Remember how excited you felt in elementary school when your teacher rolled in the TV cart? I’m dating myself, but long before we had laptops and iPhones, classroom distractions looked different. Alexander Deeb has devoted his career to bringing that magical feeling back into the classroom.
Those days impacted Alexander so much that he carried them with him as a college student studying entrepreneurship at Babson College. When his peers talked about building MVPs, Alexander wanted to create a product that made him “TV cart giddy.” Could he carve a niche in edtech using film and television? What would that even look like?
Alexander, a self-taught software engineer, developed this kernel of an idea into ClassHook, a SaaS startup that brings new meaning to cultural relevance in the classroom. He and former educator and cofounder Joyce Ang improve classroom learning with a little help from friends like Michael Scott and Homer Simpson.
When Watching TV Counts as Due Diligence
In college, Alexander took a business negotiations class that left a lasting impression. The professor used a segment from The Office to make a point about workplace politics. Alexander’s brain spun. He had so many questions. “How do professors find these clips? Why can’t I search the internet to find educational content within videos?”
Alexander teamed up with his good friend Joyce who became a cofounder because she loved the idea so much. As a teacher herself, she immediately saw the value. But she wanted to make sure that other educators agreed. She and Alexander had to research the market before investing time and resources into pursuing their idea.
They started asking teachers what they thought about using video clips in the classroom. They met with teachers ranging from early childhood to high school educators. They didn’t touch the college market for a very good reason: “College students are paying to be there. So, the ones showing up to class don’t need to be motivated to learn. It’s a little different when you’re in the eighth grade.” Joyce and Alexander took all of the interviews and tried finding common themes.
As the founders sifted through feedback, they were encouraged by comments like, “If you can build a site with videos organized around topics, we can plan our curriculum quickly,” and “Please build this!”. It turned out that teachers spent upwards of ten hours a week looking for online video content to bring to their classrooms.
Teachers used the clips to teach new ideas, spark conversation, and better engage their students. But it came at a cost. They didn’t have time to wade through garbage to find the video clips they wanted. They were already overworked and maxed out. “They wanted something dynamic and relevant, not some old documentary or cassette tape from the seventies or eighties that’s completely irrelevant.”
As the founders gathered data, they couldn’t help but laugh at some of the bad content teachers shared with them. Alexander elaborates, “I think back to those narrated videos from the fifties with one guy who seemed to narrate all of them. He had a very proper voice and we would watch that in career class and think, ‘Why am I watching this?’”
But Was It Legal?
Once the founders established a need, they still had one pressing question that could tank the entire business: What was the legality of all of this? They hired a lawyer to ensure they didn’t run into issues as the product developed. The duo discovered that as long as they pulled content from YouTube, they could distribute it safely.
Content ID is YouTube’s version of checks and balances. It works by scanning YouTube videos and comparing them to the files copyright owners submit to the platform. When Content ID finds a match, the video is flagged for copyright infringement and subsequently taken down.
After the lawyers’ approval, it was time for Alexander to build the software. “I’m a technical nerd. I love a challenge and building this product was one of them. I had to figure out a way to embed content from YouTube and keep the functionality simple and intuitive.”
Sometimes, founders can keep the stability of a day job and work on their passion project on the side. Alexander did this for three years, but when it came time to launch, Alexander was eager to make ClassHook his full-time gig. So, he took a risk and quit: “I was a software engineer at a startup. I had a nice, cushy job. But I left because I had that entrepreneurial itch. I thought: ‘I have to leave to do this.’” He had enough of a nest egg and would take consulting jobs to fill in the gaps.
A Flashy Launch or a Slow Roll?
Startups can announce their existence with big launches (think Microsoft or Apple) or soft rollouts (nearly everyone else). Apple has enormous annual events each year to release new products. According to Entrepreneur, there are many benefits to choosing the latter. One of the biggest is that startups can iterate once they get customer feedback. However, if they wait until the product is perfect, they’ll never launch it.
