Q&A With Aaron Michel, Co-founder of PathSource
EdTech Times had the pleasure to speak with Aaron Michel, co-founder and CEO of PathSource, a company that develops career navigation and education solution technology – enabling students to make better decisions about their future careers. Join us in reading what Mr. Michel had to say.
Company at Glance:
Founders: Aaron Michel and Alex Li
Founded: Relaunched in 2012 (it was incorporated in 2009).
Category: EdTech and HR
Product stage: Early stage
Aaron Michel’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/aaronmmichel
Company Twitter: @pathsource
Angel.co profile: https://angel.co/pathsource
App Download Page: www.pathsource.com/app
ETT: How would you define the market segment your company is in? Who are your core customers?
AM: For the past couple of years we have focused solely on the K-12 market – primarily at risk middle school and high school students in public schools.
Today, we are expanding our market to include young Americans over 18 years old. While our suite of tools can make a career-altering impact on a broad range of ages and socio-economic demographics, our marketing will initially focus on young adults from 18-25 years old who are in or recently attended college.
ETT: How did you identify the problem you’re addressing? What was your process in identifying it?
AM: My co-founder Alex Li and I have different motivations for starting PathSource.
For me, the concept of PathSource arose initially in part because I wished I had it in high school or college. Until my early twenties, I was certain that I was going to become an environmental lawyer. More specifically, I was going to start working as an environmental lawyer and then I was going to sell out, work in corporate law and continue practicing pro bono environmental law on the side. It seemed like a great plan.
I did some somewhat “fluffy” environmental internships during college and had a terrific time. Then I applied to some law schools and got in. Just before I left for law school I decided that perhaps I should do an internship in corporate law before spending 3 years and $100,000+ on a legal education. It was the best decision I ever made.
Within a week I knew that I would be terrible at that job – and would be absolutely miserable if I continued down the path to becoming an attorney. So I narrowly dodged the bullet. But millions of people make education and career decisions that will lead to years of frustration and thousands of dollars of opportunity cost because they lack good guidance and information.
ETT: And what was the process of arriving at the solution to this particular problem?
AM: We got there by making lots of mistakes and then correcting them. We started with just a general idea of doing job videos. Then focus groups with young adults taught us that they absolutely hated our initial concept of doing graphically impressive videos with CEOs of companies and making them 10-15 minutes long so we could fit a lot of good content in. The term they used to describe the videos was “infomercials.” They said they would never watch them in that format.
We took their feedback and totally redid the format of the videos to make them shorter, more gritty and authentic. Now 93% of students say that they would recommend us to a friend. In the San Francisco Unified School District 50% of students who didn’t know what they wanted to do found a job that excited them after using PathSource for just 1-2 hours. We eventually got it right and really hit a home run.
Over time we added and tested new components of our solution, like our career and lifestyle assessments, our job skills and soft skills curriculum and our career data. Today we’ve created an incredible user experience that takes young adults from “I don’t have a clue what I want to do” to “I have a job.” It’s been very rewarding to see the results.
ETT: What makes your solution different from the competitors’ – what it is that you’re doing differently than your competitors?
AM: If we define the competition in terms of what mobile direct-to-consumer career management tools exist today for young adults, there’s not much out there. There are not even that many web-based tools.
There are two primary types of online career service tools that exist in the market today – first, there are a ton of Myers Briggs type tests out there as well as other assessments that take in a bunch of information about you and then spit back out 5 or 10 jobs that are a good fit for you, along with a 1-2 paragraph description of each job. Those assessments are a good start but then the user is supposed to make a decision about the direction of their lives based on a paragraph or two of information. These solutions are simply insufficient.
Second, there are all sorts of web-based variations on job boards. Some have videos. Some have algorithms. Few are mobile and almost none are mobile, useful and have a good UX.
PathSource is the only career tool – web-based or mobile – that connects the dots between education, careers, lifestyle and budget. We have assessments that serve as a good starting point, and then we connect the results to a library of 2,600 proprietary informational interviews on video and an extraordinary amount of educational and job data. All of this enables a user to get a holistic perspective on a given career path. Finally, the user can apply for the job, all in the palm of their hand. That’s something new under the sun.
It’s also why we have so much interest in our mobile app.
ETT: Please tell more about your product stage and what we should expect to see from your company in the next 12 months – i.e. describe your potential next milestones.
AM: For the last couple of years we’ve been offering a SaaS solution to some of America’s largest school districts. In November we’ll roll out our mobile app, which culls some of the key elements of our SaaS solution and packages them for a consumer audience.
