How I Got Here: Episode #10
Founders: Consider Market, Team, and Product
with Blair Pircon, Kellogg ’16
Co-founder of The Graide Network
Blair Pircon, founder & CEO of The Graide Network. As a first year business school student, Blair had an idea to help teachers give more thorough feedback on student writing assignments by creating a service that utilized 3rd party graders. To test the feasibility and viability of this proposition, she started with an MVP consisting of Google Drive and Venmo, and found that The Graide Network created value for all stakeholders. Over the next five years, Blair grew the company and team to service more than 70,000 students nationwide, eventually leading to an acquisition of the company in 2021. Blair’s advice to entrepreneurs just starting out is to make sure that you’re picking the right market, team, and product to have the tailwinds at your back. This conversation is brought to you by The Garage at Northwestern.
“I think in the first year, I definitely went to some career events and days to try to figure that out, like, “Oh, should I be doing something else?” But really from the moment of having the first like real teacher, real student, real greater MVP, and seeing like the rave reviews from that, it just felt like something that can and should exist and I could just… It just seemed like so deserving of my time and effort. So I was just really kind of captured by that.”
“And I do think it’s valid for like aspiring entrepreneurs or really anyone kind of picking their path. If you’re going to pick a project to do, just like make sure you’re also picking a market that has tailwinds. Like you’re going to be running this marathon and you might as well pick something where the wind’s at your back instead of at your face, because it’s going to be grueling to create something from scratch, no matter what.”
When asked about the most important lessons learned: “Market team and product. So picking a good market, we’ve talked about why that’s so important. A lot of times, we would feel like, “Wow, we have a really talented team. We’re doing smart things. Everyone loves the product.” So like great team, great product. But the market, if there are, if there were headwinds or if it was seasonal, if it was just slow, because it’s just slow. There’s almost nothing you can do to really kind of move the ball faster. So market team for sure.”
“I’m a kind of a classic rule follower, but like as an entrepreneur, you’re kind of like, “Well, I just got to get this in front of people.” So you kind of got to let some of the perfectionism and the rule following go.”
“The temptation is to try to do everything at once, which you can’t do. You have to do a lot of things at once, but you really have to focus on understanding the customer, understanding the market and figuring out like what is the product that’s going to get pulled out of that.”
Welcome to How I Got Here, a podcast from The Garage at Northwestern exploring interesting journeys of young professionals working at exciting companies and the role that entrepreneurship played in getting them there. My name is Mike Rab, and I love dissecting nonlinear and non-traditional career paths and the lessons that we can all take away from those who forged them. In this episode, I’m joined by Blair Pircon, the founder and CEO of The Graide Network, which connects teachers with qualified teaching assistants to grade and provide feedback on student work. Blair founded The Graide Network as a business school student in 2015, and has since grown it to serve 70,000 students nationwide and recently completed an acquisition of the company by Marco Learning. In this conversation we discuss how Blair built a company as a business school student, the importance of distribution for product success and how starting a startup is like having a baby. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Blair Pircon. All right, well Blair, thank you so much for being here with us today.
So happy to be here. Thank you.
We’re happy to have you. All right. So to do a little bit of fast-forwarding, you studied finance in undergrad and then spent a few years working in equity research before deciding to go back to business school where you ultimately founded The Graide Network. Did you have the idea for The Graide Network in mind when you applied to business school? Did you know you wanted to go back to school to do something entrepreneurial? What was kind of your mindset as far as deciding to go back to business school?
Yeah, maybe equity research isn’t the most conventional path to entrepreneurship, but I always had an interest in entrepreneurship and I’m a fourth generation entrepreneur. So was just surrounded by kind of that mentality and was always doodling various ideas on the side or kind of running my own side businesses. So when I applied to Kellogg, I didn’t know that I would kind of find the project or the idea that I would want to work on, but I knew that I would definitely spend my time at business school pursuing something, and then was very fortunate to, in the first week before classes even started, at a seed day social impact entrepreneurship gathering of fellow classmates, heard a former teacher articulate this really big problem around teacher time and just feeling like you’re juggling too many different balls to give your students the kind of detailed feedback that they would most benefit from. So that was the initial spark.
