Last week, Los Angeles-based eduFire (www.edufire.com) gave us the details on the firm's recent angel funding. To dig in deeper on what the company is all about, as well as get a better look at the company, we sat down with Jon Bischke, the firm's CEO and Founder, to learn more.
What's the story behind the company, and how it came about?
Jon Bischke: I used to teach for Kaplan, when I was in college, which got me into the field of education. I saw that there was a great opportunity to use technology to help people who want to teach, to allow them to bring their expertise to the web, and not necessarily face-to-face. My first company did training for Microsoft and Cisco. I launched it in 1999 and 2000, and sold it in 2001 to Penton Media. We had built a community for people going through certification, such as engineers, and we had 100,000 people we had helped on those certifications. From that experience, I came out to Los Angeles, and went to business school at UCLA. At business school, I helped start Zaadz. We ended up growing that out and selling it to Gaiam in August of last year. Zaadz was another online community play, related to personal growth.
As part of my time at business school, I had a side project called Learn Out Loud, which was focused on audio educational content, such as audio podcasts, and other resources on everything from learning about philosophy to foreign languages--it was all audio. In 2005, as I was working through the experience at Zaadz, I decided there was a great opportunity to do something with an open platform for online learning. I had been looking around, and talking with a bunch of teachers and experts, and a lot were saying simply -- I want to be able to use the web to teach, but the technology is not there. You can piece together things like Skype, Paypal, etc. but there is really not the technology to connect teachers with students. I started about six months ago, and sat down and talked to a lot of teachers and students, on what they need. Do they need video? A white board? Or what is it you need? We also focused initially on the foreign language vertical. I found that live video was far and away the number one thing that was going to be impactful.
We looked into what was available, and found that the new Flash, real-time, in-browser video experience was getting pretty good, so we focused all our efforts there. Our system is similar to Tokbox and other video services out there, but with a focus on online learning. We've integrated technology around scheduling, payment, and layered across that the video chat functionality.
How long has the service been available?
Jon Bischke: We just launched officially a month ago. We have had over 400 teachers sign up, and so far have had 10,000 unique visitors to the site. We've gotten lots of early traction. It's a very different model from most startups on their web site, because we're able to take credit cards and get paid for sessions. It's never going to be a mass market social media and networking site, but having said that, we're building a lot of tools to encourage a strong community. We have all the basic social networking functions, like a message board and a flash card game--you could spend all day doing flash cards on the site--because the community is a great way to build up the market for teachers. The most common complaint so far is to bring them more students--they love the site, they could teach all day on it, just find me more students. So, we're putting in place the stuff to grow the audience of people who might be interested in learning foreign languages, at least at this point. At a certain point, other things will be taught on eduFire, and we'll let people teach anything they want.
That's an interesting angle--why foreign languages first?
Jon Bischke: That's a great question. One, is we looked at the landscape, and there are some other companies with a lot more focus on basic skills like math and science. There are probably three or four companies who have raised something like $10M. So, in those areas, it's much more competitive. The other thing we felt going into foreign languages, is we could build technology that was global. We have teachers from all over the world already. Our focus wasn't regional or specific to one company--it's a global impact. The third is the technology--with foreign languages, we didn't need to build a white board or stuff like that. The video and audio, and text chat gives 98% of what you would do face to face. At the end of the day, we picked one vertical which would show the proof of concept.
You mentioned some features in addition to the video?
Jon Bischke: There are a number of elements going into finding a good teacher. One is a discovery mechanism. As a teacher, we provide a profile--sort of like a LinkedIn profile. It lists their credentials, and testimonials from past students, including other students on eduFire. You can also embed video from YouTube of you teaching. The complaint you hear from students from a lot of teachers, who might be advertising themselves in the paper or elsewhere, is that they don't know anything about them. The profile gives them a home page on the web, and we're finding that teachers are taking their eduFire page and starting to market it in other places. That's one of the core components of the site. Another feature is scheduling. We have the ability now to schedule a session in the future, and in the not-too-distant future we will allow students to come in and do a session on the fly--you will be able to see who is online, for example if you're looking for someone to teach you Spanish, and you'll see there are ten teachers online, and you can learn now. That scheduling, and the ability to do impromptu sessions is something that is very valuable to teachers.
Once a session happens, we have full motion, real-time video. It's Flash-based, and all in the browser. What we've built is akin to the Tokbox style setup, and it's super easy for someone to use. Once the session is complete, we collect the payment, which we take a 15% fee out of it, and distribute the rest of the payment to the teacher. The final part is the feedback process, which sets us apart from others out there. Rather than determining who can teach, that is entirely determined by the community. They decide who is a good teacher, and who is not. We get the feedback, pump that data into an algorithm, and sort the teachers. The people you see at the top are probably very good, the ones at the bottom probably not very good. Our goal isn't to filter teachers, but to promote the best teachers. Going back to the real world, trying to determine if a teacher is good or not when looking online or browsing a classified ad is trick. We're making it more transparent.
Do you set the fees, or does the teacher?
Jon Bischke: The price that the teachers charge is up to the teacher. They can teach at $15 an hour, or they can charge $100 an hour. Also, say if someone usually charges $30 an hour, they can charge $35 instead because eduFire is taking a percentage. Others will say--I don't have to get in a car to drive to a student, I don't have to pay for gas, and I'll gladly give up 15% not to deal with that. We haven't gotten one instance of pushback from a teacher that this is too high of a fee.
Interesting, it looks like you might also have an advantage over local tutors in that you could use a native teachers from another country.
Jon Bischke: It is really interesting. There are possibilities that didn't exist before. You might be going to Argentina, and instead of learning from someone in Los Angeles -- where there are ton of people teaching Spanish -- you could learn from someone from Argentina. You would not only learn the language like someone in Argentina, you could also get used to the culture, and get ideas of places to go. I have been learning Spanish from someone in Guatemala, and learned as much about Guatemala as I did Spanish. It changes the paradigm of education from something that is local, face-to-face, to soething truly global. I think we're scratching the surface of what that is going to mean.
Finally, let's talk a bit about your recent funding, tell us more about it?
Jon Bischke: We've raised some capital, and have a very small, tight team. What we are going to be doing is raising a larger round this year. There's a big opportunity in the space, because of the fact that no one is pursuing it with the same angle that we are. Some of our competitors have a closed business model--hiring teachers, and paying those teachers $10 an hour and charging students $40, and doing it all online. That's one model. There's certainly some open services -- no business models, but just a generic social network for learning. But, no one has put those things together. Teachers are going to our site, because they want to hang out where the most students are, and students want to find a place with the best teachers. It's an eBay-esque effect, which starts the spiral. That's what we're gearing up to build. Raising capital later this year will be part of that groundwork.