A couple days ago, I counted up how many introductory meetings/calls I've had with leaders of education and Internet companies in this past year since I sold Tutor.com to IAC. About 50. Why am I bothering to count these up?
Each request came from a CEO, founder, or major investor of an early stage or growing company. I made a habit, when I was CEO of Tutor.com, of taking calls and spending 30 minutes with entrepreneurs trying to build something new if they thought my advice could help them (and if they asked politely).
How they handle themselves on the first call, the questions they ask, whether they welcome and graciously accept feedback and criticism, and why they sought my advice out, are some of the factors that determine whether there's a follow up call or meeting, or a promised review of some slides or a business plan.
And I continue to do this now primarily because a couple dozen smart experienced people listened to my ideas and gave me valuable feedback in the early days as I was figuring out how to launch Tutor.com. Some of the best conversation were with blunt naysayers -- "get a day job before you ruin your finances and your family, or at least set a deadline by which you'll get a day job if you can't raise money." Stuff like that.
They weren't wrong -- they just forced me to work harder and be smarter and get more focused, so that I could develop a great response for each of their doubts and concerns. And that's the result I try to achieve when entrepreneurs come to me for advice. Some may not appreciate the tough questions and my tough assessment of their chances of success. That's OK, and hopefully it will get them to work harder to prove me wrong.
After I transitioned out of my CEO role at Tutor.com and came back from the summer break, the requests picked up, maybe doubled. If the business model was promising, the fit was a good one between the entrepreneur and the advice and help I could provide, and the time they wanted was more than a call or two, I would dive in further. Typically with some type of advisory agreement that includes a monthly retainer and/or an equity stake.
Companies I am working with in an advisory role include Grasp Learning (Miami, FL), Credly (NYC), CareBooker (Stamford, CT), and OfficeHours (Atlanta, GA). A few months ago, I was also asked to join the Board of Trustees of Columbia University Teachers College, the top graduate school of education with a 125 year rich history. I am working on the TC Board, the finance committee, the technology committee, and with the EdLab group.
I like the advisory work and Board roles, with the growing companies and with the established higher ed institution -- it's challenging because the situations these leaders are facing are difficult. I can help them avoid some of the mistakes I made and find new ways to grow their businesses and evolve their organizations. I will likely take on a few more companies as advisory clients, as time allows, and I'll continue to take requests to spend a little time with budding and experienced entrepreneurs.
But... what I love most is creating something new and growing it into a real company. A product or service that solves a real world problem, and in at least a small way, makes the world a better place for lots of people.
Being exposed to so many great ideas and entrepreneurs through the conversations and work I describe above (mostly in the intersection of learning and technology) sparks my own creativity. I have been working in the field of education for 30 years, since my first job with The Princeton Review as a 15 year old office assistant and test proctor. So my next venture may very well be in education technology again, since it's the path of least resistance, but...
...my interests are diverse and I have been bitten by another bug of curiosity (excuse the pun that will become clearer later in this paragraph). I wrote about research on the human microbiome a couple years ago in a short blog post. Over the past three years I've been reading deeply into this topic -- the trillions of bacteria and viruses in our bodies, mostly in our guts, and how a healthy balance of those thousands of species of microscopic bugs inside of us (the human microbiome) is necessary to maintain our own health. In the past year, I've had more time to devote to understanding the research, to talking with scientists in the field, and to thinking about possible business ventures. For a good overview, see this recent piece by NPR.
As a next step in my exploration into microbiome research and the scientific and biotech world, I am wading in a little deeper by accepting an Advisory Council post with Johns Hopkins Medicine's Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences. Just received my formal invitation from the Dean/CEO, and am excited to start.
Hopkins has an amazing history of world-changing scientific discoveries, but who knows where the critical microbiome discoveries will come from, changing our understanding of health and disease. For example, the folks at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN actually created a dedicated Microbiome Program in their Center for Individualized Medicine.
OK, that's a long enough post. I'll write again soon with some mainstream reading recommendations for anyone interested in learning more about microbiome research and what it might mean for your health. If you can't wait (since my blogging frequency is inconsistent), email me. And I'll post results my own microbiome analysis (from ubiome and the American Gut Project, two efforts to analyze individual's microbiomes from samples). I'll also share more about the education companies I am working with, as much as I can share, and if you have a venture that could use my help, feel free to reach out.
CEO, Abenaki Ventures
Saturday, January 18, 2014
A couple days ago, I counted up how many introductory meetings/calls I've had with leaders of education and Internet companies in this past year since I sold Tutor.com to IAC. About 50. Why am I bothering to count these up?
