Parallel Universe

How founding a startup is like being a first-year teacher. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Alix Guerrier

CREDIT TeachFest LearnZillionA few years after college, I left my job at an investment bank to become a public school math teacher. A decade later, I switched paths from consulting for school districts to founding an education technology startup. In both cases, I was so excited about what I was about to do next, that I felt like I was getting away with something. In retrospect, a few other similarities stand out.

With lesson plans, just like with business plans, reality can diverge pretty quickly from theory.

1. It is much better with a partner.

I owe a big “thank you” to the universe for giving me a co-teacher my first year. We were able to focus on the subjects that we knew better, with Ms. Burton handling English and social studies for our two classes, and me handling math and science.

We made better decisions together than I would have made on my own, and we could cover for each other when one of us made a mistake. I probably would have survived that first year on my own, but it would have been much less pleasant.

The same dynamic plays out with Eric Westendorf, my co-founder at LearnZillion: shared goals plus complementary skills equals better outcomes.

2. The path to success can seem straightforward, but it’s not.

It turns out that just because you think really carefully as you craft your classroom rules, pay to print them up, put them front and center on your board and even laminate them – you don’t necessarily get 10 months of perfect behavior from a roomful of 11-year-olds.

With lesson plans, just like with business plans, reality can diverge pretty quickly from theory. That doesn’t mean you’re headed toward failure. In the classroom, there’s a concept called the “teachable moment.” In startups, there are “pivots.” Both mean the same thing: finding yourself on a path you didn’t expect but figuring out how to get to your destination anyway.

3. You’re always “on.”

Every year, teachers spend a considerable amount of time in front of a group of 20, 30 or sometimes 100 students who then move on to other classes, only to be replaced by a new crop the following September.

If you think through the logical consequences of this process, you’ll soon realize why I had to start driving to other towns to go to the mall. You end up with a sizeable fraction of your city’s population who, if they see you out doing normal human activities instead of living up to your teacher persona, will turn that observation into a somehow fascinating and apparently hilarious rumor that spreads in whispers through the school.

Thankfully, it’s a little less nerve-wracking at a startup, but the basic fact remains – you’re perpetually “on call” and can quickly be pulled back into your on-the-job role.

4. If you were to stop and be reasonable about it, you probably wouldn’t do it.

Neither teaching nor being at a startup is the hardest job in the world. Most jobs are challenging if you want to do them well. And there are certainly professions that require more hours, more technical training, more physical exertion or more artistic talent than either.

I think what sets teaching and startups apart from other jobs is the extremely high ratio of impact expected to support given. In both cases you’re thrown into the deep end on the first day. The demand is nothing less than building a company from scratch as an entrepreneur, and delivering a year’s worth of intellectual growth, thirty times over, every year as a teacher.

5. The rewards are better than what you hope for.

I actually can’t remember exactly what I was hoping to get out of becoming a teacher. What I didn’t know was how much of a privilege it would be simply to be present to witness the amazing growth that a young person can experience in a year. Students can accomplish amazing things in the right environment. The same is true at my company. I get to work with an amazing team in the office and an awesome Dream Team of teachers. This inspires me every day, and it only gets better over time.

Before founding LearnZillion, Alix Guerrier was a consultant in McKinsey & Company’s Education Practice. His previous work experience also includes: directing an after-school program in one of Boston’s public housing projects; working in public finance at Citigroup Global Investment Bank; and teaching full-time for several years, including in an international school in Brazil and public schools in California. He currently serves on the boards of Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, DC and GuideStar USA. Alix has an MBA from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and a Masters in Education from the Stanford University School of Education. He graduated from Harvard University with an AB in physics. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife and two daughters. He is grateful to his teacher, Jimmy-Lee Moore, for helping him think outside the box.

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One Response to Parallel Universe

  1. Tiffany says:

    Thanks for the comparisons. As someone who went from being in a college classroom to teaching in a classroom I enjoy hearing the perspectives about what many refer to as “the real world”, anywhere outside the classroom. I just ordered the book you mentioned at TeachFest, Lean Start Up, looking forward to reading it.

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