In fifth grade, much to Brett Kopf’s disappointment, he was diagnosed with several learning disabilities. After spending years struggling through academics, Brett finally chanced upon a teacher called Ms. Whitefield. “She really just changed my life, and she had a big impact on my education… Ms. Whitefield really cared. She would talk with my mom every week on the phone, and she was extremely patient with me. And what ended up happening is she built soft skills like confidence or critical thinking, and that’s what really helped me,” he explained.
Ms. Whitefield changed his life. Ever since he discovered he had learning disabilities, he had felt so insecure about school, but she turned that around. And so, from that year in high school, the idea of a Ms. Whitefield, at scale, for every student in America began to emerge in Brett’s head. To replicate his own academic awakening, he wanted to be able to remove the relationship and communication barrier that existed between teachers, students, and parents to help engage people in the education system more.
A couple years later, when Brett went to college, he created the first version of Remind, albeit one that would later be shut down. With some coding knowledge, his brother scrapped together an Excel-based system that would send reminders for exam dates, and Brett signed people up to the service. At one point, over 2000 students were using it. This prototype gave Brett his first taste of building a useful product. He explains, “there’s no greater feeling or high in the world when you build something that people actually use, like, and continue to use.”
That first version of Remind wasn’t perfect though. For two years, they ran the company and were failing. They didn’t have a concrete idea of where they were heading, what their mission was, or how to run a startup, so they quickly became stuck. Even then, Brett still felt like there was still a future for his fledgling company. From a deep place of fixing his insecurities that came from childhood struggles with learning disabilities and a drive to build something that mattered, he felt like he needed to keep going.
With that in mind, Brett moved out to Silicon Valley and got into an incubator to learn the ins and outs of running a startup. He learned two key lessons that would stay with him for the rest of his career.
The first lesson was to run the company with a framework, a way to make decisions and operate. The framework rested on the importance of speaking to the customer, learning about their problem, and creating a product that solves just one problem.
The second lesson was discovering what Remind’s purpose in the world was. And that would only come about through talking to hundreds of teachers. To contact them, Brett googled a list of teachers that used Twitter and emailed every single one of them personally. He would start off by explaining who he was and what he was building to potentially solve their problem. Closing the email, he would ask to have a fifteen minute Skype call to talk. For eight to ten weeks, he spoke to hundreds of teachers across the United States, built connections with them, and remembered each one by name. As he went, he began to learn more and more about the biggest problem these teachers faced and how his service was a perfect way to solve it.
Brett Kopf figured out,
The biggest problem was they [the teachers] had really important information to convey but they did not feel safe from a liability perspective in communicating that way because they didn’t want to get sued or fired if they messaged their student on Facebook or texted them. And the other end was because the kids were not responding to the communication methods that the teachers were using, and it hurt their education because of that.
Educators were having a hard time notifying students of what was going on, and it wasn’t helping anyone. So when Brett explained the solution he was thinking about to them, they would get so excited. With that information, Brett realized he could repurpose his college prototype of Remind to serve all the communication needs of these teachers whether that was homework, tests, parent-teacher conferences, short motivational messages, or surveys. To better serve these teachers and fully realize his childhood dream, he was finally creating a seamless communication platform for families, teachers, and administrators.
He had one problem, and he wanted to use one simple solution to solve it. That’s what made Remind so unique. Many other companies at the time were building feature-laden products, but all these teachers wanted was a safe and easy way to get their message delivered from A to B. And even though the basic mechanisms of the software looked like they were easy to copy, Remind put a lot of data science and work behind the product to make it truly distinct and hard to compete with.
Brett had figured out his market fit and had a great solution in the making to fix the problem that he saw, but now he had to deal with the struggles of a business that was scaling fast. Even though they didn’t do any marketing, all the teachers that Brett had talked to jumped onto the platform, and they were telling all their friends to use it too. It was exponential growth. But he revealed, “in the beginning, the application would fail a lot. We were growing so fast. The first few months we were adding 5000 users a week which at the time was an enormous amount, and we wouldn’t be able to deliver on messages.”
Brett also set some goals that were both unreasonably high for the company and not backed on solid data. Sometimes, the team would miss these goals and it would demoralize everybody. That was one of the hardest lessons that he’s learned. As his company grew, he began to use the quantitative user data that the app collected to better set goals and benchmarks for the future.
His biggest challenge along the way was building the emotional capacity to handle the ups and downs of running a startup. “It was really hard,” Brett said. “I didn’t understand at such an early stage how to comprehend the pressure and stress, or understand how to focus on what was most important.”
He found out that sticking it through and persisting even when things got incredibly tough was the key to building the mental resilience to face even the hardest of circumstances. It also helped that he was building the company with his brother David, someone who had a similar value system to him and would always be there when he needed him.
There were many mornings where he woke up at 4 o’clock to help out teachers on the east coast with their questions about his product, using that customer service as one of Remind’s competitive advantages. He wanted to make sure that every teacher was able to talk with a person on the other end of the phone to discuss their needs and get help using the app.
Before they knew it, their product had blown up. They got over $50 million funding, and at one point in 2014, they added over 400,000 users in a single day – hitting number one in the app store – all without any marketing gimmicks. Brett explained his thought process:
At the core of it, you should build a product that solves a huge problem for your customer, and they should share the products. If they are using the product and sharing it, then you found a product market fit. And then your job becomes making it really simple for them to share a link, tweet it out, or send it out on Facebook.
He elaborates that through solving a problem well and finding users who like the product, getting the word out there becomes a lot easier. Furthermore, as a product focused founder, he has concentrated on building a platform that has the highest retention rates possible, using the data infrastructure to understand what is going on and why customers may be staying or leaving. At the end of the day, if the product is truly something that is needed, it will sell itself.
As a company scales, sometimes the founder can lose sight of what they originally started the company for, but Brett still sees the same vision that he did a decade ago. Now in 2018, Remind has not only focused on explosive growth but monetization as well. They’ve turned to a freemium model where the premium version will have added features like longer messages and voice calls. Partnering with companies like Quizlet, they’ve also been moving towards more functionality and support on their platform. Even then, he still uses that same ambition that had been building ever since he was a child to drive the company forward and provide an easy way for everybody involved in the school system to communicate.
Right now Remind is at 27 million unique users and is the number one education software on the Apple app store, but Brett is always looking for more. With a world full of billions of people in the education system, he sees the endless potential that his product can bring to the world – one teacher, one student, and one parent at a time.
“I think it’s important to work on something that you really care about and are really passionate about. The underlying reason to that is because it’s so hard to scale a company to some level of modest success. There are so many walls that will be put up in your way or so many people are gonna think your an idiot, and there’s gonna be so many times when you’re going to fail and things are going to go wrong. And if there isn’t a deeper reason why you are doing what you are doing, or why this thing exists, it will be hard to succeed. Focus on something that you really really care about.”