3 things I learned with Charles Thornburgh, CEO of Civitas Learning


I met Charles through Capital Factory’s mentor network. He is currently working on Civitas Learning, a company that focuses on using case-specific predictive models to help more students graduate and succeed every year. In other words, they analyze data that colleges already have and use it to recommend to students what combination of courses they should take next semester, or recommend to teachers what they should teach.

According to CrunchBase, they have raised over $28M and are more than 100 employees.

Prior to that, he discovered a passion for education while teaching high school students on the weekends during his undergraduate days at Stanford, and went on to founding multiple successful education start-ups.

As someone who wants to make an impact in the future of education, I had a lot of questions for Charles. Here’s what I learned:

Solve a burning need

Many products in the ed-tech space never take off because they’re only nice-to-haves.

Find a burning need. A problem that people already know they have, and are already investing resources to solve.

Many of us become education entrepreneurs because we went through years of schooling and think “I know a thing or two I can do to make this better”. This is a double-edged sword because having a solution for a problem you have doesn’t necessarily mean other people share the same problem.

Talk to as many customers as you can, find what struggles they share. Keep in mind that not all schools work in the same way.

The “it’s impossible to sell to schools and universities” mentality is a myth

Sales in the education market is not black magic. If you have a product that adds real value you just have to sell it like you would other software products.

Paint a very clear picture of how your product will benefit the schools. A good example is: “If you use our product, one year from now, your attrition rate will go down by 20%, student satisfaction will be up by 15%, and you will be saving 10 hours of work per week.”

Counterintuitively, people that have not sold in education before are good at this, because this is how enterprise sales is done in most other industries.

Biggest challenges for the future of Education

1. Access to content

With so much information being created every day – according to Eric Schmidt, every 2 days we create as much information as we did from year 0 up to 2003 – one of the biggest challenges we face is how to make sense of all that content for an educational context.

2. Classroom experience

A wider acceptance of technology in the classroom is set to reinvent how we think of classrooms themselves.

We’re starting to see more innovation in the classroom experience with schools like Acton Academy and Alt School.

3. Use data to make better decisions

Schools create massive amounts of data: content in new courses created, videos watched, problems solved, discussions both online and offline.

We can even track how taking a particular class impacts a student’s professional success 10 years down the road.

All of this data is set to reinvent the decision-making process in education. This is what they’re solving at Civitas Learning.

Closing Thoughts

This is a very exciting time to be an education entrepreneur. The industry is ripe for disruption and it’s very insightful to talk to people like Charles who are in the front-line of making change happen.

We’re already seeing great innovations, many thanks to technology and many thanks to questioning old educational paradigms.

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