UC Alumni Create a Growing Platform to Find and Schedule Substitute Teachers

Three UC alumni have teamed up after discovering a simple but effective solution to a demand for substitute teachers. While working for Rocketship Education, a nationwide nonprofit network of charter schools, Mike Teng, a UCLA alum, was asked to find a technical solution to address the need for finding and hiring substitute teachers. In talking with fellow co-founders, Asha and Oz (both UC alumni), they realized that there was, in fact, a great way for technology to solve an inefficiency problem and improve the supply of substitute teachers not just for Rocketship, but also across the nation. They joined an edtech incubator and have been growing quite rapidly ever since.

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Tell us about your background and your co-founders.
I’m Mike, the CEO and co-founder of Swing Education. I went to high school in the Bay Area, in Palo Alto, and then went to UCLA where I majored in computer science. My dad was a software engineer, so computer science and software engineering are natural for me. I spent six years as an engineer with a big financial software company and met my co-founder Oz who is also a Cal alum and went to Gunn High (in Palo Alto). Our third co-founder, Asha, and I were friends from high school, and she’s also a Cal alum.

I was listening to an episode of This American Life and was quite inspired by it; I began reading about education reform, charter schools, and the Harlem Promise neighborhoods. I decided that I wanted to change careers and pursue a career in education. I found an entry-level position at a charter school with Rocketship Education and eventually became the head of technology. I was with Rocketship for five years. I loved that job – I had a great time and loved the organization.

How did your company come to be?
I was asked to help Rocketship with logistics and coordination around substitute teachers, which led to where we are now. I reconnected with Asha and Oz, shared what was going on, and they helped to convince me (or rather we convinced each other) that the platform we were building should be its own business.

We applied to an edtech accelerator, Imagine K12, which has since merged with Y-Combinator. We joined the Fall 2015 cohort, had a demo day in 2016, and raised a seed round at the end of 2016. Since then, we have grown ten-fold, raised a Series A led by Social Capital, and our last round Series B held in May 2018 was led by Google Ventures and Owl Ventures. Our other investors have included Kapor Capital, Moment Ventures, Ulu Ventures, Sinovation Ventures, Redhouse Education, and Edovate Capital. I’m also pleased to say that a large number of our employees are also UC alumni!

What problem(s) are you tackling?
We make it as easy as possible for schools to find teachers and for substitute teachers to find job requests with schools and districts. Many districts have their own pool of substitute teachers, and then purchase software that helps them do robo-calling to schedule subs. However, even schools and districts that have internal pools often don't have enough substitute teachers and struggle to connect with the ones that exist in their area. For example, I live around many great districts and a lot of charter schools and private schools. However, if I wanted to just work as a substitute teacher at the districts within walking distance of my home, I’d have to go through 3 processes and 3 applications. There are gates and obstacles to efficiency such that substitute teachers just pick 1 or 2 districts or schools, essentially self-selecting out of the pools for other schools and districts around them.

We’re making it easy and free for substitute teachers to sign up once with Swing Education, meaning they don’t have to go to lots of districts or schools and complete multiple processes. They go through one background check and a risk assessment. In some cases, we help teachers get certified as substitutes and accelerate the process as much as possible. There’s a shortage of substitute teachers, yet the process for certification alone takes 3+ months! We’ve found ways to accelerate that process and effectively bring more people into the profession.

What product or service have you developed?
Swing Education is a marketplace where schools and districts can find substitute teachers and substitute teachers can find teaching openings. It’s a marketplace model: schools and districts sign up for the service and then issue a request for a teacher. They identify the need and date, how much teachers are to be paid, and other details, then substitute teachers in the area get a notification about the new posting. (We turned the robo-calling of other systems into mobile notifications and texts – much better!) The teachers reply, then the school is matched with the substitute teacher. There’s a service fee for each match that the school or district pays, so it’s pay per use with no upfront commitment or annual contract.

What makes you more valuable than your competitors?
There are some software providers that help districts manage substitute teachers, but they don’t help with substitute teacher management, recruiting, and onboarding the recruit. There are also some temp agencies that work with districts, charter schools, and private schools. What we’ve found is that there aren’t many that work with districts in such a flexible way as us.

What is your business model?
Schools have a budget for substitute teachers, so they don’t have to add an item to their budget in order to consider “purchasing” from us as a software provider. It’s seen as a standard and planned operating cost. We charge a service fee each time a teacher is matched and fills a school or district’s opening, and the school or district pays the fee. It’s a slightly abnormal edtech sales process in that we don’t have to explain what a substitute is or when you’d want one: there’s little convincing needed to be done to complete the sale.

What impact do you envision achieving?
We just crossed the 100,000 mark: we’ve filled 100,000 teacher absence days. That’s doubled from a year ago – things are accelerating! I would love to be able to quantify the impact we’re having on student science or reading or math outcomes because they didn’t miss days of instruction, but it’s difficult to have data that shows such an impact. But if we’re providing a substitute teacher in a time of need, there have been at least 100,000 times that we’ve helped schools, and that’s awesome!

What is your basic roadmap and what does the future hold?
We continue to improve the experience for substitute teachers and schools, with a particular focus on improving the sense of community for substitute teachers. Substitute teachers generally don’t work with the same group of students/classrooms for an extended period, so we've heard a lot from our subs about the importance of developing a supportive community.
We operate across most of California and have expanded to New Jersey, DC, New York City, Texas, and Arizona. We’ll continue to expand nationwide and to grow in the markets we’re already in. Districts are open to talking about their needs and fulfilling as many openings as possible.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced thus far and how have you overcome them?
Most money spent within K12 in the US is held within budgets for school districts. Getting them to spend money with new vendors is tough. There’s also a long sales cycle, a long decision process, and it’s seasonal work. We overcome this by being confident in what we do. When we go to a district, we tell them upfront that they can use us anytime they have a need, that there’s no commitment required, and that they can try us, leave us, or use us whenever works best for them. We’re confident that once they use us, they’ll see the value and without upfront costs, they’ll continue to use us. It’s worked thus far. We’ve had a slightly shorter sales cycle and we meet needs as schools have them, not in advance, which helps them. We also tell them that top-tier VC firms have confidence in us, and that speaks for itself.

Other challenges are the same as that of any growing company: we went from 22 to 40 people in one year! We have good advisors and mentors who have helped and we’ve got great people on staff too. We also have a strong employee retention that has helped immensely.

What advice would you give to fellow entrepreneurs?
Product-market fit is a big thing. Find something people are willing to pay for and how much they are willing to pay for it, then find out if you can be profitable. Or perhaps go about it the other way around. Can you charge enough to make money? For us, we thought software was our first product, but that is the means: our solution is solving the substitute teacher shortage.