From Teachers to Founders: Scaling the USATestprep Vision

From Teachers to Founders: Scaling the USATestprep Vision

How Jay and Joe built an edtech company that serves over 2 million students nationally

October 7, 2020

From Teachers to Founders: Scaling the USATestprep Vision 

When they met in grad school, Jay Eckard and Joe Winterscheidt knew they wanted careers in education. But they had no way of knowing that their impact would reach far beyond a single classroom.

Together, these two high school science teachers built USATestprep, an Atlanta-based edtech company that provides online content and supplementary classroom resources to over 2 million students nationally. USATestprep’s core mission is to help K-12 teachers improve student outcomes by preparing students for high-stakes state tests and standards mastery.

Building a Successful Edtech Startup

“Ever since we were in grad school together, Jay and I have been coming up with wacky ideas for side gigs,” said Joe. “USATestprep really started for us one day in 1998.”

Grabbing a beer after work, they started talking about graduation rates in Georgia. “We said, ‘Look at all these kids who have busted their butts for years only to pass 3 out of 4 state tests. They miss one question, get a score of 498 instead of a 500 on the science test, and they don’t get to graduate high school!’” said Joe. Jay responded with, “Hey, I got an idea.  I could build a website and you could put the science test information in it.”

As high school science teachers, they realized they could do something about it.

Joe began creating science content based upon Georgia’s state testing requirements. Heading into summer break, Jay packed some light beach-side reading for summer break: “FrontPage 98 for Dummies” to start learning how to build an HTML website himself for their fledgling idea.

Early Stage Experiments

Jay and Joe had started to realize the new possibilities digital delivery presented for educators. They hypothesized that USATestprep could automate assessments for students—giving teachers the time-sensitive tools they needed to help students when and where they need it most.

After launching a beta, Jay and Joe began to see early validation for their online state-specific practice tests. By automatically marking students’ weaker subject areas, teachers could intervene to target those key subjects in the final weeks before big state assessments.

To find their first customers, Jay and Joe started with a simple, but effective marketing strategy: downloading a list of Georgia high schools. They sent postcards to various school officials with a generic USATestprep URL. As the startup grew, they started putting unique codes on each postcard. After building some basic landing pages to catch signups, they started to realize they needed to build an automated free trial system.

 

Somehow, Jay and Joe managed the startup while they kept their jobs as high school science teachers until 2007. “USATestprep is really a 19-year overnight success,” Joe said with a wry smile.

Growing Pains

Somehow, Jay and Joe managed the startup while they kept their jobs as high school science teachers until 2007. “USATestprep is really a 19-year overnight success,” Joe said with a wry smile.

Teachers by training, Jay and Joe had a steep learning curve learning to manage the company that was taking off in front of their eyes. “Decisions about bringing on new people took a really long time for us. In retrospect, we were probably a little too cautious about hiring,” said Joe.

“There are so many things that go into running a company. For us, it was all the little stuff you don’t think about like workers comp insurance, rental expenses—on top of the big strategic demands like expanding our digital marketing to include an SEO strategy and solidifying our accounting department,” said Joe.

As the business continued its fast-paced growth, Jay felt he was reaching the threshold of his technical knowledge. By early 2016, Jay and Joe were all too aware of the fact they had way too much on their plate. “The skills that got us to the first $5M in revenue weren’t the same ones we needed to take it to over $10M and beyond,” said Jay. “We realized that we hadn’t done this before and weren’t sure of the right next steps for the business, much less knowing what we didn’t know.”

“We didn’t have the time to build organizational flowcharts or conduct extensive search processes for new C-level executives, let alone manage hiring across the organization. We were reviewing over 100 resumes per job posting. It just wasn’t sustainable,” said Joe.

In the startup phase of the business, Jay and Joe took challenges one day at a time. But once they hit the inflection point of managing multiple departments, they started to see that the systems and infrastructure needed to scale were missing. Specifically, they lacked a yearly budget process, a board of directors, a CRM to measure sales, and sales expertise.

