Life as a Startup #1 – The Birth of an Idea

Founding a startup company has easily been the most terrifying, stressful, exhausting, most incredible experience of my life. In October 2013, I made the decision to leave my job and pursue my dream of becoming an entrepreneur, launching an education software startup. I have learned a lot on my journey so far, made a ton of mistakes, met some incredible people, and hurdled countless obstacles. Ever wonder what it’s like to start a company? Join me on the highs and (many, many) lows in the Life as a Startup.


A Little Context

If you asked me 5 years ago where I thought I would end up today, aspiring entrepreneur and founder of a tech startup would not have even crossed my mind.

I had largely flown under the radar for most of my life – an average student, introverted, not particularly charismatic – the type of person you meet and forget (Except for the fact I had pretty long, blonde dreads. People tended to remember those). I was finishing up an undergraduate degree in sociology at my home state university and had no real direction as far as job prospects. I had a long interest in urban education, and for the next couple of years, ended up working in schools and various education programs tutoring students and working with them after school.

One of the ways I was able to connect with my kids was through games. I’m a pretty big gamer – everything from FIFA, Skyrim, and StartCraft to Dungeons & Dragons, Magic the Gathering, and Warhammer. I started pulling in ideas from games to help motivate my students. It started with giving students the plot to a childhood favorite of mine – ToeJam and Earl – and having them write creative stories. I drew pictures of the two alien pals and played the soundtrack to the game as they wrote, and I got some of the best work out of my students that day. I would give students points when they got right answers and create friendly competitions during my tutoring sessions. And they loved it! Even a year later, when I went back to visit my students, they still brought up those characters and the games we played.

In my opinion, this is how a lot of the more genuine startups get launched – they are people who are involved with their field, experience a specific problem (in my case, motivating students), and come up with a creative solution. The startup is then born to create a working product to share with others (and possibly profit), and will ultimately help out other people experiencing that same problem. I began to build on this concept of infusing games into learning and motivation. It was about this time that Jane McGonigal and Gabe Zimmerman began making a name for themselves on the TED talk scene with the concept of “gamification”. I started pouring over the research and articles that were emerging on the topic, and refined the idea I was working on. Eventually, the concept for ClassXP was born.

ClassXP was designed to integrate video game mechanics, such as points, leveling up, badges, and achievements, into traditional classroom grading. Every time a student handed in an assignment, project, or test, they would receive experience points (XP) and work towards Leveling Up, much like you would in a video game. I created spreadsheets of the concept and how it would look in a live classroom, including the algorithms involved. I sketched out mockups of how the app would look, and took my ideas to the Games, Learning, and Society conference out in Wisconsin that summer, which got really positive feedback on the idea (I would later learn that this process of getting user feedback is called “customer validation”, and is arguably the most important part of the startup process. I’ll touch more on this concept, and what I should have done better, in a future post).

I was pumped! But then I ran into my first obstacle…Now that I have this great idea, how do I get it made?

 

Starting Up

When you read about startups, it seems like they go from an idea some friends randomly come up with in a bar one night to a multi-million dollar company the next morning.

Let me be very clear here – Starting a tech company is a long, stressful, meticulous process. But that shouldn’t deter you.

Five years ago, I had no intention of ever creating a company. I had no background in business. In fact, I was more focused on non-profit work, and had launched a non-profit program that promoted education through soccer in West Africa. But after coming up with the idea for ClassXP and receiving some positive feedback, I decided to try and get it created. At that point, I had no experience with computer programming, an issue that I feel is common with many people trying startups. How many times have you come up with an idea for an app only to have the initial excitement of the idea fizzle out once you realize that there’s no way you’d be able to make it yourself? So, not having any close friends with that knowledge, I turned to the only real network I had at the time – Facebook.

Facebook Post

The post I used to find a programmer.

A friend of mine in the Netherlands responded that her boyfriend was a programmer, and had even programmed some games and apps previously, so I got in touch. We corresponded over the next few months as he finished up a project, and I solidified my idea further. It’s worth pointing out again that I had no technical abilities at this point, so all I could judge his skills by were his girlfriend’s recommendation, a previous project he worked on, and his college degree in computer science. He seemed cool enough at the time though – we had a mutual interest in games and even played some League of Legends together (even though I’m awful at the game) – so I trusted that he knew what he was doing. Around November 2012, we got started on the development of ClassXP.

As I continue writing this series, I will incorporate a specific lesson about each step of the process of starting a company. I hope that by sharing these experiences, other entrepreneurs will be able to avoid some of the issues that slowed me down. Coming up on Life as a Startup #2 – Lessons learned from the hidden hassles of starting a company. 

Tracking Student Skills Like A Role Playing Game

The Feedback Loop

For those of you familiar with my last post, Increasing Student Engagement By Grading Backwards, you know that I am a huge proponent of bringing game mechanics into the classroom. In that article, I touched upon the idea of an additive grading system, where students start at zero and earn points by performing well on assignments, quizzes, projects, etc. This time, I would like to focus on another critical element that make good games (and good teaching) so engaging: Feedback.

