Whetstone’s CEO Fischer Makes The Grade With Academic Platform, Unlimited Time Off Policy
In a hot and humid New Orleans school cafeteria in 2010, a multi-million dollar business was born.
Ron Gubitz, a principal at the former Live Oak Elementary School (Renew Cultural Arts Academy) and Andrew Cox, the school’s data/IT manager, were eating lunch and discussing the challenges of the teacher coaching process.
Instructional coach Gubitz said he was shuffling through too many paper observation forms, multi-year email chains and messy spreadsheets, and couldn’t share actionable feedback with his teachers in real time. Hobby coder Cox did some homework and together they wrote a simple application that became the first version of Whetstone, a customizable classroom observation platform that enables schools and districts to drive teacher growth through streamlined evaluation, feedback, coaching and development.
Eric Seling, who worked in the business office at the school, saw the opportunity for Whetstone to solve problems not only at Live Oak but for school leaders everywhere and graduated the model.
In 2011, Whetstone was introduced to the market, and the platform now manages both weekly teacher coaching and annual teacher evaluations for 1,000 schools and 30,000 teachers who instruct more than 300,000 students around the globe, making the company one of New Orleans’ most influential exports.
“Being in New Orleans gave Ron, Andrew and Eric a distinct advantage for starting this company,” said Whetstone CEO Libby Fischer. “New Orleans’ charter school model meant that each charter school principal could decide to use Whetstone for him/ herself, rather than having to go through a centralized purchasing office at a district where Whetstone likely would have gotten lost in the shuffle. Because of this, the founders were able to find eager principals to beta test the product, gathering feedback and data quickly that confirmed Whetstone’s product/ market fit, and the founders’ hunch that it would be an effective solution for many principals nationwide.”
Whetstone uses a Software as a Service (SaaS) model, the standard for most cloud-based technology products. Client schools purchase an annual license subscription for each user in the school (any teacher, instructional coach or principal that will give or receive feedback), which they can renew each school year. Whetstone’s 2018 renewal rate was 98 percent.
“Ron, Andrew and Eric were running Whetstone on nights and weekends while still keeping their very important day jobs of running schools,” said Fischer. “By 2014, they decided they wanted to hire a CEO so they could focus on their jobs as school leaders, and that’s how I got involved in November 2014, at which time Whetstone was in 30 schools. By the ’15 – ‘16 school year, we grew five times to a total of 150 schools, and the following year we doubled to 300 schools. This growth was driven by a ton of hard work improving the product so that it added more value to users, and partnering with innovators in the instructional coaching space like Uncommon Schools, DC Public Schools and the Relay National Principal Academy. Now, in the ’18 – ‘19 school year, we are in over 1,000 schools across 26 states, with incredible partners like Denver Public Schools, Tulsa Public Schools and 85 percent of all KIPP Public Charter schools nationwide.
“As for the future, we are swinging for the fences,” said Fischer. “Our goal for the ’19 – ‘20 school year is to increase our impact to 2,000 schools. We know this is an aggressive goal, but our mission to ensure that feedback happens every day in every school is driving us to increase our impact as fast as we can.”
Whetstone’s concept is elementary. It gives schools and districts one digital home to take time-stamped observation notes, fill out forms and rubrics, plan meetings, track action steps and share feedback in real time while saving time. Fischer said without a tool like Whetstone, most school leaders and instructional coaches cobble together a system with Google Docs, spreadsheets and email.
“Having everything in separate systems not only creates a digital mess, it costs instructional leaders time in trying to wrangle the specific note or piece of data they need to hold an effective coaching meeting, especially in terms of scrolling endlessly to find a teacher’s most recent action step,” she said. “Our clients estimate that Whetstone saves them between five to 10 hours a week, or the equivalent of a full workday.”
Fischer said Whetstone also gets high marks saving instructional leaders time planning professional development (PD) by making it easier to see which teachers need help with which teaching skills so that leaders can plan PD sessions targeted to each teacher’s specific needs.
Whetstone’s foundation is helping teachers grow in their craft through continuous feedback, ultimately improving classroom outcomes and making teachers feel supported, positively challenged and rewarded for their growth.
