Education Opinion

Rafael Corrales, Co-founder, LearnBoost

By Sara Mead — May 16, 2011 6 min read
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Rafael Corrales is “a start-up guy.” As an undergraduate at Georgia Tech (from which he graduated at only 19 years old), Corrales, an Atlanta native, co-founded College Knowledge, a tutoring company serving middle and high school students in the Atlanta area. Since then, he’s worked with a variety of start-ups both in and out of education, including RentJuice and HubSpot.

While attending Harvard Business School, Corrales co-founded LearnBoost, an online gradebook, lesson planner, and calendar for teachers, students and parents that has been named one of the best start-ups of 2010. Now based in San Francisco, he also blogs frequently about his views on education and being a start-up entrepreneur. [Click for more.]
What’s your “elevator pitch” for LearnBoost?

Right now, LearnBoost is a free all-in-one classroom solution for teachers, parents, and students. Teachers who use LearnBoost benefit from an integrated gradebook, lesson planner, attendance tracker, calendar, reporting, and more.

We’re building a solution to power schools while saving them up to 100% of their administrative software costs with our freemium business model, which I feel is the future of education. Our intention is to keep our software free for teachers, parents, students, and even admins while having anyone who wants customization or extra support and services to pay a fraction of what the current systems charge. That’s pretty powerful - we’re going to save schools in the U.S. hundreds of millions of dollars a year, and globally we’re aiming to save schools even more money.

Unlike our competitors in this space, we’re well funded by the investors that backed Skype, LinkedIn, Twitter, and more. We’re going to be around for a really long time.

How did you come to launch LearnBoost?

I started an education company before Harvard Business School, so I knew I was going to start another one. I spent a summer doing everything at a venture-backed Silicon Valley startup and upon finishing there I decided to come back for my second year at HBS to evaluate opportunities at the intersection of education and technology.

I set up as many interviews as possible with teachers, administrators, and folks who knew education in general. From there, it was just a lot of hard work to figure out what opportunities were out there. I considered a lot of opportunities in education, but ultimately classroom management and student information systems is what got me pretty excited.

I know that administrative systems aren’t sexy, but given how bad the options are out there and how I had a chance to utilize a freemium model to save schools money while giving them better software, I knew I had a chance to do something I loved while making an impact on education.

LearnBoost has gotten a fair amount of recognition. Care to say anything about that?

Recognition is very flattering, but I care more about what our users think. LearnBoost’s approach to awards and recognition is that they’re simply a by-product of the value we’re trying to create for the school ecosystem of teachers, students, parents, and administrators.

Educators usually try out a product and then they pick the best solution. Educators don’t really look at awards, recognition, or user numbers as their primary input - they care about the best product that fulfills their needs, all while getting the best value possible.
LearnBoost is intently focused on creating and delivering as much value as possible for our users. We’re seeing great results from that, so we’re going to keep doing what works and anything else is a bonus.

What do you see as the biggest challenge to organizations like yours in the education space?

For education startups that interface directly with schools, teachers, or administrators they’ll have to deal with a long sales cycle. For the education startups that sell to end consumers, they often have a branding and/or awareness challenge.

Education technology has a lot of challenges by itself because technology is typically seen as a cost, rather than an investment. So aside from the structural challenges I mention, there’s a pervasive mentality that must be addressed and overcome.

Add that in with all the typical challenges a startup faces and you can see why education is so slow to change. To date, the startups that change the world simply aren’t pure-play education companies. That’s incredibly sad, but it’s no accident that so far there hasn’t been a Google or Facebook of education in terms of outsized impact across the board.

You’ve worked in a variety of start-ups and other businesses both in and out of education. How is the work you’re doing now different from/similar to other start-ups you’ve worked with? What’s easier/harder?

I’ve noticed that every other vertical I’ve worked in has less barriers to adoption and success than education. Just one example I’ve noticed from both my previous company and from LearnBoost: oftentimes, customer expectations in education are way out of whack with willingness to pay. Now add that in with all the other challenges I mentioned earlier and education is tough.

So what’s easier in education? Well, it’s great knowing that the work we’re doing at LearnBoost is having an impact on real people with real needs in education. Talented people want to be part of a great team that has a chance to make an impact, and being in education takes care of part of that equation.

Why do an education start-up now? What drew you to this field at this point in time?

I have had an interest in this space since before my first company, which was a tutoring business. That strong interest, coupled with following my nose to find an opportunity in education that I could execute and improve upon, were what got me back into education technology.

Plus it never made sense to me that schools would “productize” their needs and build their own expensive, in-house tools - that’s why I believe school-created gradebooks will become extinct and that’ll end up saving schools a lot of time and money while allowing them to focus on what they’re best at: educating students.

You describe yourself on your website as a startup guy: Why do you like doing start-ups?

There are several things I love about high-growth startups: startups are always the underdog and they’re trying to change something they think is wrong in the world.

Startups create something out of nothing. I love startups because a startup is the chance to make an impact when no one thinks you can make it happen.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years/what do you hope to accomplish in that time?

LearnBoost is already making a big impact in education and we have the chance to do more, so in 10 years I hope I’m still helping drive LearnBoost forward. It’s really an honor to work with such a talented team and I’m having a lot of fun over here.

Who are some entrepreneurs and/or educators you admire and who influence your work?

I’m a fan of all the entrepreneurs profiled in the books “Small Giants” and “Founders at Work.” In education, the folks at a few institutions don’t get enough credit for what they’ve done-- for example, MIT with their OpenCourseWare initiative, the folks at TED, and so on. I look up to all of them and in my mind they’re quiet heroes.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.