Friday, July 1, 2011

Curt Allen on How Entrepreneurship is Changing Education & Why You Have to "Be There" to be a Great Entrepreneur

Since 1986, Curt has been the founding Chairman, President, and CEO of VidComp, Folio Corporation, MyFamily.com, and Agilix and has raised more than $100 million in venture capital. Agilix was founded in 2001 and has a mission to transform education worldwide through the Open Learning Suite, a set of Cloud Learning Services that enable partners to create their own customized learning solutions; and BrainHoney, a Personalized Learning Platform that facilitates individualized instruction through standards-aligned curriculum mapping of assessments and educational resources.


Recently, Ken Frei sat down to interview Curt.

How did you make the switch from Ancestry.com to your current role with Agilix?

Well let me answer that question, but I do need to give you a little context because it will make a lot more sense.

Ok, please do.

While I was attending BYU, I had an experience that was pretty transformative in my life. You can relate to this, I think. I was sitting in class listening to a physics lecture and the guy sitting next to me started to laugh. I leaned over and asked him what was so funny. He said, "I took this class 25 years ago. I'm sitting in it to refresh because I'm going to teach it next semester, and the course notes match word for word from when I took it."

I laughed with him and I thought it was funny until I got home. I couldn't get it out of my head that we were teaching physics the same way 25 years later, when our understanding of physics changes every day. I started getting upset about that because I thought that we, as students, deserved better.

So, while I was at BYU, I actually started one of my companies, called Vidcomp. It was a precursor to Folio, which was a precursor to Ancestry and Agilix. Our whole purpose was to use technology to help teachers teach better, and help students learn more effectively. We connected PC's, some of the very first ones because this was a long time ago, to video disc players. We created a career guidance system that helped students identify what they wanted to be when they grew up, find the right major, and the right preparation that would help them get ready for that.

What we found was that the technology was very impressive and capable, but that it was ahead of the market’s ability to assimilate it. This was before CD-ROMs even existed, before the web even existed if you can imagine that, so things have changed a lot.

I can barely imagine that.

Yeah, so things have changed a lot. But what that caused us to do, is to say, "OK, let’s take what we built for this BYU program, and let’s generalize it, and make it available to anyone that wants to publish electronic information." So, we moved from career guidance to more of a general thing, and that's where Folio was born. Folio was designed to help take materials that are on paper or in books, and deliver them electronically. Initially, we did that on CD-ROMs, and then on the web.

The point of all this is that we learned a lot about how to create very scalable systems that can deliver lots of content to lots of people. When my brother Paul started Ancestry.com, and asked me if I would come and be the CEO, we took a lot of what we learned at Folio and applied it to Ancestry.

We created this Ancestry technology platform, which is one of the biggest properties in the world, in terms of amount of content. It's got petabytes of content, billions of database records, millions of subscribers, and you can't avoid the ads on TV now. So, that's one success story.

After we brought in a management team to run Ancestry, we decided to create a new company called Agilix. We were trying to leverage everything that we learned from Folio and Ancestry, about electronic publishing and social media, and apply it to education. So that's the back story.

I started a long time ago as an undergrad and then did a couple of these companies because the world wasn't ready. Then we said, "There are three mega-trends that are going to come together to change everything about learning." The first mega-trend is mobile devices. This is ten years ago, so it sounds kind of obvious now, but it wasn't that obvious. Everyone is going to have a mobile device. The second trend is wireless networking. Everyone is going to be connected wirelessly to stuff in the cloud. And the third mega-trend are these hosted web services where you can get access to information anytime, anyplace.

We put ourselves at the confluence of those three places and said, "Let’s build a platform business that can create a next generation technology that will enable people to take advantage of mobile devices wirelessly connected to web-services.” Now we're applying that to the purpose of education.

Clayton Christensen is one of our advisers, so we've embraced the concept of disruptive innovation. We believe that everything about the way people have taught and learned is going to change. It should have a long time ago. It’s one of the few industries that has been holding out. It’s one of the few places where we still do lectures in a classroom out of textbooks with kids that are supposed to sit and listen, which is completely contrary to that way that anybody in the rising generation learns or communicates with each other.

That’s the purpose of Agilix, to create a next generation learning platform to help transform education both in the classroom and virtually, and to do it on a global scale. It’s a very exciting opportunity for us.

Do you focus more on providing tools for students, or on providing tools for teachers?

We do both teacher tools and student tools, but our primary focus is to create the enabling technology platform. What we do is called “learning as a service”. It’s just like you have software as a service with things that are hosted in the cloud. We do learning as a service.

