Scaling an edtech solution with a veteran scaler.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
An entrepreneur and executive who has spent most of his career building successful companies, Brian Kathman has deep experience across technology, philanthropy, and high-growth companies, often translating product innovation into new business models and markets.
Prior to Signal Vine, Brian was the Chief Operating Officer at Arabella Advisors, a philanthropy services firm which grew 1000 percent during his five years. But most of his career has been spent building technology companies from an early stage. He founded his first company at 28-years old, a web-based identity management and privacy company.
There’s a growing need for higher ed staff to integrate technology tools into student communication to help nudge students to success.
In addition to Brian’s entrepreneurial ventures, he has helped grow several early stage businesses, most notably InphoMatch/Mobile 365 where he established key contracts which became 75 percent of its revenue. The business was eventually sold to Sybase in 2006 for $430 million.
While at Five Wireless, Brian helped launch a new profit center for its client NeuStar which grew from $0 to $50M in revenue in less than 10 years.
Brian is a third-generation entrepreneur with a BS in Marketing from Indiana’s Kelley School of Business and an Executive MBA from Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business.
As CEO of Signal Vine, Brian leads an enterprise text messaging platform changing the way higher education institutions reach and engage students. The company serves more than 200 higher education organizations, including the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, University of New Mexico, and Austin Community College.
You’ve been in tech for a while, but edtech is newer – your thoughts on Signal Vine in the edtech sector?
Brian: I’ve spent most of my career focused on building successful, high-growth technology companies from an early stage. Educators today have a lot of trouble reaching their students quickly and informatively because students today aren’t using traditional communication channels.
The vast majority of students have access to a smartphone or mobile phone, so mobile messaging is the best way to reach them.
More millennials use their phones for texting than any other generation, and they say it’s just as meaningful as a voice conversation, so the intersection between mobile and education is quite clear.
Every day, we move one step closer to closing the achievement gap and ensuring equal access to the resources needed to achieve success in higher education. The information is out there, but students often can’t find or utilize it without a supportive nudge.
Signal Vine has built a bridge between students and resources that is supported by the research, experience, and innovative technology we’ve developed over years of implementing impactful text messaging programs.
Your platform enables organizations and their staff to easily communicate with thousands of students via text messaging to increase student responsiveness and engagement — how’s this unique?
Brian: Signal Vine’s intelligent messaging platform is an intervention tool. It’s hard to compare us to other text vendors, since no other organization is doing what we are with native text message intervention combined with blended messaging.
There are several key points to highlight about our platform and what we are uniquely providing for our customers:
- Personalized text and MMS messages can be pre-scheduled by program, case group, or department and scheduled in a calendar.
- Existing student data, like first name, FAFSA status, or high school, can be seamlessly integrated into the Signal Vine platform and used to target and customize messages.
- Historical and comparative data is always at your fingertips to benchmark and track performance like engagement rate, message response time and more.
- Response management tools are used to automate follow-up replies. Message branching logic reduces the amount of time staff need to sort through expected responses, so they can focus on the messages that need one-on-one interaction.
- Automated nudges for students who haven’t completed tasks, like completing the FAFSA, are targeted by profile data.
Your company believes counselors, advisors, and mentors are the critical drivers of positive outcomes for students. Makes perfect sense. Got any statistics or anecdotes on this?
Brian: The path to postsecondary success is overwhelmingly complex and fragmented. The administrative burden alone is daunting. Application forms, financial aid requirements, registration deadlines – these tasks challenge even the most high-achieving students.
Due to a nationwide counselor-to-student ratio of 1 to 450, students often receive general and vague information throughout processes that demand personalization and specificity for success.
Due to a nationwide counselor-to-student ratio of 1 to 450, students often receive general and vague information throughout processes that demand personalization and specificity for success. With 500,000 college-intending students failing to matriculate to a postsecondary institution every year and countless others dropping out before attaining a degree, it’s clear that we need a better means of reaching students with the information and support they need to succeed in higher education.
Signal Vine’s interactive and data-driven solution is the necessary bridge for this communication gap. The platform expands organizational capacity and increases efficiency, which allows for real-time communication to help identify those who need support most and drive positive change in behavior.
Research and experience show that targeted and personalized text messaging outreach is the most effective way to interact with students and nudge them to take timely action on college-related tasks.
The post-intervention statistics are staggering – we see improvements in matriculation rates by 11 percent, increases in first-year persistence by 20 percent, a 4-10x increase in staff capacity, and reductions in high-risk loan borrowing by up to 20 percent.
