Most teachers don’t have nearly enough time to spend finding resources and lesson planning. Cuts in education typically mean that average teachers have a larger class load, and some are often faced with pulling down multiple jobs in school and even after school. This can be especially difficult for K-6 teachers who often want to give their students all they possibly can.
This is where Jason Fabbri and his Sacremento based educational startup 19Pencils comes in. 19Pencils provides an online community for like minded elementary school teachers. Using their platform teachers can search and discover great educational content and upload and share things that have worked for them in the classroom.
Fabbri has been a software engineer for the last 17 years. He’s had a long career with Adobe contributing to projects like Photoshop Elements, Photoshop Services and more. It was volunteering at his children’s schools that prompted him to create 19Pencils. He saw firsthand the frustration that teachers had in curating good web content for first grade students, and then sharing it.
We got a chance to talk to Fabbri in depth about 19Pencils and the growing startup community in Sacremento, just 90 minutes outside of Silicon Valley. Check out the interview below.
What is 19Pencils?
19Pencils is a resource for K6 teachers providing an easy way to discover, manage, and share web based resources with students and peers. Teachers can save hours and hours throughout the school year by searching for educationally focused sites and saving those sites for student access on a unique class page. Teachers can also contribute new unique resources which are then discoverable by other teachers from around the world. In addition to web resources, 19Pencils provides unique features to include any web site in unique teacher assignments for students. Finally teachers class pages not only are where their web resources can be found but it also provides a teacher managed search engine of which the search is only applied to the resources that the teacher has saved, providing a great stepping stone for young students to search online.
In layman’s terms, how does it work? (In other words how would you explain it to your grandmother)
We maintain a proprietary database that is focused on educational resources. This database is searchable by subject or keyword, but where we feel the real value exists is that when a teacher contributes a web site they use we share it with other teachers via regular email communication. Teachers are busy enough and it’s unrealistic to expect them to do what they do as well as to know the best websites for a given subject. We connect teachers to web resources.
Who are the founders and what are their backgrounds?
19Pencils is founded by Jason Fabbri. A software engineer of 17 years, Jason has worked in other startups while also spending over 15 years with Adobe Systems, Inc. where he contributed to many projects including Photoshop Elements, Photoshop Services and more.
Where are you based?
We are based in Roseville, California just outside of Sacramento.
What’s the startup scene/culture like where you’re based?
Although we only about an hour and a half from the Bay Area, the startup scene here is considerably more quiet than in the Silicon Valley. Though there are startup ventures going, the publicity and buzz is definitely quieter.
How did you come up with the idea for 19Pencils?
While volunteering in my own children’s classrooms, volunteering in the computerlab specifically, I witnessed a good deal of frustration. Frustration both on the teacher’s part as well as the students. A teacher would guide the students into the computerlab, instruct them to find a computer, launch the web browser and go to a specific website. As you could imagine, this being a first grade class, the students had trouble. They would end up at some random website (often inappropriate) or would be struggling to find the semi-colon key, etc. All this while working with a window of 30 minutes in the lab.
I felt there had to be an easier way. An easier way for the teacher to share multiple web resources, an easier way for the students to get to those resources, and even a way for other teachers to leverage resources from one another (why should teachers constantly reinvent the wheel?).
How did you come up with the name?
As I built the system and was soliciting feedback I asked my sons teacher what his ideal class size was. He said “Oh, 19 or 20”. I felt that “19” had a better ring to it and the “pencils” is simply an analogy for the students.
What problem does 19Pencils solve?
Part of the Standardized Core Curriculum requires that students become fluent in leveraging technology, specifically the Internet. We bridge a gap between teachers that do not have adequate time to scour the web and meeting that required technology objective. Additionally we think that teachers can always benefit from resource sharing, so while we solve the problem of getting specific web content to students, we also solve the challenge of discovering new web resources from colleagues whether in the same grade, same school, or same country.
What’s your secret sauce?
We constantly monitor and analyze where web resources are used and by which grade. This enables us to proactively share content that was beneficial for one first grade teacher, with another first grade teacher. Even going so far as sharing with teachers in the same school district, or sharing with teachers on the other side of the world. This constant analyzing of use, combined with our ever growing pool of content we feel provides a very unique collection of features and data that is hugely beneficial for the K6 education space.
What are some milestones you’ve achieved?
This past 6 months we have seen our membership grow 350% which is very exciting. Now membership is one thing but actual usage is an entirely different story. Within the same period we have seen overall usage increase over 300% as well.
What’s your next milestone?
While continuing to provide a useful, no cost service for teachers we will be reaching out to school site administrators as well as full districts next to gauge how we can help then. We also have mobile and tablet targets on our radar.
What’s one challenge you’ve overcome in the startup process?
One of the most common things I’ve seen with startups is to throw money at a problem. Often times spending more money simply causes more problems (i.e., ‘Hey, we’re out of money!’). 19Pencils has been run on an extremely tight shoestring budget that I feel has helped us to monitor the growth curve while spending and focusing only where it makes the most sense. Part of the value of 19Pencils is the user base so it’s important that we focus on how more members that use the product, the more everyone benefits and time is something that is a crucial part of that. In cases where a great startup idea exists, often times the lack of money causes it to die just before it has a chance to thrive. Time is key.
Who are some of your mentors and business role models?
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many, many brilliant people in my career. Some have shown what I feel are great examples, and some have demonstrated precisely what I would not want to do. One mentor who has provided valuable guidance to me over the years has been Joseph Ternasky, Director of Engineering at Google. I had worked with Joe for a number of years at a Adobe and has always been there to provide candid advice and input, and sometimes it’s those difficult things you need hear. You can’t be successful if everyone always tells you how great you’re doing.
As for role models, I’ve always admired Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Group fame. He exudes tenacity, willingness to take risks, and vision for long term approaches to success.
What’s next for 19Pencils?
We feel strongly in education and teachers. One thing we’re looking at is the variety of options we have for monetization, which are many. That said what will always be the case is that 19Pencils will be free for teachers and their students. In addition we continue to look for what we can do to help improve the lives of teachers in the classroom. Whether that be mobile apps, better engagement with parents, providing unique functionality for students, or a combination of all of the above.
Most importantly the next thing for 19Pencils I would have to say is to listen as closely as we can to our users and identify what they need. Not what we want to give them, but what they need. There is a critical difference. If we can help one teacher, we can help ten, and if we can help ten well you know the rest. :-)
Where can people find out more and what is your Twitter username?
You can follow us on Twitter at @19Pencils where like to stay engaged with educators from all walks of life. You can also stay up to date with on Facebook at 19Pencils or just visit us at 19Pencils.com