Q&A With Elena Krasnoperova, Founder of SchoolCircle
EdTech Times met with Ms. Elena Krasnoperova, founder of SchoolCircle – a very young startup company developing platform enabling teachers and parents to communicate among themselves and to create communities.
Company at Glance:
Founders: Elena Krasnoperova
Founded: May 2014
Category: Parent-teacher communication
Product stage: Market
Company Twitter: @SchoolCircleInc
Founder Twitter: @e_krasnoperova
ETT: What is the market segment your company is in?
EK: We are a communication platform for teachers and parents of students in PreK-8 schools.
ETT: Who are your core customers?
EK: Our core customers are teachers and parents of students in PreK-8 schools. It is mostly used by teachers or room parents to communicate with parents in a given classroom, but we’re also seeing parent circles emerging for boy/girl scout groups, after-school activity groups and parent volunteer groups.
ETT: How did you come across the problem you’re addressing and how did you define it – what was your process in identifying it?
EK: I came across the problem in my personal experience as a mom of two kids in elementary school.
As a working parent, I wanted to be really involved in my kids’ education but was struggling to stay on top of all the communications and requests I was getting from the school. Most of the communication was arriving via emails or paper flyers, and required a lot of work on my part to figure out where I needed to be and what I needed to do. Despite my best efforts, I kept forgetting important things related to my kids – like sending the library book to school on Library Day, dressing them in PJs on Pajama Day or (worse) picking them up on time on early dismissal day.
So the problems that I was experiencing were 1) information overload, 2) the amount of manual work required to manage that communication, 3) the fear and guilt of being a “bad Mom” who misses important things in her kids’ school lives.
At first I thought “surely there’s an app for this”, and it’s just a matter of finding it. But after a lot of research and many conversations with my fellow parents, I concluded that there was no one perfect app to help us stay on top of school communication. Instead, there were of apps, each of which addressed a different sliver of the overall problem. All the apps required parents to create and remember yet another username and password, and they were not integrated with each other or with any of the productivity or communication tools parents use for other aspects of their lives.
So we set out to build an app that would make it much easier for teachers and room parents to communicate with parents, and for parents to stay on top of the important things happening at their kids’ schools. That’s how SchoolCircle was born.
ETT: How did you develop a solution to this particular problem and what was your process of arriving at it?
EK: I went through a very intensive customer discovery process with hundreds of parents and teachers to validate both the problem that we were addressing, and the proposed solution.
I proved “beyond reasonable doubt” that I was not the only mom who was struggling with these issues, and that there was a real need among many customers for a solution that made teacher-parent communication and coordination truly effortless and complete. I got a lot of enthusiastic “yes”s to our proposed solution – a free web-based service that would include all school-related communication in a single portal, and also include structured, digest-style email summaries to remind parents of where they needed to be and what they needed to bring, and to keep them informed about their students’ progress and activities.
ETT: How do you reach your core customer – be it a teacher or a parent?
EK: Our biggest and most effective marketing channel is word of mouth from our current customers. We are very fortunate to have a passionate and fast-growing community of teachers and parents who tell their fellow teachers and parents about our service. It is incredibly gratifying to see a single class at a new school get onto SchoolCircle and lead to many other classes at that school joining the service in a matter of days.
As for proactive marketing efforts, we rely primarily on owned and earned marketing channels – our own website, our blog, PR and social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. We are big believers in content marketing, which involves creating genuinely helpful, non-promotional content, and having prospective customers discover it through organic search. For example, a major source of traffic to our website is our room parent guide. We created it to help new room parents figure out what’s involved in their role supporting the teacher, and how to do the job most effectively.
Last but not least, we do a lot of personal evangelizing at our local schools, and at events such as parent education fairs, or at professional development conferences for teachers and school administrators. In fact, the first person to join SchoolCircle as a full-time employee was our Head of Community, Grace Chen, who is a mom of three kids herself and knows firsthand the challenges of juggling a busy family life with a professional career.
ETT: What it is that you’re doing differently than your competitors? And do you expect to develop other differentiators in the future?
EK: There are lots of things that we are doing differently than the competition.
Some of our competitors are more vertically focused (e.g., they do just volunteer signups), whereas we include different aspects of the functionality (such as volunteer signups) into a single integrated platform. Other competitors are broad-based platforms that weren’t “genetically engineered” for the school use case, whereas our platform was designed specifically for – and by – teachers and parents, and is truly optimized for that use case. Lastly, some of our competitors are providing tools for teacher-parent communication as an extension of another business within the education technology space. For us, teacher-parent and school communication is at the core of what we do.
The other big point of differentiation is that our service is completely free. There are no subscriptions, no upgrades, no free trials, no premium features – we just help teachers and parents easily do what they came here to do, without the money ever being a barrier. Our platform is also advertising-free, which translates into a very simple and clean user experience, without any distractions or spam. We are parents and teachers ourselves, and we treat our customers how we want to be treated.
ETT: Please describe your product development strategy and product stage. What we should expect to see from your company in the next 12 months – i.e. describe your potential next milestones?
EK: As our CTO can attest, we have been moving at breakneck speed in our product development (his neck is hurting!). We built the initial version of the product in less than three months (though we probably crammed three years worth of work into that time period). In the month and a half since the release, we implemented lots of product suggestions from our customers. We added new customer onboarding flows (e.g., giving room parents the ability to create circles) and whole new sets of functionality such as volunteer signups for tasks, events and recurring event series. The next 12 months will continue to be as exciting. We will keep adding more functionality so that parents and teachers can use the platform even more effectively (e.g., parents will be able to communicate with each other to get information or to organize carpools and play dates with their fellow parents), while still preserving the simplicity of the interface and the user experience.
ETT: Could you tell us about other startups or product builds that you have been a part of and what your role was?
EK: I have more years of business experience than I care to admit! For over a decade, I worked at large global technology companies such as Microsoft (by way of BCG), eBay and PayPal, and for the last five years, I worked as an executive at startups such as Zong (acquired by PayPal for $240M) and oDesk. I’m also actively involved in several startups as an advisory board member, mentor or investor. SchoolCircle is the first company which I founded, and my friends greeted my announcement of it with “What took you so long?” Starting and running my own company has been a lifelong dream, and I feel like I’m doing exactly what I was meant to do.
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?
EK: Yes, I’m very fortunate to have many incredible mentors and advisors, some of whom are also investors in the company. They include former eBay or PayPal execs such as Dana Stalder, Sean Aggarwal, Simon Rothman and David Marcus, and fellow parents and entrepreneurs such as Alex Stolyar, Angela Song, Jennie Wong, Odysseas Tsatalos and Ryan Kottenstette. I am very grateful to them for their continued support and advice.
ETT: Where is education technology market going in the next few years?
EK: Education technology is a very exciting and fluid field, with many players, new and existing. There is a lot of experimentation going on, with different companies trying out different technology platforms, business models and go-to-market strategies. I think in the next few years we will see some industry consolidation take place, with a smaller number of “best of breed” players emerging as winners.
ETT: What advice, if any, do you have for someone thinking about launching a company in the education technology market?
EK: Focus on one problem shared by a large group of customers, and solve it well.
EdTech Times thanks Elena for sharing her experience and insight with our readers, and we suggest you check out SchoolCircle 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.