Wednesday, October 09, 2013
OK, I'm back. It's been a while since I've blogged or tweeted, but I think I deserved the break. Let's cut to the chase, as I tend to do in all aspects of life:
I spent over 10 years building Tutor.com, from an idea to raising over $30 million in venture and strategic funding, to serving over 10 millions students with immediate online tutoring, and finally to selling the company in January 2013 to Barry Diller's IAC/InteractiveCorp (NASD: IACI). While I still hold the "Founder and Chairman" title at Tutor.com, my operating responsibilities wrapped up a couple months ago.
So after a much less stressful summer, it's naturally time to ask, "what's next"? For friends and colleagues who have been asking, and for anyone else stumbling upon this blog, I am going to try to lay out some cards on the table as I think through the what's next question, in more blog posts to come.
I just joined an advisory board of an early stage education company (Grasp Learning), considering joining another for-profit ed tech company Board of Directors (to be named soon if we agree to move forward), and going to my first Board of Trustees meeting next week as a newly appointed Trustee of Columbia University Teachers College.
My natural process at this point of thinking/researching/deciding is to talk to as many smart people as I can, to go through old notes and ideas I did not have time to explore, and to think crazy and divergently for a while. For as long as the good ideas keep coming, before starting to narrow down the ideas and start crossing stuff off the list.
So, that's where I am now. Might take a few weeks or a few months to get from this stage to the narrowing down and getting serious about planning stage. In the meantime, I'm open to new conversations about your growing venture and possibly working with you to help you avoid the many mistakes I made as an entrepreneur. Maybe I'll see you next week -- speaking on a panel of "Ed Tech Titans" at this NYEd Tech Event on Tuesday night.
CEO, Abenaki Ventures
Thursday, April 18, 2013
In January, I shared that Tutor.com had been acquired by
IAC, a leading media and Internet company. Since then we’ve been thinking
about how to grow our business and ensure that more students of every age will
have access to the on-demand, personalized tutoring services they need.
To help us achieve this goal, I’m excited to welcome two new senior leaders to Tutor.com. We are announcing today that Mandy Ginsberg is joining Tutor.com as our new CEO and Sharmistha Dubey will lead our product and technology strategy. Mandy and Shar are both coming to Tutor.com from Match.com, a successful IAC company. I will remain as Founder and Chairman and work with Mandy and Shar to help deliver on our long-term vision for creating the highest quality and most personalized learning solutions for our clients.
- Sandi White, who has been with Tutor.com for more than a decade, is now the General Manager, Institutions
- Susan DelRosario, who has also been with us for a decade is now Director, Libraries
- Jim Barnes, who has been with us more than a year, is now Vice President, Higher Ed and K-12 Sales
Monday, January 07, 2013
Among our many success stories in 2012 -- students who failed seventh grade algebra took it for the second time with Tutor.com and earned the highest grade in the class; students in the Red Clay School District earned almost a full point higher on their AP exams when using Tutor.com. Older students returning to college passed their challenging writing courses and had the confidence to stay in school; and thousands of middle school and high school students with military parents deployed overseas had one less thing to worry about by connecting to our tutors for help 24/7. These are just a few examples of how having access to an experienced expert when you need help is changing lives for the better.
Monday, September 17, 2012
Last week I had the privilege to give a talk to educational
leaders in Denver as part of a series sponsored by A+Denver and Summit 54. I was invited to discuss the role tutoring
should have in today’s schools and classrooms.
Whenever I give a talk about tutoring, it’s inevitable that I’ll mention
the watershed study on the topic – Benjamin Bloom’s 1984 paper. Bloom was a professor at the University of
Chicago and his research proved that one-to-on tutoring was by far the best way
for students to learn. Bloom’s work was
referenced prominently just this past weekend in “How Computerized Tutors areLearning to Teach Humans” in The New
As I shared in Denver, it’s not only possible and affordable, but it’s critical that we bring more tutoring from real people into our schools. It takes smart technology to do this efficiently and affordably.
Tutoring in the 21st Century Classroom
Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Good summary article in The New York Times today, about Coursera's expansion. Free online courses from some of the best minds at our elite universities, open to anyone.
Joining the initial group (Michigan, Princeton, Stanford, and UPenn), are California Institute of Technology, Duke University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, Rice University, University of California San Francisco, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of Washington, University of Virginia, University of Edinburgh in Scotland, University of Toronto and EPF Lausanne. Some are even starting to offer credits for completion.
Really exciting stuff, even though there's lots to figure out before this goes mainstream and success can be declared for this new model of higher education:
-- Who is going to pay for professor's time, building and maintaining of the technology... overall, what's the business model that will generate sufficient revenues (or any revenues right now) to pay for the costs of these courses.