After the initial rollout, you can expect to see our HR-related tools – tools that enable young adults to differentiate themselves in a crowded job market – go through some very exciting changes. Our video library will also continue to grow and our tools are constantly being enhanced.
ETT: Are you a disruptor, and why so? Do you believe you will remain as a disruptor in near foreseeable future or become a more mature company? Why is that so?
AM: If you mean are we displacing the status quo and radically improving existing practices for our core customers, then the answer is unequivocally yes.
We’ve conducted an immense amount of market research with young Americans to understand what career-related problems exist in K-12, in college and right after graduation. The takeaway is that tools available at each of these life stages are deeply underwhelming. Right now, students rely on underfunded counseling resources and nearly nonexistent online career management tools. There are 467 students to each counselor in K-12 and over 2,000 students per counselor in college. At the same, college career centers with tiny budgets have to pay for weak resources like the Ferguson Career Guidance Center, which are hopelessly outdated.
Our platform has already been proven at the middle school and high school level where we offer a broad set of tools tailored to K-12.
Over the next year we’re entering the college market with a very compelling value proposition. The colleges are being offered free access to the app, including our in-depth videos, as long as they ensure that a minimum percentage of students download the app. For everyone else the app is free but if you want to watch the second half of our videos, which we call in-depth videos, then you either have to share the app, sign in very frequently or pay a few bucks. So, in essence, the value proposition to colleges is “You get free access to an amazing suite of career guidance tools not available anywhere else – as long as your students are actually using it.”
That’s a disruptive new model and it’s why 8 colleges representing 110,000 students (.5% of the college market) have tentatively signed on with us in the last two weeks alone.
ETT: Could you tell us about other startups or product builds that you have been a part of and what your role was?
AM: A few years back I founded and was CEO of a company called Fantasy Politics, which went through the MassChallenge incubator. The concept was straightforward – fantasy football for politics. It was a lot of fun and we started quite a few interesting arguments/conversations among political junkies. For example, our advisors included people who had been senior staff to Ted Kennedy and others who had been senior staff to Arnold Schwarzenegger. When we put them together on the phone, it sounded like World War 3 had just begun.
As you might imagine, we got quite a bit of press, including USA Today, NPR and other outlets. I’ve stepped away from an active role in the company. It’s relaunching with an enhanced website in partnership with MassDigi ahead of the 2016 election.
ETT: Did you or do you currently have a mentor who is/has been helping you through the startup stages of the company? Who is that mentor?
AM: We’re fortunate to have a number of mentors and great investors who are willing to devote time and resources to helping us make a big impact and build a great business. Here’s my quasi-short list of our mentors: The Ironfire Capital team, Francis Ng at the Yat Sen Foundation, Pierre Leroy, Steve Martello, Eileen Rudden, Wasabi Ventures and my family. Each of them has devoted substantial time to mentoring us. We also have other investors who have made a major impact with their investment but whose hands are too full to devote themselves to mentoring an early stage company.
ETT: Where do you see the education technology market going in the next few years?
AM: I don’t think there is a single EdTech market that can be discussed as though it’s monolithic. There are a number of market segments that are each going to shift in different ways. For the sake of brevity, I’ll just touch upon K-12 and MOOCs.
Having spent the last couple of years really getting to know K-12, I’d say this about it: it’s incredibly slow to change. But it is changing. The increasing role of charter schools, decreasing strength of the unions, the advent MOOCs and the explosion of free content are slowly churning their way through the status quo. I don’t know where it’s going to come out. A lot will depend on how buying processes change over the next decade. Will school districts continue to be enterprise sales customers or will buying and decision-making power get increasingly decentralized alongside a growing river of free educational content?
MOOCs are also an interesting but dangerous game. A number of top tier colleges are playing along for now and giving free access to their content – but I don’t get the sense that there’s a clear strategy behind them doing so. At some point I think they may start pulling back from that unless a corresponding source of revenue can be found. If that happens, the next question will be whether MOOCs powered by peer-to-peer education can find a viable business model.
ETT: What advice, if any, do you have for someone thinking about launching a company in the education technology market?
AM: No one said entrepreneurship is easy, particularly in education. But the rewards, both monetary and in terms of positive impact, can be incredible.
EdTech Times thanks Mr. Aaron Michel for sharing his and company’s background with us, and we recommend you check out PathSource at:
Yevgeny Ioffe, or as people call him, Yev, has been working in both the startup world and established companies. His career spans from joining Xplana Learning as it launched to Cengage Learning to MBS Direct when it acquired Xplana in 2009. Yevgeny brings to EdTech Times his passion for start-ups and technology, along with his interest in the ever evolving world of edtech. Yevgeny obtained his BSc and MA from Brandeis University and MBA from Boston College.