Teaching is hard. That’s what William Zhou realized when he came back to visit his high school teachers after graduating.
“Like many other educators, my own high school teachers were struggling with the overwhelming amount of work,” Zhou told Opportunity Lives.
Teachers have to do far more than teach material. Each lesson requires planning and individual assessment. Because of new government standards or school district requirements, a teacher’s time can quickly be consumed by dealing with the administrative tasks. There’s often just not enough time to plan lessons adequately.
In an effort to make life easier for teachers, Zhou created Chalk.com. It’s an online system that allows teachers to keep all of their lesson plans, schedules, and grades in one easy-to-navigate place. Chalk.com consists of several apps – teachers can choose which ones they want to use.
The modern layout of Chalk.com streamlines long-term lesson planning and allows teachers to create a “dashboard” for the projects, attendance, and lesson materials for each day’s class. The site even allows teachers to link their plans with state curriculum standards to make sure they are on track. Collaboration is a key factor too, with Chalk.com providing a resource bank of ideas and teaching materials for teachers to use and share.
The site has been a hit with teachers, with over 100,000 using it in over 20,000 schools around the world. “We are creating impact and helping teachers to teach to 3 million students,” said Zhou, now the CEO.
There have been some challenges along the way. At first, Chalk.com tried to sell directly to teachers, but it was hard to convince them to pay out of pocket for the new system, regardless of its benefits. That strategy changed abruptly one day when a Texas school district offered to buy 72 licenses for its own teachers. “A light bulb went off in our head and we decided to switch our business model to give away the productivity suite for free and charge schools and districts for premium features,” said Zhou.
That decision was a key business move, and the company took off. Sales rose 3000% in the next year. “Teachers became our biggest champions and helped to raise awareness within districts,” said Zhou.
Zhou is a brilliant young entrepreneur, managing Chalk.com despite being only 23 years old. He was recently named in Forbes 30 under 30 and spoke at the Bloomberg Next Big Thing Conference and at Digital-Life-Design 2015, a TED equivalent conference in Munich.
Zhou’s advice to other entrepreneurs is to be resilient. Starting a business is not easy by any means, but the rewards are completely worth it. “You will go through highs feeling like you’re on top of the world and lows feeling like you’re alone by yourself. It is an emotional roller coaster that can last years,” he said. “It’s only worth it if you find something you truly care about – something you’re passionate about.”