News Column

'AOL Squatter' Takes Wraps Off New Startup, Claco

Sept. 22, 2012

Peter Delevett, San Jose Mercury News

Sept. 22--Remember the AOL squatter?

Eric Simons won Web-wide notoriety in May, when officials at AOL's Palo Alto campus discovered the young entrepreneur had been living there to save cash while getting his startup off the ground.

But while security showed Simons the door, his high-tech twist on Oliver Twist caught the imaginations of several angel investors. With their backing, Simons and his team of four were able to rent space in Palo Alto.

And next week, Simons will take the wraps off his new company, an online community called Claco that lets teachers share lesson plans and tips.

"We're crowdsourcing education," he said, "to give every person in the world access to the best teachers."

Simons got the idea three years ago while a high school senior. "The content being used in the classroom right now is very static -- it's not engaging," he said. "And the process of developing new content is time-intensive for teachers."

So after graduation, he left the Chicago suburbs and headed west. His parents, he admits, "weren't thrilled" that he wasn't going to college. But how ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen "The Social Network"?

"You could feel his enthusiasm, and he's a fantastic coder," said Tim Brady, Claco's first investor -- and a guy who knows something about startups, having been the first hire at Yahoo (YHOO).

Since leaving Yahoo a decade ago, Brady has been pouring his resources into education technology, including an incubator called Imagine K12. Simons was among the first batch of entrepreneurs to go through the three-month program last summer.

The incubator leases space in AOL's Page Mill Road offices. And Simons found he was able to keep slipping into the building even after his time in the program ended.

Unable to afford rent, he'd sleep on common-area couches, shower in the gym, stow his clothes in spare lockers and sneak ramen noodles and trail mix AOL set out for entrepreneurs to share, all while working 15-hour days to develop Claco's software.

"It's a pretty big building, so he was able to get away with it," said Brady, adding that he had no clue what Simons was up to until CNET broke the story.

Simons, who just turned 21, had originally dubbed the company ClassConnect but changed that a few months ago. While the new moniker may roll less trippingly off the tongue, Simons already has his eye on international expansion, and he didn't want a name that might confuse non-English speakers.

An early trial of the service, opened in March, netted 16,000 K-12 teachers, Simons said. Several thousand more have signed up for the beta, which soft-launched last week and will be formally announced Wednesday.

"I love it," said Erin Klein, a second-grade teacher in Michigan whom Simons invited to test the product last year after stumbling on her education-themed Twitter feed.

Klein said she saves all of her lesson plans and other classroom content to Claco and shares those files with dozens of other teachers who follow her on Simons' network. She calls the service a cross between Pinterest and Dropbox, "but you can do more with it, and it's free."

She and Brady both say the service spares teachers hours of searching the Internet for educational websites and apps.

"Given all that teachers are asked to do, it seems a big waste of time to re-create the wheel when there's stuff out there that they can take and tailor to their own needs," Brady said.

Although the public version of the site has only been up a few days, Simons already is noodling on ways to make money -- such as letting teachers buy additional storage. "We've already got content publishers coming to us saying, 'We'd love to advertise on your platform,' " he added.

With some 3.9 million K-12 teachers in the U.S. alone, and schools spending $25 billion a year on textbooks and other content, Simons sees a robust market opportunity. And he's not the only one: Last month, Flip Video co-founder Ariel Braunstein launched a company called Knowmia, which trolls the Web for public-domain educational videos then organizes them into study plans developed by teachers.

Still, Simons claims there's more to Claco than making money: Teachers who've participated in the early trial, he said, report that since they have more time to spend on pedagogy instead of planning, their students' grades have gone up an average of 8 percent.

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(c)2012 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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Source: (c)2012 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)


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