It’s a platform and a set of building blocks that our partners can use to create solutions for students and teachers and administrators. We do have an example application that we call Brain Honey. Brain Honey is really targeted at teachers and students that want to do online teaching and learning. It simplifies the process, it reduces the time required, and it provides a dramatic improvement in learning outcomes.

But our primary focus is on enabling other companies that want to create learning solutions to do so on our platforms. The analogy would be like Farmville is the app and Facebook is the platform. We want to be the platform for learning, for education, and we expect there will be lots of Farmville-like apps. We’ve got several dozen partners, large and small, that are building applications on this learning platform.

Talk about the growth that you’ve had at Agilix in the last five years. How have you seen your company change and evolve?

One of the things that we’ve seen is that sometimes you can be too early to a market. We’ve had the tendency to be early with some of our past companies and with Agilix. We built the first tablet app in the world for the Microsoft tablet PC. The problem was, Microsoft didn’t do it right. Apple did it right with the iPad, but that was 10 years later.

We literally shipped a tablet app in 2001 and we were ready to transform teaching and learning, but the market wasn’t ready yet. One of the things I would advise entrepreneurs is that you can have a great idea, but you need to be right with your timing and positioning in the market. You can be early, and that’s sometimes a problem.

So, you don’t want to be too early to a market, but how did you recognize some of those early trends that led to the creation of Agilix? What would you suggest that entrepreneurs do who are looking for a trend to jump on?

Well, I wouldn’t recommend that people are too early. I would advise entrepreneurs to test their ideas on prospective customers. That’s one thing that we’ve learned. It’s ok to have a great idea, but you need to go sit with people that are going to use it in the real world and make sure that it’s positioned correctly, that it’s priced right, that it’s available in the way that they expect to consume it, and that they’re prepared to use it.

When we built the tablet applications 10 years ago, the world wasn’t ready. The devices were too heavy, too expensive, and they weren’t ubiquitous enough. There just weren’t enough applications built for them. It really took Steve Jobs and Apple to nail it. They just announced the iPad 2 and it’s killer, right? It’s smaller, faster, lighter, better, and there are 65,000 apps for it. So, timing has a lot to do with it.

The other thing is that partnerships and building the ecosystem are critical. You need to have not only a solution, but in the case of the iPad that I’m citing, applications built by third parties. You need to have an e-commerce infrastructure so that you can buy and sell apps, you need global access to the solutions, and you need a lot of people that are ready to use them.

Whatever your business model is, there are people that matter in helping you be successful. You need to make sure you got those early adopter customers, analysts, press, social sites; anything that can help you get the word out is going to be important to have early in your process.

Who have been some of your key partnerships with Agilix?

We work very closely with many of the global technology leaders. We work very closely with Intel, for example. Chris Thomas from Intel sits on our board. We’ve worked very closely with Microsoft for many years. We have partnerships with Dell and HP. We work with some of the largest publishers in the world. Those relationships allow us to deliver solutions into schools where we deal with networking, computers, wireless hot spots, training, services, integration customization, and all the industrial stuff.

Right now the world is really focused on social media where you don't worry about any of that stuff. You just go straight to the consumer. That was one of the benefits of our Ancestry.com model is that it was a direct to consumer play. We did deals with a lot of people then, too. Intel invested in us then, and we worked with AOL and people like Compaq computer which is now HP.

But our play was a direct to consumer play with an online subscription model. That's really where all the heat, and the energy and excitement is today. We are very interested in providing things that can be direct to teachers, and direct to students. The next time I talk to you, I'll tell you more about some of those.

What do you see as the future in this industry? How will classroom activity change because of emerging technologies?

This statement may be a little heretical when it comes to traditional higher education, but let me just make it anyway and explain it. I think that everything needs to change about the way teaching and learning are done in K-12 and higher education. We have the technological capabilities now to deliver instruction that is personalized to the needs of every single student.

We do it in every other aspect of people’s lives except for learning. We’re still doing the mass-production model of the industrial era which assumes that everybody has to be in the same place, at the same time, learning at the same rate, and in the same way.

None of that is true. We’re each individual human beings. We each come with unique talents and gifts that prepare us to achieve a unique mission in this world. Why do we teach everybody like they are a widget in a factory? That shouldn’t be. We can do better than that.

We believe that there is an incredible transformative effect that is going to happen in this country and in this world. It’s already started. It’s being driven by a perfect storm of economic crisis, technology enablement, and a global competitiveness mandate with places like China and India that are going to out-compete us. Our students currently aren’t ranking well in comparison to other countries. We’re 24th and 25th in the world on some of the math and science scores with PISA. We’re not getting it done right now.

