Year after year, Matt Hardy struggled to spark an itch for writing in his students.
His fourth-graders in Eden Prairie thought it was a “boring and contrived” task. They didn’t see a point, Hardy said, to inscribe something only he, and maybe the class, would ever read. He wanted a space where students could share their work to an audience. But to throw a child’s writing up online and open the floodgates? That seemed too dangerous.
In 2010, Hardy set out to find a workaround. Hardy, who studied computer science at the University of Minnesota, Morris, spent his spare time writing a modified WordPress code and enlisted the help of Dan Flies, a programmer and Hardy’s longtime college buddy.
A few months later, they introduced Hardy’s students to Kidblog, through which they could write blogs and essays, and comment on each other’s posts. Teachers could decide to make blogs public.
Hardy said he saw an opportunity to grow Kidblog as a business. Not only was it a “sweet, seven-letter, two-syllable domain name,” he heard other teachers say they would like something like it in their classrooms. So in the spring of 2012, he “retired” from eight years of teaching to pursue his new venture full-time.
“There’s that nagging feeling that this is worth reading but it might not be read,” Hardy said. “It’s tricky to decide, ‘I want someone else to see this, but who? And how?’ Kidblog tries to solve some of those questions.”
Hardy showed off Kidblog at local networking events and tech demos, where it caught the eyes of investors. Kidblog has raised about $1 million in investments from local angels and a venture capital firm, and Silicon Valley-based seed fund 500 Startups, which was founded by PayPal and Google alums.
Kidblog has since moved out of Hardy’s home office into a space in the Warehouse District’s Colonial Warehouse.
Hardy now has a team of six full-time staff who code, maintain and sell Kidblog to teachers and schools.
By 2012, they hit a wall, and the product had to grow up as well. Teachers started to ask for ways to customize which posts can be made public. With WordPress, Hardy said, either all of a classroom’s work is made public or none. Hardy and his team spent the next two years building a custom interface from scratch, one that could more flexibly meet the safety and privacy needs of students.
Last May, Kidblog launched a new platform under Kidblog.org. The new interface allows teachers to create multiple classrooms and regulate what content and comments are posted. Students get to pick their audience, whether that’s just their teacher, parents, classmates or the entire web. The public option requires the teacher’s approval.
“That itself is a very powerful decision to make as an author, particularly for a young author,” Hardy said. “It’s not the teacher deciding; it’s the student.”
With its new platform, Kidblog shed its “freemium” business model and opted for a try-and-subscribe approach. In the past, teachers could get Kidblog for free and pay for additional features like a bigger cap for file uploads. Now, they’d have to pay $44 a year or $9 a month after a 30-day trial.
It was a rugged transition. About half of Kidblog’s clients couldn’t pay for the subscription and left. Hardy said users loved having the platform in class, but for many teachers, it was too much to pay for out of pocket.
To ease the burden on teachers, Kidblog started to offer plans for schools and school districts. A school could pay per student enrolled in Kidblog — starting from $3 a student up to 300 students, $2.50 for the next 250, and so on, up to 1,000 students — and any number of teachers can use it in their classes.
Hardy said the switch was not an easy decision, but a necessary leap in the company’s evolution.
“I think what is now obvious for all of start-upland is that ‘give it away and figure out how to monetize later’ is fine as long as you’re delivering real value to users,” he said.
Today, Kidblog serves at least 5,000 schools and districts around the world, Hardy said. Most of its clients are in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. He said there were about 5 million users last year.
Hardy did not disclose Kidblog’s annual revenue, but he said by August, the company hit last year’s mark. His goal is to get the revenue in the millions in the next year, he said.
Technology use in K-12 has been booming, as more students trade in their notebooks for Chromebooks. In the Edina School District, students each get a Chromebook to use in class as early as third grade. When they get to middle school, the laptop becomes a part of the backpack to take home, just like textbooks, said Steve Buettner, the district’s director of media and technology.
Districts like Edina have invested generously in hardware, but they keep a frugal eye out for free classroom apps and programs. Buettner said his district uses Blogger and Google sites, which are free, to fill demand for a classroom publishing space.
While those may be a good choice for an individual blogger, it may not be as optimal for a classroom of students or a teacher managing over 100 students’ work, Hardy said.