Editor’s Note: After having Phil Cutler judge during the semi-finals of the McGill Dobson Cup, The Dobson Chronicles’ Sharanya Venkatesh sat down with him for an in-depth interview about how he got his start and where EdTech is headed next.
Tell me a little bit more about yourself and how you got started in the education and entrepreneurship industry.
Having always been interested in education, I did my undergraduate degree in education at McGill University specifically focusing on Kindergarten/Elementary. I felt that it is important to give back to families and the community, and working in education seemed to be the best way to do so.
However, while doing some of my practical teaching sessions, I realized that being a teacher is not for me. I am more of a “go against the grain” kind of person which doesn’t necessarily work in education. Education as a whole has had very little exposure to the type of creativity and innovation that entrepreneurship brings. This is the reason why I decided to pursue the entrepreneurship field. In the field of education, you tend to think inside a prescribed box while in entrepreneurship it is the complete opposite. Everyone is encouraged to think outside the box and that is what I encourage my employees here at GradeSlam to do.
What is the value your company is generating for students and more importantly the future of education?
At GradeSlam, we are creating value in two ways. One is the more philosophical side which is a bit more social and the other is the more pragmatic and pedagogical side, which is what makes us unique.
Firstly, the philosophical side to GradeSlam is that education should be about equality and accessibility for everyone. This is basic foundation on what our Canadian public education system is built on. In reality, not everyone is getting the same level or quality of education.
Tutoring as a whole, provides wealthy families the ability to supplement what is happening in school. In my perspective, that is not fair. When I was doing my practical teaching sessions during my degree at McGill, I would notice that if students were struggling with certain topics those who could afford tutoring would go home and get extra help. While the other students who couldn’t have access to tutoring would not be able to get that extra help, would fall behind and ultimately never really catch up. The long-term ramifications of that are pretty profound.
With GradeSlam, we are democratizing tutoring for everyone. By providing every student with the ability to access to a tutor to supplement what they are doing in school, we can level the playing field and ultimately allow all students to receive personalized help.
Secondly, the more pragmatic and pedagogical side to GradeSlam is that we provide every single student with access to a tutor. When we sell our service to schools, the schools purchase the licenses for all their students and provide the students with a tutoring service. When a student has trouble with certain topics or concepts, the student goes home and receives extra help from a sibling, parent or a tutor. The academic issues that the student has is rarely communicated to the teacher. At GradeSlam, using some pretty innovative technology, we analyze conversations among students and tutors, and provide school teachers with insights into the student’s’ strengths and weaknesses. We can find out who is struggling with certain topics, falling behind, using it, how often and where. All of this information arms the teacher with a lot more information to help the student succeed.
What are some of the challenges you faced while creating your business?
There are two different types of challenges we faced and continue to face.
Firstly, we face location-based challenges. Our home market is Montreal and there are advantages and disadvantages of starting a business here.
The disadvantages of starting a business in Montreal is that most business people think too small. Most people are trying to build a company that sustains itself, which is perfectly fine. The only issue with that is that it isn’t transformative. When you’re in San Francisco, everyone is thinking about “how can I make this idea bigger and how is my idea going to shape the world.” We don’t see that much in Montreal. It is, of course, changing slowly but it hasn’t happened as of yet. There are many reasons for this – systemic, political and cultural, and that needs to change.
However, that being said, Montreal is a great place to run a lifestyle business. I personally started a summer camp called Laurus Summer Camp a couple of years ago. It’s an awesome business and when I was more involved with it, I absolutely loved working on developing it. It has been an unbelievably successful business and currently financially sustains itself. However, the scale to which that company can grow is very limited and there is a very low ceiling.
A summer camp is a very different business in comparison to transforming education. Education is one of the few multi-million or billion dollar opportunities that are out there right now. The reality is that in Montreal that you don’t have that same network that exists in other communities and that is a why it is little tough to grow a business like GradeSlam.
Obviously, another advantage staying in Montreal is finding talent is much easier. There are pure fish in the sea. You have the ability and access to pick and choose your fish. We have the best machine learning and language learning processor person in the city working for us. If we were in San Francisco, there would be 5000 companies trying to get this one person.