That perfect storm is coming to force us to do things differently and I think that it is a blessing in disguise. It’s going to make us get smarter about how we deliver instruction and how we personalize it for each individual student so they can maximize their individual achievement. It’s going to make us smarter about how we can deliver it more cost-effectively and how we can be more flexible in allowing students to learn anytime, in any place, and at any pace. It’s going to change everything about the way that education happens. That’s what we are trying to make happen on a global scale.

What do you personally do to be innovative? How do you come up with fresh ideas and be a change-maker in your industry?

My personal experience is driven by some rules of thumb. My number one rule of thumb is that you’ve got to be there. I take that literally. You have got to “be there” to get new ideas, to be involved in the creation of industries, to meet with other people that are innovators and that are creating new concepts. I highly advise any entrepreneur to go to conferences, to go to tradeshows, to go meet with customers, to meet with partners, and to travel. Now you can literally travel anywhere in the world. You can go anywhere you need to, to get the kinds of ideas that are going to help drive innovation.

You’ve got to be involved in these kinds of innovations and be active. I think there are a lot of advantages to be gained from sharing and from being part of the community. Most great ideas happen concurrently in multiple locations. The more that you can get involved in those communities of interest and the more that you can share, the more it comes back to you. It’s the abundance mentality. The more that you give out to help other people, the more that comes back to benefit you individually. That’s very consistent with the kind of mindset that the Utah community brings, and one of the reasons that the Utah technology community has evolved the way that it has.

I’m also a prolific reader. I highly recommend that. I read books the old-fashion way, in addition to online and social media, because sometimes the books crystallize principles in a way that you don’t get by just watching Twitter all day long. There’s a different kind of information and insight that is generated through those different means.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

I would like to give a little advice to aspiring entrepreneurs.  I’ve learned a lot through mistakes that I’ve made or that I’ve watched other people make. A couple of principles: I’ve already talked about needing to be there.

When you say “be there”, what do you mean exactly?

Be there physically. Go to the conferences and other events. I went to the very first hypertext conference in the world, before the web even existed. My brother Paul went to the very first Facebook developer’s conference. I think he was the only person from Utah who went to that event. I travel around the world to meet with companies, partners, and customers. I’ve been to China, India, Europe, and Latin America. Being there is critical.

I would highly recommend to entrepreneurs that they focus. It’s probably the biggest challenge that I find personally, and that I see in others. Everybody wants to boil the ocean with a new idea. Not every idea will be the next Facebook. There are only a few Googles, Apples, and Twitters out there, but there are millions of opportunities to create very successful businesses that address needs in the market. So, my advice is: think about what you want to do and then cut it down by about 99%, and focus on the critically unique value that you can deliver, and then iterate.

That’s the other principle. It’s almost impossible to get it right the first time. If you look at companies like HP, they didn’t even know what they wanted to be. They just knew that they wanted to create a company. Then they started iterating and eventually fell into becoming what they are today.

Then, I would say making and keeping commitments is critical as well. I describe it as having integrity. Do what you say you’re going to do. If you commit to something, deliver it. If you promise a partner that you’re going to operate in a certain way, do it. John Huntsman is a great example of that. He does it by handshake. There are a very few companies that operate that way anymore, but that makes it unique.

There are two ideas that you said were important. One was to make a difference in the world and to try and improve people’s quality of life. The other was that it’s important to focus on something, and not try to boil the ocean. How do you combine those two ideas?

That’s a great question. Take Ancestry as an example. We wanted to provide useful family history information to anybody, anywhere, who could get access to it. We did things like digitize the entire US Federal census back to 1790. The old way of doing it was that you would go to a library and look at microfiche. Or, you would have to go to Washington DC and actually go into the archives, and that’s what people did. Our focus there was, take something that is incredibly difficult and make it super simple. We wanted anybody that had access to an Internet connection to be able to go and search billions of records in the comfort and safety of their own home.

Our vision is grand, and I challenge people to have grand visions. We should and we need to. Changing the way education is the delivered in the world is a grand vision, but it doesn’t mean that we have to do all of it. We don’t have to necessarily build schools, or publish the curriculum, or build the Internet that is required to deliver it, or develop and deliver the cell phones that are required. Our unique focus is to build these pluggable learning components that anybody can use in their systems; whether they’re in Brazil, China, India, or wherever they are going to go next.

We enable teachers to teach more effectively, students to learn more efficiently, and institutions to deliver learning at scale in a less expensive way than they ever could before. So, I think that a grand vision combined with a very specific focus on what your unique value proposition is, is very important. 

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