How One Lucky Education Startup Got Mark Zuckerberg's Money

The Facebook CEO's first big education investment in three years proves that it still matters who you know in Silicon Valley.

The $4 million round of funding that Mark Zuckerberg’s fund, Startup:Education, just doled out landed in the lap of one Panorama Education, in part because--even in Silicon Valley--it’s still about who you know.

Panorama's founders met the Facebook CEO through Paul Graham, noted venture capitalist and founder of Y Combinator. The startup, whose founders knew alumni of Y Combinator, was accepted into the incubator program, which included a summer in Mountain View. Zuckerberg came to speak at the campus one week this past summer. “Paul Graham introduced us after dinner,” cofounder and CEO Aaron Feuer said. “I don’t think any of us knew that Mark would ever consider investing.”

Other than that endorsement from Graham, Zuck didn’t much clarify why he chose this education startup over all the rest for his first school-related investment since a $100 million donation to Newark’s public schools in 2010. “Their company is an exciting example of the way technology can help teachers, parents, and students make their voices heard,” he said in a statement on Monday.

Panorama's business indeed makes voices heard. For between $200 and “hundreds of thousands” of dollars, it administers and analyzes surveys for schools. So far, 4,000 schools in 26 states have used Panorama's services. If a district in Los Angeles wants to improve teacher-student relations, it might hire Panorama to conduct surveys asking students what they like and dislike about their teachers. After completion, Panorama will then analyze the results and offer advice. One such school found that students didn’t feel the teachers cared about them; Panorama offered suggestions for creating a more nurturing environment.

The "tech part" of the equation is purportedly the data analysis, in other words, sifting through surveys--available either online or in paper form--which school districts told Feuer they wanted help with, he says. "Most districts make surveys a really central piece of their reform efforts. We saw that and acted on that," he added.

Feuer's interest in education reform began as a high school student in California, where, as president of the California Association of Student Councils, he helped pass a bill to bring surveys to the state's schools. But by his junior year at Yale last year, he realized the government solution "just wasn't working," he said. "The real solution was not a top-down law," he added. "We decided we were going to try and build a product for school, and we realized a startup would be the best way of doing it." In April 2012, at 21 years of age, he founded Panorama.

That mentality likely appeals to Zuckerberg, who has chosen to work outside of the government for altruistic projects like Internet.org and FWD.us. Both of those initiatives aim to work with governments, but not inside the bureaucracy.

In the future, Panorama suggests surveys will make up just one point of a larger data set. His vision is to cull other forms of "feedback," which the company can then analyze and use to problem solve, though details on what other data points the company is interested in analyzing (test scores? state rankings?) were not defined.

At the time of their first meeting with Zuck, the founders simply wanted advice on how to grow their company in that direction. Zuck, whose own startup coined the phrase “move fast, break things,” gave them surprising advice: It's OK to be deliberate about growth. “The conclusion we’ve come to is that very few startups die because they move too slowly, and many startups die because they move too quickly,” said Feuer. Though, as Feuer clarified, the Facebook bulldozer mantra applies to engineering more than staffing up.

With Zuck’s help--financial and practical--Panorama plans on hiring 10 engineers and 10 outreach staffers over the next 18 months. With its current seven-person team, Panorama has provided its services to about 250 school districts.

[Image: Flickr user Franklin Heijnen]

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