Started working on that as a first year MBA student and did some of the new venture courses and had enough exciting initial MVP success that decided to dedicate my summer internship to just figuring out how to start this company.
Got it. So it sounds like you were pretty primed not only from being a fourth generation entrepreneur, but also working on stuff on the side that you’ve been looking for an idea and plan to spend your time at business school working on it and serendipitously, you found it and that kind of first week. Once you hear this problem articulated by a teacher, how did you go about building an MVP or a company around it? Did you build a lengthy business plan or what was kind of your approach?
The first thing we did was trying to get as many interviews of teachers as possible. So to kind of add to our knowledge base and see if this was more of a broad issue than one teacher’s experience and not having… I covered the education sector as a market analyst and did not have that firsthand classroom experience. So for me, it was starting with as many interviews as I could talk to. So it was networking within our class to find people that were former teachers or new teachers, or were married to teachers or had friends who were teachers. So just that was the initial first step and business school, also, there’s a ton of opportunities to kind of pitch your idea or write those business plans and apply to different grants or funding or competition. So kind of in conjunction with starting to interview people was starting to kind of write out a business plan as well.
Got it. And so as you’re talking to kind of as many potential customers as possible for input, what were some of the assumptions that you were trying to prove or disprove that would let you know that there was something here?
Yeah, I think it was desirability and feasibility were kind of the first two. So it was pretty apparent right away that so many teachers had this problem and would love to have some help with grading and like giving their students feedback on their essays. And… But it was more than just desirability of the teacher. We also wanted to check what… Could we get a grader to want to do this? Would an administrator want to support something like this? Would students get value out of it too? So desirability was kind of across all of our four main stakeholders. And then as we were sussing that out in the interviews, we actually created an MVP using basically exchanging files in Google Drive was our MVP and reached out to like an education club at the University of Michigan, found our first grader, found a teacher, and did an MVP really just with Google Drive.
And after that kind of checked the box for us, I’m like, “Wow, this really… Everyone really got value out of the output of this process.” Then we turned a little bit more towards feasibility. Like, could you really have an outside grader who’s not the classroom teacher who’s not their day to day? Could they really understand the rubric? Could they apply the rubric consistently? Was that kind of like feasible? And as we were structuring those tests, then we kind of move more into viability of like the actual business model. Like, could you charge more than it would cost to do it? Could you recruit people fast enough? Or were there enough people out there who would… Yeah, some of those more like business model questions were like the third phase.
Right. So once you’ve used this MVP to kind of prove the initial assumption, then it seems like you have kind of a two-sided marketplace, but with other stakeholders as well, like the administrators and parents and students. So how did you approach, once you’ve proved this kind of building that marketplace or jump-starting it to have either enough graders or enough teachers or I guess both the supply and demand side?
Yeah, it was definitely at a time and we were pretty… Like, we kind of immediately thought of like the gig economy and the marketplace kind of business model and just applying that to this problem. So we were looking at a lot of those like marketplaces and what we realized after trying it out a few times with real teachers and graders is it really had to be not a traditional like marketplace, but a heavily managed marketplace. Like the customer really just expected that the company would really own the outcome and the quality and stuff like that. So it really turned into like… And there’s a lot of different models like that out there in different industries.
But we were like, oh, this isn’t just like a we’ll have teaching assistants available online and teachers can, you know, pick their teaching assistant, figure out how to work with them, figure out how many hours they… Like manage their schedules. Like all of that stuff teachers needed us to do because they were so underwater and managing third-party workers was not in their like idea of what they wanted to do. So those were some of our initial learnings as well that kind of shaped how we priced it, what the product offering really was, like how we would set up our systems to manage graders and get quality graders, but also keep it to be cost-effective for schools.
