How much do you remember from math class? Maybe one or two equations stuck with you, but on average, people forget 90 percent of what they learn after one week if they don’t work to retain the knowledge1.
When Alec Kretch attended the University of Arizona, he studied for hours to retain as much information as possible. But as instructors moved quickly from unit to unit, he didn’t revisit past lessons until it was time to cram for end-of-the-year exams. And then a few weeks later, Alec forgot the content again.
Instead of blaming his professors or study habits, Alec wondered how he could help students retain more lessons. His independent cognitive neuroscience research led him to build OpenClass, a learning tool for educators to post review-focused assignments and assessments (no flashcards necessary).
OpenClass assignments reinforce previous units and lessons so students won’t forget them, focusing on retention and mastering the material rather than rote memorization. Reviews, lessons, and quizzes are personalized to areas students struggled with in previous exams.
Alec felt so compelled to build OpenClass that he bought the domain name before he graduated in late 2017. But he didn’t bootstrap the business right away. First, he moved to Silicon Valley to save money while pursuing a job in his field. Eighteen months later, Alec realized he’d rather use his software engineering skills to improve the education system.
From Six-Figures in Silicon Valley to Budgeting in Bali
Alec’s time in Silicon Valley gave him a taste of a life he didn’t want. While he appreciated the perks – a six-figure salary and thriving social life – the lifestyle wore him out.
“After a three-hour roundtrip commute, I’d get home every day and feel drained,” Alec says. “I loved my coworkers and the day-to-day tasks of building something, but my job never fulfilled me. Nothing to do with the company itself, but I had this burning desire to do something in education.”
On the weekends, Alec would take his notebook to Bay Area coffee shops and scribble down ideas for a SaaS startup he could build in the education field. After studying psychology and computer science at the University of Arizona, he already understood the basics of cognitive neuroscience. In his free time, he also analyzed how learning methods affect student retention, wondering how to weave that research into a platform to help educators and students.
Rather than build this platform as a side hustle, Alec quit his Silicon Valley job and moved across the world to Bali, Indonesia.
“I felt so passionately about this idea that I knew I needed to go and pursue it full-time,” Alec says. “I left the company I worked for in July 2019 and bought a one-way ticket to Bali, thinking I wouldn’t return to the States until I had an MVP of OpenClass.”
Why Bali? The low cost of living, quick internet speeds, and ability to work from your apartment or the beach make it an ideal destination for an aspiring entrepreneur.
Alec had saved enough money to live frugally in Bali and used his airline points to travel overseas. Given the roughly 13-hour time difference between the US and Indonesia, Alec could spend all day coding the platform without interruptions from his friends and family at home. He cranked out an MVP in three months and booked a flight back to Arizona to test it with one of his former professors.
Piloting OpenClass During the Pandemic
During his undergrad years at the University of Arizona, Alec took a linguistics and computer science crossover class called Natural Language Processing. Alec connected with that professor in 2019 to get some feedback on OpenClass, wanting to test it at the university.
The professor recommended he contact one of the class’s former teaching assistants, Gus Hahn-Powell, who’d since become a full-time instructor. Gus and Alec met via Zoom, and Gus agreed to pilot OpenClass during the spring 2020 semester.
Alec returned to Arizona, and at the start of the semester, visited Gus’s office several times a week to troubleshoot issues with the platform. Sometimes assignments didn’t fully submit, grades didn’t register, or the system crashed in the middle of an assignment. By witnessing Gus’s problems with OpenClass in person, Alec could see exactly what he needed to fix.
“Being able to watch over his shoulder as he struggled with the system was such valuable feedback. Seeing what components Gus didn’t understand forced me to brainstorm how I could adapt the system to make it easier for instructor use,” Alec says. “OpenClass broke down more during the pilot than it has in the three years since then. Being able to fix all the issues and improve the system on a small scale before the business grew was invaluable.”
When classes went remote halfway through the 2020 semester, OpenClass became an integral tool for Gus while other professors struggled to transition online. He continued building review assignments on OpenClass as he had during the first half of the semester, showing Alec how this system could provide an even greater service to students and teachers than he thought.
“I think there’s so much potential for technology to improve education.”
“It was a cool data point that showed how OpenClass works well for in-person, hybrid, and online classes,” Alec says. “I think there’s so much potential for technology to improve education. One of the silver linings of the pandemic was that it accelerated so many other classes around the world to finally embrace technology and best teaching practices.”
