Communication problems and children go together like peanut butter and jelly.
Parent: “How was school today?”
Parent: “What did you learn at school today?”
“What did you eat for lunch?”
Dave Vasen, a former head of K-12 education at Amazon Kindle and vice president of product at AltSchool, a provider of alternative education programs for children, developed a smartphone app to fill this void in parent-child relationships. In 2014, he started testing Brightwheel, which lets teachers track students’ attendance, record observations, share photos and notes with parents. Parents get real-time updates about their children’s school day that they can discuss at home. Administrators use it to manage classes and email tuition invoices to parents.
Brightwheel officially launched in June 2015 and is available for free download in the Apple app store and Google Play store. In merely three months after launch, some 2,500 locations — daycares, preschool and afterschool programs — across the country in all 50 states were using it.
Despite a lack of revenue, Vasen managed to secure investments from two billionaire venture capitalists when he appeared on Shark Tank in April 2016. Vasen initially asked the Sharks for $400,000 for 4% equity in Brightwheel, valuing it at $10 million. After a heated discussion in the tank, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and guest shark Chris Sacca, founder and partner of Lowercase Capital, each invested $300,000 for 3.34% each, valuing the company $9 million.
As expected following a Shark Tank appearance, signups for the app exploded and exceeded all expectations. Vasen has received loads of requests to license the software. But he has no desire to keep control of the product, brand and customer experience. He hopes to raise more capital to hire more staff when he grows large enough to monetize. Within the coming months, he hopes to roll out features that customize the user experience and additional apps to manage students and staff during the day.
Vasen explains how he developed the ultimate way to revolutionize early education, what it’s like to work with two tech billionaires, Cuban and Sacca, and much more.
Ky Trang Ho: How did you come up with the idea for your business?
Dave Vasen: My daughter Serena is the inspiration for Brightwheel. After she was born, I found it incredibly hard to miss out on key moments of her day while I was at work, and then didn’t know how to contribute to her development in the short time we had together in the evening. Every parent I talked to felt the same.
Then the turning point for Brightwheel came after spending a lot of time with teachers and caregivers. I sat with them and was deeply moved by how difficult their days are managing both a school and business. When I realized early education is broken for both sides — both educators and parents — I knew there had to be a better way.
Ho: What is your background? What were you doing before you started this business?
Vasen: My career has been focused on education technology. Before Brightwheel, I helped bring online learning to the developing world with Cisco, led strategic projects for Teach for America, launched the K-12 Education team for Amazon Kindle, and was helped build AltSchool from the ground up. In all these places, I’ve sought ways that technology can enhance the teacher and parent experience, and make life easier.
Ho: What hardships did you encounter in developing and launching it?
Vasen: I’ve had lots of bumps and challenges along the way. For example, the very first week Brightwheel launched with pilot schools, it went down for half a day, meaning our early schools could not use the app at all. It was a horrible feeling. I called each one personally to try to save them (lost one).
In retrospect, although difficult, it was a good sign that teachers were using the app so much throughout the day that they noticed the issue within two minutes and couldn’t wait for Brightwheel to come back online again.
Ho: What made you think it could be a successful product?
Vasen: Other industries and small businesses have great software that’s built for them. Other parts of education, such as K-12 and higher ed, have great technology. So why not early ed? When I realized early education was broken on both sides — for both schools and families — and that it’s a really big and important market, I knew there had to be a better way.
Educating the Sharks
Ho: How did you value your company when you appeared on Shark Tank? How did you come to that valuation?
Vasen: Brightwheel already had a valuation of $8,200,000. But that was before we had the brand, team, and really strong customer growth. I felt that an increase of 25% in the valuation wasn’t enough given how far the business had come. But I also knew that the sharks are shrewd and didn’t want to get into a situation where they weren’t willing to engage because of the valuation.
Ho: What did they like most about you, the company and product?
Vasen: As someone who has sold a company in the early education space, Kevin O’Leary — Mr. Wonderful — understood the value proposition and the size of the market. Mark Cuban and Chris Sacca both spoke the fact that their preschools needed software like Brightwheel. Mark had even offered to write software for his kids’ school. All three of them saw the opportunity to build a large company that also has a big impact on daily life for teachers and parents.
Ho: Was there anything you wished the producers included that was edited out? Was the edit fair to you?
Vasen: The editing was very fair and 100% accurate. I was on stage for well over an hour. So I understand that a lot of material gets edited out. There was a lot interrogation about the business. It was challenging managing five people with rapid-fire questions — often talking over each other — under hot studio lights.
Mark and Daymond cut into me for a while saying I was looking for public relations. That was genuinely really tough — I didn’t think I’d win them back.
