We interviewed the founder and CEO of Chalk.com – a productivity suite for K-12 educators that’s been adopted by over 40,000 teachers and schools – on what life is like at the head of a young company and what the future might hold for him, the kids, and all of us.
Tell us a little bit about your business. Who are you and what do you do?
I’m William Zhou, CEO of Chalk.com.
After founding my first company in grade 10 and selling that at the age of 18 during my first year of university, I decided to focus on ideas that solved world problems.
With the use of technology in education growing like never before, teachers find themselves facing new challenges on how to keep up with the changes and help train their students to be prepared for the information age. At Chalk.com, we want to push education forward. Technology designed for teachers can empower them to be the best they can be. Chalk.com is the Microsoft Office for teachers; Chalk.com provides a suite of tools for K-12 teachers that are interconnected with a single login. Our products are built for educators and institutions alike with a focus on ease of use, scalability, and collaboration. Broadly deployed, our products can be found in the classroom and on portable devices. Our aim is to change the way education and technology interacts.
Do you remember when you first got the entrepreneurial spark?
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.
What made you choose this business? What inspired you?
I have been inspired by education ever since I can remember, so much so that I began my entrepreneurial endeavors while still being educated. My home is Vancouver, but my university is 3000 miles away in Waterloo, Ontario. Every four months, I would fly home to visit my parents. During the same visit, I would also go back to my old high school and see my teachers after school. My teachers are not only my mentors, but also my friends. These are the people that helped me throughout my high school career. These are the people that pushed me to reach higher. To my surprise, my teachers were still working tirelessly after school. Everyone thinks that a teacher’s day end with the final bell, but that’s certainly not the case. Upon seeing their stacks of paper and their struggle, I decided to help them. The founding of Chalk.com comes with the hope that it will make teachers’ lives easier, so they can focus on what matters the most – the students.
Did you have to convince your friends and family you were serious or were they behind you from the beginning?
My family has been very supportive. They certainly had their doubts from the very beginning, but I have been an entrepreneur long enough for them to not expect the norm.
Can you describe a typical day?
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.
They say you have to fail first to succeed – have you stumbled or has it been smooth sailing so far?
It definitely was not smooth sailing. We really struggled in our first year of business. We tried to sell to teachers and it was a complete dead end. However, we kept our heads up during these times. When the opportunity finally arrived – our first customer in this case – we sold to them, but more importantly, we learned why they purchased. Since then, we completely changed our business model and the growth has been phenomenal.
What’s your style on a day off: take time to recharge or always hustling?
As Alec Baldwin says in Glengarry Glen Ross, “ABC – Always. Be. Closing.”
Any tips for a young gun just starting out?
I’ll skip the “just do it” and “don’t be afraid” comments. Startups are hard. Resilience matters.
You will go through highs feeling like you’re top of the world and lows feeling like you’re alone by yourself. It is an emotional rollercoaster that can last years. It’s only worth it if you find something you truly care about – something you’re passionate about. Otherwise, you may just end up crashing in this emotional rollercoaster. With that, I wish you the best of luck in your venture!
Who’s your entrepreneurial inspiration?
Elon Musk is my personal inspiration. He advocates on solving real world problems. Although I’m not building rockets and electric cars, improving education is definitely one of the most important issues society face today. Musk summarizes startups the best by stating that “[b]usiness is like a multidimensional probabilistic chessboard.The rules aren’t set, and the same moves don’t always make you win.”
What does the future look like?
Future for Chalk.com? Growth. Chalk.com will be the personal aid for every teacher. If we can save teachers even just one hour a day, teachers will be able to use that one extra hour to focus on students. In our minds, this is what will increase the quality of education.
Future for education? In a world where Coursera and Khan Academy are the poster children of the next generation of education, we forget the importance of great teachers. Yes, to thrive in this era, teachers need to adapt to different methods and new technologies. However, without the right support, both from the administration and from the vendors, teachers will not be able to excel. Chalk.com is here to empower teachers.