Art of the Start-Up May 29 2012

Dropouts from Penn Get $6 Million for Lore

By Julie Steinberg

When Dan Getelman was going to high school in Queens, N.Y., he hated the program, called Blackboard, that the class was forced to use to download notes and other content from the teacher.

Blackboard, an education technology company based in Washington, D.C., produces the major teaching aide software used in 2,700 higher education institutions in North America and 4,800 lower-level schools and organizations in the U.S.

When Getelman got to college, he experienced the same frustrations he had in high school. Blackboard's content management system wasn't the intuitive, user-friendly, Facebook-esque experience he craved.

"I can't remember a class I had that took advantage of the connecting power of technology," he said.

So the 21-year-old did what he had to do: Go on leave from the University of Pennsylvania, where he had been studying computer science and statistics, move to New York and devote himself to creating a learning management system that could compete. He and two of his Penn friends, Joseph Cohen and Jim Grandpre, created Lore, formerly called Coursekit, a system that would enable users to approach learning like any other social network, complete with links, videos, photographs and more.

Lore has so far raised more than $6 million in financing and hired nine employees with an average age of 23. Investors include well-known backers such as Silicon Valley's Peter Thiel, who uses Lore in the class he teaches at Stanford University on how to start a tech company.

FINS chatted with Getelman about the company's growth, plans for hiring and why he thinks his program will change the world.

Julie Steinberg: Why did you start this company?

Dan Getelman: I wanted to see how much more connected students and their professors could be. We were looking at what makes a class work and not work. The reason people take classes is to learn from other people -- whether that's from other students or the instructor. While delivering content and files is an important piece of the course, we thought focusing on just the content missed the point. That the power of sharing things hadn't gotten through to the world of education seemed crazy.

In terms of our product, the focus is just on the people. When you go to your course online, you can see interesting links and photography. It's really focused on students connecting with each other and making it easier to interact.

The second piece is just making a well-designed product that people want to use. We did a small pilot at Penn but it was quickly thrown together. We knew we needed a lot of work for it to be used widely. We sat down over the summer last year and thought about what should the course look like so we could design a new experience around it and build it.

JS: You left school after your junior year. Why was leaving the right thing to do?

DG: There was no way to split myself up to give my time to two things. We thought we were really on to something here. The choice just made sense.

JS: What was raising seed money like?

DG: In June 2011 we raised a seed round of a million dollars led by IA Ventures, a VC firm in New York and a few angel investors. We raised series A in January of $5 million. Peter Thiel invested in us about a month ago. He's using our product in his class on start-ups.

JS: How many schools use your product?

DS: Over 600, mostly in the U.S., but there some are around the world, too. Japan and Ghana, for example.

JS: Are you hiring currently? What types of roles?

DG: We're looking for people who are very smart and driven. We're hiring software engineers, hiring designers, marketing people. People who identify with our mission. Our biggest need is for engineers and designers, but for the right people we'll find a role.

We don't care about experience. We want people who are smart and willing to learn and are trying to change the world. For every position, there needs to be some evidence that you can do the job. For an engineer, you need to know how to code but it doesn't matter whether you have a computer science degree. The three of us are involved in every hiring decision.

JS: How many people do you want to hire?

DG: We'll be at least 25 by the end of the year. Right now we're at 12. We offer competitive salaries and equity.

JS: How do people find you?

DG: We have student ambassadors on campus at schools across the country. both spreading the word and also being able to talk to people on the ground. We're really focused on our product; instructors sign up for it, it's not handed down by the school. That's exciting for us, we really live and die by our product.

JS: There are three co-founders. How do you divvy up the responsibilities?

DG: Joe is the chief executive officer, I'm the chief technology officer and Jim is the chief architect. The difference is in the focus. More of my focus goes into hiring and managing the team, while Jim is more focused on technical architecture and how things are built.

JS: Any cool things about the office?

DG: We're in a loft in Tribeca. It's sort of an open environment. My favorite thing about every day is just the other people in the office. It's really powerful when you have people who are good at what they do and who are passionate about what they're doing. We have a MakerBot, which is a 3-D printer. We have adjustable standing desks, desks that go up and down depending on how you want it. We have a lot of windows because natural light is important. And of course a lot of coffee and tea options.

JS: Do you think you'll go back to school?

DG: Education is very important to me. I think I will go back. I'm close enough to the degree I was in. But I don't know if I can predict the future.

JS: You're just at the start of your career. How long do you expect to stay with the company?

DG: This is my number one focus right now. I have not given thought to life without or after Lore. We're building something that's going to change the world. I want to be a part of that.

Write to Julie Steinberg at julie.steinberg@dowjones.com



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