While they had built a robust inbound sales engine, Jay and Joe knew they wanted to expand their strategy to create additional sales channels. Growing the sales department would require tools, training, and territory mapping to be effective.

Since the beginning, USATestprep had specialized in matching national and local standards to respond to an ever-evolving educational landscape. They would constantly update and develop new assessments, sometimes in as little as two weeks—a speedy turnaround in the world of edtech product development.

As they continued to develop more and more educational content, Jay and Joe knew that they weren’t offering teachers all the value they could, given their extensive offerings and mounting demands for the latest content. “We didn’t have the bandwidth or technical knowledge to weave it all together to develop the best type of bundled product offerings for teachers. That would take a whole new level of analysis and sales expertise,” said Jay.

As a successful edtech company with more than 20% year-on-year organic growth rate, USATestprep had many options in their search for a capital partner, but they knew that they wanted a business partner that would add value through “been-there-done that” experience, supporting their growth by helping them map out the strategy across product and go-to-market functions.

Scaling USATestprep to the Next Level

As a successful edtech company with more than 20% year-on-year organic growth rate, USATestprep had many options in their search for a capital partner, but they knew that they wanted a business partner that would add value through “been-there-done that” experience, supporting their growth by helping them map out the strategy across product and go-to-market functions.

“In terms of Serent as a partner, they have shown us that they are exactly who they said they were: an experienced guide who could advise us on how to create value and unlock growth as an organization—all while maintaining our unique culture, mission, and vision as a company. I really feel like we are on the same page,” said Jay.

When the partnership began in March 2018, Jay and Joe were ready to transition from day-to-day operations to roles as board members, and within three months Serent’s Human Capital team had helped Jay and Joe find and recruit a new CEO, Will Clemens, to help them lead the next phase of USATestprep’s growth. By 2019, the Serent Growth Team, a dedicated in-house team of experienced operators, had also helped Jay, Joe & Will build out USATestprep’s executive management team. “It was a huge relief to bring experienced executives onto our leadership team and we felt confident that their expertise would help take USATestprep to the next level,” Joe added.

During this time, USATestprep also worked with the Serent Growth Team to professionalize the sales organization through critical initiatives. From crafting a current sales playbook to building workflows to make sure that every trial customer is followed-up with utilizing multi-channel outbound communications and improving performance management and sales training. Those investments are beginning to pay off with better prospect customer engagement and a more scalable sales process.

 

Reflecting on the Journey to Date

“Through this partnership, USATestprep has matured and transformed as a business—doubling our headcount while refining our sales processes in the past 18 months,” said Jay.

As USATestprep continues on its mission to serve teachers and improve outcomes for students, Joe and Jay are proud to see their vision expand into being the nationwide leader in curriculum resources and test preparation for teachers, administrators, and parents.

Jay and Joe built this company to be “By Teachers – For Teachers.” To date, state-specific dynamic online assessments—the idea Jay and Joe founded the company on—have remained a core USATestprep offering. While they now have new team members, tools, and even more product offerings, USATestprep is still a company “By Teachers – For Teachers” committed to delivering the utmost value to educators in the classroom.

“At the outset, we had no idea where this journey would take us. Building this company has required a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Choosing Serent was the best possible decision we could have made for the company in 2018,” said Jay, “and into 2020 it continues to be the kind of hands-on, mutually beneficial partnership that we’d hoped it would be.”

 

Serent Capital invests in growing businesses that have developed compelling solutions that address their customers' needs. As those businesses grow and evolve, the opportunities and challenges that they face change with them. Principals at Serent Capital have firsthand experience at capturing those opportunities and navigating these difficulties through their experiences as CEOs, strategic advisors, and board members to successful growing businesses. By bringing its expertise and capital to bear, Serent seeks to help growing businesses thrive. Learn more about our portfolio companies.

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