While we at BostInno eat, sleep and breath all things innovative, we are seldom in a position in which a team of people we are friendly with are working on something that we are fiercely passionate about. However, a few weeks ago in the dark, drunken ambience of Dillon’s on Boylston, I found myself in that rare position of listening to a few friends, Aaron White and Ariel Diaz, tell me about how they were swinging for the fences in the space that, outside of the one I currently work in, I am most passionate about.
Diaz, White and recent addition Brian Balfour have founded Boundless Learning with the mission of organizing the ever-expanding swell of educational content that exists online and scaling high quality education for anyone who has internet access. The three have managed to pull together a round of $1.7mm from NextView Ventures, Kepha Partners, SV Angel and Founder Collective on a lot of enthusiasm and a very big idea. How big? Well, to give you an idea of how big these guys are thinking, when I asked them about the market size, Diaz told me that education makes up for around 10% of US GDP. While he said it with smile, I got the sense that these guys are certainly not joking around about the size of their ambitions.
All three members of Boundless Learning have made names for themselves as young entrepreneurs in Boston already. Diaz – a well known fixture in Boston’s startup ecosystem for his past ventures, mentorship and unique flair for always having his collar popped. White – previously of DK Pictures (DoInk.com), is known for having some of the best technical chops of any young entrepreneur in the Boston area. Balfour – recently of Viximo which he co-founded and helped grow into one of the largest platforms for connecting social networks and app developers, has been starting companies since he was an undergrad at Michigan. With all three in their late 20’s and early 30’s, they seem to have the perfect mix of experience and energetic youth that investors search for.
After our initial discussions at Dillon’s, I had the chance to discuss Boundless Learning further with Balfour, Diaz and White. It is clear that while they are in the raw, earliest phases of the company, there is no lack of confidence in their vision and ability to execute. Our conversation jumped from the overall state of our country’s educational systems and Peter Thiel’s controversial comments regarding a bubble in higher ed, to what Boundless Learning is going to be and their particular backgrounds and ties to education.
Diaz, who grew up in Miami and attended Dartmouth College, is quite vocal about his beliefs about our educational system and where it is broken. As an 8th grader who completed senior level calculus and found himself with no further math curriculum to explore, he understands first hand how our educational system often lets down our most gifted students. White, a Carnegie Melon alum, similarly nerded out as a youngster, attending school every summer at Phillips Exeter in grade school before formally attending the academy as a high schooler. Balfour, who found himself unfulfilled with his college education at Michigan, actually took 6 months off at one point to start his first company, which he described as a significantly more valuable learning experience than what he received in the classroom.
All three Boundless Learning members have deep family ties to education as well – both of Balfour’s parents are teachers, Diaz’s sister is a high school teach and White’s mother teaches at a community college. Both Diaz and White joked that I had their permission to label them as educational prodigies when we spoke, but while the crew likes to kid at a high level about their openly confident personalities, their past experiences have clearly shaped very sound, core principles upon which Boundless Learning is being built.
State of Education
Education, as Diaz explained it to me, has three core components: content, assessment and certification. The content includes the classroom experience and the books and materials used in order to obtain information and acquire some type of knowledge. The assessment typically comes in the forms of tests and papers graded by teachers and professors. Finally, the certification comes upon obtaining adequate assessment levels that lead to the completion of some educational track, typically a high school degree or a college diploma.
Our current educational system is very linear and rigid in terms of how we deliver content to students and assess them for certification. Think about it – in K-12 schools, the primary grouping mechanism for students is their age, which does not make much sense from a content standpoint as all students learn at very different paces. Certainly, class levels (i.e. advanced geometry vs intermediate geometry) addresses this issue to some degree, however wouldn’t an ideal educational system be tailored specifically to the needs of each individual student and allow for them to acquire knowledge at their own pace independent of how quickly their peers are learning? Additionally, all students learn in very different ways. Some students are auditory learners while others are visual learners. In an ideal educational system, we would be able to seamlessly provide educational material in a variety of different formats so that students could obtain the knowledge of lessons in whatever format is most suited for their individual learning style.
