of

Sam Chaudhary [00:51:16] – ’cause we were so heads down just building products, ’cause you know, make something people want, right?

Karen Lien [00:51:22] – Sure. And you know your intentions.

Sam Chaudhary [00:51:26] – It’s one of those things of leveling up as a company where you realize the scope of your responsibility extends beyond your own user base and beyond your team and beyond the people in classrooms who we are obsessed with and love, it extends to people who have never touched your product or used it, and they need to know too. That was a whole different thing. We hired a head of comms that year, and she’s still with us and she’s amazing. But that really built a new function at the company that we didn’t have.

Karen Lien [00:51:53] – As you expand internationally, as you said, you’re now used in more schools internationally than in the US, is that changing the communication needs? Are there different privacy regimes in the EU and so forth? What are you seeing?

Sam Chaudhary [00:52:11] – Yeah, the short answer is yes. You do the right thing for every jurisdiction you operate in.

Karen Lien [00:52:16] – Anything kind of interesting or counterintuitive coming out of that, or is it pretty straightforward? You just kind of abide by that?

Sam Chaudhary [00:52:22] – I mean, it’s pretty straightforward. The rules are all different, but they’re all in the same spirit.

Karen Lien [00:52:26] – But in terms of communicating with parent communities, or maybe, I don’t know, penetration in those different countries isn’t at the level where you’re getting that scrutiny in the press and so on. Maybe it is, I don’t know.

Sam Chaudhary [00:52:41] – Yeah, like I said, we’re majority international now, so growth is good. I think the EU is kind of famous for being very buttoned up on privacy. A while ago there was, I forget what it’s called now, but it was like the Safe Harbor thing, and then there was the Privacy Shield. We have people in the company who full-time stay on top of that stuff.

Karen Lien [00:53:05] – Sure.

Sam Chaudhary [00:53:06] – Which you don’t have to think about when you’re with 80 teachers. As the company grows, you have more of these considerations to take into account when you’re building products. Our products all go to… We have a council who looks at them and makes sure they’re compliant with the different jurisdictions.

Karen Lien [00:53:21] – Sure, but as far as managing the public conversation about you, has anything interesting come up there that was different?

Sam Chaudhary [00:53:27] – Not an obvious thing that comes to mind. I’m racking my brain to think of one.

Karen Lien [00:53:32] – Oh, that’s good.

Sam Chaudhary [00:53:33] – No, not an obvious one. I think in general, just being clearer in communication in all of our products helps everyone. It’s not, like, so scoped to jurisdiction. If every parent is like, “Oh, cool, I get to share in my kid’s school day now, wonderful,” and their classroom is getting better, awesome. But we never said those things before.

Craig Cannon [00:53:53] – You mentioned charging parents earlier for certain things. What does monetization look like for you guys in the future?

Sam Chaudhary [00:54:00] – This is one of things that hasn’t changed from the start, actually. We’ve had the same view on it. A few principles, like, we really do want to reach every classroom in the world. It’d be really good. One of the flaws with the current education system is that, I’ve already talked about one which is that there’s often stagnation. You can’t get new ideas implemented quickly. It’s all, what would you call them? Type one decisions, big heavy weight, kind of, like, “Do we do this or not?” If you can make it a type two decision, make it really easy to try and reverse, wonderful. That’s more innovation happening. But a second flaw in it is the inequality. People will talk about how education in the US is broken. It’s not actually for a few people. It’s really good for a few people. For most people, the difference between the luckiest and the average is large. For me, if you work in education, there’s almost an imperative to work on the equity part of it. We don’t want to do anything that prohibits us or gets in the way of that equity argument. We do want to get to every classroom in the world. On the other side, I think the business models in education have mostly been about selling to schools in districts. This is slow, it takes a while. It would get in the way of that goal. But there’s a really interesting observation we had that I think I’ve already alluded to that, parents everywhere in the world, for the most part, really care about their kids.

Craig Cannon [00:55:28] – Yep.

