It’s a sad truth that teachers dig into their own pockets to buy supplies for their classrooms, typically spending $500 a year.
But what if they could spend $20 instead of $90 for, say, science curriculum game apps or $5 instead of $10 for math flash cards?
And what if small publishers and software developers could get their educational products viewed by thousands of teachers and parents?
That is the business proposition that Oakland businesswomen Kate Whiting and Kaitlyn Trabucco took on in founding Educents.
Their Oakland startup is an online marketplace for sellers of education software and books to meet teachers, parents and school officials eager to buy such products. It was operating in pilot mode until last week, when it launched its portal publicly.
“We are trying to make education affordable,” said Whiting who has been marketing educational products for half a decade before starting the e-commerce site. Sellers agree to offer 30 to 90 percent discounts in exchange for the marketing exposure. Call it a Groupon for education. But instead of fashion or restaurant meals, it is offering K-12 curriculum aids, books, science kits and language videos.
Whiting and Trabucco’s market research brought up that 99 percent of the 7.2 million teachers in the United States spend out of pocket on classroom supplies and books, with teachers averaging $495 a year in such purchases.
Meanwhile, there currently is an explosion of educational software applications, books and materials coming on the market – many of them created by teachers.
“We want to help those small businesses, those teachers building apps, reach their market,”
It’s time for the two to meet. “Small entrepreneurs do not have marketing budgets,” Whiting said, yet they do have some very innovative products.
Collectively, U.S. teachers spend about $1.7 billion a year on materials for their classrooms while parents spent another $26.7 billion on back to school supplies and educational tools for their children, the Educents founders said, citing the National School Supply and Equipment Association.
Educents’ founders determined that this huge school supplies market is ripe for becoming more efficient. Whiting and Trabucco said they intend to disrupt the status quo here, to “change the way educational materials reach the classroom” they said.
Marketers on the site include everyone from established textbook publishers, like divisions of McGraw Hill or Rosetta Stone, to entrepreneurial teachers who have created apps for computers or phones. Already in one year, about 700 educational product companies have signed up to offer products on Educents, the founders said. Meanwhile about 120,000 buyers have visited the site.
Whiting and Trabucco are graduates of the Mills College MBA program at the Lorry I. Lokey Graduate School of Business, which Trabucco points out has a “really strong CSR (corporate social responsibility) program.”
The founded the company in April of 2013, months after Trabucco got her MBA and about a year after Whiting graduated and had time to mull over what she wanted to do.
“We talked about her idea over dinner in Oakland one night,” Trabucco said. “I called back the next morning and said I’m in.”
Trabucco had been working with a nonprofit in Haiti before business school, helping young orphaned women launch entrepreneurial businesses to support themselves. Before that, she worked at Tiffany’s, the high end retailer. While working with earthquake ravaged Haitians was in some ways a counter to serving the rich who frequent Tiffany’s, going to business school and launching a social impact business was a response to wanting to mix the best of both the non profit and business worlds.
The earthquake in Haiti “was one of those news stories that I couldn’t stop thinking about,” she said. She dropped everything and went to Haiti to help. Over her year there, she realized the big differentiating point that helps people get a leg up in the world is education.
For Whiting, who had worked for Homeschool.com and run her own educational publishing marketing firm before business school, Educents is a chance to realize her own e-commerce vision.
“We felt if we could build this online box, this platform, we could help a lot more clients,” get the exposure they needed for their products, Whiting said.
“Vendors get it,” Trabucco said about the marketing exposure that comes on such a site. At one moment this past Monday morning there were 189 people shopping on the site, according to a Google Analytics snapshot of activity on Educents.
In a year, the small company has expanded from the two founders to eight full time staff members and two interns.
“We made a conscious decision to be in Oakland. We felt like we owe so much for Mills, we wanted to give back” to its community, Trabucco said. But also, they regard Oakland as a place for social entrepreneurship.
“Oakland has become a really strong breeding ground for social impact business. We were in Silicon Valley” at the start, working out of Whiting’s living room. “We decided to be in Oakland.”