Insights from a young Silicon Valley startup

 
Philip Salter
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THE RACE is on to turn Britain into an entrepreneurial society. But we aren’t blazing a trail just yet. This global pursuit for innovation remains a one-horse race, with Silicon Valley light-years ahead of the competition. Sam Chaudhary and Liam Don – the British-born founders of ClassDojo – have gone west to strike gold.

THE AMBITION
Chaudhary instantly lives up to all the expectations of someone from the Valley, as we meet on one of his regular trips back to the UK. Bright, open and relaxed, dressed in a plain T-shirt and khakis he talks widely and honestly about life, the universe and everything.

Previously a teacher at Charterhouse School, he founded ClassDojo with Don in August 2011, leaving a job at a London startup, while Don left his PhD programme at Durham. They kick-started their company by raising money from the noted Californian education technology incubator ImagineK12. Joining ImagineK12 meant moving out to Palo Alto, California, and the start date meant Chaudhary and Don had just two weeks to pack and leave.

ClassDojo offers real-time behaviour management for the classroom. It sets out to improve student behaviour and engagement by awarding and recording behaviour and accomplishments in class, so reports can be easily sent to parents and staff. It has been adopted by over 800,000 teachers and students in 25 countries – the model is to bypass bureaucracy and go straight to the users. It is free, as they focus on growth before finding the appropriate funding model.

ClassDojo doesn’t turn over any money. This fact may cause anxiety for those who remember the dotcom bust, but this is now a tried and tested Silicon Valley startup model, as Instagram’s recent $1bn cash and stock acquisition by Facebook attests.

If you are disrupting established economic structures – whether it’s the way people buy or the way they learn – then you need time and money, and for these you need an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

THE ETHICS OF THE ECOSYSTEM
Spokespeople for cities and countries around the world talk endlessly about how they are building an ecosystem for enterprise. What they want is their own Silicon Valley. The first thing these countries need to do is keep their borders open to talent. Chaudhary and Don have been granted special visas to work in the US. But it’s about more than light regulations – an ecosystem requires a different way of thinking.

Those entrepreneurs who have made it in the Valley don’t check out – Chaudhary says ithat n the UK the few very successful entrepreneurs we have often retire in leisure on their wealth, while in the US entrepreneurs choose to give back to the ecosystem, both in time and money. Chaudhary “would like to see a sea change in the UK”. It’s a cliché that Valley people go from failure to failure before making it big, but Chaudhary talks of attending Palo Alto parties where people proudly share and dissect their business failures – he looks at his friends from university and notes how risk averse they are by comparison.

The boundaries of class and status melt away under the Californian sun. Chaudhary’s Silicon Valley heroes are his neighbours and are only too happy to pass on their wisdom.

With a double first in economics from Cambridge University – the home of Keynesian economic planning – it’s perhaps surprising to hear Chaudhary draw on the thinking of the economist Nassim Taleb, as he talks about the “false belief and comfort” that people hold in planning success. This acceptance of failure, change and responsibility is why Chaudhary forwent a “comfortable” City career and moved to the world’s greatest hub of innovation. Whether ClassDojo is Chaudhary’s big idea is yet to be seen – but he is young and bright enough to make mistakes and come back fighting.

If we want to hang onto the next Chaudhary (or poach one from the US) Brits have a lot to learn. School is a good place to start and to this end lets hope ClassDojo helps inspire the next generation to learn more effectively and efficiently.

CV SAM CHAUDHARY
Company name: ClassDojo

Job title: Co-founder

Company turnover: £0

Number of staff: 5

Born: Birmingham, UK

Lives: Palo Alto, California

Age: 26

Studied: Economics, Magdalene College, Cambridge

Drinking: Fruit & barley squash

Currently reading: JavaScript: The Good Parts, Douglas Crockford

Favourite business reading: Paul Graham's essays: www.paulgraham.com/articles

Heroes: Paul Graham (programmer, venture capitalist, and essayist), Reid Hoffman (co-founder of LinkedIn), my dad and granddad

Talents: Surviving on four hours sleep a night (for months, now).

Awards: NBC Innovation in Education Award 2011