Your hands are clammy. Seventy pairs of eyes are staring back at you. You don’t want to disappoint.
William Zhou found himself in exactly this situation in Grade 8, not so many years ago, when he stood before his teachers and principal to talk about an online forum he had created in a school club.
It was a turning point.
“I have never really felt fear or sweaty palms when giving presentations after that,” said Zhou, co-founder and CEO of Chalk.com, a software suite for educators.
That confidence helped the 22 year-old land on the Education list for Forbes 30 Under 30 2015.
“I get this feeling that once you’re an entrepreneur, you’re always an entrepreneur,” he said.
Consider this as proof: he was only 18 years old when he sold a company for the first time.
Draftboard came out of his initial business — Design Vetica — and the frustration of being a designer receiving emails with a wall full of text for feedback on mockups.
Draftboard’s software sped up the process of approval and made it easier for clients and designers to collaborate.
He launched it at the end of high school, before relocating from Vancouver to Waterloo for university.
“My priorities shifted, because as I attended the University of Waterloo, I realized that I wasn’t truly passionate about the design industry and creating mockups,” he said.
When he came to this realization, the decision to sell to a UK company in 2011 was easier.
“It was a wild journey, but I think that Chalk.com is going to be an even wilder one,” Zhou said.
The idea for what would become Chalk.com began on a trip home to Vancouver. On a visit, he found one of his former teachers "buried in paperwork.”
“What a lot of people don’t understand is that teachers are just bombarded,” Zhou said. They’re under-appreciated, and they have all this work— from attendance, to dealing with angry parents and bureaucratic administration.”
He stepped in to help solve the problem of lesson planning.
Lesson planning is complex, tied to learning outcomes and curriculum expectations, Zhou says, adding there is an art to teaching.
He rolled out a simple online planner called Planboard, which won the Velocity Fund Finals in 2012. Teachers fell in love with it and asked for more features.
As they added feature upon feature, Zhou and the team realized they needed to split solutions. They drew parallels from other industries.
“We saw that the business world ran on Microsoft office and the design industry [on]…the Adobe Creative Suite,” he said, adding that Chalk.com was created to fill the productivity suite gap for teachers.
Although teachers were happy with the software, the team struggled to scale up the business because it were focused on individual sales.
But the team’s luck quickly changed.
Out of nowhere in early 2013, they got a call from a school district in Texas asking to purchase 72 licenses.
“We closed the deal in 24 hours, which is simply unheard of in education,” he said.
The team discovered that word of mouth from teachers who had used the product helped clinch the deal. So it decided to offer the software free to teachers who championed Planboard within their schools and school boards.
In early 2014, Planboard became just one offering under the Chalk.com umbrella.
Today, Chalk.com is used in 20,000 schools and by about 100,000 teachers.
“We would love to see more out of Ontario,” Zhou said. “Right now, the Niagara district has been one of our biggest supporters, and still is; but most of our impact has been in New York State, California and Texas.”
Although not an educator, Zhou is passionate about the industry — and what awaits it in the next decade.
“We’re still going to have teachers. There are a lot of revolutionary ideas that say, ‘No more teachers; we’re all going online.’ But you know what? Humans are emotional creatures and we learn from storytelling.”
His hope is to see personalized learning in the classroom achieved, and believes that it starts by helping teachers become the best versions of themselves.
He wants to give them the tools to do that.
It’s the same goal that his principal and a handful of his teachers had for him.
“They showed me that you can be passionate about something and really go for it,” Zhou said.
Two weeks into 2015, things are off to a great start for Zhou and the eight-member team at Chalk.com.
“Communitech and Velocity have created this amazing community,” he said. “Ask any entrepreneur. Sure, you get services here and there, but at the end of the day it’s the community –that is so concentrated here in Kitchener-Waterloo –that matters.”