The Boundless Learning team sees the need for education to be much more dynamic and personalized, and with the vast amount of educational content now available, they see a great opportunity to build a platform that allows for students to dictate their own curriculum and take control of their own education.
Boundless Learning’s Space
While the group joked about taking on the whole education market, their immediate focus is on higher learning. Boundless Learning sees this space as the most ripe for disruption for a few different reasons.
First, there is a significant amount of collegiate educational materials that are already available online at the collegiate level due to great programs like OCW, which we have covered at MIT quite a bit in the past.
Secondly, they see great inefficiencies in how the current higher education framework teaches subject matter and assesses whether a student has adequately acquired the particular knowledge needed for certification.
Finally, the group believes that there is a big opportunity to go directly to students at this higher level and enable them individually. “A lot of the companies in the education space are dependent on the legacies that have been built (i.e. Publishing Companies, Institutions, etc). These stakeholders have too much to lose and as a result stifle progress. We are approaching this market with in a way where we aren’t dependent on these stakeholders, and can truly drive disruptive innovation,” Balfour told me over email.
While the group is building a platform that is aimed at enabling students, they assured me that they are certainly not overlooking teachers – particularly as they all come from families of teachers and understand their importance. Boundless Learning wants their platform to be a great resource to help teachers be more dynamic in the classroom, providing them with more forms of content within a subject matter so that they will have the ability to tailor course materials to different students’ needs. White described the business “more like Google than a media company” in the sense that their focus is to simply organize content that exists and bring the best of it to the surface for students and educators, rather than actually producing educational content.
Seeing as the group believes that higher education is ripe for disruption, I asked how they felt about Peter Thiel’s recent controversial comments regarding a bubble in higher education. The team said that while they certainly see many of the inefficiencies that Thiel pointed out in higher education, they also understand that much of the value of the college experience comes from being surrounded by like-minded peers for four years. While we didn’t get in the semantics of whether we were experiencing an actual “bubble” in higher ed, the group clearly sees problems with the system that Thiel has discussed and are working to do something about them.
Built in Boston
When I asked the Boundless Learning team if they thought it was important to build this company in Boston, they all agreed that the area is particularly suited for this type of company due to the density of higher ed institutions in the area. However the team, without saying as much, gave off strong suggestions that while they believe Boston is a good place to be starting this company, they have the confidence that no matter where they are located, they are going to execute. And at the time of this interview a few weeks ago, though they couldn’t discuss much of the details of their platform and didn’t have a website to show me – in fact they even showed me several iterations of incomplete logos they were considering – they were happy to proclaim themselves as the hottest startup in Boston and gave me full permission to publish as much.
So, what to expect in the near future? Boundless Learning is still in the earliest phases of their company and is primarily focused on finding hungry and talented developers with a passion for education and the swagger to join a team taking a big swing in a big space, Diaz told me. He assured me that BostInno would have plenty more to cover in the coming months and that their particular brand of confidence was something to get used to.
My take? For the sake of transparency, I have had the opportunity to get to know this group over the last year or so and have been interested to hear what they have been working on since their rumored startup vacation they took several months back with a group of different company founders that included Jay Meattle of Shareaholic and Noah Kagan of AppSumo. The initial team assembled is certainly promising, the swagger is genuine, and the space (though I can’t report all of the details I was told confidentially) is absolutely huge.
More importantly, in my humble opinion, is the fact that Boundless Learning is going after the space that is of the utmost importance to our country during a time in which we are seeing cutbacks in education and the desperate need to step up our game in providing future generations with the opportunities at the best education available. Though the company has nothing to show for it, just the vision of a platform that could give anyone with an internet connection the chance at a higher education is something that I can fully get behind.
So, my expectations are quite high and I’ll certainly be keeping tabs on the progress of the big swing.