When Chakrapani “Chaks” Appalabattula and his wife both got sick, their young children were stuck. There was no one to get to them to school and the family wasn’t connected with other parents or teachers who could help.
For Appalabattula, the situation triggered the same feelings of isolation that plagued him when he came the U.S. as a 22-year-old immigrant from India.
“No parent should ever have to feel that same isolation,” Appalabattula said.
So in 2014 he launched Bloomz, a Redmond-based startup that connects parents to their teachers and schools, “regardless of location, culture or language of origin,” said Appalabattula, the company’s CEO.
Bloomz has raised a total of $3.6 million in VC funding since its launch. The company has five employees. Some of their services are free, and last year the company began offering premium subscriptions for parents and educators who would like a product with extra bells and whistles, including more functions and data.
There are other competitors in the field, from social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn to more education-focused communication apps such as Remind and SignupGenius. But the business has continued to grow — as have Appalabattula’s children, who are now 8 and 13 years old.
“We’re really excited about the response we’ve seen from customers,” he said, “particularly at the school level, where they’ve adopted our premium service to help them improve parental engagement in their school communities.”
We caught up with Appalabattula for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “We connect parents with educators. Through our comprehensive mobile communication app, we ensure that every parent, regardless of culture, language spoken or physical health, can be intimately involved in their child’s education, which is the number one factor when it comes to determining student success.”
Inspiration hit us when: “My wife and I were incapacitated by serious illnesses and unable to coordinate transportation of our children to school.”
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “VC. We made rapid progress in capturing the imagination of teachers and parents early on. Given the significant opportunity to reach a very large user segment across the U.S. and world, we raised seed capital that allows us to expand the reach broadly. We’re now ready to raise the next, bigger round to expand the footprint and reach profitability. We’re happy to share that Bloomz was named 2017’s Best App for Parent Communication by TechEdvocate.”
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “Our unique approach brought all of the key pillars of parental engagement (communication, coordination and community building) under one app, with a familiar look that mimics that of a social platform. It allows every parent to stay engaged in their kids’ education and development.”
The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Our smartest move was to make Bloomz a one-stop-shop for all parent-teacher communication. Through the app (also accessible via desktop), teachers can share photos and videos, schedule conferences, ask for volunteers and supplies donations, send and private messages to parents, as well as public messages to the whole group. The Behavior Tracking and Digital Portfolios features enable teachers to give parents a window into the work and conduct of the kids as the year progresses. The translation feature allows teachers to communicate with parents in more than 80 languages.”
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “Two years ago, when the product was still in beta but we were already getting the word out through a few influencers in the education market, we were also getting ready for the new school year and expecting an important inflow of users when school started. However, as the summer hit, a successful partnership with the WeAreTeachers brand drove a lot of attention to our app as well as traffic to our website. After they wrote a positive review, thousands of people clicked through and signed up for our free account. The (positive) surprising growth very early in our life as a company brought its challenges, and the pressure was so high that our service came down for a full two days in the middle of back-to-school.
Our engineering team was swift to jump on the problem and got things going as soon as they could, with many teachers waiting to get back in their classrooms and welcome parents to a new form of communication. While we received complaints during the process, most teachers were really happy when things got back online and were thankful to have found a new tool that could save them time when communicating with parents.”
Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Bill Gates has long been a champion of supporting public education, especially when it comes to closing the achievement gap for students of color and low-income students. This is something that we as a company also feel strongly about. Parental involvement is a key influence when it comes to student achievement. Our goal in creating Bloomz was to give parents and teachers a free resource to ensure that no student is falling through the cracks, either at home or in class, and that no parent should feel like they can’t be intimately involved in their child’s education, regardless of their schedule, financial position or native language.”
Our favorite team-building activity is: “Startup life can be loaded with work at times. However, we take joy in the small opportunities to spend time as a team and talk about things other than work. Lunch time is always a great opportunity for this, and the location of our office allows us to sometimes take walks to nearby places and enjoy the beautiful Seattle weather (a little irony intended). Team outings are always fun, and our favorite has been to the golf course.”
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “We are a small, scrappy team and will start a process of team growth soon, as we continue to grow our user base. Still, we don’t see ourselves losing our startup agility or our ability to react to the changing environment. We believe that the ability to adapt to change and deal with uncertainty while maintaining a dedication to work will continue to be critical in our team culture as we pursue our mission to become the predominant parent communication app for educators everywhere.”
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Listen closely to your users and be flexible when it comes to how you go about realizing your ultimate goal. For Bloomz, the goal has always been creating a communication channel between parents and teachers, so that both parties can better support their students. This was only possible through listening to users and creating different iterations of the app. The goal remains the same, but it’s taken time and different approaches to get to where we are.”