Here follows the story of how an idea born on the toilet grew into a moderately successful educational technology app. I promise not to dwell on the toilet bit more than is completely necessary for the story, which is almost not at all. But really, how many things that you’ve produced on the can are now being stared at by 4000 teachers a month?
Before we dive into the story, I’ll answer some questions that you didn’t ask. Skip to the next page break if you’re in a hurry.
Who are you?
I am a high school physics teacher, with a clumsy sideline in web development and the business and marketing skills that go with it. I’m British, but currently teach in California.
Why are you writing this?
I’m just a teacher who had an idea that solved a problem. There are 400,000 teachers in the UK (where I’m from) and 3 million in the USA (where I am now). A lot of them have ideas, and maybe sharing my story can help them to bring these ideas to fruition, while avoiding some of the mistakes that I have made so far.
I’d like to be as honest as possible as I tell this story, so I’ll confess now that writing this is also intended as a means of drawing more attention to my product. It’s not my main reason, but with a marketing budget of $0, it’s in my mind.
Do you have a background in tech/coding/development?
Not really. I have dabbled in web design since my family first got AOL in about 1997, mainly with WYSIWYG editors. I built a website for a cousin’s business, then went off to university in 2003 and built a website for my college’s boat club. I learned a little coding in my degree, and with help from Rik Lomas I picked up PHP and used it to automate some of the processes for the boat club. As a result, a position on the club’s executive was made redundant, providing an early case study of the threat automation poses to the white collar workforce.
Then for the best part of a decade, I did nothing, until my friend Becca Dean asked me to redesign her charity’s website. It turns out the web had changed since I’d last looked under the hood/bonnet. I had no idea what a <div> was. I had to learn CSS and jQuery, and forget about frames and tables. My design was a bit useless, but it skilled me up, just in time for the real start of this story…
It’s October 2015. Donald Trump is an Emmy-losing reality TV star, Brexit is just a tabloid portmanteau and I have a week off work. For a few weeks I’d been mulling over an idea (born on the toilet, as I think I mentioned) to lubricate an irritating, time-consuming task that few outside the teaching profession would even be aware of.
Students sit at desks around classrooms. In most schools, they don’t get to choose where they sit: the teacher decides for them. This may be designed to keep troublesome or talkative students in opposite corners of the room, or it may be to ensure that weaker students can get help from a bright peer, or perhaps to group the brightest kids together so that they can bounce ideas off each other. It may be the product of a school’s arbitrary policy that students should be seated boy-girl or alphabetically. As a former colleague once said, laying out the perfect seating plan is like plotting the perfect tactical formation on Football Manager: almost impossible, but lucrative if it pays off.
Making these plans takes hours. I used to use MS Publisher, first laying out rectangles to represent my desks, then typing all of the names into little text boxes that I could drag around the screen. Other teachers used pieces of paper or clumsy macro-driven Excel sheets to achieve the same job, but it always took forever.
A Google search revealed a few websites that offered to speed things up, but they all either charged thousands to schools for the privilege, or were as fiddly and useless as Publisher or Excel. I would solve this. I would build a free, user friendly website that would save so much time for teachers that they would all be leaving at 3.30pm and taking 13 weeks holiday. How hard could it be?