The other type of challenge we face is industry-based.
One of the biggest problems every EdTech company faces is bureaucracy. There is a lot of red-tape out there that you have to cut through in order to be adopted into schools. Credibility is one of the biggest issues. You are talking about the education of children and you’re talking about bureaucrats running the system. When you talk to an educator that is looking to innovate, when they hear about GradeSlam, they are blown away. They see that this is the best thing ever and how did no one ever think about this. For an educator who is conservative and doesn’t take many risks, they won’t like it. In order for a school to adopt your technology, you need to be able to de-risk it as much as possible. As an educator, if every school in the area is using the new technology, it is very easy decision to make. If you are going to be the first school to try it out, it is a lot more difficult to decide.
A lot of schools are not at the level of innovation that GradeSlam offers, which is perfectly fine. They are facing other challenges and they will eventually get to a point where they can adopt our technology. If you think of the product cycle curve, we are probably at the first 2 or 3% of a curve, the early adopters. The big challenge currently is finding those 2-3%. They tend to network with one another pretty often and we can build that network through that. For us, I think we are doing a good job of it even though it is a little difficult.
Another challenge of being in the EdTech industry is that the sales cycles are longer. In the past many investors have lost a lot of money in the EdTech industry because there isn’t that hockey stick curve similar to many of other industries. That is not to say that people can’t be successful or can’t have that scale in the Edtech industry. They can – it just takes longer. You need to be patient and strategic.
Many companies have made the mistake of giving their product for free and then moved to a paid version later. This has rarely been successful. One of advantage of this is that there been so many failures in the EdTech industry, we can avoid making the same mistakes they made. Therefore, the money that we are spending is better spent. The fact that there have been so many failures is great because that shows that a) you don’t have to make the same mistake and b) people are trying things.
GradeSlam wins the 2016 TiE Quest Canadian Startup of the Year and the $50,000 cash prize that goes with it.https://t.co/Y94WoCtRNy
— GradeSlam (@GradeSlam) July 29, 2016
Why do you think EdTech is important for the future?
Education is one of the foundations of our society. For the last 200 years, our education system has followed more or less the same education model. Schools were developed because that used to be the only way you could learn. Think of a school in the early 1800, one teacher teaching a group of 20 kids, all at different levels. Fast forward 200 years, it is the same thing and hasn’t really changed.
Yes, we have the concept of grades and we have introduced smart boards and similar tools but the business model of education has remained essentially the same. The technology has evolved, what we are able to do has evolved, yet because of the way education and government is one, it is made very difficult to have wide-scale changes. We did it with church and state, now we will do it with education and state. It is the same concept in my eyes.
EdTech is important because it going to be the driving force that is going to fundamentally change society. In order to do so, EdTech companies need to start operating on the idea of changing the education business model. If we keep building new ideas for that 200-year-old model, we are not going to be able to transform society. It is going to take a lot of work to do this and there are too many stakeholders that are fighting against and for this change. It is going to take a larger force and a whole lot of people to do so but the change will take place.
— McGill Dobson Centre (@DobsonCentre) August 26, 2016
How do you think the business model of the education system will change?
The brick and mortar of a school will always remain in some capacity. A child will still be somewhere between 8am to 4pm. Will it be necessary for a teacher to stand up in front of a class and teach for 45 minutes? Maybe not. Will we still need teachers? Yes, but the skill set of the teacher will change.
We will have a lot more one to one interactions, where the learning style of a student and teaching style of a teacher are matched together. This will result in an interaction that is far more efficient. A teacher is going to have to understand their students more on an emotional level and how they are learning.
The way it is now is that teachers have a prescribed curriculum by the government and they teach it to a group of students that have different learning styles. Based on personal experience during my degree, I would get feedback that I needed to differentiate my lesson plans. How do I differentiate a lesson in a session that is 40 minutes long with 30 students each with a different learning style? There are multiple inefficiencies in this model and that needs to change.
There will also be less responsibility on the student. Based on the language and the errors they make, we will be able to identify paths that show the errors they might make in the future. We will be able to figure out that they are struggling before they crash.
