Sidharth Kakkar and Alex Kurilin knew there must be a better way for students to learn. After observing classes in public school districts in Chicago and Baltimore, the duo developed Front Row Education's data-driven curriculum and launched it in three classrooms in 2013 with a "learn at your own pace" philosophy. Nearly three years later, Front Row Education is an international learning tool in 20 countries, with a presence in 1 in 5 elementary and middle schools in the United States. Kakkar told Business News Daily about his experience founding and growing Front Row Education and what it takes to keep up with the needs of the modern student.
Business News Daily: What service does your business provide?
Sidharth Kakkar: Front Row Education Inc. makes adaptive, gamified and data-driven education programs for classrooms that K-8 students use to learn at their own pace. Within these classrooms, students who are ahead practice material that's harder, while students who are behind are provided tools that fill in the gaps in their knowledge. For teachers, Front Row provides data that helps them adjust to their students' needs in real time, ensuring no student is left behind. We offer both Front Row Math, along with a new language arts program, Front Row ELA.
BND: How long have you been in business?
S.K.: My co-founder, Alex Kurilin, and Ilaunched Front Row in 2013 after we spent a month in inner-city schools, learning about ways in which a traditional classroom can make it difficult for students to learn and for teachers to teach. We'd absorb all we could in the classroom, and go home at night and build the technology behind Front Row. We launched at the start of the 2013 school year with just three classrooms in two schools, and have grown rapidly through word of mouth since then. Today, Front Row is used in 1 in 5 elementary and middle schools across the U.S., along with 20 countries globally.
BND: Did you start with a formal business plan? If not, how did you lay the groundwork for your business?
S.K.: We build the business very iteratively, so we didn't start with a traditional business plan. All good products solve a problem, and for us, the journey started with really understanding the problem we were going to solve. We did this by spending a lot of time in classrooms in Baltimore and in Chicago.There, we saw how teachers teach and how students learn, and which parts of that just don't work as well as they should. For example, when a teacher stands in front of a classroom of 30 kids and gives a lecture, after a while, a good majority of the students start having problems following along. While the teacher means well and is teaching to the grade level, many just aren't operating at that level yet. This time spent is a squandered opportunity for those students. We started by solving that problem: how to ensure students are able to learn at their own level when a teacher can't give them one-on-one attention. Then, we worked on tools for teachers and administrators, and so on, solving problems as we encountered them.
BND: How did you finance your endeavors, both initially and as your business grew?
S.K.: Initially, Alex and I just used our savings to develop the first version. Then, as we were getting closer to launch, we received $100,000 in seed funding from an incubator called Imagine K12. We also received some incredible mentorship and assistance as we launched, which was invaluable.About six months after launch, we got a bit more funding — about $1.3 million to build out the idea further. As we kept growing and reaching more schools, we raised another $5.3 million a year later to work on more parts of our product, and building out a more robust team.
BND: How much did you invest personally?
S.K.: Honestly, not much. Maybe under $2,500. What's really lucky about starting a software company is that you don't need much equipment, and you don't have much overhead. It's not as if we needed to buy lemons and a structure for our lemonade stand; we just needed working computers and the ability to design software and write code, which we already had.We used our own computers, didn't have an office at first and didn't use any lawyers. We incorporated ourselves using a registered agent, so that had some fees, and then eventually got a really cheap office. And we had a couple of flights, but stayed with friends when we went to those schools in Baltimore and Chicago.
BND: Is your business today what you originally envisioned at the outset, or has it changed significantly over time?
S.K.: It changes every month, as we are constantly thinking of new ways to innovate and add value, as I think most business do. There are a lot of small changes in how the business works on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, which amounts to big changes over quarters or years. The way we approach building tools for our teachers and students has changed, the way we sell to schools has changed and the way we run the company has changed. Adaptability is absolutely critical to starting and building a business.
BND: What are some lessons you've learned? Is there anything you would've done differently?
S.K.: Tons! Here are the biggest ones:
There is never an "end state." If you view your product as having reached its final state, you'll fail to innovate. If you view your business model as having reached its final state, you'll fail to innovate. If you view your company structure as having reached its final state, you'll fail to innovate. Everything is always a work in progress; there are always ways to improve and advance.
Obsess over what your customers think.We've grown to hundreds of thousands of teachers and millions of students, and I still read every email that comes in from any customer — whether they pay or not. I care a lot about what they think, and am always looking to make their lives easier. And beyond just reading these, they actually impact what we develop.
BND: What were the most important factors that contributed to your success?
S.K.: Obsession with building a great product, finding and convincing amazing people to join our team, paying really close attention to our customers, and constantly adjusting strategy.
BND: What are the next steps you want to take as a business owner? How do you see yourself achieving those goals?
S.K.: We want to continue to grow and serve more teachers and students, and want to make sure we're helping them teach with the best tools possible. That means doing the same stuff we've been doing: paying attention to our customers and building a product they'll love. It gets harder, of course, as the customer base grows, but it's a challenge we are passionate about facing.
BND: What is your best advice to someone with a great business idea who is ready to give it a shot?
S.K.: The biggest advice would be to be patient. Almost everything takes longer than you'd like, and that's OK. You also want to leave yourself tons of time, since some things will inevitably go wrong. Given enough time and effort, you can make your business succeed.