What's the inspiration behind Levered Learning?
As a classroom teacher, the biggest challenge throughout my 20-year career was how to meet the needs of the range of students in every class. That led me to taking the unusual (some would say crazy) step of developing a self-paced pencil and paper math curriculum while teaching full time. Not only was the program effective, but kids and parents loved it because of how well it met every student’s individual needs. The downside was that managing it added an additional hour or more of prep time to my daily workload, as it required me to physically check in every student’s work each day.
During my hour drive to school one day, I started thinking about what I should do with the file cabinet full of math lessons that I had built up, and the idea of the Levered system just popped into my head. Over the next few weeks, that daily commute turned into an extended brainstorming session where the program really took shape. It didn’t take me long to realize that the 12 years I had spent fine tuning my pencil and paper approach to personalized learning gave me a unique perspective on how technology should be applied to support more effective instruction. The next year I switched to a part-time position, and started working on the prototype.
How did you meet your co-founder?
In the early days of the company, I decided to participate in a local pitch contest that was focused on social impact entrepreneurs. Joshua was working as a startup consultant at the time and had volunteered as a pitch coach for all participants. After building his recommendations into my pitch, I came away with a 3rd place finish in the contest. Considering I was a team of one at the time, and that Levered was still pre-revenue, it felt like a pretty solid outcome! After the contest, Joshua offered to have coffee and to debrief a little. That conversation led to him working with Levered as a consultant for the next few years. In 2018 he moved to full-time, and in 2019 he formally came on as my co-founder and Levered’s CTO.
My working relationship with Joshua is pretty effortless, because of all the ways we complement each other. While I was diving deep into education for 20 years, Joshua was building up a rich and diverse set of skills and experience in business and tech. He’s been the president of an e-commerce company, led offshore product and web development teams, and he codes. We also balance each other in temperament. His level-headedness helps me focus on our big picture vision and channel it into forward momentum.
How do you handle risk and competition?
As an individual, I think I’m a risk-taker by nature. I am always happy to jump into challenging situations and new roles, knowing that I can figure things out along the way. Because my family and I feel so strongly about Levered’s mission, and its impact for students and teachers, we put a lot on the line to create the company. As we’ve grown, we’ve been able to manage risk as a company by focusing on our problem/solution fit, letting our mission drive our partnerships, and create strong relationships with our schools and districts. Most of our early growth came from teacher-to-teacher and principal-to-principal referrals.
In terms of competition, we set ourselves apart by being a comprehensive instructional system, allowing us to replace not only other online learning tools, but traditional textbooks and printed workbooks as well. That’s a pretty unique value proposition in the edtech world. Combined with our commitment to outstanding customer support, it has led to a high level of confidence and loyalty from our customers that continues to fuel our growth.
What’s been the #1 (or two) top challenges you’ve faced while launching your company?
Initially the biggest challenge was figuring out how to integrate all of the best teaching strategies I’d learned in the classroom into a single, comprehensive system. The first couple years of piloting were essential. I spent hours in every classroom we worked with talking to teachers and students. We were co-teaching, modeling instructional strategies, and making improvements and adjustments based on feedback from the teachers, students and my own observations.
Now that we have the instructional system dialed in and a consistent track record of impact, our new big challenge is to create curriculum fast enough to meet the demands from schools and districts, while maintaining the quality they’ve learned to expect from us.
Have you learned anything new or surprising about yourself through this process?
I never thought I could be an effective salesperson. After years of helping my wife run her jewelry business and sitting in at her booth during art shows, we had plenty of data to back that up. But talking to potential customers about Levered has been a totally different experience because of how strongly I believe in the impact of the program, and the difference it can make in the lives of students and teachers. It’s easy to connect with educators because I’ve been in the trenches myself and I know the pain points firsthand.
Where do you see the future of hybrid learning/educational platforms in a post-COVID world?
The idea that educators should have to patch together an instructional program using multiple tools that don’t share data or align in methodology is unfair to the teachers, and has proven ineffective for students. It’s not that we don’t know what good teaching looks like, it’s just that it’s usually really hard to do, and edtech hasn’t done enough to make it easier.
What educators will need in the post-COVID world is the same thing they needed before, namely an instructional system that provides accurate data about where kids are in real-time, and which make that data actionable by connecting it directly to a flexible, high quality curriculum that can adapt to the needs of each student. We really believe that Levered’s integrated, systems-level approach to teaching and learning is the future of 21st century education.
Why did you decide to raise from the crowd?
We love the idea of democratizing the investment process, and opening Levered up to a broader group of investors who support our mission. Because of the immediacy of the pandemic, school site closures and distance learning, we felt this was the right time to get our message out to a broader audience and to scale our business and its impact for students and teachers.
What’s your team culture like?
We’re a mission-driven bunch. Our passion for helping students and teachers drives the work. Everyone on the team takes tremendous pride in the impact the program has had on student learning so far. We also recognize that a lot of our success has come from decisions that went against conventional wisdom. As a result, we tend to have a pretty healthy distrust of the status quo and normal operating procedure. We’re committed to diversity in all forms, and are conscious about validating and honoring our different perspectives and experiences.
What is your superpower?
Teaching. I feel like all teachers are superheroes; even more so today considering the extra challenges they are facing with distance learning.
An elementary teacher has to fill so many roles at the same time: planning instruction, supporting students, responding to parent concerns, and building strong personal relationships to support students on an emotional as well as academic level. To do all that well, year after year, takes superhero skills and stamina.
What’s your kryptonite?
Boredom, but I haven’t been near it in a long time.
Do you have any unusual routines or habits?
I’m pretty obsessive about tracking the hours that I work. As I write this, I’m about a week away from hitting 10,000 hours since I started Levered.
Do you have any other hobbies/things you like to do in your spare time?
I’ve played the drums since 6th grade, but most of my jam sessions these days are with my (almost) 3 year old daughter. Spending time with my family is pretty much all I do in my spare time, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Are there any apps or gadgets that you can’t live without?
I’ve always been a bit of an audiophile. When I fly for work, I bring a 160 GB iPod Classic with uncompressed versions of all my favorite albums connected to a Fiio portable headphone amp and some good in-ear monitors. Then I cover those with Bose noise-canceling headphones, and I’ve got a pretty ideal listening environment. even on a noisy plane.
If you could give yourself one piece of advice 5 years ago, what would it be?
It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. No, wait- it’s an ultra-marathon. Hold on, it’s actually more like back-to-back ultramarathons forever. Anyways, pace yourself!