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With a rare role in the world of online education, Greenville-based Pathwright provides a platform for educators to create courses or entire schools online. It was one of the companies in last year's Iron Yard accelerator. Co-founders and twin brothers Mark and Paul Johnson, along with Justin Hall and Greg Taylor, intend to make quality education more affordable and accessible. Their customers have launched more than 100 courses in which more than 17,000 students have registered. UBJ sat down with Paul Johnson last week for an interview.
When did Pathwright launch?
We launched publicly in March of 2012. We started designing and developing in 2010, and launched the first version with a significant customer partner privately in 2011.
What are your biggest expenses?
Like any small company, our biggest expense is payroll.
Why did you choose to start a business in the education field?
Mark and I started designing and developing websites and software when we were just 13 years old and we loved it. Later, while attending Bob Jones University, we helped develop education software for the university. We saw a stark contrast between what we knew was possible for education software and what it currently did.
When we formed our own software company, DUO Interactive, in 2009, our biggest customer wanted software that would let them teach fully online courses anywhere in the world. Finding no suitable options, we pitched them the idea of partnering to kick-start Pathwright, and they agreed.
Also, a college degree does not guarantee meaningful employment, and leaves students in debt by an average of $27,000. Educating oneself should not be a gamble; we see the old model as ripe for disruption and re-invention. Pathwright is a product of our passion to change education coupled with our love for designing and developing software.
Who are your main users?
Our target customer is any person or organization who wants to offer online courses under their own brand. We're useful in several market segments, including employee and customer training, for-credit higher education and K-12 schools, continuing education, curriculum publishers, and coaching organizations.
While most of our users are in North America, we have users active in 122 countries.
What were the major learning curves for you?
The biggest thing that I've personally had to learn (and continue to learn) is how to effectively sell a software product. While I knew that even the best product wouldn't sell itself, actively selling software as a service has been a new experience.
What was your strategy for securing funding beyond the Iron Yard seed money?
We currently haven't taken any outside investment since our launch. Our product has been funded primarily through partnership with customers, platform revenue, and many long days, nights and weekends.
What's your personal way of dealing with challenges and tough days?
The biggest aspect of getting through challenges is having an awesome team to work with. Knowing that our team could operate just fine without me for a few weeks and can solve any problem that comes up makes new challenges easier to face.
The design of Pathwright's website is notably different from your competitors like Litmos and Udemy. Was this a deliberate decision?
While we didn't set out just to be different, our design is unique because it reflects our philosophy. We believe that educators are craftspeople who make paths for others to follow and then guide them along the way. Our designer, Justin Hall, captured these elements of our view of education using hand-drawn lettering and symbols along with craftsman-style typography and journey-based imagery.
Where do you see Pathwright in five years? 10?
In five years, I see us with a 10-20 person team doing what we do now, but in a bigger way. I'd imagine we'd have 25 or more partners who are major educational players within their field of study, each educating thousands of students all over the world and offering resources for thousands of teachers to use in their own physical classrooms. This includes our own school, The Lamp Post Guild, along with a few other schools we're planning to launch.
In 10 years, who knows?
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
First, a garbageman. It was awesome how they got to hang on the back of the truck and throw around trash. Second, a movie director. Finally, a software business owner. That one stuck, and we're getting to do a little video production now with our self-produced courses. Now if I can just find a tie-in with waste management, my childhood dreams will be complete.