Changing the World through Literacy: A Fireside Chat with Michelle Brown, Founder and CEO of CommonL
Michelle Brown is an educator by training, and an entrepreneur by necessity. Having taught in both low-income and high resource schools, Michelle felt empowered to create a tool to help bridge the gap, so that students had access to a stellar education regardless of their socioeconomic status. A couple of years later, CommonLit was born.
CommonLit is a free tool that offers reading passages, tracking tools, and customized assistance for students in grades 5-12. In this Fireside Chat, we talked to Michelle about how she developed CommonLit and disseminated it to millions of students and teachers across the country.
What was your motivation behind CommonLit?
After I graduated college in 2009, I taught reading in a high-poverty school in rural Mississippi. On day one, I walked into a classroom that had nothing—no books, no materials, nothing. If you were to see the state of the classroom, it would bring tears to your eyes.
For the next two years, I spent my nights and weekends working to build a curriculum for my students that would meet their specific needs and proficiency level. In a single classroom, I had students that were reading at seven different grade levels, so it was a challenge to meet them where they were.
Fast forward two years, I began teaching at a high-performing charter school in Boston. I was handed a curriculum that had been perfected by veteran teachers over the course of thirteen years, and when I got the curriculum, I felt a sense of anger. I thought, “Why is this not available to teachers and students everywhere?” It just seemed completely unfair.
How did you go from a teacher to the creator of this business?
I was thinking about entrepreneurship when I was in the classroom in Boston. Originally, I thought I would want to write a book of resources for teachers, but eventually, I went to graduate school for education policy and management. It felt like a good way for me to bring my impact to a larger scale.
One week into my program, I became frustrated with how slow policy moves, so I went to my professor and asked, “What am I doing here? This is not inspiring to me, and I don’t feel that policy is a way to really make a difference.” In response, he asked me, “What is the one thing that you do better than anyone else, that you would base your entire career on?” I told him, “I am really good at teaching students how to read, write, and how to think at high levels.” Then he told me, “Well it sounds like you should start a business.”
I was surprised and confused by his response. He gave me an assignment—to think about it for one week and come back with a business idea. I put the deadline on my calendar, and I worked every night into the early hours of the morning for a full week. I presented him a pitch deck for the idea Common Lit. In a sense, I did not create the idea on my own, rather, with the help of someone who cared about me and who challenged me.
What were some of the logistics behind about turning your idea into a tangible product for students and teachers?
I’m recalling what it was like to really make something from nothing. It’s so daunting. I just remember telling people that I was going to start this thing. [This is the time where] you’re most vulnerable, and anything that anyone says can kill a really amazing idea.
After I delivered the pitch deck, my professor’s reaction was “this needs some work,” and I knew that I couldn’t develop Common Lit alone. I started a student organization in graduate school, and recruited 15 students to come to a meeting once a week and donate their time to further develop the platform.
I think the best thing I did was to focus on building a product that actually worked. This whole thing became my graduate school thesis which was really good because I had to have something that I could actually pilot test. That was a blessing because I think that too many entrepreneurs get caught up in building a business around a product before they really have having a product that solves a problem for real people. The pilot included a treatment group who had access to the resource and a comparison group that didn’t, and we were able to measure the effectiveness of the platform.
After publishing my pilot-test, I received an award from my graduate school for $5,000, which I used to incorporate CommonLit as a 501(c)(3).
What are some of the unique features of your platform geared towards struggling students?
The way our platform works is similar to Khan Academy but for reading and writing. It is completely free and open, but instead of videos, it’s printed text.
For struggling readers, teachers have the ability to enable or disable support. If I have a class of 30 students, I may enable the text-to-speech feature so that they could read along to the audio. Students can also highlight any word and translate it into one of thirteen different languages, along with other capabilities.
What has been your proudest moment to date?
It was moving into our own office. In October 2016, CommonLit was awarded a $3.8 million federal grant for Innovative Approaches to Literacy. That was a surprise. I applied for the grant, but when I submitted it, I thought, “We are such a small organization even though we serve such a large population of people.” With the federal grant, we were able to scale up. It was a great accomplishment moving out of the incubator where we only had a sign and a shared table to host meetings to having that first staff meeting in our own boardroom.
What has been your most challenging moment?
It’s been the fact that my role as a CEO has had to evolve a lot. Every time that I get competent at something, I have to hand it off to someone else, and then I have to learn a new thing that I am not good at. Right now, my role is less about product management and more about being a manager to people. That’s been a humbling experience. Leading a team of adults is very different from leading a classroom of children.
What are some of the lessons and challenges you have learned as a CEO?
1. My time is very valuable. It’s a constant battle between understanding what’s going on in the company and also not getting too caught up in the details. That has been a hard adjustment. 2. When you scale up, you have to build an organizational structure. It is the most complicated thing to plan. You have to compartmentalize and figure out what makes sense for your company.
Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring entrepreneurs?
In the early stages, if you are thinking about making a leap, just build it. Build something that is an MVP—a minimum viable product—and test it to make sure that it actually solves a problem within a small population of people. Building a business around and getting funding for something viable is much easier.