— Contact MTL (@GreaterMTL) January 17, 2017
Where do you see GradeSlam in 10 years?
Although it is really hard to predict where GradeSlam is going to be, I think it is going to be shaped by society. I am very bullish on the fact that there will be a change in education and it is going to be painful. However, we are going to be one of the businesses driving this change.
In 10 years from now, I think GradeSlam is going to be a school system rather than a start-up. GradeSlam will be an alternative to the current education system. Tutors will be considered professionals and will be getting paid a lot more than they are right now. Parents will have the option of choosing different school systems rather than the option of different schools with the same curriculum.
— MTLinTECH (@MTLinTECH) January 16, 2017
What do you like the most about entrepreneurship?
My favorite thing about entrepreneurship is that there is no ceiling to what you are doing. And, that to me is the most exciting thing. I love what I do, I love the challenges but at the same time it does get a little tough to manage.
If I look at my life, it’s one big melting pot of everything. I have family and friends, sports and work. Obviously family comes first, that is the most important thing in life. If you think of life as a scoreboard, you shouldn’t be focused on how much money you have or things like that but rather family. When I have crucial business decisions, rarely will I make them without sitting down with my family and making it.
Of course, I need to manage my time well. I don’t think of my work as a burden – I wake up everyday excited to do it and I am fortunate enough to have that opportunity.
After having judged for the McGill Dobson Cup recently, what are some of the common mistakes you see young entrepreneurs making?
Some of the businesses that I saw underestimated the bigger challenges and overestimated the smaller challenges, which means that they are dedicating their resources and time inappropriately.
Here’s one example: two-sided marketplaces are extremely hard to build. You have to build supply and demand simultaneously which is really challenging. Those businesses need to be able to figure out a way to be able to scale both sides of the marketplace but often people are more concerned about other, smaller details. My main question was “How are you going to build this?”
Another common mistake I saw businesses making is that of not doing enough “experiments”. The business will be to adjust and maneuver according to the market better if you do a bunch of experiments. When we competed at the McGill Dobson Cup in 2014, one of the judges mentioned “students will never be able to learn with chat.” So we decided to challenge that assumption. This became our first experiment. Does chat based tutoring work? How are we going to measure how the student learns? If that doesn’t work, then figure it out how often students use it? When do they use it? Then Roberto Cipriani, CTO for GradeSlam, developed the product further.
I did not see a lot of that in the McGill Dobson Cup this year. This might be something that you have had to build a few businesses to truly internalize – your second business is always more successful than the first.
In addition, I was judging the small and medium track and I felt as though a lot of these businesses (7 out of the 10 that I saw) belonged in the innovation driven track because of their two-sided marketplaces.
— McGill Dobson Centre (@DobsonCentre) February 21, 2017
What are some of the skills that you think young entrepreneurs should have?
It’s not about what you know, it is about who you know. In Montreal, we are not great at this. For example, I’ll offer to introduce people to someone and they will respond with “Why would I want to talk to them? They are in the same industry” My response is “Because you guys have the same problems!” In San Francisco, it is the total opposite. The minute you start talking to someone: it is about “Who can I introduce you to within my network that can help you grow quicker and get you to where you want to be faster.” The whole 6 degrees of separation is all of a sudden gone and you can get to where you want to be very quickly. Part of the reason that it is not done in Montreal as often as it should be is because of the culture – it’s the old nature vs. nurture debate. In San Francisco, people grow up in a culture where you’re always looking to connect with others to learn. Someone who learns the habit of connecting with others to learn, ends up with a strong network and surrounded by people who help their business succeed.
Two, have a co-founder or a team.
You need to have someone or some people that is/are similar to you and you guys have a very clear connection of paths. During the McGill Dobson Cup, I often saw that people were trying to start their business on their own. It is a very lonely journey if you do not have anyone else who is equally as invested in the business as you sharing the journey. You need another person that has the same level of connection to the business as you. Of course your family and spouse and partners are happy for you but you need someone who is down in the trenches with you and is fighting the same fight.
If you do those two things really well, the other stuff will fall into place. You’ll challenge each other and figure it out.
To learn more about GradeSlam, check out their website at gradeslam.org!