Interview by Mike Sullivan
Hello everyone, I’m Mike Sullivan. This is MO.com, where we feature small business owners and entrepreneurs and bring you hints, tips, insights, and perspectives on what it takes to be successful.
Joining us today is John Stippick of Super Star Learning Company. John started the company as a response to social media in education. John, thanks a lot for being with us today. Can you give us some background and kind of take us up to where you started Super Star Learning Company.
Sure. My background, my professional background actually started off in the telco industry back in the early ’90s. What we were doing was that the telephone companies had just gotten deregulated, and so we were selling long distance. What ended up happening right in the ’90s, of course, is when the Internet started to come out and become popularized.
So I got a job with a company. It was called Winstar, and Winstar, their value proposition was to sell Internet access with long distance. I thought, hmm, okay, that looks like the wave of the future, and I jumped into that. Now, little did I know that was going to be the precursor to my education technology career. What ended up happening was I moved to Dallas to help this new company get started. While I was in Dallas, I found out that the Dallas Independent School District was looking for this thing called the Internet to bring to their classroom. I went over and started talking to them and ended up selling some of the largest orders of that company’s history to that school district.
Well, right about that same time the company, Winstar, ends up creating a new division called Winstar for Education. They looked across their roster and they said, “Okay, now we’ve got this asset where we’re actually going to provide the content from our new division, and we’re going to sell it to schools. Now, who can actually do that?” They looked through the roster. They find my name, someone who has sold it to education, and God’s honest truth, I really didn’t know much about education at that time or the Internet. That’s the real truth.
Serendipity plays in my favor. They invite me up to New York to work in the holding company – I was a ripe 29 years old – at 230 Park Avenue, and they said, “Okay, now we want you to do a national product launch. Take this to all the schools.” I ended up, one of the keys to making that happen was that I met other people that were much smarter than me, real educators, people that were already experienced in delivering this type of technology to the classroom. I was really pretty much more of a sales guy, to be honest, but I surrounded myself with those resident experts, and that started my career in education technology.
Then from there, I went on and later started another company, with a friend of mine, called Blue Sky Marketing Group, which worked with Tier I private schools, with the elite private schools, where we were providing software to them. Then, from there moved back to Houston, Texas, which is where I’m from originally.
A friend of mine had a small software development company, and he said, “You know what? Everybody’s taking their company public. Do you want to take this company public with me?” Well, we looked at each other. We really didn’t know what that meant, but let me give you a Texas phrase. What we were willing to do was to seek within ourselves all of the gumption necessary to do that, okay? So we dug in with all four feet and ended up doing a reverse merger to take our little company public, and we rode that way for a couple of years.
Then after that, I moved out to California. Here in California I started working with another group called Vantage Learning, Vantage Learning using artificial intelligence to score a written essay. Very cool stuff, very cool technology, but no one had been using it. Nobody even knew about it. The value proposition was almost hard for the market to digest, and so I had to do a lot of pushing. Literally, in one year I drove 40,000 miles in Los Angeles County.
You’re going to love this. I developed a phrase about what I was willing to do. This was my personal mantra, 8 to 80, blind, crippled or crazy, I’m going to show you this stuff. Literally, anybody that was willing to listen, because the technology was actually great, but it was something you really had to see to get the full power of. Little by little, we started getting traction, and before long it took off to literally every school district in the county, and almost every school district now in the state and many states have adopted that technology.
Now, a few years into that gig, I began to learn about this thing called 21st Century Learning, because by then this is 2007, 2008, and there’s this rhetoric around this new type of learning to prepare students in how to really use technology. They’re calling it 21st Century Learning. Well, I started doing my own research on that and found out it wasn’t what everybody thought it was. Everybody thought, well, if you have a computer and you’re using a computer to provide education, well then that’s 21st Century Learning, and it’s not that.
So we started a conversation with some of my researcher friends, started looking at all of the research from groups like the Partnership for 21st Century Skills as well as researched . . . there’s a great fellow, his name is Dr. Tony Wagner from the Harvard School of Education. He wrote a book called “The Global Achievement Gap.” We looked at all of these things that the new workforce, the new student was going to need, and that’s what we started to build our . . . that was really the genesis of our company today, Super Star Learning, when we started compiling all this research and said, “Yeah, that’s great if you have a computer, but what are you doing with it in your career and in your education?” That’s what counts, and that’s what our mission is with Super Star Learning.