Yeah. That makes a ton of sense with something so important as grading student papers. That trust but also that teachers… The reason they’re using you partially is because they don’t have time to manage another individual to do it for them. So that makes sense. And so how did your sales approach kind of evolve throughout the process? Was it always selling into individual teachers? Were you thinking about schools? Like what was kind of your strategy around them?
Oh, wow. That was definitely always the hardest part and, and still is. So it went through a lot of different phases. I think we were initially like trying to figure out if there was a direct to teacher model. In general, people get pretty excited about the opportunity to move faster, get more people more quickly trying out your product.
And so we focused on that in the very initial like first six months or so, just to see about like more like learning how we should structure the product and the opportunity, but we pretty quickly realized, yeah, within that first six months, that it really needed to be a B to B school level contract for a number of different reasons around like student privacy, around like trust and making it like a truly valuable instructional tool. It has to be something that’s like done as a group at the school, not like a one-off teacher who’s just like trying to alleviate some time on a cram kind of weekend sort of system. So the economics work better that way when it’s done in like a bulk kind of purchase too. So we could offer like more attractive prices per students. And so that was kind of a big adjustment, but obviously it’s hard when your user who experiences the pain point directly is not your customer and your customer is not all the time super sympathetic to the user’s like pain point.
So we really had to figure out a sales process that would get the decision maker who had the budget, like the school principal, or the district curriculum leader, to see this as a tool to advance student writing. This is not just a tool to help, say, teacher’s time. That’s a nice byproduct, but that could not be like the direct value prop. So we had to find schools that prioritized writing and like that’s not something they just like list on their website or like something you can scrape or… So it was very like consultative sales, like trying to really identify and find educators that were like, “Oh yeah, student writing is super important skill. The only way to develop it is by a lot of practice and a lot of feedback that’s specific and timely.” And we were like, “Oh, well, that’s what we do. We can do that for you. Yeah.
Right. Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I mean, I think schools are notoriously one of the hardest institutions to sell into, but also don’t have a ton of free budget lying around to… So finding that alignment sounds like it was very important.
Yeah. That’s definitely another classic K-12 market challenge is unless you’re aligned to an accountability metric or an existing budget line item that people are used to buying, it’s really hard. You’re really kind of evangelizing like, well, come on. Like, yeah, you don’t buy feedback as a service today, but like you want your students to graduate with really strong writing skills. Like that’s your goal. Like think of a more creative way to spend your funds and make this service available to students and teachers. So it was definitely like a kind of evangelizing and educating the market on like, here’s a new way to think about this problem that you’ve all recognized.
Right. Yeah, and I think being part of an entrepreneur is convincing others about the potential of your idea, and you actually, I believe, pitched your college roommate to quit her job in New York and join your startup full time. Is that right?
Right. Yeah. So I kind of gave her the soft pitch. As I was working on it in my first year and over the summer at business school was kind of catching up with her periodically and just telling her about this idea. And the kind of early traction and she was like, “Wow. My sister’s a teacher, this like makes so much sense to me,” and she would talk to her family members about it. And then it kind of was getting to be more and more serious for me. And I was like, “Wow, this really has legs. I want to do this.” And pitched her on quitting her job and doing a major career pivot, moving to Chicago and starting it with me.
I bet that was both scary and exciting for her.
Yeah. It’s like conventional wisdom is great, but can only kind of take you so far and especially in entrepreneurship… Usually like, you know, “Don’t do business with your best friend.” It might be like some good advice in general, but having a co-founder is kind of like having a business spouse of sorts and trust is super important in that. So we’ve had, thankfully, like the last five years have just been just so wonderful to have someone who’s in that like copilot seat with me who I respect, I trust. She is like ying to my yang. Like it was super fortunate to have a co-founder that’s kind of always been there for me and I can just rely on so much.
Absolutely, and provide some balance when someone’s having an update or a down day to be the counterweight to that. So I think you came to business school with the intention of starting something entrepreneurial, but I think those kind of two years can fly by pretty quickly. But it sounds like you kind of, since you started working on The Graide Network, intended to continue with it full-time after school. Was that the case, or was there any hesitation or did you do any recruitment or what was kind of your thoughts as far as after school?
