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Success Through Sacrifice: SchoolJoy

Success Through Sacrifice: SchoolJoy

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Success Through Sacrifice: SchoolJoy

Ian Zhu, the founder of SchoolJoy, created his company because he saw an opportunity.

It was July 2022, and he’d spent the last 12 months running an education nonprofit that worked to deliver social-emotional learning and project-based curriculum to students who’d been moved to a digital classroom during the heyday of the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns.

“I founded SchoolJoy because I developed a conviction through the non-profit that the technology systems our schools use should focus on more than just the student grades and test scores,” Zhu said. “Students need to feel seen for who they are, who they want to be, and their experiences in the world. The world also needs to feel more personal and safer for every learner.”

Ian Zhu Founder SchoolJoy

The company offers a comprehensive generative and competency-based learning system that empowers and sustains learner agency.

The system can engage students in the same subject through tailored content such as their favorite musician, athlete, or desired career. In short, the company aims to bridge the gap between the lessons taught in class and the student’s aspirations in the real world.

Though SchoolJoy has already secured more than 15 pilot districts across the country and is launching in California, Indiana, Iowa, New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania., it was a long road from Zhu’s idea to his current success.

Like many entrepreneurs, Zhu quickly realized that taking his idea to market wouldn’t be as easy as he had anticipated. He struggled to find the right pitch strategy and said that only once he started having meetings did he begin to understand how to bridge the gap between what he was offering and what his intended customers needed.

“I quickly realized that schools were being bombarded with start-up pitches and had little capacity to entertain new systems. That was especially true during the pandemic when there was an abundance of funding for educational programs (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief),” Zhu said. “Every demo was, in fact, a learning opportunity for us to figure out what works and what doesn’t. More importantly, every demo we gave helped us identify the appropriate needs we should address for schools.”

The biggest step in solving the problem was acknowledging his own strengths and weaknesses and hiring someone who could handle the parts of the business that he couldn’t.

Zhu said he landed his first client thanks to SchoolJoy’s sales director, who made dozens of calls a day and filled the company’s pipeline with prospective clients. Once those meetings were scheduled, he would step in and oversee the pitch.

Self-reflective moments like that can be the difference between a startup’s success and failure. That and accepting that you’ll make mistakes.

“Humility and active listening can go a long way,” Zhu said. “It’s rare for a first-time founder to get it right the first time. We’ve failed many times at SchoolJoy, but we just keep going. We planned our resources to make sure we don’t die, but we also learned to be very nimble and adjust quickly based on customer feedback.

“Putting our ego aside, listening and internalizing feedback from others helped us get where we are today.”

In a similar vein, Zhu said founders need to take stock not just of what they have – funds, staff, and skillsets – but also what they’re willing to give up.

He said in entrepreneurial conversations, he never hears anyone ask the question, “How much are you willing to sacrifice?”

“I’m not saying we should sacrifice a certain amount, but the willingness to do so can influence certain decisions. This also doesn’t need to be about personal sacrifices,” Zhu said. “Are you willing to sacrifice revenue so you can stay true to your conviction? That’s an equally important question to determine how focused you are on the core mission.”

Every successful entrepreneur has their own stories of failure. Zhu, like many others, said without taking stock of what you have on hand when you start down the path and, just as importantly, what you’re willing to forego, your path to success could be unnecessarily difficult.

He added that it’s important to seek out the voices in your field and hear what they have to say. It’s important to keep abreast of industry trends, but it’s also vital that founders continue their education about business as a whole. Just because you’ve got things up and running doesn’t mean you don’t need to examine how they could be improved.

Zhu said he regularly listens to the Stanford Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders speaker series, as well as the All-In, 20VC, and Lex Fridman podcasts.

He credits SchoolJoy’s success to his team and to the tools they use.

“Aside from the obvious ones like Canva, Sigma, and Hubspot, I’ve really grown to like Synesthesia for our training and marketing videos,” Zhu said. “I know how much it costs to hire a voice actor and a video production team, so having a tool that can produce relatively high-quality content quickly has been really valuable.”

In short, a founder should constantly be looking for ways to improve, as well as the tools and team to help them grow. A great idea is a solid start, but without a little outside help, it’s going to be much harder to get off the ground.

Your Turn

SchoolJoy’s founder emphasizes the importance of asking yourself, “How much are you willing to sacrifice?” If you’re struggling to take your business to the next level, consider what you’re willing to give up for your dream. Whether it’s time, money, or personal comfort, every entrepreneur must make sacrifices along the way. What’s one thing you’re willing to sacrifice for your business’s success? Share your thoughts in the comments and motivate others to do what it takes.

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Success Through Sacrifice: SchoolJoy

Success Through Sacrifice: SchoolJoy

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