Sean McElrath, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., needed his parents’ consent to miss a few days of class this week, but it wasn’t to steal away on vacation or tour a few college campuses.
McElrath is the founder and CEO of Hallway, an online education forum that helps students connect with others from across the world to discuss academic questions. The company is making its official debut this week at DEMO Fall 2012, an annual conference renowned for showcasing some of the world’s most promising young technology companies.
On Friday, On Small Business caught up with McElrath to chat about Hallway and his expectations for the conference.
How does Hallway work?
Basically, you go to the website, you set up a profile, and there are two levels of sharing. On the first level, everything is posted by subject. If you want to post a question about chemistry, you submit it in that area and anyone following the chemistry subject can answer and leave note with helpful information.
The other level is classes. So, to facilitate the type of learning that still goes on within your smaller class structure, like about specific assignments or test dates, you can create a class group of 20 or 30 students, where you are doing essentially the same thing as the subject level but only inviting your classmates to participate.
What sparked the idea?
During my sophomore year, many of my peers’ classes started moving to online platforms such as Facebook and Google Docs to start sharing educational content, but I noticed that all those sites were using to connect were very imperfect platforms for the type of collaboration that was going on.
For example, everything shared on Facebook revolves around your friends. I wanted to create a platform where all the content was centralized across subjects, which would essentially tear down school walls so you could share information with anyone, anywhere, regardless of what school you go to or where you live.
Luckily, I had just started an entrepreneurship club at my high school and I got paired up with Evan [Burfield, chairman of Startup DC], Jonathon Perrelli, a founding partner of Fortify Ventures, and Will Fuentes, the CEO of Lemur. I pitched the idea for Hallway during one of our club meetings, and Evan was really passionate about reinventing education and said we should sit down, and one thing led to another, and ended up founding a company.
Where did you get funding?
Our first round was led by Fortify, and we’re currently raising an intermediate round, which Fortify is also going to be in on, but we’re also looking for multiple other investors. We have been pitching the last week or so and we just opened up a convertible note that we’re using for that round. We have had a lot of interest from local investors, and we recently received emails from four or five VC firms in the Valley, but we going to hold off on that until raising our Series A round.
What has been the biggest challenge of launching a company while still in high school?
The only real challenge is balancing time for schoolwork and Hallway. But the interesting paradox is that I can always use Hallway to help get my schoolwork done.
What has been the biggest perk?
The biggest advantage is, because we’re students, we’re in the best position of anyone to pull of an education platform. Every day, I’m immersed in our market, so I can talk to kids about how they are using the site and get feedback about what features they want and which ones they aren’t using as often. That’s something we don’t take for granted and I think it gives us an edge over the others in our space.
How did you get invited to debut at DEMO?
For the first part of the competition, we had to submit a minute-long video explaining our vision and what we were trying to accomplish with the product. Our marketing director, Allison Chou, created this awesome video in a pretty short amount of time, showing what Hallway was and taking video of our typical days, which made it pretty unique since we’re still in high school. In the second round, each winning submission from each of the Startup America regions competed through online applications, and a panel of judges chose the finalists. We were lucky enough to be chosen as one of those to go out to DEMO.
Did you run into any trouble getting permission to skip class?
Yeah, I had to sit down with my parents over dinner and tell them why this was such an amazing opportunity. But once I explained DEMO and how much it could help, it wasn’t too hard to get them to let me to take a few days off.
Besides building the buzz around your company, what are your expectations for DEMO?
We have been really lucky to be in D.C. and seen some of the amazing companies being built here in the city. But I think this first trip to the Valley is going to give us whole new perspective, just to see this start-up world that none of us have visited yet, it’s an exciting opportunity.
What does the future hold for Hallway?
When we made Hallway, we recognized that the most organic, most profound sharing of educational content happens between peers, so for now, we’re only peer-to-peer. Down the road, we are definitely keeping in mind that we are generating some very valuable data that could help teachers in the classroom. But for now, we’re sticking with the peer-to-peer model.
Our primary vision for Hallway is to completely change the way students learn and interact online. I think there is a great opportunity with all the digital content available to create a community where students can interact with each other from all over the world, where, for example, I can quickly get help from the best calculus students in the world regardless of whether they live in India or California.
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