This article first appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek on August 28, 2014
As kids head back to school, a relatively unknown mobile app is rocketing toward the top of the most-downloaded lists for both Apple’s and Google’s app stores. Remind isn’t a game or social network—it’s a texting tool used in many parts of the U.S. to establish stronger lines of communication among teachers, students, and their parents.
About 1 million teachers and 17 million parents and students have downloaded Remind, a free app developed by a San Francisco startup of the same name. In such states as Texas, Alabama, and Georgia, 40 percent to 50 percent of teachers use the software, the company says. Educators can update homework assignments, solicit volunteers for field trips, and send photos from the classroom without having to count on paper handouts making their way into and out of backpacks or on parents regularly checking their e-mail.
Remind says it will roll out app features on Aug. 28 that let teachers transmit short surveys (“Was today’s homework too tough?”) and record voice messages. “If we can find a way to engage parents in the classroom two to three times a week, vs. one to two times a year, and if we can make teachers better by making them more efficient, we can have an enormous impact,” says Brett Kopf, Remind’s 27-year-old chief executive officer.
Kopf founded the company in 2009 while finishing his bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics at Michigan State University. For the first few years, the business went nowhere. Kopf grew up with dyslexia and other learning disabilities and initially designed Remind to help people facing similar challenges, alerting students to quizzes and other deadlines once they uploaded their lists of assignments. Kids didn’t respond, and soon Kopf, who started the company with his older brother, David, was $10,000 in debt.
The Kopfs had better luck after moving to the Bay Area in 2011 and joining an education-minded startup incubator, Imagine K12. They decided to focus more on communication and asked 200 teachers what they’d want from a classroom app. The consistent answer: simple ways to get parents more involved.
Remind now has the kind of support most Silicon Valley startups covet. Venture capital firms First Round Capital, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and Social+Capital Partnership have invested $20 million. KPCB’s John Doerr, who sits on Remind’s board, says that given the challenge of breaking into education technology, Remind’s success proves the value of tailoring a service to smartphones. “For decades we fought to try to get technology adopted in classrooms,” says Doerr. “While no one was looking, it walked into the classroom in the pockets of all the kids.” Industry mainstays Blackboard and Edmodo, which offer a broader set of teaching and communication tools, declined to comment on the rise of Remind.
Protecting student privacy and security is the biggest challenge for Remind and its rivals. The company conceals phone numbers; parents connect with teachers’ accounts by entering a unique classroom code. To guard against predators, the service lets teachers text their students only collectively, not individually, and the app saves every message. Kopf says he has no plans to sell ads based on user data. Instead, he says he hopes to make money by charging fees to parents and school districts for added features, such as mobile payments for field trips or sports equipment.
Jessica Deon, a fifth-grade teacher in west-central Louisiana, says many of her students come from poor families without reliable Internet access at home—but they all have phones. Remind is Deon’s go-to means of alerting parents to snow days (there were eight last year) and other unexpected schedule changes. More important, she uses Remind daily to brief parents on whether their children did well in class and what their homework is for the night. She says the app has led more students to complete their homework and even credits it with improving scores on standardized tests. “The word I use is ‘transform,’ ” she says. “It transformed my classroom. And I think it made me a better teacher.”