Entrepreneurship advice from Schoology founders

Schoology is the brainchild of WashU alumni Ryan Hwang, Jeremy Friedman and Timothy Trinidad.

“We’ve grown from start-up to market leaders,” says Jeremy Friedman, Washington University alumnus and co-founder of Schoology.

The education technology company, founded at WashU and now headquartered in New York City, has seen remarkable revenue and client growth over the past two years. Last October, Schoology added the Los Angeles Unified School District with 1,000 schools and 640,000 students to its impressive portfolio of more than 1,000 universities, colleges and K-12 school districts. Schoology’s 210 employees are currently serving more than 12 million users across all 50 U.S. states and more than 130 countries worldwide, and the company also received its latest round of funding in 2015 bringing Schoology’s total to $57 million.

Schoology is the brainchild of WashU alumni Jeremy Friedman (AB ’09), Timothy Trinidad (BSAS ‘09/BA ‘09) and Ryan Hwang (BSBA ‘09). The trio started working on the company during their junior year with the goal to make communication and collaboration for K-12 students easier. Fast-forward eight years, the idea has grown into the leading learning management system in K-12. The company is now making strong inroads into higher education.

In an interview with WashU, CEO Friedman and VP of Systems Engineering Trinidad talked about WashU’s popular Hatchery business incubation course, challenging aspects of the entrepreneurial journey and skills that are vital to success.

We created Schoology because: (Jeremy) we wanted to give educators all the tools they needed to easily personalize education in a social, collaborative and interconnected way and improve student outcomes regardless of age.

The Hatchery propelled Schoology because: (Jeremy) it provided us with a framework to understand the fundamentals of the market, create a go-to-market strategy, build a business model, understand the ability to raise capital and how that would impact the growth strategy and operations of the company. It also gave us exposure to a broad set of people from a whole bunch of industries who we could pitch our idea to in order to understand the general feedback we’d get from the outside market. It was a tremendous value-add for us in our early days.

Entrepreneurship is all about: (Jeremy) having not just an idea – but the dedication and motivation to see it through and the ability to impact other people on the other side of that idea. (Timothy) It’s all about adapting. Not just to the market, but as your company grows, your individual roles change quickly, not even year-over-year, but sometimes month-over-month.

The best reason to become an entrepreneur is: (Timothy) that you’re your own boss. I learn far more than I would have ever learned from a single position. You move around so quickly, because that’s what a company needs, and in each place you learn so much about running it. (Jeremy) You have something you are passionate about or a curiosity you are trying to explore, and you’re committed and determined to see it through.

The worst reason to become an entrepreneur is: (Jeremy) if you’re in it because you want to make a lot of money or have fame. You should rather be motivated by the problem you’re trying to solve, something you feel really passionate about. It’s also not about raising venture capital. That’s actually the worst reason to start something. The only reason you should be raising capital is because the business model requires it.

A hard truth about entrepreneurship is: (Jeremy) it’s not for everyone. Entrepreneurship is not something you do because it’s the cool thing to do or because you want to try it out for a year or two.

If you don’t know how to handle criticism as an entrepreneur, you: (Jeremy) won’t be able to learn or grow as an individual in any capacity. The ability to take feedback, interpret it, understand the underlying meaning and then learn and grow from that is one of the most critical things to success. (Timothy) When we pitched the first version of Schoology, high schools hated it. It brought our act together and got us to where we are today.

My toughest entrepreneurial moments was: (Timothy) the first time our site was down and we had lots of paying customers. As entrepreneurs, there’s no boss or manager we could ask. We just had to fight through it. Time stretched, every second felt like a minute. We learned a lot because of it, but in the moment it was gut-wrenching. (Jeremy): In the beginning stages of the company. I believed we could get things done quickly and that when we’d get them done, that would be the moment of success. But things always take longer than you think they will, and success is not a point in time, but a continuous process through your growth.

Failure is an integral part of the entrepreneurial process because: (Jeremy) it forces you to read between the lines, understand what went wrong and think about how you can solve that problem, provided you have the ability to think differently moving forward.

An underappreciated aspect of entrepreneurship is: (Jeremy) how absolutely difficult it is. Entrepreneurship is something you have to give 150 percent of your life to and be committed to at all costs. And it’s not a straight line. It’s a series of successes and failures that you work through to make yourself and the company as great as possible.

A mantra I live by is: (Timothy) know your strengths and weaknesses. At the beginning, it’s just you, and you have to do everything. But you’re better off knowing when to bring somebody in to grow a certain part of the business. Recognizing that and acting upon that is one of the hardest things you have to do as an entrepreneur.

My favorite thing to do when I’m not working on Schoology is: (Jeremy) spending time with my fiancée and family. We figured eventually we’d get to a point where things would calm… they never really do, but we got to the point where growth is in the right spot and we hired the right people. It doesn’t relieve me 100 percent, but it allows me to focus on things that are more important to the business.

In five years, Schoology will be: (Jeremy) in the hands of every student K-12 and beyond. Anyone who’s learning anything should be able to use Schoology as a platform and a mechanism to do so. We’ll be able to easily remove the friction and barriers that prevent students from improving their outcomes and prevent teachers and faculty from improving their teaching.

Learn more about Schoology in this alumni profile on Washington magazine.