ClassDojo co-founders Liam Don (left) and Sam Chaudhary believe the success of their free classroom-management app will pave the way for additional paid services meant to support learning at home
Images Cody Pickens For Forbes
Every morning before Cindy Price starts teaching her first graders in New Castle, Delaware, she fires up ClassDojo, a classroom management app.
She checks parent messages, finds out whether any students will be out sick and reads school news. When a child shows a trait like “amazing thinking” or “great listening”, she adds a point to the student’s avatar—a personalised cartoonish monster—generating a bright ‘ping!’ that makes classmates perk up. Points come off for disruptive behaviour. Twice a day, Price shares class photos or videos with parents. And during free time, she plays ClassDojo’s short personal-growth videos, which use monsters like ClassDojo’s excitable green mascot, Mojo, to teach lessons on empathy and perseverance. “It’s helping teachers be successful in the classroom,” she says.
Teachers like it because teachers have shaped it, in the form of 20,000 who provide constant feedback.
That bottom-up approach, and kid-friendly gamification, has given it penetration into 90 percent of American schools, according to the company. “Why don’t we just go to the people doing the work?” says CEO and co-founder Sam Chaudhary. “It sounds obvious, but it wasn’t being done.”
ClassDojo has been translated into 35 languages and made inroads in 180 countries. The company says ClassDojo reaches 7 million kids globally every day, or 1 percent of the 700 million children in grades K–8 or their equivalent. Price says that at her school, Southern Elementary, nearly all the teachers and a healthy dose of parents use it.
All of this is great, of course, except for one sticky problem: ClassDojo is free, and when you’re dealing with teachers and young students, a freemium model involving in-app purchases isn’t a natural winner. So what is this company, which is successful in every aspect except the bottom line, supposed to do? While the core app remains free, the company plans to target parents by promoting learning outside of school hours.
“The home has been very underserved for educational resources and doesn’t support what’s happening in school,” co-founder Liam Don says. Paid features could take the form of a content subscription aimed at parents who can’t afford a private school but want to invest in their kids’ education. It’s all a bit fuzzy at this point, though the stakes are huge: Educational software and digital content (preschool through 12th grade) represent a market bigger than $8 billion.
Chaudhary and Don, both Forbes 30 Under 30 alums, began dreaming up what would become ClassDojo after a weekend gathering for entrepreneurs in Cambridge in their native England. The two quickly bonded over a shared concern: The purpose of education has changed dramatically across the world over the past century, but classrooms haven’t.
Though just 25 at the time, both had relevant experience. Chaudhary taught 20 hours a week through his teens in Abu Dhabi and worked for McKinsey & Co’s education group; Don, the CTO, was a computer-science PhD student with a focus on educational tech. Three months after their first meeting, the pair moved to Silicon Valley to tap $20,000 from Imagine K12, a startup accelerator focussed on education that’s part of the prestigious Y Combinator programme.
The two spent a month meeting hundreds of teachers to gauge needs. Supporting kids’ personal growth through playful communication and building community became early goals. “How do you turn a classroom from an isolated place where one teacher is dealing with 30 kids and parents are disconnected, popping in every three months, and kids aren’t excited to be at school, into a community working together?” Chaudhary asked.
The first version of ClassDojo, which let teachers give kids feedback, spread to 35,000 classrooms in a mere 12 weeks, prompting Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham to personally invest in its seed round.
Six years later, ClassDojo has raised about $31 million from investors, earning a recent valuation of $100 million. Its 30 employees occupy an airy former art gallery in San Francisco’s SoMa area. Muhammed Chaudhry, the CEO of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, says gaming techniques succeeded in turning ClassDojo into “the most widely used and respected behavioural-management app out there”.
Academic studies have found that ClassDojo helped to increase students’ positivity, self-control and engagement and to reduce behavioral problems.
ClassDojo now supports a Facebook-like feed that teachers use to share photos and video of the class, and a ‘stories’ section that lets schools and students post news and projects. “I can look through the feed and see they’re studying the letter ‘m’ and that they had bagels for snacks,” says Jennifer Tyler, a working mom with two preschoolers in ClassDojo classrooms. “I feel more connected.” Teachers say the app helps to promote values like responsibility and focus.
Students, who have sent ClassDojo 250,000 drawings of its whimsical monsters and mascot, may be the biggest fans.
ClassDojo faces a handful of startup competitors that are more narrowly focussed on classroom communications or ways for students to upload homework. The company has stayed ahead through its broader focus and rapid product innovation, based on pedagogical research and teacher consultations. It collaborated with educators at Stanford, Harvard and Yale to develop a video-discussion series on “big ideas”, with sections like “growth mindset” and “perseverance” as well as content to promote empathy and mindfulness.
Chaudhary vows to double down on ClassDojo’s user focus through ongoing in-depth consultations with teachers and parents. “Education is a human system,” he says. “You need to work with people to change it.”
(This story appears in the 07 July, 2017 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)