Balefire Labs, LLC
Class: 2013 Winter Accelerator
Are you a parent or educator who has been frustrated by the process of finding high quality, effective, educational apps for your children or students to use on the iPad or tablet device? We are. The app stores have user reviews, but they are so subjective and not very helpful. But what if there was a service that provided app reviews that were standardized, with objective review criteria....where you could easily compare and contrast apps by subject or grade level? A site that is run by learning scientists, educational researchers and teachers who know about principles of great instructional design and usability design? And what if you could go there and in less than five minutes find the best available apps for teaching your kids? That's the vision of Balefire Labs. We want to help parents, educators and, ultimately, kids to find and use the best educational apps on the market. With more than 115,000 ed apps in the iTunes and Google Play stores, figuring out what's good and what's not is nearly impossible. And as the number of iPads, Android tablets, Kindle devices and iPod Touches that kids use increases, the time's not far off when just about every parent and teacher will have the same problem. Let us help. We'll point you to the best apps, saving you time and helping you feel good about the time your kids spend using devices.
We're in the final two weeks of the Accelerator program, but more importantly, we now have scheduled our beta launch of our service for March 31! This is getting serious!
So in the run-up to the end of the Accelerator, here's what's going on with us:
1. The Final Pitch. Thankfully, we have 10 minutes for our final presentation. Balefire Labs will be presenting on the evening of Tuesday, April 26, so please come out and cheer us on! We're working on a presentation and deck that is as close as possible to what we will use for pitching investors. Tomorrow I'll meet with our mentor team to work on the pitch. Looking forward to it!
2. Raising money. Our Executive Summary is now finished, thanks to our mentor, Henry Noel, who was instrumental in this. That ES will be sent out to Angels this week....biting my nails! (If you know someone who is interesting in this investment opportunity, please contact us and we'll be glad to send you a copy of the ES!)
3. The Website. As with so many things, the devil is in the details and we're working on filling in gaps, writing the text, getting the graphics right!
4. The Beta. We are huge fans of testing and we are SO looking forward to the beta. But good betas don't just throw a product out there and think something is going to happen. So right now we are writing test scripts, writing surveys, finalizing consent documents and planning beta site visits. We'll have a 60-day beta and if we want to get great data then we need to be well-prepared.
5. Marketing. Luckily we don't need this planned to completion before the beta. But a detailed plan and schedule is a must. We are fortunate that we now have a publicist, Naomi Salad, who is working now on our PR plan. We've known Naomi for a bunch of years and she is awesome! (If you're looking for a publicist, let us know and we'll hook you up!)
6. Sales Strategy. You got it. The customer acquisition plan and the customer retention plan. Two great things that go great together. And a big job, to boot.
7. Strategic Partnerships. I've mentioned before that we have a strategic partnership with The University of Texas Mind, Brain and Education Center. They also have a Research Schools Network, so we are not fortunate to have a partnership with the Arlington (TX) Independent School District. It's great for us because AISD has more than 63,000 students, will be helping to align apps to the Texas Education Standards (TEKS), and the district is between Dallas and Ft. Worth ISDs, giving us some great marketing opportuntities. We are talking now to three other districts here in Massachusetts about beta testing with us...those are ideal so that we can visit the sites and watch our users trying out our service.
So we're pretty flat out as we move toward our full launch in June. If you haven't yet, visit our website at www.balefirelabs.com and sign up to be notified of our launch!
Thank goodness for Sunday this week. I need to take a breath!
It was a whirlwind of a week, to say the least. We are less than 60 days from our beta launch and the intensity is rising. We are excited to have three app developers who want to help us market Balefire Labs...now to put together a list of preferred activities for them to do on our behalf!
We spent Friday and Saturday at the LearnLaunch conference at MIT. The LearnLaunch conference targeted edtech entrepreneurs, investors, educators, and college students. It was a crowd of people focused on how we can use technology to improve education and student learning outcomes. And the amazing part for me is that being at that conference, in that group, was the most comfortable and at-home that I have ever felt at a conference. Ever. And I go to a lot of professional conferences, so that's saying something. But these were people who care about measuring outcomes, who care about how the Common Core State Standards can help us better examine performance, instead of just bubbling in scantrons, and who are NOT fans of Diane Ravitch. And they believe, as I do, that technology can really help. In other words, people like me.
