July 14, 2017 | Announcements

Pathways to Success: Lessons from Michelle Brown

Last Friday, we had one of our most successful alumnae from the Fast Forward Accelerator, Michelle Brown, come back to share some of her experiences with the new cohort. Michelle is the CEO and founder of CommonLit.org, an educational platform that delivers engaging, adaptive, and customizable instructional material and content designed to support literacy development. It is built by teachers for teachers, and is completely free for all its users.

Michelle spent her first two years out of college with Teach For America, teaching English in rural Mississippi. She quickly realized that bright students were struggling in class because they had essentially no access to engaging learning resources. Her experiences there made something abundantly clear to Michelle:

A low skilled reader does not equal a low skilled thinker!

She wanted these high skilled thinkers to be appreciated for all they had to offer. She knew that if more students had more captivating reading materials and learning tools available to them, they could thrive. This became her inspiration for CommonLit.org.

Success Comes Quickly

Today, CommonLit.org is being used in 31% of America’s public schools, and in Q1-Q2 of this year, was gaining 45,000 users every month. However, just a year ago, CommonLit had only one employee, $20,000 in the bank, and a monthly burn rate of $10,000. Michelle was struggling to keep CommonLit afloat, but she refused to give up because she knew how much good CommonLit could do for students and teachers across the country.

With the help of Fast Forward’s accelerator program, she secured a $25,000 grant from Google.org. Shortly after, she was awarded a $3,900,000 “use-it or lose-it” grant from the US Department of Education. Overnight, CommonLit took off. They hired 17 people in 40 days, and user rates started growing exponentially. Michelle’s organization had survived the early challenges and was finally becoming the resource she always knew it could be.

Growing Pains/Defining Your Organization’s Culture

However, this rapid growth came with many of its own challenges. The team initially struggled with incorporating all its new members and managing the server demands of a rapidly growing user base. Michelle realized she had to rethink her management style.

The first step was for her team to define their values as a company (“cheesy but necessary”, she joked). She worked hard to create a culture where people felt welcome to share ideas and provide honest, constructive feedback. Improving lines of communication was transformative for her team. Employees quickly became much more willing to take initiative and tackle problems as they arose with the support of their teammates.

Once an organizational culture had been established, they turned their focus toward their product. While they were surpassing the performance benchmarks they had set for themselves, they recognized they were too focused on a vanity metric: Registered Users. Invoking the lessons we learned from Brad Presner (which you can catch up on here), Michelle understood that she had to redefine what success meant for her organization.

“Have you talked to your users?”

This is a question Michelle urges every nonprofit to ask themselves, On the surface, their organization was thriving. User rates were soaring, but Michelle didn’t simply want more users. She wanted users to be getting the most they possibly could out of her product. A deeper look into user data revealed that many users—teachers especially—were not taking advantage of all CommonLit had to offer. Realizing this not only helped them improve their product, but their entire business model.

Working With Clients to Build Your Business Model

Initially, Michelle tried to build a business model around selling customized dashboard analytics to school districts with high usage rates so that these districts could monitor how CommonLit was being used in their schools. But no one would bite. District leaders didn’t just want more data – they wanted the support systems necessary to help schools make that data actionable.

Better understanding the motivation of their potential clients helped Michelle tailor her business model to their needs. She worked with school district leaders to create a three-tiered, comprehensive success kit. This kit offered a customized curriculum design, quarterly training webinars for teachers, and the original dashboard analytics platform.

Michelle ended her talk by emphasizing an important lesson that any nonprofit startup can benefit from:

Devising your business model is a process of discovery

When Michelle’s team was struggling to sell their product to school districts, they thought they were simply just failing at selling a finished product. What they didn’t realize was that they were actually in a “pilot testing phase” for an evolving product and business model.

Through trial, error, and feedback, they designed and developed a new business model that better met the needs and wants of school boards, teachers, and students alike. Remember:

Success comes from working with your clients to create better products.

Don’t forget to collaborate with your users. After all, nobody knows the needs of your target consumers need better than the consumers themselves.