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Founder Profile: The Ed-Tech Company Reimagining Education Through Collaboration

Summary

The global edtech industry is rapidly growing. In 2017 alone, over $9 billion was globally invested in the industry, a 30% jump from 2016.

For too long, classrooms have remained the same while other parts of society developed alongside technology. When I was in school, I remember the sense of urgency that teachers had for better WiFi and more efficient ways of teaching. Many can relate to this, students and teachers alike.

Although Chromebooks are making their way into the classroom, as the world becomes more connected, students need to be taught how to be members of a global society with real-world applications embedded in their teaching. Issues such as race, environmental awareness, and civic engagement are becoming more and more prevalent in society and need to be taught effectively in schools.

PenPal Schools is a company leveraging the timing of this need in efforts to challenge the way teaching is done.

Check out our discussion with the CEO making it happen, below.
Shihua Wu

Joe Troyen, can you talk a little about what led you to found PenPal Schools and the vision behind it?

Joe Troyen

I’ve always felt that PenPal Schools is one of those ideas that seems incredibly simple and obvious in hindsight. To be honest, I still wonder why nobody else did this before! We as adults are connected online through thousands of apps. However, children under age 13 can’t legally use social media sites like Facebook or Instagram. Since children spend the majority of their time in school and learning, clearly any app that connects them should be focused on education.

I first started to think about this space when I was learning Spanish in college and was unable to find a good online resource to practice Spanish with people in Spain or Latin America. Years later I teamed up with a friend from college who was working at National Public Radio, and we came up with the idea of connecting students to share perspectives on current events. We created a basic app and news-focused curriculum, and found some teachers online who were interested in connecting their students.

We quickly learned that the real value we were providing wasn’t just a chance to learn about current events – it was providing students with an authentic audience, which increased their engagement in what they were learning. Teachers told us that their students were extremely motivated to closely read the texts and write persuasive answers because for the first time they were writing to a “real person,” not just their teacher. Since then, we’ve continued to learn a ton from teachers, and PenPal Schools has evolved from a simple platform to share perspectives on current events into a global project-based learning community where students can collaborate on all kinds of topics.

Shihua Wu

How has the company dealt with the challenge of getting schools to adapt to this new way of learning?

Joe Troyen

We recognized early on that building a great learning resource for students isn’t enough. To be successful in K-12 education, we needed to build something that was easy for teachers. This means both easy to use and easy to justify to their principal why they should spend class time on it.

To make PenPal Schools easy to use, we ’ve made it really quick and simple for teachers to participate. Teachers don’t need to spend time searching for partner classes around the world or figuring out what students will do once they’re connected. PenPal Schools takes care of everything. Teachers join “Topics” like “Walking to Freedom” or “Protecting the Planet.” These topics include very high quality lessons that enable students to easily have meaningful, focused conversations. There are always hundreds or even thousands of students actively participating in each lesson, so teachers can instruct their students to do the lessons whenever and wherever it’s convenient for them. They don’t need to worry about any logistical hurdles like time zones, etc.

To make PenPal Schools easy to justify to a principal, we’ve built high-quality lessons that are aligned to academic standards. PenPal Schools helps students to improve the skills that educators care about, including reading, writing, digital citizenship, social-emotional skills, and more. Even though PenPal Schools is new and innovative, we’re helping educators to teach skills that they’ve always cared about, so it’s easy for them to adopt.

Shihua Wu

What kind of schools is PenPal Schools targeting and why?

Joe Troyen

PenPal Schools works with all types of schools, including public, private, and charter schools. We’ve grown virally in over 150 countries through word-of-mouth amongst teachers, and we’ve seen that PenPal Schools appeals widely regardless of the type of school. A public school whose students scored poorly on writing in standardized tests might use PenPal Schools to improve student writing scores, while a private school with a focus on global education might use PenPal Schools to provide students with opportunities for authentic global collaboration. Overseas, schools use PenPal Schools primarily as a means for students to practice English with an authentic audience.

Some might say that this approach lacks focus and that we should target just one type of school or one skill area (e.g. writing). However, we’ve spoken with thousands of teachers and administrators who love PenPal Schools for a wide variety of reasons. The problem that we have solved is a lack of student engagement, which is essential for students to learn any content or skill, regardless of their school type or geography.

Shihua Wu

What startups do you consider your main competitors and what makes PenPal Schools different from those other edtech products trying to infiltrate classrooms?

Joe Troyen

PenPal Schools is the only resource that directly connects students with peers in other schools. There are other resources (mostly non-profits such as Empatico and iEARN) that connect teachers with teachers. However, these resources require far more work from the teacher and deliver far less meaningful interaction for students.

There are many indirect competitors that provide very different services but compete for the same funds from schools and districts. Many edtech products simply digitize formerly paper content. Others attempt to make learning fun through “gamification,” but few successfully find the right balance between fun and learning. Some of the best edtech products are those that actually make learning more engaging for students. These include Nearpod, Newsela, and Kahoot. While these companies (and many more) provide solutions that help teachers teach and students learn, I have yet to meet a teacher that has told me that these tech tools engage and motivate students as much as authentic connections with peers around the world.

Shihua Wu

What is your thought process on scaling this business and becoming profitable?

Joe Troyen

We have achieved 790% YoY revenue growth and expect to become profitable in March 2019 based on sales to individual schools alone. In addition, news of PenPal Schools has reached administrators from some of the largest school districts in the US, and pilots are currently underway with 8 districts representing a combined total of 591 schools. Students and teachers from these districts are already using PenPal Schools and sharing their feedback with district administrators, who will make purchases in the Spring for the 2019-20 school year.

In Spring of 2019 PenPal Schools will hire additional account managers to increase sales and manage existing relationships. These account managers will field inbound leads generated from free trials while also focusing on business development with large school districts.

Shihua Wu

What does the next 12-18 months look like for PenPal Schools and edtech?

Joe Troyen

In Summer of 2019 PenPal Schools will introduce a mobile app for parents. The free version of this app will enable parents to see the amazing projects that their children create with peers around the world. For a small monthly fee, parents will be able to enroll their children in additional topics beyond those selected by the teacher. Premium subscribers will also have access to advanced analytics and recommendation features, made possible by the thousands of assessments that students receive from peers and teachers.

This freemium parent app will enable PenPal Schools to enter the fast-growing home education market. With US children ages 8-12 spending an average of 6 hours per day online, parents are increasingly willing to pay for educational apps to ensure that screen time is well-spent. While reliable statistics for the size of the home education market are not yet available, the impressive valuations for companies focused on sales to parents, such as ABCmouse and Classdojo, demonstrate the common belief amongst education investors and analysts in the strength of the home education market.

Joe and his team are building a sustainable business that is helping to globalize our education system by intersecting human interaction with technology in a way that has been lacking in the classroom. Be sure to stay tuned to see if this team received the coveted Top Deal rating from KingsCrowd!

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About: Shihua Wu

Shihua is a Boston College junior with a passion for new technology and early-stage investing. Prior to KingsCrowd, he gained project management experience at Fidelity Investments and operational experience at multiple startups.

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