I think in the first year, I definitely went to some career events and days to try to figure that out, like, “Oh, should I be doing something else?” But really from the moment of having the first like real teacher, real student, real greater MVP, and seeing like the rave reviews from that, it just felt like something that can and should exist and I could just… It just seemed like so deserving of my time and effort. So I was just really kind of captured by that from probably like winter, spring of that first year. Did pitch in the competition at the end of the first year. We didn’t even make it out of our like bracket, I don’t think. So stuck with it, spent the whole summer kind of like in a mini incubator that I created myself essentially, and-
What does that mean?
Well, I told my advisor, Linda Darragh that I wanted to work on this as my summer project. And she was able to connect me with a group in Chicago that focuses on ed tech innovation. They’d never taken in like an entrepreneur in residence or anything like that. They don’t really do development of ed tech, but they were like, “Oh yeah, we could do that.” Like, so she was able to like kind of finagle a custom incubator session with a perfect group for me to just embed with for the summer. And they gave me like office space and plenty of advice and like ability to interview school administrators and teachers that were coming in through those doors. So kind of the ideal setting. Also had another kind of Kellogg student able to connect me with a engineering, like a dev firm, off shore in India to help me build out the initial designs that I had been developing.
I went to a couple of education conferences to like more market research and pitch my first customers. I got my first customer at like a conference like happy hour, basically. So yeah, it was doing all those things kind of solo in the first summer. I did end up like doing a little bit of recruiting.
I really think just maybe one interview or something in VC, but really more it was like pitching my idea and they’re like, “Just… You should just work in VC instead.” And then I was like, “No, no, I really want to do this thing.” So I had enough signs, like just in terms of how strongly I felt about the idea that I wanted to do it full-time afterwards. So we then kind of kept pitching, kept entering those pitch competitions where it was able to kind of fund with that was able to fund ongoing development during that second year of business school, and then raised a little bit of angel money at graduation in order to hire our CTO and our first employee. So it was kind of my co-founder and I and two other people that were kind of like the launch team after graduation.
Right. So it sounds like kind of throughout school, you’re hustling, going to conferences, getting customers, entering pitch competitions, winning some money. So and you also have some customers and a little bit of revenue at the point of graduation in addition to a little bit of angel investment as well. So it sounds like you were in a good place.
There’s some hesitation there.
I don’t know. I think at every stage of the journey, it has been like the most exciting stage at that time, but I kind of look back and I’m like, “Oh man, I wish we had just done everything that we know today a lot faster, better.” It’s just… But you kind of have to go through the process. Like it’s going to take longer, it’s going to cost more money. And like they always tell you those things and you like don’t think it’s really going to happen to you, but yeah.
Yeah. What are some of the things that you wish you would have done earlier or different?
I think it just took us some time to really find our footing on even the small things like hiring and making that like a really great process that would help us make really good decisions in a repeatable way. It’s like you don’t really need to have a hiring process on day one because you’re hiring like two people, but at kind of the next stage. So when I kind of look back on how the lack of maturity of our processes and organization and culture and all those things that at the beginning, it’s not like you could really wave a magic wand and have all that on day one. So I think we kind of proceeded and did the best we could at the time and stage we were at and focused on the right things. I think ultimately, as I reflect on it, it’s really more about like selling to schools is brutal and COVID made it still just as brutal, if not more brutal to sell to schools, just given like everyone’s, you know, priorities and just what they’re occupied with.
So that’s advice that we got like very early on about like, oh, the go-to market in this… In your particular industry is tough or whatever that is. And I do think it’s valid for like aspiring entrepreneurs or really anyone kind of picking their path. If you’re going to pick a project to do, just like make sure you’re also picking a market that has tailwinds. Like you’re going to be running this marathon and you might as well pick something where the wind’s at your back instead of at your face, because it’s going to be grueling to create something from scratch, no matter what. You can have like the best team executing their ass off and if the market is tough, like it’s going to be hard to make any forward progress. So yeah.