Now that he’d seen how effective OpenClass could be, Alec was eager to expand his trial. Luckily, some of the students in Gus’s class were teaching or graduate assistants for other undergrad classes, and they wanted to use the platform for their own classrooms. Gus also raved about OpenClass to his colleagues, while Alec sent cold emails to as many professors as possible.
In total, ten classes used OpenClass in the fall of 2020. Some of these classes took place at the University of Arizona, but educators at other schools like the University of Southern California and the University of North Carolina also tried the platform.
Alec couldn’t believe how far OpenClass had spread, and he was excited to hear more feedback from these professors. But since the universities were only “testing” his product in a free trial, Alec had to look elsewhere for immediate paying customers.
Expanding the Target Audience to Earn Revenue
Schools and universities pay for software like OpenClass through institutional licenses. But the sales cycle for these licenses takes months at best, and if Alec wanted to earn revenue quickly, he needed to explore new channels.
So in the fall of 2020, Alec cold-emailed the directors of coding and data science bootcamps about using the platform. These non-traditional classes required less red tape to approve since the directors could make budget decisions independently. Alec would hop on a Zoom call with them and sell the platform within 20 to 30 minutes.
As funds finally hit Alec’s bank account, he reached out to more digital skills schools and alternative education programs. He set up a billing system where the schools paid a sum per student registered for each class. Over several months, the universities started approving his licenses too, allowing more professors to use OpenClass while the startup earned more revenue.
Alec’s pitch for OpenClass improved throughout 2020. He explained to universities and boot camps how educators build quizzes, lessons, and review assignments on the platform that help students retain knowledge. If a student performs poorly on an earlier exam, OpenClass will pull review questions into lesson plans to help the student improve.
Once Alec starts talking to potential customers about the platform, his passion and knowledge help him make sales. But at first, he struggled to start those conversations over cold emails and calls.
“I remember very early on wondering, Is my email broken? Why are people not responding to me? Then I realized that’s part of sales and that I have to fine-tune my sales process. I learned that I needed to automate my outreach, connect with multiple people at each school, and consistently follow up with each lead,” Alec says.
“I also learned that if you do sales for long enough, you’ll run into negative people who don’t believe in your product or vision. You need to have thick skin to deal with the naysayers who say, ‘What you’re building is not the future of education. This is not a fit for our university or high school or coding boot camp, etcetera.’ That took some getting used to.”
“If I wasn’t so passionate about this, there are several points where I might’ve given up.”
Despite all the troubleshooting and naysayers, Alec continued building and upgrading OpenClass. He refuses to let anything impede his mission to improve education and still works about 85 hours a week to achieve his goals.
“If I wasn’t so passionate about this, I might’ve given up at several points,” Alec says. “During rough patches, I could’ve said, ‘I made a really good salary in San Francisco as a software engineer, worked fewer hours, had more free time, and had an actual social life. Maybe I should go back to that.’
“It would’ve been an easy way out. But I’m so passionate about this problem we’re trying to solve with OpenClass that I’ve never truly wanted to quit. I feel fueled and energized by working on and growing OpenClass.”
Opening Up Classrooms Worldwide
Looking ahead to the rest of 2023, Alec can’t wait to keep expanding OpenClass’s customer base. Along with a dozen schools in the US, several other institutions in Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa use the platform. Alec hopes to grow his startup’s reach globally to help as many students and teachers as possible.
He’s already seen accelerated growth from his current clients. Over the summer, Alec calculated that 100,000 assignments had been uploaded to OpenClass since the pilot started two years ago. By December 2022, that number rose to 250,000.
OpenClass hit six figures in revenue earlier this year, and Alec hopes to reach half a million by the end of 2023. He’s optimistic about it as he plans to add more features to the platform and reach out to more boot camps.
While growth is always on Alec’s mind, he’s not scaling to exit but will continue working on OpenClass for as long as he can.
“I feel like my life has so much more purpose now that I’m doing this. Waking up every single day and working on OpenClass, improving and democratizing education, is such a dream for me. This has been the best three and a half years of my life so far, and I want to do this for the next decade, the next two decades, the next three decades. There is no feeling in the world more rewarding than this.”
1 Learning Retention: Must-Try Strategies to Boost It Right Away (ispringsolutions.com)
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