An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Thomas Waite, PhD, the founder and CEO of K16 Solutions, which was honored in our:
Tell us the origin story of K16 Solutions – what problem were you trying to solve and why?
Our founding story is spectacularly rife with personal sacrifice, so let me just share that I made the decision to create K16 Solutions after years of serving in several different positions in higher education. I was never watching education from afar – I was living it, loving it, embracing it, and changing it. I saw so much wrong in academic bureaucracy and the downstream impact it was having on students, especially with the limitations of EdTech – it’s even more problematic than people realize. I knew telling my wife about my idea to create K16 Solutions would be revealing – it would either propel me forward or stop me cold in my tracks. In some ways, I had no business starting a company! Her smart, helpful reaction made it real, and after that, I just rushed in knowing that looking back was never going to be an option. Along with my two co-founders, my wife is really the unknown founder and one of the sharpest business minds I know. So, that’s how the journey started.
What followed were two and a half years of funding challenges that I would not wish on an enemy, but that I had to see through. The problem is that current EdTech systems are expensive, fractured, and broken beyond repair because of the way they’ve been built – cobbled together and loosely connected without the integration required to run the complex business of education effectively. Many times, this occurs because of outsiders to education coming in and thinking there is quick profit to be made. My focus is the students and staff, and I am proving it through our pricing models and more. The problems I’ve seen firsthand from my experience in the weeds are so detrimental to education that schools are closing over them. Interestingly, COVID-19 has now exposed the vulnerability we all knew was coming for years, and more problems are going to emerge if people who really care about education don’t step up.
What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?
It would be impossible to capture all the hurdles here, but I’ll share a few. No money, family stress, no money, stressed team members with stressed spouses, asking everyone for help and paying them with kindness, no money, illness, losing my beloved parents, and losing people who I thought would be in this for the long haul, but then found out that entrepreneurship is cruel and not for everyone. The elation and burdens of the founder’s chair are hurdles in themselves. Another hurdle is looking past the numbers to find heart, courage, and love in an investor. Yes, I said love. This is not a job to me – this is life or death, and I know the students and faculty need what we are bringing them.
I realize those words seem zealous, but education is a noble cause worthy of zeal. Save the pure numbers, margins, and cost-cutting for automobile manufacturers – this is education, and the future of humanity depends on it. As a company, K16 Solutions has been overcoming these hurdles because we know what we have. The experience we have in our founders is more than just about everyone I was hearing “no” from at first. I learned to listen and correct my path when needed. I embraced constant change. My co-founder and right hand of 19 years, Mary, is a heat-seeking missile, and co-founder Jordan is a relentless and pure genius/artist in his craft.
What does the future hold for K16 Solutions?
Billon dollar companies have not accomplished in decades what Jordan and this team have achieved in our first two years at K16 Solutions. We started programming October 3, 2018, and the funny thing is that I was never hearing “no” from people about our ambitions before that. I was hearing, “yes, we agree with you” and “yes, you have something here, but it is too ambitious to take on giants”. When I think about the future of K16 Solutions, I think that job creation and the benefits of an income are all outcomes of what we’ve done, but those things had nothing to do with why we started this company.
K16 Solutions came from agonizing sacrifice for a cause, and the future of the company is rooted in that cause. We’re focused on speed and accuracy to see this cause through. We will employ evangelism, a sense of urgency, and a dramatic belief that it is in our hands to improve education on a global scale to change the world. Our first solution, Scaffold Migration, is revolutionary and unprecedented. Our second is Scaffold Designer, and it is emerging as equally powerful even as it’s just getting started. I am not after a bottom line or even just better EdTech – I am after improving education on a worldwide level using groundbreaking technology as a catapult for anyone with the desire to learn. These first two solutions are only the tip of the iceberg.
What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Scottsdale?
Many entrepreneurs feel a well-founded frustration that this is a hard city to raise money in, though everyone seems to agree that should not be the case. Now is the time for fresh, new money and an understanding of leading-edge tech, which this valley has. But it also has some old-school thinking and old-school firms, and this is a real estate town. I am only one example, but I have raised millions based on the idea and the talent of the team. I also raised it on our cause and a relentless honesty. I believe this city is going to emerge as a mecca for tech startups. I know Silicon Valley and I love the New York and Chicago money scenes also, but Scottsdale is fresh, beautiful, and loaded with successful people. When people realize what this valley can offer in affordable living in comparison to California and other big expensive cities, it will be like another gold rush. We all raise money locally, and often, it eventually leads to outside investment. It will always be a balance, but I believe there are no limits with Scottsdale.
What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
I have probably not been in this position long enough to offer anyone advice (and I am still eyeball-deep in all of this), but we have had a surreal and spectacular two years. Oddly, COVID-19 has pushed us forward even faster than expected because of the position in which many educational institutions now find themselves. K16 Solutions is a fast-moving train, and some days I cannot tell if I am up front in the driver’s seat or hanging on to the back rail holding on for dear life with my body being tossed about like a flag in a storm! It may sound cliché, but my advice is be yourself, have a disdain for conventionalism, and take advice but check it against your gut and your experience.
You can’t lose with principles, trust, grit, faith, willingness to accept change, speed, and prayer or meditation. I would also advise others to find a mentor from both outside and inside your startup path. Demand diversity and run toward common sense. I am also learning to maintain my own health because there is little purpose to starting and running a company without it. You will learn who your friends are on this journey, so embrace them. Finally, I will share that it’s helpful to remind yourself, during every meeting, to always be listening rather than speaking and to look for others who do the same. Discourage any ego, be enlightened, and encourage love – yes, even in business.