Yeah. I feel like especially first-time founders, the distribution is often overlooked. Like they focus on the product and the solution, but like how you get that in front of customers is like secondary, when in reality it’s just as important, if not more important.
Right. Right. Yeah. But yeah, it’s been an exciting journey. So it’s five years of being in business, growing the team, like hiring people that I love, building a product that teachers and students and like everyone loves, works, gets results, like building the tech, like just improving the organizational capabilities. Kind of one foot in front of the other, like every day getting better and better has been super, super gratifying. And yeah.
For sure. I mean, you’re one of the rare success stories of entering business school, intending to leave and build your own startup out of it and scale it and managed to do that. Over the past five years, how big did you grow to the company as far as employees or customers, or what type of scale have you guys achieved so far?
We’re serving about 70,000 students right now-
With a network of… I mean, the network is as wide as a thousand graders who are all graduate and undergraduate students working from all over the country. So yeah and we actually just completed kind of a strategic move thinking exactly about the distribution question. Our thesis on what COVID changed about schooling was very much like obviously digital has been pulled forward by like five years, thanks to the emergency remote learning that happened over the last year. We wanted to pair what we did super well with grading and feedback with a suite of products on the front end and the backend and all the supports that would make it a comprehensive package. So we just completed an acquisition. So we sold The Graide Network to Marco Learning. And so now that product is continuing to grow and is now paired with a suite of content, practice test, lesson plans, professional development, kind of… Yeah, like a full range of products.
Yeah. Congratulations on the acquisition. You are the first guest of this podcast with a successful exit. So kudos to you.
Thank you. Thank you.
Just if you could share a little bit of insight about that process and your approach, I think it’d be super interesting to hear what that was like from your perspective.
Yeah. I guess it started really like within my co-founder and I… I mean, we meet weekly to discuss our strategy, but we have an annual like co-founder offsite and pre-COVID, a year ago, we kind of like… It starts with really like laying your goals out really clearly about where you want the business to be to know if you’re having the traction that you think you need to have to make various investments, be able to raise ca… To hire the… Like all the stuff kind of depends upon like how well the business is performing. So we kind of laid out our goals of where we thought the current strategies could get us and what we would change and do differently if we weren’t getting there. So COVID hit, and things went differently, but like for different reasons, but we still knew that we were going to try to change our either channel partnerships or go to market, something about the distribution was going to have to change.
So in classic Grade Network form, we created a rubric, because we believe there should be a defined description of what a score would be for a different option and being really clear about what characteristics or attributes we were really looking for. And we launched a process to consider different kind of reseller options, referral options, or potentially like going kind of like white labeled within an assessment provider or curriculum provider, and just kind of powering the feedback that would underlie a student’s experience. So we went through like on a whole strategic planning process around that and did a bunch of like pilots with different companies and scored all the options and that’s how we ended up going with Marco Learning.
That’s great. And congratulations again. What would you say… First of all, I have a feeling that this is not the last of the companies you start, but what would you say have been the most important lessons you’ve learned through this journey with The Graide Network over the past five years?
Market team and product. So picking a good market, we’ve talked about why that’s so important. A lot of times, we would feel like, “Wow, we have a really talented team. We’re doing smart things. Everyone loves the product.” So like great team, great product. But the market, if there are, if there were headwinds or if it was seasonal, if it was just slow, because it’s just slow. There’s almost nothing you can do to really kind of move the ball faster. So market team for sure. And I think that’s something that I’ve loved. Like a lot of people say it’s all about the people that you get to work with or get to impact. So being able to work with the schools that we’ve been able to partner with across the country, the graders, as I’ve gotten to know at least some or many of them and our team has just been like a real privilege to get to work with them.
