Interview with Lee Taal, Founder and CEO of ChatterHigh | Fundica.com
Lee Taal’s current position as the founder and CEO of a thriving ed-tech startup is impressive in and of itself, but perhaps even more striking is his roll call of previous occupations. After graduating from high school, Lee applied to the Royal Military College of Canada, realizing that his childhood dream of becoming a palaeontologist would remain unfulfilled due to a lack of viable program offerings. While at RMC, he studied oceanography and space science and served in the navy, after which he managed at a locomotive facility, became a 6-Sigma Green Belt, and built a digital, out-of-home network in Western Canada. Following that, he founded his most recent undertaking, ChatterHigh, an online edu-game and quiz site linking students to career-training related websites.
“Did it matter that I wanted to be a paleontologist in high school and never did it?” Lee said when we asked him about his expansive resume. “No, what mattered was that I wanted to be something, and that was the rope that pulled me through school, inspiring me to learn how to learn.”
In addition to carrying him through a series of wildly different careers, this inspiration served as the basis for ChatterHigh, which was conceived while having lunch with the director of marketing and recruiting at a local college.
“I asked him how a grade ten student learns about the 160 programs they offer,” Lee explained. “He replied that the direct methods to engage students inside schools were brochures, books in career centers, school presentations, and booths at career fairs.”
In other words, a significant portion of the $17BN spent by universities each year on marketing to and recruiting from high schools was going towards outdated forms of communication that had been all but abandoned by generation Z.
“In that moment, I conceived of a web application that would get info between the students’ noses and their phones.”
Though programs with similar missions already existed, they differed from Lee’s vision in one fundamental way. Lee wanted to target the pre-inquiry market, meaning students who had yet to figure out what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives. All other available tools catered to the post-inquiry student, to the student who already had sights on a certain career and was determining how to reach it. The way ChatterHigh might benefit these undecided, imminent undergraduates — 10–20% of whom might otherwise drop out of their postsecondary programs, disillusioned with an uninformed choice — was clear.
Despite Lee’s underlying desire to help kids find their way, when it comes to funding ChatterHigh he has to be conscious, first and foremost, of what investors are looking for.
“I love working with educators and students in the classroom and am incredibly motivated to help in this area. The challenge for me when I pitch is toning down the ‘how this helps students’ and representing our incredible growth potential. But many investors also want to know you are passionate. So, our strategy is to try and find that balance.”
Lee assured us, however, that the education industry’s reputation for notoriously long sales cycles and sparing deal closures was unwarranted, at least in his case.
“[Our first closure] was atypical because our first client was an existing client in the previous business…For new clients, the cycle for us is long perhaps in terms of getting the first meeting; however, once we’ve demonstrated our product, the closing time is fairly short.”
That said, Lee is adamant that entrepreneurs should refrain from starting up an ed-tech company unless they truly have the drive.
“If it isn’t your passion, it won’t work. You must build real trust with educators.”
His advice to those who are passionate is equally pragmatic.
“Thought leadership is a good strategy. Teachers need to meet you, so conferences are useful. Work with a test group of educators/schools to fix real problems, then get testimonials.”
Founders of startups at ChatterHigh’s stage — that is, startups seeking their second round of funding — often fear they’ll lose control of their company while negotiating investments, but Lee knows exactly how he’ll preserve his idea of what the company should become.
“Creating a strong C-Suite team, finding the right investors, and building a strong board is really the only way to do this. I have been very fortunate in that the investors we have align with our impact goals, and are excited about the growth potential this model has inherently. As founder and the primary visionary, you will likely have some fundamental principals as to why you are building what you are building. My former boss always used to say, “when your values are clear, decision making is easy!”
He is similarly clear-sighted when it comes to assessing how ChatterHigh has evolved.
“At first, ChatterHigh was simply a communication interface; institutions poured info in, and students explored it. But over the years, educators pointed out that we’re also helping foster hope and build students’ engagement in school in general. This fact was made all the more clear by a recent Canadian Career Development Foundation impact analysis of our activity, which is an amazing endorsement of our work and signals our significant societal benefit… [O]nce we are in the majority of schools, we will see a decrease in first year attrition, simply because students will be much more informed about programs and how to succeed in their first year of post-secondary.”
And this hasn’t been ChatterHigh’s only source of validation. Since last year, it has incorporated in the United States, and its customer count and revenue have doubled. What’s more, it recently signed its largest annual contract to date — a $50,000 deal. All this success, however, hasn’t dampened the drive to grow that served Lee so well in his formative years. When we asked him what he’d hoped to see if transported fifty years into the future, he described not only his end goal but the increments leading up to it.
“ChatterHigh is currently the primary digital communication channel to get relevant information into Canadian schools and is growing quickly in the U.S.. We’ll be launching in China this fall, then in India. In five years, ChatterHigh will be the primary communication channel for information about schools, everywhere. In fifty years!? I hope to see an educated society that takes care of our environment, clean water, and the return of the Montreal Canadiens to glory.”
If there is anyone who can help us get to this idyllic, educated future, it’s ChatterHigh — though we won’t hold our breath where the Habs are concerned. To learn more about ChatterHigh, visit their site: https://chatterhigh.com/. To learn more about the Fundica Roadshow — where ChatterHigh pitched for, and nearly won, an investment award of up to $650,000, visit: https://www.fundicaroadshow.com/ and https://www.fundica.com/.
Originally published at www.fundica.com.