Matthew Pittinsky and Michael Chasen - Fast 50 2003

HELP SMART PEOPLE LEARN

E-learning software is to the world of software what Brazil is to the world economy: It's the technology of the future, and always will be. Blackboard aims to change all that. What began as a collaboration tool for students and faculty at Cornell University has grown into a popular and widely distributed platform for e-learning, with a user base of more than 5.4 million people worldwide.

Matthew Pittinsky and Michael Chasen
Cofounders, Blackboard Inc.
Washington, DC
http://www.blackboard.com

Additional Team Members:
Dan Cane, Steve Gilfus, Andrew Rosen, Peter Repetti, Stephan Hoffman

FROM MATTHEW AND MICHAEL'S ORIGINAL ENTRY:

Tell us what you do (or what your team or organization does) and the specific challenge you faced.
Remember life before email? As college roommates, we had an idea: putting college applications online. Sure, it sounded like a good idea, but when it came time to graduate, we figured it was time to get "real jobs." After two years of graduate school, we dutifully accepted positions with a major consulting company.

We continued to develop our ideas into practical technologies on the side. We noticed that there were many technology applications available to create administrative efficiencies on campuses, but few designed to improve teaching and learning in the classroom—the lifeblood of the campus experience. Eventually we took a leap of faith, left our jobs and founded Blackboard LLC, later combining with a company called CourseInfo to form Blackboard Inc. and release our first product, Blackboard CourseInfo.

The potential for our technology to change the way education is delivered and supported seemed limitless. We believed that the Internet had the potential to make education much more of a 24/7 educational environment than ever before, offering new opportunities through distance education and collaborative study between students and instructors through chat rooms, email discussions and online office hours.

But a good idea is only half of the battle. From the beginning, we built our company around a solid set of business principles. We hired the best talent we could find—from product developers and the sales team to management—and focused 100% on building the best products in the industry. We thought we would create a product of value, and we would sell that product for what it was worth—and not just worry about trying to grab land share by giving away our product for free. We continued to build the Blackboard team by hiring the best talent that we could find.

I think one of the things that really helped us was that we simply weren't very good at raising money. When we started, we really did just bootstrap. We won a professional services contract. We didn't hire a lot of people, and we were very careful about the ones we hired.

What was your moment of truth?
Our idea caught on. We began to notice that many of our competitors did not charge for their product. That never occurred to us when we started the company. But you can't help but sometimes question: Are they right, and are we just doing something a little bit wrong?

In order to make our vision for education a reality, we had to make a tough business decision. We weren't really sure what would happen, but at a time when the industry was saturated with competitors giving product away for free, we raised our prices. That's how much we believe in what we're doing. (The exact date? 10/30/2001)

What were the results?
We took this money and immediately funneled it back into research and development. We listened to our clients and worked with our product developers to continually improve our product.

As a result, we are privileged to serve more than 2,700 clients around the world, and we're a profitable company, 425 employees strong. We owe our success to our clients, who amaze us every day with new innovations in the way they use our technology, and to the members of our management team, who have helped to build our collective vision into a reality.

Most important, our technology has changed what it's like to go to college today. We have helped to break down the walls between teachers and students, allowing a free exchange of ideas through email, class discussion boards and chats. Our technology has allowed teachers and students to communicate through virtual office hours, and encouraged the kid who is afraid to raise his hand in class to speak up in a less intimidating virtual classroom setting. We helped to set up a virtual learning environment for 660 American, Canadian and Pakistani children at the International School of Islamabad in Pakistan shortly after the September 11 attacks. Every day, our technology helps busy adults and students living in rural areas participate in distance education programs online.

What's your parting tip?
Take it slow. Hire the best people in your industry. Trust your gut. Learn how to bootstrap. Most important, be passionate about what you do because your ideas really can create positive change.

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