And that’s not just like hiring the right people. It’s also finding the right routines and structures for the group to come together, to bond, to share and like reflect and have those processes built in place. Like it doesn’t just happen on its own. And then product, like, I mean the ultimate goal as an entrepreneur is like you find that product market fit where things are working, what you had… The idea that you had is like in real life and really impacting people in a positive way. So that’s been also like one of the other things, when I look back, like I just love seeing the reviews. I love seeing the survey stats. I love like seeing like, “Wow, this is something that’s working at scale for tens of thousands of people that are benefiting from this.”
Right. It’s having a real important impact. Are there… I’ll give you a minute for this one. Are there any favorite like stories or anecdotes either from the early days or while growing the company that kind of highlights maybe a favorite moment or once you like… A big success or overcoming a hurdle. Anything that comes to mind?
Oh my gosh. It’s always like the funny, like underfunded guerrilla things that you do just because you have to be… You have to. And you have to be scrappy. Like we would… I think my co-founder and I were like in an Airbnb for a conference and we had to… Like we were like sharing a room and I was eight months pregnant.
Yes. This is why it’s also good if your co-founder is your best friend, because she’s totally comfortable with this. And we put up like… We printed out our own flyers and hung them up in bathroom stalls at the conference because we weren’t a sponsor. We couldn’t afford to be. So we were like hanging up our own flyers inside the bathrooms to get people to like come where like area was. And like some people were like, “Oh, there’s… Who hung these flyers in the bathroom? That’s not allowed.”
And so as like a… I’m a kind of a classic rule follower, but like as an entrepreneur, you’re kind of like, “Well, I just got to get this in front of people.” So you kind of got to let some of the perfectionism and the rule following go. So a lot of like those stories are… Yeah, like I think we… I also… I had three kids and in the last five years of also running, starting, and running this company. So I’ve also seen a lot of like correlation between becoming a new parent and then like having a new company as an entrepreneur of like, this is your baby, you wish it could feed itself, but it’s not going to be able to feed itself for the early days.
You’re going to have to really… You sacrifice yourself to try to make this happen. And putting yourself last or not thinking about yourself in terms of both the company and your babies. It just… Saw a lot of interesting similarities between those experiences. But I always used having a baby as the reason to set the close date for the round of financing. So it was very sometimes helpful to be like, “No, no, everyone, we need to close on February 15th because I’m due.”
Give you some leverage there, huh?
That’s amazing. I mean it just sounds like you have been such a hustler over the past five years. Very impressive. What, and maybe we’ve heard a bit of it already, but if there’s an aspiring entrepreneur out there who’s just starting out. Maybe the have an idea. How should they get started? What would your advice to them be?
The temptation is to try to do everything at once, which you can’t do. You have to do a lot of things at once, but you really have to focus on understanding the customer, understanding the market and figuring out like what is the product that’s going to get pulled out of that. If you start with just the product, you’re kind of at risk of like trying to put a square peg into a round hole of like you start with the solution and you’re trying to find a problem to match your solution. So I think orientating to problems and problem solving and who cares? Who would pay for it? Like very simple, simple questions. And then the sooner you can validate that with traction, the sooner you’ll be able to justify your own time and effort on it and the time and effort of other people that you want to convince to join you, fund you, back you, buy from you. So I think being very deliberate about like what you’re trying to prove and getting the measurements to prove that even if it’s just to yourself.
I think that’s great advice and a great place to end. So Blair, thanks again for your time and congratulations on your success.
Yeah. Thank you for having me.
If there’s one lesson I would take away from Blair, it’s her approach of talking to as many stakeholders as possible from the earliest stages to determine the feasibility of her idea. Instead of building out a website or product Blair, talk to teachers and convinced one of them to Venmo her $50 to grade student papers for her, validating that teachers were interested enough to pay for the service and that they were satisfied with the output. When you’re thinking about building a product, I encourage you to talk to potential customers and validate what they’re willing to pay for, even before you’ve built a fully fledged product. How I Got Here is a podcast from The Garage at Northwestern and is produced by Melissa Kaufman, Ben Williams and Elisabeth Wright. If you enjoyed this episode, please rate and review us on your favorite podcast platform.