This week, a serial entrepreneur comfortable in one market seeks suggestions on how to break into others. — Dan Beyers
Now on his sixth education technology start-up, Christopher Etesse definitely qualifies as a serial entrepreneurial. He built his first venture while earning a master’s degree in computer science at the University of Kentucky. After grad school he moved to Washington, D.C. to work for Thompson Educational Publishing, where he built that company’s first learning management system, which was acquired by Pearson Education. Next Etesse joined then-start-up Blackboard, where he spent the next eight years.
He eventually left to start a new company, then joined another start-up that was bought by Blackboard. “I found myself back for a second tour of duty,” he says, where he focused on solutions to cut costs in higher education while increasing student outcomes at the same time. In spring 2016, Etesse saw a new opportunity.
George Mason University runs a popular computer game design program that also includes a large community program for middle-school and high-school students and military veterans. When the program directors couldn’t find nearly enough qualified teachers to teach the almost 100 courses they offer to the diverse age groups and aptitudes across the programs, they launched a company to create their own solution. Etesse came on board to help the new Manassas, Va.-based company, Scriyb, commercialize a product that allows a teacher to educate hundreds of students simultaneously in small cohorts.
Christopher Etesse, chief executive, Scriyb
“Scriyb is trying to solve the shortage of workforce and training instructors. At the heart of our software is an engine of algorithms and artificial intelligence machine learning that allows the scarce teacher or expert to teach hundreds of students at one time. Our software creates ideal small cohorts of students, based on game theory. We group similar students together the way a teacher would in a classroom to help the groups learn and progress together. Our algorithms also use social and psychological personality theory to match the students in virtual subgroups that encourages social engagement and peer-to-peer learning. We also provide experts and curriculum as part of our solution.
“For example, in Prince William County Public Schools in Virginia, they had one cybersecurity teacher and 90,000 students. They couldn’t find 12 cybersecurity teachers to put in all the high schools. But Scriyb allows that one teacher to live-stream – similar to Facebook Live or Periscope – across four high schools to teach virtually. The teacher can also bring in guest experts. The students can remain in their individual physical high schools. Scriyb also archives all of the teaching sessions to create libraries of curriculum.
“We are currently working with K-12 school districts, higher education, and a lot of corporations and government agencies that are looking to offer training for employees. Our initial hypothesis was that Scriyb would have the best fit in higher education, where we thought the teacher/expert shortage was greatest. But we are actually seeing that this expert/training shortage is greatest in K-12 education and corporations and government. What advice do you have for a serial entrepreneurial such as myself with a long history in one market who now finds himself with a product and a company with the greatest opportunity in a bigger workforce and training market?
Liz Sara, board chair of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business
“It seems like Scriyb’s capabilities ‘under the hood’ are very complex and sophisticated. In looking at your various target markets, I would encourage you to take a step back and think about each of those targets – which are very different with very different needs – and understand where your sophisticated technology best solves the biggest pain point. Each of your markets differs greatly and the needs/pains will be different.
“Take your team off-site to take a good hard look at your target markets. Really assess the market segments that you know well and those that you are finding the best fit. In a thorough investigation, you might find that there is no real competitor in some of the markets that you outlined and you’d be best focusing there. Understand whether certain market segments can leverage the power of your platform to do things that will help propel them in overcoming a problem in a manner or timeframe that a lower-level tool could not. If your technology is a chainsaw, find the targets that need a chainsaw, not a steak knife.
“ In the education vertical, I encourage you to also explore strategic relationships with other education technology and publishing companies that could make sense for you. Then you don’t have to knock on every door and they can bring you in as part of their offerings.”
“I agree that it’s always good to have a quarterly off-site and really drill down with the team. We’ll be thinking about our targets and the right partners in these markets that could propel us even further and faster.
“We are already exploring various partnerships in government space, but there is a real opportunity to do so in the K-12 space to broaden our reach. A potential strategic relationship could help an existing company use our platform, network and experts to explore a new revenue stream.”
Looking for some advice on a new business, or need help fixing an existing one? The Washington Post and the experts at the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business are ready to assist. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.