All right. Great. That’s a really good background. Now, what is Super Star Learning?
Super Star Learning, what we are, we’re a full service, eLearning provider. Now, what I mean by that is we actually take a different approach to the learning experience. I’ve said several times this moniker, 21st Century Learning. Most of the eLearning sites you go to, it’s basically going to a website where you look at some content, and you digest the content whether it’s a video or if it’s just a whole bunch of text. Then, at the end of that, you will then take a test, usually multiple choice. That is the gauge and the full experience of your learning.
Well, 21st Century Learning is about communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. So our approach within our learning management system is to not only provide educational content to the end user, but to provide them with the structures for them to be able to communicate, collaborate, be involved in some critical thinking, and then create something new, because authentic learning, just as you’ve had in your own career, actually, it didn’t happen with you only. Real authentic learning actually happens in groups.
One of the things that happens, and you’ll see in our tag line for Room 21, our premier product, it’s called a social learning platform. If you look in the workplace, every little company, yes, it may start off with an idea of the entrepreneur, but then he quickly has to develop a team around him, and he has to be able to communicate, collaborate, evaluate every step that they’re taking, and then create the next step and the process continues on and on.
So that’s what we do at Super Star Learning. We’re focused not just to K-12 or higher ed, but also for governments, workforce development as well as pharmaceuticals, too.
Is this training designed for businesses and small businesses to use to train their workforce?
For workforce development, what was interesting about the whole process for 21st Century Learning is that it isn’t only the communication, critical thinking, creativity. There’s a whole other segment that is a portion of 21st Century Learning, and it’s life and career skills. See one of the things that we tell students and we tell our employees, you can be or do anything in our company. You can start off in the mail room, and you, too, could be CEO. There are all these stories that we ensconce.
Now, inside of our platform, yes, we could have it so where you could learn . . . let’s say that it’s a new procedure, for example, where you could watch a video or you could hear some music or you could read some text or PDFs. We actually make it so we provide any digital content. We’re agnostic to the content that’s provided through our platform. Once you get that content, then you’re able to develop learning goals.
We have another tool. It’s called the Dream Machine, and the Dream Machine allows you to create any dream project or goal, and then it builds all of the support structures around you, such as the reminders. It allows you to build a team where you have a collaborative workspace inside of the application. Many employees today, one of the things that they found that they have to do is participate in some sort of continuing education, go back to school to learn the skill, go get this certification.
So what we do is not are we only providing the content for them, but we also provide the support structures for them to manage that project, manage that goal and work as a team, because the bigger the project, the goal, or the dream, the more stakeholders that are involved. We provide that collaborative workspace for all of that to happen.
Thanks, John. Any closing words of advice for other entrepreneurs out there?
Sam Houston is an icon in Texas, and there’s a great quote, “The job of every leader is to lead.” As you’re building your organization, and I say this to all of my fellow friends, and I’ve been involved in small and large corporations. One of the things that I recognize as the leader of this group is to hold the stand. If you have a great idea or a great concept, just stick with it. The idea may morph in directions, into different markets that maybe you weren’t aware of, but hang on to that core belief that you’ve had, no matter what, and it will pay off.
I have had entities that we’ve experienced the ups and downs of different markets, but one of the things that we learned is you have to give your new idea time to mature, and generally what we see or what I’ve seen in technology is somewhere right around the two year mark is when the magic really begins to happen. First year is just pure gestation. Second year is where it’s just learning how to walk. But when you go into that third year is when your business can really run, and that’s what we’re seeing with all of the other hot technology companies out there that have these huge valuations. They’ve actually been around for a while. They didn’t just pop up and were overnight successes. Most of them are not that. They’ve been around many, many . . . Facebook has been around for a long time, which is an example.
Any new entrepreneur, just stick with it, no matter what. If you believe in your idea, just ride it all the way through.
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