Panorama Education, a fast-growing startup that crafts and administers surveys for schools to help teachers and administrators get better insight into how they are performing in areas like learning and social inclusion, is today announcing a $4 million round of seed funding, which it will be using to take its big data approach to education deeper into the U.S. market and global.
Panorama and its funding story are eye-catching in more ways than one. Incubated in the Y-Combinator program earlier this year (and one of our top picks in its August 2013 Demo Day), Panorama’s investors now include Startup:Education — the foundation led by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan — SoftTech VC, Google Ventures, Ashton Kutcher’s A-Grade Investments and Yale University, which the co-founders had attended.
This is the first national equity investment from Startup:Education, and it comes three years after its first and only other effort — a $100 million donation to the city of Newark’s school system.
“Priscilla and I are excited to support Panorama Education and its mission. Their company is an exciting example of the way technology can help teachers, parents and students make their voices heard,” said Mark Zuckerberg in a statement.
From what we understand, this will be the first of more equity investments from Startup:Education to come, with the focus continuing on mission-based endeavors, not necessarily those that will likely become “the next Facebook” either in size or financial muscle. The exact size of Startup:Education has not been set, but the Zuckerbergs will donate half their fortune eventually to good causes, and there have already been other educational and public policy endeavors, including participation in the Code.org initiative to further computer science education, the Internet.org cross-company push to encourage more takeup of connected services worldwide to help development, and Zuckerberg’s FWD.us lobbying efforts for immigration reform.
Turning back specifically to Panorama, co-founder Aaron Feuer tells me that this seed investment will be used for some different purposes.
The first will be to continue to build out its business in the U.S. market: the company today serves some 4,000 schools covering over 1 million students, with clients including the Connecticut and Colorado state departments of education and most recently the Los Angeles Unified School District (Feuer’s home town) and its 550,000 students. So far, it has yet to tackle private institutions or anything beyond the K-12 range, so there is still a lot of opportunity there.
The second, he says, will be to make its first international efforts. This month, the company is partnering with Teach for All to extend its services into 17 countries, starting first with the UK. “These plans are still in flux,” he told me in an interview.
Feuer started Panorama in 2010 when he and co-founder Xan Tanner were still undergraduates at Yale, but the idea for getting better feedback about how schools are working started back when Feuer was still in high school in Los Angeles.
As a student body president working with other schools’ student council leaders, he led a statewide campaign to bring better feedback into the classroom. “We even got a law passed to do that,” he says. “Everyone loved the idea, but the problem was that it was too hard to actually do it.” Enter Panorama.
Problem first, tech second
What’s interesting to me about Panorama is that while a lot of startups today are led by innovations in technology that then seek out interesting applications — perhaps a consequence of engineers and developers also acting as entrepreneurs — this startup has taken the other route, the one espoused also by the likes of Uber and Airbnb. That is, it uses technology as the means for solving what might not normally be considered a “tech” end. Or, as Feuer says it, “We didn’t want to start a startup, but it was the best way to solve the problem.”
Many, like David Sacks of Yammer, believe that this, using technology to tackle problems that aren’t fundementally technological, is precisely one of the big opportunities for startups today.
So far, Panorama’s formula seems to be working. The company, Feuer explains, works with school districts to identify issues, conceive of what questions need to get asked, and how to ask them. It then provides a mixture of formats for its surveys — spanning digital/online questionnaires, but also paper surveys and phone interviews — anything to get the data.
“We do a ton of paper surveys, half a million of them right now,” he tells me. Then it uses its own people and systems to subsequently analyse and parse the data. When schools have opted in, anonymised data from across other surveys is also combined with existing information to form more complete and comparative analysis.
“At the end of the process we help them figure out what it means,” he tells me. Sometimes this is information that might never have come to light, but is fundamental to trying to answer certain questions about why some students who look promising may fall off the ladder later on. “Did you know that bullying is a problem for ninth grade boys specifically?” he asked me. “If you ask the teachers, they see it but they don’t do anything to stop it. That is not something you can get out of any products out there. We are helping those [who make decisions] get the most information.”
Pricing for services varies depends on a number of factors, and Feuer declines to say how much the company is currently making. (Back in May when it had around 1,100 clients, Panorama was on a runrate of about $500,000 for the year.) More importantly, “We haven’t come across a school district yet that has said it can’t afford us,” Feuer told me, a nod to both the essentiality of what it’s doing, and its pricing.
Feuer says he sees competing today against typical management consultancy firms rather than the Survey Monkeys of the world, who are brought in at often a high cost to completely revamp school systems’ feedback and response systems along with wider upgrades of IT infrastructure.
This points to how Panorama itself may evolve in the future as well. “Surveys are not our longer term vision,” Feuer says. “Schools bring us in there to solve problems, such as to stop bullying or something else. But if you become obsessed with surveys you will miss the bigger problem. It’s important to look at feedback, but some companies are survey companies; we are not. We are focused on it as the first peak.”
Indeed, you can see how this could apply to a number of other sectors, too, although as Feuer points out to me, education is a challenge enough for now.