Fischer said Whetstone’s intuitive and easy-to-use platform lets leaders see real-time data on observation frequency, action steps, coaching trends and standard evaluation reports; engages teachers and leaders by enabling them to see how their coaching work is moving the needle forward; and lets users quickly and seamlessly share vital feedback with teachers and the right data with the right people at the right time.
Successes have been superlative at YES Prep Public Schools in Houston, Texas. Before Whetstone, YES Prep had an end-of-year evaluation data consolidation and approval process that took two full weeks to complete. With Whetstone, the same work was completed in less than one day.
Hamilton Elementary School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, also gives Whetstone a gold star. There, instructional leaders are using Whetstone to help plan personalized PD for their teachers. “As a former teacher, personalized PD is near and dear to my heart because I never received any,” said Fischer. “As an elementary Spanish teacher in rural Mississippi, I was thrown into high school foreign language PD courses which provided training that had nothing to do with teaching kindergarteners how to learn Spanish when they couldn’t read or write in English. Even though I received no professional growth from these sessions, I was forced to go. What I love about Hamilton Elementary’s approach is that they look at Whetstone’s analytics on a regular basis, identify which teachers need support with what skills, group them together based on need, and deliver mini-PD sessions that are targeted directly to each group’s most pressing growth needs. This way, teachers are getting PD they can implement the next day.”
The New Orleans technology company was named Whetstone (literally a sharpening stone) because of the old Proverb “iron sharpens iron.” CEO Fischer said it supports the thesis that all of us can sharpen our chosen practice with feedback and coaching. It also means Whetstone can excel beyond the classroom setting.
“There is definitely opportunity for Whetstone to be used in other markets, like health care and construction,” said Fischer, “That said, we have carved our niche in education feedback for a simple but good reason: it’s where our expertise lies. There are about 100,000 public schools in the U.S., and right now we are in 1,000. We’re a ways off from saturating the market, though of course, that’s the goal! For now, we are keeping our nose to the grindstone, pun intended, and focusing on expanding where we are experts. We are always looking at developing complementary products and features to increase our impact in our current market, so we would likely pursue that before jumping into another vertical. At a certain level of market share, we may start exploring other industries, but for now, we are focused on education because our mission is to create a world where feedback happens every day in every school.”
Fischer said in New Orleans every public school or Charter Management Organization can create its own unique evaluation and teacher coaching model. While this caused a degree of difficulty for Whetstone at the beginning, the company passed the proverbial final exam ensuring its product was flexible enough to accommodate anyone.
“There was a lot of trial and error at first, but our early adopter principals were incredible about providing us feedback, allowing us to shadow them at work and constantly pushing us to build a better product faster,” she said. “Because we built our platform to be super customizable from the very beginning, it was easy to expand outside of New Orleans. Every state, and often every city within a state, has a different evaluation and coaching model, so if we hadn’t built our platform to be flexible, we wouldn’t have had much success expanding outside of Louisiana. Now, we are in 1,000 schools across 26 states and five countries, and it’s all thanks to New Orleans’ unique school model and those first few principals that insisted we build Whetstone to be customizable.”
Whetstone’s equation for success also includes periods of recess that supports the company’s love of New Orleans. It even led to its enviable “unlimited time off” policy that makes it easy for employees to play hooky, enjoying the city’s extracurricular diversions and assembling for festival field trips.
“Because there’s always something fun going on in the city, we knew that the Silicon Valley-style tech company where you work 100 hour weeks wasn’t going to work for us,” said CEO Fischer. “We love festivals and we love Mardi Gras, so we made the decision early on that we were going to figure out how to take part in those things while building a successful fast growth startup. Well, maybe it wasn’t so much a decision as an, ‘Oh shoot, we’re the only two employees and we both want to go to Jazz Fest on Friday, what do we do?’ sort of situation, but you get the idea.
“Intentional or not, the fact that we wanted to enjoy New Orleans’ culture in the evening and on the weekends forced us to run the business really efficiently,” she said. “Our reward is getting to leave most days by 5:00 p.m. and we still grew the business by 80 percent last year, so we think we’re onto something!”
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