Sam Chaudhary [00:55:30] – It’s something we’ve done for a long time, right? It’s an evolutionary thing. It’s not just a job, it’s like we’re wired to care.

Craig Cannon [00:55:36] – You have to keep it alive. The small ones you very clearly have to keep alive.

Sam Chaudhary [00:55:40] – You really do, yeah. It’s a tiny, tiny person that depends on you. These are also people who are really underserved, in my view. Like I said, you have fairly limited choices. You hope the school near you is really good and that the specific teacher who’s classroom you go to is a really good teacher. And maybe if you can afford it, you move houses or move jobs or whatever to get to a better school. But for most of the world’s population, that’s pretty unreasonable. Maybe you can go to private school if you can pay the fees, but again, pretty unreasonable, pretty out of reach. If we could just create value for parents, enough value that there is something there they want to pay for, that could be interesting. And if it could be relatively affordable in the order of 10 bucks, let’s say.

Craig Cannon [00:56:25] – Sure.

Sam Chaudhary [00:56:26] – A month, like, that would be amazing. That’s kind of the general direction we’ve gone in. That’s been the same direction we’ve pursued from the start.

Craig Cannon [00:56:36] – Yeah, another common question that comes in over the board a lot at YC is, how is ed tech different than traditional or whatever startups, tech startups? Actually, probably both of you guys could answer this one.

Sam Chaudhary [00:56:49] – Yeah, do you want to–

Karen Lien [00:56:50] – After you.

Sam Chaudhary [00:56:51] – Oh, that’s very nice of you. There’s the obvious differences, that we’ve spoken about around how distribution is different and things around privacy and security need to be buttoned up on, and how it’s not quite consumer and not quite enterprise but somewhere in the middle. The non-obvious one for me is how education is not a tech product. Unlike other industries, I think education is really just what happens between a teacher and a learner. It’s really a very human creation, and so the role of technology is really to support that, not to replace it. The analogy I always use for the team is, and I think this is very important, because the analogy I always use for the team is the difference between a technical system and a human system. If you’re making one perfect technical system, like a MacBook, or a Tesla, let’s say, probably the right strategy is to have a perfect design for it and then just sell it to as many people as can afford it and hope that it gets cheaper over time. It’s design first, and then sell it to people. If you’re working with a human system like a team or a classroom, it’s actually a really bad strategy to design something and then just impose it on people. You actually follow the opposite order where you get to people and you help them design the changes they want to make in their human systems. That’s a non-obvious but really important mental model difference.

Craig Cannon [00:58:24] – Would you agree?

Karen Lien [00:58:26] – I haven’t thought about it in those terms. But absolutely. Like you said, this is a human system and you need to be worried about, well, not worried about, but conscious of the fact that it’s not going to be consistent across every implementation, because you have humans involved. I would also say, ed tech has a very compelling double bottom line. Companies can get into this because they can build interesting business, but they can also have a big impact on this equity problem that’s very interesting and compelling to work on. It’s also ripe for lots of solutions to come in and make things more efficient. If we look at the administrative level in education systems, in K through 12 especially, in districts, they haven’t been well served by enterprise products that they try to adapt into the education system or by a lot of the Legacy Education products. We see a lot of great companies being built around not being so focused on the classroom but in this back office, how do we do these things efficiently that we’ve figured out how to do well in enterprise settings, but something needs to be a little bit different in a school setting. There’s just a lot of room to build interesting companies in this space still. It’s an exciting place to be working in.

Craig Cannon [00:59:57] – Yeah, I think that’s great. Alright, well, thanks for coming in, Sam.

Sam Chaudhary [01:00:01] – Cheers, thank you.

Karen Lien [01:00:02] – Yeah, good to see you.

Sam Chaudhary [01:00:02] – Yeah.

Karen Lien [01:00:03] – Take care.

Craig Cannon [01:00:04] – Alright, thanks for listening. As always, you can check out the transcript and the video at, and if you have some time, please leave us a rating and review wherever you find your podcast. See you next time.


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