-- If credits are going to be offered, how to prevent cheating on exams, papers.
-- What needs to be improved in the student and instructor online experiences.
-- How to get the completion rate for students to a decent level. Will students need more support, like peer to peer study groups and tutoring?
At Tutor.com, we're thinking hard about how our software platform and know-how in providing academic support and coaching can contribute to these efforts. On a personal level, I'm looking forward to starting and completing the Introduction to Genome Science course offered on Coursera by University of Pennsylvania faculty. No doubt I'll be learning a great deal,
Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Got an automated call this morning from the Principal of our middle school, informing parents that a bear was spotted outside the school, so they're cancelling after-school activities. I guess a prudent action, given we're in the suburbs of NYC and not in Montana.
But then I got this follow-up email (pasted below in full), making a weird bear announcement situation a little weirder and sadly funny. Maybe I'm too much of a stickler for using language properly, but I guess I expect our educators to use language more carefully.
Unless, of course, this baby bear has just been quoted for saying something special, or the bear was issued a summons to appear in court?
To: George Cigale
Subject: bear citing
Wednesday, June 06, 2012
If you’ve read the
screaming headlines lately such as “Duncan to Florida: Tutoring Doesn’t Work”
in Education Week, and similar articles in local papers across the
country, you might believe that the Secretary of Education thinks that tutoring
doesn’t work. I don’t think that’s true. Secretary Duncan is
actually questioning if tutoring done under the convoluted regulations of the Supplemental
Educational Services (SES) provisions of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is
working. And he’s absolutely right, it isn’t working.
We know, after completing more than 8 million one-to-one on-demand sessions, that more than 90% of the students report they are more confident in school, completing more assignments and improving their grades. In 2009 we asked more than 1,000 students their attitudes toward tutoring and achievement. Here’s what they said:
Ø 86% of student respondents say they would be more likely to take an AP Course if they knew that an expert subject tutor was available to help them online, 24/7, one-to-one, and on-demand, any time they get stuck.
Ø 96% of student respondents say they believe that having an online tutor available whenever they need help would result in them being more ready for college.
Monday, May 21, 2012
Got genuinely excited last week when this month's Scientific American magazine showed up in my mailbox, and the cover was a picture of a human body full of microbes. The cover article is, "Your Inner Ecosystem: In your body bacteria outnumber your own cells 10 to 1. Who's in control?"
A sampling below of my recent readings and podcasts on this topic, that brought on these lectures that brought on my interest in learning more about gut bacteria, and talking about :
Snippet from the article: “Bacterial cells in the body outnumber human cells by a factor of 10 to 1. Yet only recently have researchers begun to elucidate the beneficial roles these microbes play in fostering health. Some of these bacteria possess genes that encode for beneficial compounds that the body cannot make on its own. Other bacteria seem to train the body not to overreact to outside threats. Advances in computing and gene sequencing are allowing investigators to create a detailed catalogue of all the bacterial genes that make up this so-called microbiome. Unfortunately, the inadvertent destruction of beneficial microbes by the use of antibiotics, among other things, may be leading to an increase in autoimmune disorders and obesity.“ Really worth picking up the magazine or subscribing to the digital edition to read the whole article.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
Great commentary by Alvin Crawford of KDSI on the future of professional development and support for K12 teachers, , in Education Week at http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/09/09/03crawford.h31.html?r=542833189 . Full text below...
Published Online: September 9, 2011
Education Week Commentary
Bringing Professional Development Into the 21st Century
By Alvin H. Crawford
Our school systems are broken, but everyone seems to have his or her favorite villain rather than a strategic approach to producing positive student outcomes. Unions, teachers, districts, parents, politics, school choice, and competition all play a role, but the blame game doesn’t address the core problem. Here’s the reality: If we fix public education, every child will have an opportunity to break the cycle of poverty, and the United States will have an opportunity to play a role in the global knowledge economy. The challenge is determining the real source of the problem and providing a solution that works for every school in the nation. And those are no small tasks.
Research suggests the problems lie not with the students but with the adults. Teacher-performance research clearly illustrates we have a teaching problem in school districts. It suggests the quality of a classroom teacher is the single most important element in a child’s success. Given such data, one might conclude there are more suboptimal teachers than great ones. But let’s not immediately point fingers at teachers. Arguably, most enter the profession hoping to have an impact on children, yet a third leave after three years, and 50 percent after five years. The heart of the problem is that there are too many poorly trained administrators, principals, and teachers. In most industries, people are considered the most important asset, and corporate leaders ensure they are trained to do their jobs effectively. Public schools should be no different.
