How Education Entrepreneur Chris Whittle Disproved Skeptics
00:07 Chris Whittle: And we walked in with a knot in our stomach because we don't know how this is gonna resonate.
In 2007, Chris Whittle, a longtime education entrepreneur, co-founded a for-profit school called Avenues.
He envisioned Avenues to be a network of "Pre-K to 12th grade" academies around the world, with the first location to open in Manhattan.
00:28 Whittle: In the city of New York, there had been nine private schools that opened in the last decade. They opened with 52 students each on average and they were what we called "Church Basements Starts". They started in the basement or a townhouse and they grew over the next 20 or 30 years. In their cases, they'll grow up to be big and serious schools. The concept of Avenues: The World School, is that that it doesn't have to be that way and that if you think about it, if you plan it, if you invest in it, if you bring the right resources to it, you can bring a top tier high quality school into a major city from almost the get-go.
Whittle found an investor interested in providing $75 million in series A funding.
But before completing the deal, the investor commissioned a market research study to measure how interested parents would be.
01:35 Whittle: Market research firm came back. It said to an investor, "In our view, only 100 parents will show up, not a thousand that your entrepreneurs here are predicting." Investor backed away and said, "Too risky for us." We have to go find someone else that believed us instead of the market research. We did. We then found a quarter of a million square foot building, hired 200 staff members, built the curriculum, got everything ready to go. And then 20 months before school opens was really the moment where we were gonna find out, "Were we right or were the market research folks right?" And that was the day we announced the school. We lit up our website. We began advertising in New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and we basically said, "Parents, come see us". It was a very nervous time. We had no idea whether anyone would even show up.
At the first informational events for parents, held in Lower Manhattan, every seat was filled.
02:49 Whittle: And we really didn't know how they would react. And we began our 50-minute presentation of the school and 10 minutes into it, every Avenues person knew, "This was gonna turn out the way we thought, not the way the market research folks thought." And the reason we knew is you could see it in the faces of the parents. And that was the first of 200 parent events, filled with 6000 parents, 2600 parents applied to the school, a record of all schools ever, in New York City. Two takeaways from that story. One, trust your gut versus the market researchers. You know what you're doing better than they are ever going to know what you're doing. It doesn't mean you don't listen to them because that's one source of data, but trust that you really do see something that's gonna work. And then I think the second lesson is that, new done right can conquer the old ways. And that even in the world of schooling, where the definition of quality is how old you are, that's typically the way it's defined, even in schooling, if you can show that you can leap over that through new design and through a new approach, it works.
Avenues opened its Manhattan school in September 2012, with 740 students.
Within 10 years, Avenues plans to have 20 academies with 30,000 to 40,000 students.