In her book, Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal defines feedback as a system that “tells players how close they are to achieving the goal. It can take the form of points, levels, a score, or a progress bar. Or, in its most basic form, the feedback system can be as simple as the players’ knowledge of an objective outcome: ‘The game is over when….’ Real-time feedback serves as a promise to the players that the goal is definitely achievable, and it provides motivation to keep playing.” People familiar with good games see this all of the time. In many role playing games, a typical feedback loop might go like this – fight the monster, gain experience points, level up, fight stronger monsters. During this cycle, players are constantly being inundated with data – how much damage their weapons deal, how much health they have left, how many experience points are required to level up, etc. Unless you play Dark Souls, where the feedback changes to – enter dark cave, see scary monster, run away!

dark souls

“Nope!”

Feedback is not only confined to video games.  During a sporting event, the athlete receives continual feedback although it may not be explicit or formative.  For example, when the player misses a jump shot, they know immediately that they didn’t do everything right.  Besides missing the shot, they may have just “felt” it in their release.  It may, however, take additional analysis and feedback from their coach to explain what they didn’t do properly and how to improve their chances of making the shot next time.

In her definition of feedback, Jane McGonigal discusses three important elements – having a goal, receiving data on progress, and real-time feedback:

  • Having a goal – Players need to know what they’re attempting to accomplish and that it is obtainable. That way, the goal never seems hopeless and players are encouraged to continue despite whatever obstacles they face.
  • Receiving data on progress – Players need to know how close they are to achieving their goal. To provide players with regular and appropriate data, large big-picture goals may need to be divided into smaller goals. The data both motivates the player and also helps guide their next actions.
  • Real-time feedback – Players need to have constant access to this data, and this needs to be updated in real-time so that players can accurately assess their skill level.

Educators also know the importance of feedback, and these same elements apply. Students need to be aware of what the desired outcomes are, what are they learning, and how this will benefit them. They need to know how far away they are from achieving that goal, and be able to see the progress they have made. Students, especially this generation where most students play at least casual games, also need constant, consistent updates on their progress and to know what they have to do to improve. In turn, teachers need tools to quickly record student progress and access student performance data to know exactly where their students need more support and instruction. This data would allow teachers to differentiate their teaching to meet the needs of each individual student.

The key to providing impactful feedback is relevant data. So what does effective skill tracking look like?

 

Character Sheets

In typical role playing games, players have a set of skills (such as Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, etc) that make up their character. For those of you familiar with role playing games, a “character sheet” might look something like this:

dd-4e-character-sheet

As players progress through the game, these skills improve based on how well the player performs. Additionally, many games are built on a system of mastery based progression, meaning that they do not allow the player to progress to the next objective until they have mastered the previous task. Skills are built upon over time, such as learning more complex moves to defeat more difficult bosses. This system allows players to go at their own pace. A well-designed game will constantly be challenging players at the edge of their ability, giving them challenges that are not too easy that a player gets bored, but not too hard that a player feels that the goal is completely unobtainable.

Let’s apply these concepts to a different set of skills and setting. Consider the Common Core State Standards in a classroom. As students progress through school, their educational skills are (hopefully) improved. A 6th Graders character sheet, instead of Strength and Dexterity, would display their proficiency in skills like Math “Statistics and Probability” and ELA “Craft and Structure”.

Student progress is typically assessed through a series of benchmark tests administered a few times throughout the year. However, good games provide real-time, consistent and regular feedback so the player knows where they stand and how they can improve at any given time. Why isn’t this type of essential feedback provided to our students? It’s difficult, time consuming, and requires lots of data to track accurately.

This is where technology can help.

 

Tracking Skill Progression

The need for this type of a data tracking tool couldn’t be any more timely, as many schools and districts are beginning to adopt and adapt to Common Core State Standards, which, in essence, is all about tracking student progress against a set of learning objectives. The problem that exists right now is the gap between teachers being expected to track this progress and having a effective tool to enable them to do so.

In order to accurately track student progress, educators need to be able to align the activities in the classroom with various learning objectives. They then need to assess each individual student on how they performed on each learning objective. This data will then be able to inform educators on which of their students need help in certain areas. Furthermore, this tool would provide feedback to the students themselves so that they can assess and track their own progress. If the teachers upload rubrics on the meaning of their scores, students would also be able to see why they received a particular score and how they can improve.

A tool that can do these things will empower educators with the ability to differentiate their teaching to meet the needs of each individual student and empowers students with the knowledge of how they are performing and how to improve their skills. This has been our thought process and the goals behind developing mySkillBoard. We are currently in the final stages of developing this software, and expect to be ready to launch for the beginning of the fall school year. It is important for us to get as much feedback from educators as we can to make this the most effective tool possible. For more information or to be involved in the development of this software, please visit mySkillBoard.com.

Increasing Student Engagement By Grading Backwards

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