Featured Entrepreneur / Balefire Labs–Karen Mahon

Entrepreneur Profile: Balefire Labs

With over 100,000 educational apps, Sandbox Accelerator Finalist Karen Mahon saw an opportunity to create a service that changes how teachers and parents find and select mobile device educational apps for their students and children. Balefire Labs provides a Consumer Reports-like subscription service that rates apps for impact on student learning outcomes according to standardized and objective criteria, allowing direct comparison of apps to one another. The Sandbox recently connected with Karen to talk about her venture. 

1. What inspired you to start Balefire Labs?
I was frustrated by the difficulty of finding high quality educational apps. When I started this business there were about 20,000 educational apps in the iTunes stores, and, even then, sorting through so many apps (all of which claimed they would teach your kids) was impossible! Today, there are more than 100,000 educational apps in the iTunes store, so the problem is even more challenging. Teachers and parents don’t have time to browse through all of those apps trying to find the good stuff. Our goal is to give them a fast and easy way to find the best instructional apps for their kids.

In addition, when I started Balefire Labs, the only sources for educational app reviews were subjective, opinion-based review websites. They were run by well-intentioned teachers and parents, but usually focused on whether or not kids liked the apps, how attractive the apps were visually and whether or not the kids asked to use the apps. There really wasn’t anything available that focused on the instructional rigor of the app itself and whether or not kids would learn from it. 

2. How do you think this can impact the education app industry?
Beyond helping teachers and parents find the best quality educational apps, we also hope to assist app developers in a couple of ways. First, with such a crowded marketplace, it’s difficult for smaller app developers who are building great apps to get the attention they deserve. So one goal is for us to help drive customer purchasing toward those developers. Second, we really want to help developers to improve their apps. This is one of the reasons that we publish negative reviews. We want to tell developers exactly how they can make changes to improve. We have already worked with one app developer whose apps earned C grades according to our review criteria. We advised them on the improvements they could make, they made those changes, and now their apps consistently earn As. A lot of the changes we suggested were quite simple for the developers, but make a big impact on kids’ learning.

3. Talk about your recent launch and what type of successes your venture has had (feel free to include schools that are using Balefire).

We launched our business in August and it’s been a wild ride so far! We are excited to have teachers and parents as subscribers, as well as a number of schools and even a whole district in South Dakota! It’s been so gratifying to talk to teachers, in particular, who really appreciate how rigorous our review criteria are and how much easier it is for them to select apps for classroom use with the help of our service.


4. Why did join the Sandbox Accelerator Program and how did it benefit you as an entrepreneur/Balefire Labs?
I joined the Sandbox Accelerator Program because I thought it would be a great opportunity to get a “Business 101” primer. There were several areas of business, such as finance and legal, with which I didn’t have prior experience. And it really helped me in that regard. But the biggest benefit I got from the Accelerator was the assistance and advice from our mentors, one of whom, Henry Noel, now sits on our Advisory Board for Balefire Labs. Henry has been so valuable to us in helping us with our financial projections and our fundraising strategy, as well as being a great source of emotional support and humor.

5. What are the long-term goals for Balefire Labs?
Over the next three years, our goals are to expand our offering to include additional mobile platforms (right now we only focus on iOS), incorporate professional development for educators into our service, and to start reviewing educational apps that are not instructional, but instead are intended as creation tools. Beyond that, it’s hard to say how we’ll develop, because the ed-tech market changes so quickly. Ultimately we hope to syndicate our review service and integrate into the app stores. Being a part of iTunes is our dream!

 Click here to learn more about Balefire Labs!