Asking for your friend for money is hard, but asking investors for half a million is even harder. That’s what I realized when I interviewed William Zhou for a panel. An impressive entrepreneur, William sold his first company at the age of 18 and is running Chalk.com today to improve the world of education. Since that panel, we sat down for a longer chat.
Q: Do you remember when you first got the entrepreneurial spark?
A: Once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur. In grade 10, I founded a design agency called Design Vetica. The agency grew to over 50 clients ranging from local businesses to US companies to international enterprises. By the end of my high school career, I launched my first software-as-a-service company, Draftboard, to help designers collaborate with their clients. Though I was satisfied with the progress, I decided to sell the company in my first year of university in pursuit of something much bigger – to change education.
Q: Can you describe a typical day?
A: There is no typical day, and it never gets boring. Part of being in a startup means that you’ll have to wear many hats. Some days, I am working with our engineering team on product direction. Other days, I am meeting teachers and pitching to administrators. More recently, I started hopping back and forth between Canada and the US. Every day is different and that’s part of why I am an entrepreneur.
Q: You travel a lot for work. Where’s the coolest place you’ve been for work and what did you do there?
A: Nice. Because it’s nice. Jokes aside, I was there to speak about innovative methods on improving customer success. I travel quite a bit for work. Most of the time, it’s within North America. Business travel gets tiring really fast and it can easily ruin your routine.
Q: Tell me about one of your employees. What made you hire them?
A: We often look for some uniqueness in our hires. Daniel Rampelt certainly fit this. We met Daniel during our early founding days during something called Challenge Days…During that day, we worked with Daniel to deploy fixes for tens of thousands of teachers. Intrigued by the impact, he reached out to us to ask about a summer internship position. We hadn’t planned on having one, but this was one gifted individual we couldn’t lose out on. Since then, Daniel has worked full time with us during summers and part time during school time. He is in second year Computer Science now and to this day, we are still trying to convince him to drop out and join the company full time.
Q: What were some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced while building the company?
A: Education is a tough market to build a business in. Many entrepreneurs shy away due to the bureaucracy and politics involved. Initially, we sold our software directly to teachers. We thought it was a brilliant idea; instead, it led us nowhere. Although teachers loved using our product, purchasing out of pocket was not something they were willing to do. We ended the year with a few thousand dollars and less than 100 teachers who paid for the product. Things were looking bleak. However, at the end of the first year, we received a phone call from a Texas school district. They were looking to purchase 72 licenses.
We had no idea how to conduct district sales; we had no proposal or invoice documents to use. Nonetheless, we rushed and created everything just in time to make the sale – all within 24 hours. That one deal doubled our earnings. We were all in shock. When asked why they had purchased, they told us that their teachers were using it on their own accord. A light bulb went off in our head and we decided to switch to a land and expand business model where we can hook the teacher and admin in a lower offering in order to build trust to sell our premium piece. In the subsequent year, we had perfected this distribution model more and more. A year later, our revenues would rise 3000% because of this change.