ClassHook’s website launched with a tease on social media and personal outreach. Since the product took a few years to build, educators that had participated in the years-long research were patiently waiting for it. But what was the plan for monetization? The founders wanted to offer a subscription model. Since the content was evolving, teachers would pay ClassHook for the service every month instead of a one-time fee.
Alexander admits that they spent so long researching the product, they never got around to writing a business plan before launch. He jokes, “We haphazardly put together our objectives at launch. It’s a bit more put together now.” Perhaps if they wrote a proper plan, they would realize that selling directly to teachers is difficult since they are grossly underpaid. So, asking them to fork over their own money was a risky proposition.
ClassHook quickly changed its business model by listening to user feedback. Since teachers were cash-strapped, the business switched to selling directly to school districts and schools. Schools have annual budgets so ClassHook offered subscriptions that would be valid for an entire academic year.
More Than Just a Funny Show
The Simpsons is more than just a popular cartoon, it’s also filled with teaching moments from poetry to physics. Humor? Absolutely. Crass? Entirely possible. But physics lessons? In one clip on ClassHook, Marge and Homer were curling and throwing out gems about kinetic versus potential energy. The opportunities to engage classes are endless.
The idea is that these short clips fuel lively classroom discussions. How? ClassHook’s platform gives teachers access not only to the clip but also to discussion features. There is a question bank that teachers can access and add to and other ways to facilitate conversations.
When they first started ClassHook, Alexander and Joyce watched loads of movie clips and television shows to find educational scenes. Eventually, they hired interns. But as they scale, the founders want to automate the process. They teamed up with a student group at MIT to create a machine learning model that will identify whether videos are educational. They’re hoping to add audio clips into the mix as well.
Classhook is not in the business of lesson planning. But it wants to do everything it can to help teachers use the content to help students learn. “We help teachers find video clips and then offer ways to help students improve conceptual understanding and also build discussion habits so that they feel comfortable talking in class and demonstrating their knowledge.”
Alexander loves convincing people how educational television can be. He’s noticed that people are initially wary (me included), but he loves the challenge. It’s exactly the change he was looking for when he left his nine-to-five. “I didn’t want to be an engineer full-time. I wanted to be in product management working on products and solutions that help people rather than always being the builder. I’m passionate about helping people learn through media that’s not traditionally seen as anything more than recreational.”
Brushing Up on Sales to Pay Those Lawyers
ClassHook’s biggest expenses are cloud hosting and lawyer fees but the startup is extremely lean. Neither Alexander nor Joyce is taking a salary. Joyce has a day job and Alexander takes freelance consulting jobs to pay his immediate bills. They reinvest all ClassHook’s earnings into the company.
ClassHook predicts that the next school year will be explosive in terms of growth. The founders just learned that they became an approved vendor to work with Houston’s Public School District, the seventh largest district in the country. ClassHook is also planning to pilot with a large charter school network in the fall.
Entrepreneurship has pushed Alexander out of his comfort zone in ways he never thought possible. “We would get a lot of calls with schools and district administrators and they all loved the product. Every time we did a demo, the feedback was great, but we couldn’t close a sale. I had to learn how to sell.”
Alexander learned how to engage with potential customers by setting up expectations and booking follow-up calls. “You learn a lot of small things in sales training that make a huge difference to closing sales. I tend to be an introvert so I have to continually challenge myself to be more extroverted and outgoing, and show more emotion than I normally would.”
The future looks bright for ClassHook. With so many streaming options available, there is so much more content than ever before. If you’ve ever stared at your TV because you couldn’t decide what to watch, you know exactly how much room there is for ClassHook’s library to grow. Cue Futurama joke.
Zwilling, M. Z. (2015, November 18). 6 Reasons Why Startups Should Skip the Big Bang Launch. Https://Www.Entrepreneur.Com/Article/252865
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