Gene Shi and Lala Zhang probably would not have built their particular business without the arrival of their daughter, Audrey.
Having a child introduced the couple to the world of preschool, offered insights into a teacher’s world and hinted at an unmet need.
Shi, then a student at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, started toying with an idea for a business. In 2013, he and Zhang founded software company Learning Genie Inc., now based in Carlsbad.
The company serves school districts, Head Start providers and others working in early childhood education.
At its most basic, the software-as-a-service product helps teachers take notes. Specifically, it streamlines the process of creating portfolios — the documentation required from preschool teachers and others in early childhood education.
Teachers who work with very small children may be familiar with the process of filling out California’s DRDP, or Desired Results Developmental Profile, which tracks progress in several areas.
“It’s very demanding,” Zhang said.
Learning Genie says it can cut 80 percent off the time of creating the state report — and save schools on overtime costs. What Learning Genie offers is software that changes the process of completing a DRDP from a paper-based exercise to one based on a tablet computer.
(The DRDP may have turned into a boon for office supply providers. Some teachers prefer to put observations on sticky notes.)
Learning Genie’s software was in 700 schools in August 2015 and is in 3,000 schools now, Zhang said. It has caught on in Missouri (which has adopted California assessments) and abroad in Australia.
The business charges $1 per month per student for schools with 29 students or more. Schools with 28 or fewer students can use the software for free. The price schedule for school districts or publicly funded programs depends on program size. The couple declined to disclose revenue.
A Real Pain Point
The enterprise started with a business plan Shi developed at the Anderson School. In its first iteration, Learning Genie let teachers compile daily reports about school-day activities for parents. Market tests showed Shi and Zhang that the real pain point was with the teacher, who had to compile portfolios on all of the students. So the company changed focus.
Now the business helps teachers track various aspects of student development. A hands-free feature lets teachers talk and record notes on a tablet computer. They can also take video of an activity. One function lets a teacher observe a group activity and, with the efficiency of a tablet computer, quickly log participation in multiple students’ portfolios. It’s a quicker option than updating paper portfolios one by one, by hand.
Learning Genie’s investors include the Tsinghua Entrepreneur and Executive Club (TEEC) Angel Fund and Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund (SV2).
With six employees, up from three last year, Learning Genie’s Carlsbad team is lean and “mission driven,” the founders said. The company also employs an offsite development team.
Learning Genie is collaborating with another company to take the information that its software collects and “try to make sense” of the data, said Shi, the company’s CEO. He declined to name the other company, saying only that it was good at data analysis.