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Lessons Learned

Posted by on Wednesday, October 12, 2011 in Fall 2011, In the Field.

Lessons Learned

Some of the biggest businesses started out as ideas dreamed up in student apartments and dorm rooms. Two Stanford students started Google as Ph.D. projects. When he was at Yale, Fred Smith turned in a term paper outlining his idea for an overnight delivery service—FedEx. Vanderbilt’s Cam Chalmers, BS’98, created an online study tool that he tried to turn in as an engineering project for a class in the School of Engineering.

“My basic idea was for this software that you’d install on your computer and enter questions and answers and then it would quiz you,” Chalmers says. “I loaded in all the curriculum and the professor wouldn’t allow it [for the project].” Chalmers understood. “It was a class about networking. He wanted a project about networking,” he says—so the Vanderbilt computer engineering senior developed a different assignment for the course.

After graduation, Chalmers moved to Chicago and worked as a software engineer with Lucent Technologies. But his original idea was always in the back of his mind. “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial bug, and after two years I partnered up with a Vanderbilt friend and we decided to try and do something on our own,” he says. “I brought up my idea and we decided to fully develop it. The Internet was just starting up, and we thought we could be on the front end of the curve with this educational software.”

Young Pioneers

With the gift of a free place to live in Fort Lauderdale, the two took off to Florida and spent the next six months developing what became Study Island, Web-based educational software used by students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Students receive user names and passwords so they can log on from any computer. Teachers make assignments that have to be completed on the computer. The students work through a series of lessons and take assessments. The software includes games to play that keep students interested; teachers can log on at any time to monitor a student’s progress.

“Today the idea of students being able to log on from any computer regardless of its location seems pretty obvious, but back in 2000, schools were just starting to have Internet access,” Chalmers says. “We understood this trend and were able to become real pioneers in educational software.”

Each Study Island program is created to meet specific state standards and curriculum requirements.

“When we started, the state standards movement was well under way. Every state has an outline of what they want taught in every grade level and in every subject,” he says. That meant Chalmers and his partner, David Muzzo, BS’97 (Peabody), needed to learn those subjects and requirements, then create different content for specific states.

The first schools to sign up were in Ohio. Once that first sale was made, the rest were easier.

“It was hard selling the product at first—picking up the phone and calling a principal,” Chalmers says. “At the time we were just 24 or 25, so we didn’t have a lot of credibility and we weren’t educators. But as we started getting feedback from our first customers, our confidence grew and we were able to hire salespeople to make those tough calls for us.”

Teachers found that students liked using the program and that they were improving their proficiency in reading and mathematics across grade levels. Educators were sold. (More than 50 percent of Ohio schools subscribe to Study Island. It has been used by more than 10 million students nationwide.)

In 2001 the company relocated to Dallas. Five years later, Study Island was in 25 states. The company had grown so much that Chalmers was working less on the creative side of the business and more on the management side.

“In 2007 we sold a large portion of the business to Providence Equity, and we hired a CEO and CFO to help out,” Chalmers says. “We had strong opinions [about how Study Island should be run] because this was the company that we built, but we weren’t the ones there every day doing all the work. It got to the point where my partner and I were half in and half out, and that wasn’t very fun.”

The multimillion-dollar company, now known as Archipelago Learning, went public in November 2010. Chalmers and Muzzo officially left the company in January 2011.

Creativity plus technology

Chalmers always knew he wanted to be an engineer of some sort, but it wasn’t until he bought his first computer as a first-year student that he found his true calling. The more he studied computer engineering, the more he saw the link between creativity and technology.

“The Internet was just starting up, and we thought we could be on
the front end of the curve with
this educational software.”

—Cam Chalmers

“Creativity is integral to being a good innovator,” he says. “You have to have creativity. You have to understand the need and then create the technology. A lot of engineers are accused of creating the technology first and then trying to fit it around a need, but the best innovators understand the need first.”

Chalmers credits Vanderbilt not only with providing a top-notch education, but with contacts that served him well in business. Muzzo, his Study Island business partner, was a fraternity brother and economics/human and organizational development major who came from an entrepreneurial family.

Those Vanderbilt contacts may very well come in handy again as Chalmers figures out what to do next.

“I’m not in a hurry to start something new,” he says. “I want to make sure it’s a really good idea—I don’t want to spend a lot of time on something unless I’m confident it will work out.”

Regardless of his next move, Chalmers is rightfully proud of his accomplishments so far.

“It’s nice to look back and know that you created something that’s actually helping people,” he says.