However, most foundations and policymakers have focused on accountability and evaluation rather than training. The assumption: If we measure teachers more effectively, we can get rid of the bad ones. The problem is too deep and systemic, though. In short, we cannot fire or hire our way out of this problem. The statistics suggest that if we develop a support system for principals and teachers to train them effectively, we will change education culture, retain new educators more effectively, enhance the performance of existing staff members, and identify those who, despite effective training, can’t meet standards and should pursue other careers.
According to several studies, school districts spend more than $10,000 on teacher professional development per teacher, per year. The number is startling and, in most cases, represents an amount far greater than any district budgets or believes it spends. In most instances, staff development is funded through a combination of federal funds (Titles I, II, III, and IV, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), several district-level departmental budgets (curriculum and instruction, accountability, professional development, and human resources), and school-level budgets. In most instances, no centralized accounting exists for those dollars, either in how they’re spent or their overall impact.
"In most industries, people are considered the most important asset, and corporate leaders ensure they are trained to do their jobs effectively. Public schools should be no different."
But the body of research reveals that staff-development costs, including central-office and local staff, hours of teacher time, stipends, salary increases, substitutes, facilities, instructors, and material expenditures hover in the range of $8,000 to $16,000 per teacher, per year, especially in larger districts. Most districts have no idea they spend that much on staff development. Sadly though, most administrators agree their professional-development outlay has no correlation with student-achievement results.
The $10,000-per-teacher cost could be justified if a significant change in teacher practice or student achievement were the result. But most professional development today lacks alignment to student-achievement needs, fidelity of implementation, and scale or reach. Professional-development days are historically spread throughout the year and delivered by internal resources through one-day trainings with little or no follow-up. In most cases, the inch-deep and train-the-trainer approaches to professional development won’t transform practice.
Scaling effective practice is also a significant issue. Most training takes place outside the classroom, an arrangement that requires coordination of days, substitutes, trainers, and facilities. This means many initiatives take six to eight years to reach all teachers in a given school or district, creating isolated pockets of knowledge but no systemic change in overall teacher practice. Research should dictate the model and methods for training all employees, but curiously, over 15 years ago, the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, or CPRE, wrote a report on professional development that largely echoes the same problems we have today: lack of alignment, fidelity, and scale.
There is a “paucity” of solid research on the impact of professional development on student achievement, the U.S. Department of Education has found. In reviewing 1,300 studies on the subject, the department found that only nine of them met What Works Clearinghouse standards for research. However, the nine studies agreed that “teachers who receive substantial professional development” can raise student achievement “by about 21 percentile points.” A report by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education concluded that to be effective, professional development must be focused, engaging, intensive, linked to student learning, supported with coaching, and integrated with other school initiatives, and continuous for “an average of about 50 hours or more on a given topic.”
Given the challenges and the evidence, how do we deliver effective professional development to teachers in a way that aligns to strategic objectives, provides the fidelity and rigor required to change instructional practice, and offers the scale required to address the needs of more than 50 million students?
The only effective way to scale professional development is to leverage online learning. Online professional development can deliver dozens of hours to teachers within eight weeks and includes collaborative learning environments supported effectively by coaching, modeling, mentoring, observation, and feedback. Online professional development works because it reduces travel costs and coordination, minimizes time out of the classroom, and allows educators to learn at their own pace. In fact, research suggests that online learning happens faster than face-to-face learning, with increased retention of the material.
Online professional development engages educators in high-quality learning by adhering to best practices in adult learning. It promotes differentiated coursework while enabling teachers to engage collaboratively with colleagues who share their learning needs. By delivering effective, differentiated online professional development, districts leverage the powerful advantages of technology and the online-learning environment. Districts delivering online professional development realize cost savings, scale critical instructional practices, differentiate teacher learning, advance strategic human-capital management, maintain intentional fidelity, and transform teaching.
Building educator capacity this way allows districts to focus on fixing the problems, immediately. Imagine if a district could effectively train 5,000 teachers in the common-core curriculum, differentiated instruction, cultural competency, effective teaching, instruction of English-language learners, formative assessment, and highly engaging classroom practice. Those courses could be delivered in less than six months to all teachers by the nation’s leading practitioners, with research-proven practice.
Imagine the dialogue. Imagine the engagement when principals, teachers, and coaches go about their work. There would be a common language and culture focused on addressing the problems. There would be a support system to help transform learning into practice. There would be a way to evaluate whether teachers who receive training and face-to-face support can meet the demands of rigorous instruction through end-of-year evaluations. And there would be transformational improvement in the ability of teachers to meet the needs of their students.
It’s time to take action and invest in developing our educators to meet the needs of 21st-century students by becoming 21st-century teachers. We can solve this problem by focusing our efforts, our investments, and our school districts on building capacity through online professional development.