James Caras of Sapling Learning Talks about His Startup
Where are you from originally?
I am originally from the central coast of Californina, growing up in Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo. Growing up, it was a small town surrounded by orange groves and cattle. Today, it is wine country, with grape vines all over the hillsides.
What university did you go to?
I only applied to one school for my undergraduate degree: the University of California at Santa Barbara. Why?: excellent academics, a good Water Polo team, and surrounded by beaches on 3 sides brought me there. Received my Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Texas at Austin. While at UT, I designing drugs and vaccines for HIV/AIDS as well as developed instructional technologies for the chemistry department and many of the major textbook publishers.
What brought you to Austin?
Graduate school. I thought I would get my Ph.D. then head back to California. Austin has a way of captivating transplants and retaining them. Austin’s people, technology base, and entrepreneurial spirit have kept me here for the last 17 years.
What is the idea behind your startup?
Transforming education through technology.
What need does it fulfill?
Everyone knows that educational materials are rapidly moving online – as see with the rapid explosion of eBooks, assessment, learning management, and virtual schools. A large part of this shift is the rapid rise in the costs of educational materials and tuition. However, this shift to digital learning has educators worried about losing their influence on students. Nationally, there is a strong push to facilitating excellence in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), as this is critical to U.S. global competitiveness.
Sapling Learning provides the technologies to deliver effective online learning experiences relevant to the STEM disciplines. Our technology also gives instructors total control over the instructional content within their courses. Our solutions drives down the cost of education to the student and the cost of providing effective instruction to the institution.
What exactly does your product do?
We provide a software-as-a-service online homework platform that integrates science, math, and engineering problem solving and instruction with eBooks and instructional media. Instructors adopt it for their courses, and students pay for a subscription to the service.
Who is it for?
Today, we mainly serve college students and instructors. A few university departments are working with us to deliver their own digital content to replace textbooks. We are also working with a handful of authors looking to publish eBooks integrated with our learning software.
In addition, we are currently piloting with a number of high schools nationwide.
What was the most challenging aspect of starting up a business?
I started this business originally as a media company. Sapling Learning’s greatest challenge has been shifting our business model from a media development business to a software-as-a-service company that competes with many our former customers.
What is the next step for you and your startup?
Bringing in equity capital to fund an expansion of our sales and marketing efforts as well as roll out new products that serve new disciplines.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs?
Make decisions that are right for the long-term success of your company, gauged against your long-term goals. Decisions meant to alleviate short-term business concerns often cost you greatly down the road and certainly distract you from your goals.
What Austin-based resource have you found to be the most helpful and why?
The Austin business community offers big-city opportunities and mentoring while still feeling like a small, tightly knit group. Organizations such as ATC, TiE Austin, Tech Ranch, and the Austin Entrepreneur Network offer events that will help new entrepreneurs gain valuable advice and information and do considerable networking.