I watched pitches from entrepreneurs who have already secured funding and was gratified at how similar their approach to pitching was to mine. I attended a session with a panel of venture and angel funders and heard about what they are wanting to hear in pitches. And all of the entrepreneurs were encouraged to join Accelerators and Incubators that specifically target edtech because of the fact that education is such a different market from any other. Education is a trust market and that makes a big difference.
The networking was fantastic...we walked away with two Boston-area school districts that are interested in serving as pilot sites for us (we already have a pilot site in Texas, but local is critical for as much direct observation as possible), two meetings with Angels, a venture investor who is willing to give us feedback and advice on our pitch deck, a bunch of new contacts (hello, LinkedIn!) and many new twitter followers for Balefire Labs. A lot for two days!!
So that was lots of feel good stuff. Now back to work. :)
Funding. Probably the bane of every entrepreneur's existence. But now that the stress of the mid-session pitch is over and we have a reasonable idea of our cost and revenue projections, funding is the next step.
If there's something that pushes me even further out of my comfort zone than the financials, it's raising money! On my team, we're now in the process of energizing our networks and finding colleagues and their connections who might be interesting in helping us with our fundraising. We're lucky to have a large network...now we'll see if any of them will reach into their pockets!
In other news, we're well on our way to completing our Accelerator goals, so that feels good. It's hard to believe we are already halfway through the program!
Well, last time you heard from me I was getting ready for the pitch, and last night was the big night!
Anxiety was running pretty high in the room last night, and I was fortunate to have two other from the Balefire Leadership Team with me, along with two of our fabulous mentors, Trish Fleming and Henry Noel. Great moral support!
I thought the pitch went well! I've been telling friends that any time I give a talk it takes me a few minutes to settle into "the zone," hit my stride and feel comfortable with my audience. But of course, the problem with a three minute pitch is that "a few minutes" is all you have!
But it was okay. I wore red, as is my wont when giving an important presentation, and it was a friendly crowd. I had to rely on my notes a bit more than I would have liked, but speaking from a slide deck would have just slowed me down in only three minutes.
So, all in all, it was fun and I'm kind of looking forward to doing it again in six weeks!
Pitch, pitch, pitch! It's all about the mid-session pitch this week!
I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm nervous. I've never done a pitch before. I have plenty of public speaking experience, but this is a whole different thing and I'm not looking forward to being so, well, judged.
So I have my financials all figured out, I have my pitch script and I know what I'm going to say. Getting it down to three minutes? Well, that's another story. But I've had good feedback from our lead mentor, Trish Fleming, and I'm meeting with our other two mentors, Barrie Atkin and Henry Noel, for dress rehearsal and feedback, tonight.
Some other good news, it looks like we are now official research partners of the Southwest Center for Mind, Brain & Education at the University of Texas. We're super excited about this...not only a chance to work with researchers to validate our criteria, but also to work with teachers at the Arlington Independent School District on using our tool! Putting the Center's logo on our website will also help with our credibility.
We've finished our financial modeling as well and we're feeling pretty optimistic. We've been surveying customers about their pain points, whether or not our tool is interesting to them, and what they would be willing to pay for a subscription. What is fascinating so far is that their answers are very different when we pitch an annual subscription price versus a monthly breakdown of the annual price. We won't be selling month-to-month subscriptions, but marketing is everything! Next step is to test the prices to see what people will actually sign up for...a modified "kickstarter" model.
This past weekend we also got some GREAT video footage of a mom and her kids using apps, talking about apps, and talking about the app shopping experience. We have another family on the docket this week and then we'll have what we need for our promo video that will be part of the pricing test.
It's a lot...so grateful for my team at Balefire! How do single-person startups get it all done??