In the promotion photo for the show, you can see me sitting down at the small kiddie chairs. I was telling the story how I used to sit in those chairs and listen to administrators and teachers as they would share their stories with me.
The stories were moving. So many of them are small business owners who are taking on a lot of risks and working very long hours to provide an education for our kids. They are my inspiration, and so much of Brightwheel is dedicated to making life better for them. I do wish that story could have made the cut.
Ho: What about being in the Tank (or whatever happened before or after) surprised you the most?
Vasen: I was amazed by the authenticity and integrity of the whole process. I have no idea what other reality TV shows are like. I assume there’s a lot of staging and half-truths. I can say that wasn’t the case here. Every member of the Shark Tank production team and the sharks themselves care about the integrity of every aspect of the show.
Ho: If you could do the show over, what would you do differently?
Vasen: I could do it over again, I might try to bring more energy to my responses and might have considered trying to bring Mr. Wonderful into the deal. At that point, I didn’t want to risk anything. Bringing Mark Cuban and Chris Sacca together was my primary goal, so I closed the deal.
Ho: What can you teach others about your Shark Tank experience? What are the secrets of a successful audition and appearance?
Vasen: The story has to be compelling. Brightwheel is a very personal product that impacts people’s daily lives. I worked on my pitch over and over again to find the best way to share that. The pitch is most important because that’s what gets you on. After that, it’s really about answering the shark’s questions. Answers need to be short and succinct. You have to know your business.
Ho: What are Mark Cuban and Chris Sacca doing for your business? How are you working together?
Vasen: Mark and Chris have been incredibly helpful. Both have made important connections for business development and hiring purposes. Mark’s team was essential to preparing for the airing by connecting us with other Shark Tank companies. Chris has dived right into the product and has been helping with everything from strategy to messaging.
Learning to Grow a Business Quickly
Ho: What are the biggest challenges facing your business now and how are you addressing those issues?
Vasen: Our biggest challenge now is scaling the business. We were growing rapidly even before Shark Tank. But now are growing amazing fast and the expectations are even higher. Hiring great people and expanding the product quickly is not easy. The whole team is working incredibly hard. As is often said, the hard work begins after the show.
Ho: What are your goals for your business over the next year and five years?
Vasen: Brightwheel will be the biggest brand in early education. We can only do that by building a product that schools, teachers, and families love.
Ho: What was the most effective thing you did to get more exposure for your business before going on Shark Tank?
Vasen: The most effective thing we’ve done is focus 100% on the product. We don’t have a sales team. We invest every dollar into building an amazing experience for our schools and families. When people love something, they are more likely to share it with others. Teachers tell other teachers. Parents see Brightwheel and ask their provider to start using it.
Ho: What business books do you recommend people read and why?
Ho: What are your favorite business websites, tools or resources that you love and why?
Vasen: Twitter and Facebook are my best sources for topical articles. I also enjoy Forbes, Fast Company, and Wired.
Ho: What’s the worst mistake you’ve ever made in business and how can others learn from it?
Vasen: The team is the most important thing, especially early on. My biggest mistakes have been in considering people for our team who were not a good fit. Those lessons are learned the hard way and tend to have a big impact on team productivity, satisfaction and overall culture.
It’s really important to maintain a high bar not only for competency but also culture and fit. Despite the early challenges, I’ve been fortunate to bring together a group of talented people who are incredibly passionate about early education.
Ho: What is the best advice and business insights you’ve received from your Sharks?
Vasen: Both Mark Cuban and Chris Sacca have been helpful since we closed the deal. For example, Mark has reminded us to focus on “substance,” meaning make sure that the Brightwheel product and impact come through in everything we do. Chris has helped tactically in particular with product messaging and social media strategy.
Ho: What motivates you to continue to pursue your business in the face of obstacles and lack of profits?
Vasen: Our motivation is our users. We hear stories every day from teacher and administrators about how we are making their days easier and saving them really meaningful time. We hear from parents how they are closer to their kids now and can’t imagine life without Brightwheel.
We have a lot that we want to improve and big new things we’re going to be launching. Those stories tell us we’re on the right track and that we need to persist even when faced with big hurdles.
Ho: Is there anything else I should have asked?
Vasen: I went in targeting Mark Cuban and Chris Sacca as the ideal partners to bring on board. But I never could have imagined they would end up fighting over the opportunity to invest in Brightwheel. There they were — two prolific investors who I greatly admire — yelling at each other over the chance to be involved in our business. It was completely surreal.
People ask me if it was real. Yes, it was completely real. It got so heated that I wasn’t sure they would even want to work together. Thankfully, things calmed down, and both later told me that they see the benefit of having the other join. I was happy to give up more equity to make it work. And thankful that Brightwheel could bring them together.