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The Flyover Series: Hooray Learning with Stacy Ratner and Dustin Walsh

The Flyover Series is a collection of interviews with founders and key contributors of Chicago-based tech companies. Our goal is to help illuminate some of the terrific people and work in the Chicago technology scene.

This interview is with Stacy Ratner and Dustin Walsh, founders of Hooray Learning.

What is Hooray Learning?

Stacy: Hooray Learning is a start-up here in Chicago that is producing entertaining, empowering, and educational online portals. Our first product coming to market is Hooray Writing, which is an online creative writing experience for teachers, parents, and students grades 1-12. It is currently being piloted with 1,100 students around the Chicago area.

What was the genesis, or main idea, behind the company?

Dustin: Hooray Learning, which was originally called Storyport, was created at a non-profit literacy organization here in Chicago called Open Books. The idea was to take some of our literacy programs from Open Books and create a platform that we could then use across the country. Initially, we were going to use the platform just at Open Books but our board of directors felt that it could be much larger, so we created a for-profit company.

Stacy: We had created this little writing program which just became bigger and bigger and spun out of Open Books. We are currently being accelerated through the Impact Engine Program at 1871. Our next stop: all of America!

How do you turn your ideas into decisions about what to actually build as a product?

Stacy:  We have learned a lot, since getting here, about how we probably should have done it. We were coming from eight years of experience at Open Books offering writing programs for kids grades 3 through 12, so we were doing our best to translate that experience into an online version, and so we thought we knew all the features that should be included. So we did a series of information and idea gathering sessions with Open Books' team members and friends basically saying, "If we're going to build an online writing thing for kids, what should it include?" And we got a ton of great ideas from that. We then did a few focus groups with teachers saying, what are your issues around teaching, writing? What would you like an online platform to provide you with?

By the time we got to actually building this product, we had done quite a lot of thinking about it, and we came to our developer of choice with these very detailed mockups and drawings of how features should flow and so on. Fortunately, by working with them rather closely, we eliminated quite a lot of the unnecessary stuff.

We then launched it to a pilot group of about three classrooms in the spring of 2014. Then everything changed because then we spun out as an independent corporation. We came here to 1871, and started being educated about other ways of developing a software platform that were more agile and to test an idea before we build the rest of  the features out. We're now adding some core pieces of functionality to Hooray Writing around ways to monetize it, which wasn't as important when it was a non-profit project. We'll be doing more of the industry approved method, which is test the minimum 2 viable feature set, add onto it, see what happens.

What has your experience been like talking with potential customers?

Dustin: It’s challenging because our customers don’t necessarily know what they want in a digital platform. They know their pains throughout the day but they don’t necessarily know how to solve them.  We have a casual conversation about the sticking points with kids, getting them interested in writing, doing daily work, grading papers. Unfortunately, in the educational world, they are behind on current technology, so they're trying to catch up, but they have to work through the system.  So our main focus was the trouble points that teachers see when they try to get kids interested in writing.  

One of the initial challenges is knowing who to talk to. How have you gone about finding the right people to talk to?

Stacy: We had something of an unfair advantage there because we started this as Open Books, and through the course of its existence, Open Books has worked with several thousand teachers. We were able to put out a mass email saying there’s a new project at Open Books, if you come to our focus group we’ll give you a gift card to the store.  We also had an online survey available for teachers to fill out if they couldn’t come to the focus group. So in a sense, this was one of our easier problems to solve.

Have there been any particularly useful resources here in Chicago that you have utilized that you feel would be helpful for other people to take advantage of?

Dustin: 1871 has been a great network for us to work with. Also, with Impact Engine, just having a network of people out there that you can access is amazingly helpful. Undoubtedly there is someone out there who has gone through a similar problem that you’re having, whether it’s raising money or product development, and they can help guide you through the process.

Stacy: I think one of the key things is finding your internal technical staff, or your outsourced staff, that are people who get what you want to do, who see your vision. People who are willing sign onto the vision that you have, so that they're not just building features to spec. They are really helping you think through how things work. Finding that would be hard without this ecosystem.

How do you get the word out about Hooray Learning?

Stacy: I think it’s a tiered set of challenges. The first is, how are we getting the teachers to know about it? Because they are our first customer base. We need to get them involved, to get them using the product, because, in turn, that gets the students engaged, and eventually, that translates into parent involvement, and that's really what we want.

To get the word out to teachers we have tried everything we can do for free, phone calls and lots of emails. We have emailed directly to teachers that we know and asked them to spread it on to people that they know.  We have also done some email newsletter placement through Open Books and their contacts. Our next challenge is how do we reach all those teachers who have never heard of Open Books? We are working very hard on a marketing plan that will help us do that.

What’s next for Hooray Learning after this?

Dustin: A new writing space and a module marketing space, so we can monetize some of the lessons people are creating. We’re building our digital interactive curriculum for our students right now, which is fun and exciting because that's what gets kids engaged with our platform. After that, it’s onto our go-to-market strategy. 

What made you decide to base your business in Chicago?

Stacy: That’s easy, we live here! Open Books started here because this is where we live, and Open books has had many offers over the years to come to other cities. Our answer has always been, this is where we’re based and we haven’t solved literacy in Chicago yet. When Hooray Learning became a thing it was based in Chicago not only because this is where we are, but because the startup community here is very different from on the coasts. This is much more of a 'build it and get it done' kind of culture, and until you’ve worked for six or eight years in a non-profit, in a basement, without heating or air conditioning, hauling books in the rain and snow, you don’t know what a 'get it done' work ethic is.

What is your number one take away that people should focus on with Hooray Learning?

Stacy: I think, for me, the one thing is to be excited. We even changed the name of our company to Hooray Learning -- a visible manifestation of the fact that, if you're going to pour your blood, sweat, and everything you have into a project, it better be one that makes you say "Hooray!"

Dustin: Imagination. That excitement will feed into the kids and they will become enthused about writing and will do that through imagination. It’s incredibly important for these kids to be excited and imagining, especially in the world of Common Core and all the buttoned up products that are out there.