Communication problems and children go together like peanut butter and jelly.
Parent: “How was school today?”
Parent: “What did you learn at school today?”
“What did you eat for lunch?”
Dave Vasen, a former head of K-12 education at Amazon Kindle and vice president of product at AltSchool, a provider of alternative education programs for children, developed a smartphone app to fill this void in parent-child relationships. In 2014, he started testing brightwheel, which lets teachers track students’ attendance, record observations, share photos and notes with parents. Parents get real-time updates about their children’s school day that they can discuss at home. Administrators use it to manage classes and email tuition invoices to parents.
Brightwheel officially launched in June 2015 and is available for free download in the Apple (AAPL) app store and Google (GOOGL) Play store. In merely three months after launch, some 2,500 locations — daycares, preschools and afterschool programs — across the country in all 50 states were using it.
Despite a lack of revenue, Vasen managed to secure investments from two billionaire venture capitalists when he appeared on Shark Tank April 29, 2016. Vasen initially asked the Sharks for $400,000 for 4% equity in brightwheel, valuing it at $10 million. After a heated discussion in the tank, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and guest shark Chris Sacca, founder and partner of Lowercase Capital, each invested $300,000 for 3.34% each, valuing the company $9 million.
As expected following a Shark Tank appearance, signups for the app exploded and exceeded all expectations. Vasen has received loads of requests to license the software but he has no desire to in order to keep control of the product, brand and customer experience. He hopes to raise more capital to hire more staff when he grows large enough to monetize. Within the coming months, he hopes to roll out features that customize the user experience and additional apps to manage students and staff during the day.
Vasen explains how he developed the ultimate way to revolutionize early education, what it’s like to work with two tech billionaires, Mark Cuban and Chris Sacca, and much more.
Ky Trang Ho: How did you come up with the idea for your business?
Dave Vasen: My daughter Serena is the inspiration for brightwheel. After she was born, I found it incredibly hard to miss out on key moments of her day while I was at work, and then didn’t know how to contribute to her development in the short time we had together in the evening. Every parent I talked to felt the same.
Then the turning point for brightwheel really came after spending a lot of time with teachers and caregivers. I sat with them and was deeply moved by how difficult their days are managing both a school and business. When I realized early education is broken for both sides — both educators and parents — I knew there had to be a better way.
Ho: What is your background? What were you doing before you started this business?
Vasen: My career has been focused on education technology. Before brightwheel, I helped bring online learning to the developing world with Cisco (CSCO), led strategic projects for Teach for America, launched the K-12 Education team for Amazon (AMZN) Kindle, and helped build AltSchool from the ground up. In all these places, I’ve sought ways that technology can enhance the teacher and parent experience, and make life easier.
Ho: What hardships did you encounter in developing and launching it?
Vasen: I’ve had lots of bumps and challenges along the way. For example, the very first week brightwheel launched with pilot schools, it went down for half a day, meaning our early schools could not use the app at all. It was a horrible feeling. I called each one personally to try to save them but lost one. In retrospect, although difficult, it was a good sign that teachers were using the app so much throughout the day that they noticed the issue within two minutes and couldn’t wait for brightwheel to come back online again.
Ho: What made you think it could be a successful product?
Vasen: Other industries and small businesses have great software that’s built for them. Other parts of education — such as K-12 and higher ed — have really great technology. So why not early ed? When I realized early education was broken on both sides — for both schools and families — and that it’s a really big and important market, I knew there had to be a better way.