Define ‘personalized learning’ How is your tech more robust than other solutions?
Brian: We use the phrase “blended messaging” rather than personalized learning to describe our unique approach to communicating with students today. Blended messaging combines automated text messages to large groups of students with one-on-one text messages to individual students. Blended messaging helps staff save time with automated messages so they can focus on helping students who need the most high-touch support.
Signal Vine is unique in that it is the only text messaging platform with the necessary functionality to manage a high-scale texting program. The platform can be customized to fit any institution’s internal structure. Here are a few of the time-saving features you won’t find elsewhere in the market:
- Response management and machine learning. Machine learning interprets student responses for you. The platform replies to understood text messages and flags messages that need a manual reply.
- Case management. Incoming student messages are routed in real time to the appropriate staff member. Message inboxes can be shared so that staff users can work together to manage incoming student responses from one central phone number.
- Advanced Search. No need to pull lists in an external system – you can do this in Signal Vine to send targeted text messages.
- Data capture. Save incoming replies and use them to automatically update student information. For example, if you send students a text message asking, “Have you completed your FAFSA yet?” their Yes/No responses might update a “FAFSA Completion” field. You can then schedule future text messages to send only to those students who replied in the negative. These updates can also be pushed back to a CRM or SIS.
- Advanced reporting and metrics. Monitor student engagement, average response time, staff activity, and much more with program-specific dashboards.
- Provisioning by algorithm. Scheduled messages are sent out in automated batches every few seconds to ensure that your program phone numbers are never blacklisted for spamming. Automatic provisioning also helps staff keep up with incoming student responses, since students tend to reply within minutes of receiving a message.
What’s the state of education currently?
Brian: It has never been more important to earn a college degree to be gainfully employed. Though college attendance rates have risen in the past decade, only two-thirds of high school students are going to college and only 60 percent of those students complete a four-year degree. Moreover, higher education is more expensive than ever.
Students are starting to question the wisdom of this investment, and many are frustrated by how complex the entire process is.
The state of education today involves an increasingly important role for technology.
That said, I’m encouraged by the energy and innovation in this field. Signal Vine works with staff at schools of all types and sizes across the country. The people we work with are dedicated to supporting students to and through post-secondary paths, and they recognize that to be successful they must continue to learn and evolve in the way that they work.
Your thoughts on technology’s role?
Brian: The state of education today involves an increasingly important role for technology, both in the classroom and in communication between institutions and students in general. There’s a growing need for higher ed staff to integrate technology tools into student communication to help nudge students to success, as demonstrated by Signal Vine customers.
For example, our partnership with the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance contributed, in part, to a seven percent increase in FAFSA submissions in the state of Louisiana this year.
As technology continues to advance at an ever-increasing rate in both our personal and professional lives, the public sector is often hard put to keep up. For students who have access to information from across the globe at their fingertips, but are still taking pencil and paper bubble tests, this dissonance is palpable.
Through the research Signal Vine has been involved with, it has become clear to me that to guide students to success we must keep them actively engaged.
Student engagement may be possible without technology in a classroom setting, but to reach students at scale and yet be personalized and relevant, there is no alternative. Schools must make use of technology to communicate efficiently and effectively with their students.
There are a lot of edtech startups, yours is already attracting a great deal of positive attention, e.g., Lumina Foundation, fundraising Series A. Your advice for other startup leaders working in education?
Brian: My advice for other startup leaders working in education is to focus on delivering value to the customer and student. You may have the coolest chatbot or the most beautiful user interface, but if you’re not helping education organizations reach students in a human way, students will check out.
Meet, coach, and network with key partners in the education space.
Another piece of advice is to meet, coach, and network with key partners in the education space. Partnerships are crucial drivers in the development of Signal Vine’s technology to meet the needs of organizations serving our shared mission.
Your dog-friendly, on-the-Potomac, outdoorsy company culture in Alexandria is already growing strong. How does this inform the strength of your product?
Brian: Signal Vine’s company culture is important to our team for one big reason: it motivates us to do better by our customers and their students. It’s easy to come to work each day when you know you’ll be surrounded by incredibly talented people who are dedicated to improving outcomes in education.
Our open, productive, and healthy culture creates a workplace where diverse people, cultures, and perspectives are welcome.
This ultimately strengthens our product because we focus on incorporating the perspectives of people who come from different backgrounds and have had different experiences.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org