Making classrooms more efficient

Photo by Danny Guo

Photo by Danny Guo

A Kitchener-based company started by several former students of the University of Waterloo has been named one of the coolest college startups of 2015 by Inc.com. The company, Chalk.com, ranked highly amongst many upcoming companies.

Chalk has been described as the Microsoft Office for teachers. The company offers a suite of productivity applications for kindergarten to grade 12 educators to help make their classrooms more efficient. The applications are designed to help teachers with their lesson planning and assessment, and are linked through a general dashboard.

“We’re here to empower teachers and we think they’re doing some really amazing things,” said William Zhou, co-founder of Chalk. “If we can save them time, they can spend time on what really matters, which is their students.”

Chalk started off in 2011 as an idea for a venture that could be started through the University of Waterloo’s Velocity Garage startup incubator space. After attaining the funding from Velocity, Zhou and the other co-founders worked on Chalk over the next eight months, using two co-op work terms to delve into their new company full-time. However in the following year they faced many challenges as they started turning a project idea into a viable business.

“2012 was a very tough year for the business. We used to sell to teachers at $30 a pop,” said Zhou. “We got about a hundred teachers that bought the product in 2012, and if you do the math that’s $3,000, and you can’t run a business on $3,000.”

Towards the end of the year, Chalk was facing a hard reality that many startups often come to realize. Chalk had made few sales and had not accumulated enough money to keep going. However this was precisely the time the company had its first big break.

“At the end of 2012 we got a call from a Texas school district that wanted to purchase a bulk license, 72 licenses in fact, and they said they wanted it that day,” said Zhou. “We skipped classes, sent it off and closed the deal, and that one deal trumped our entire year of sales to teachers.”

Zhou and his co-founders decided to contact the Texas school district, asking why they suddenly decided to purchase their product. The district mentioned that some of their teachers were already using Chalk and wished to expand the product’s use in their schools. This was a breakthrough realization for Chalk, as they discovered what would drive their sales would be the adoption and use of their product by teachers.

“Now it’s completely for free for teachers,” said Zhou. “The teachers are our champions, they are our allies and they’re helping us make those sales to districts.”

Today, over 100,000 teachers are using Chalk across North America, mostly in states like California, New York and Texas. The company is rapidly expanding, moving from the Velocity Garage space in February to a new office in downtown Kitchener’s innovation district and are hiring an additional three employees.

“As we build on the platform, as we gain more traction in schools and school districts, I really hope we can do more,” said Zhou. “Not only with how to make them more productive, but eventually getting to a point where we can actually give actionable insights to teachers, giving them heads up even before things are boiling up, so to speak.”

As a former computer science student at UW, Zhou also had some words of advice for aspiring student entrepreneurs.

“Building companies is incredibly tough and there’s going to be a lot of bumps in the road, and unless you’re working on something you’re actually passionate about, that you want to work on day in and day out, it’s going to be very hard to get to where you want to be.”

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