ARIELLE MACKENZIE, CO-FOUNDER & CEO OF GRASSHOPPER KIDS TALKS ABOUT BUILDING HER INTERACTIVE EDUCATIONAL PLATFORM
Having experience in the teaching industry, Arielle joined hands with her co-founder to create a platform that allows children and teachers to collaborate seamlessly.
Grasshopper Kids is attempting to tackle two major challenges in the education industry. One of the challenges is that teachers are not adequately compensated for their services and find it difficult to teach in person due to certain logistical issues. On the other hand, despite the popularity of online learning, parents are looking for ways to limit their children’s screen time and find it difficult to organize lessons on their own.
Grasshopper Kids offers the perfect solution for these challenges, as they make sure to place everything under one roof while providing in-person lessons. The platform makes it simpler for parents and children to discover one another.
“ You know you want to see things happen pretty fast but I think I would tell my younger self that it’s okay if things take longer than you think or go a different direction because you know those unexpected twists can really lead you to where you’re supposed to be””
Today Grasshopper Kids is now helping children discover their passions by giving them access to a variety of unique topics that aren’t available in school. In this Founder Story episode, Arielle delves into the challenges she faced while building her startup.
Listen to the full podcast to learn all about Arielle Mackenzie and her building journey with Grasshopper Kids.
Arielle’s Book Recommendations:
The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
The Alchemist by Adriel Brandt
Where to Find Arielle:
Follow her on Twitter: @digitalarielle
Follow her on LinkedIn: Arielle Mackenzie
Where to Find Grasshopper Kids:
LinkedIn: Grasshopper Kids
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[desiree]: in today’s episode we have Arielle. the woman behind Grasshopper. Arielle, welcome to the show
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[desiree]: thank you
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[arielle]: thanks thanks for having me and what are you building
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[desiree]: for the first question briefly tell us who you are
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[arielle]: I’m Arielle Mackenzie, Co-Founder & CEO of Grasshopper Kids. We’re building a platform for kids to discover their passions through in-person learning experiences. So you know they get to work with a teacher in a small group, typically at home, on all sorts of unique topics you typically can’t find in school. So kids are learning stop motion animation with our teachers, they’re learning about dinosaurs immersively or you know they’re getting off the screens you know and into real-life learning with Grasshopper.
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[al]: Right I mean, so what is the challenge you’re trying to solve here with Grasshopper Kids?
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[arielle]: so there’s two challenges you know on one side there’s parents and the other side there’s teachers who use our platform. You know on the teacher’s side of things you know there’s a lot of data showing that teachers do a lot of jobs typically on the side to their teaching for things like at least in the US where I’m from, teachers aren’t paid typically very well. You know they’re doing things like walking dogs, they’re driving for Uber, they’re bartending and that was something that we found out pretty early in our journey. My background I was a dance teacher before you know I went into tech and just you know all the side hustles that creatives and teachers have to do to make ends meet you know. What one thing that’s harder for them to do is to teach in person because of a lot of logistical challenges, talking to parents is sometimes the hardest part about teaching kids anything and so you know on the teachers side we saw also those challenges. But on the parents side it’s actually pretty similar you know things like online is pretty easy you know to be honest parents can go online. And their kids can learn about lots of things but when kids are like 3 to 10, when they’re not really you know they’re not able to be online in that way parents are actually looking for the opposite. They want to keep them off screens and organizing that is not so straightforward you know. They’re taking to Facebook groups, they’re jumping on waitlists for summer camps. It’s not very straightforward for parents to organize and so what ends up happening is kids miss out and working parents tend to spend a lot of time you know organizing this and that for their kids so in Grasshopper they can get everything under one roof and we can make it a lot easier for them to find each other.
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[al]: Got it. so when you look at like recently the issue was with covid. so a lot of people went into like homeschooling that became mainstream before how do you see that did it act like
a catalyst for you or no
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[arielle]: yeah absolutely so a couple of things and we can tell tell you more about the what came to Grasshopper later, but my parents actually home-schooled me when I was little. And so this was or there was you know obviously the pandemic all of that and you know, but I think there was already a movement of parents choosing alternative education for their kids. You know I was part of that and you know my kids chose my parents chose this for their kids for a few reasons, but having flexibility over their own schedule was actually a really important reason why they chose homeschooling. They wanted to travel and expose us to a lot of things and they also wanted us to be able to learn you know on our own terms. I was able to you know, be an apprentice to my dad. I was able to do all sorts of things that the school schedule didn’t allow me to do growing up. And I think there’s that was already happening before Covid, but then I think there was a really big awakening of what was actually happening at school I think parents finally you know saw their kids curriculum up close and so by both you know the forced homeschooling they had to do during the pandemic and also understanding that there’s alternative ways to learn I think fueled a tailwind for us for sure. But I also think it showed the gap between online and in-person that school was really important for the in-person learning and we need to build a supplement for those families and other families too.
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[al]: where are you at in terms of your gun right now are you at like an earlier stage building the MVP or do you have bata users or do you have live users where you are
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[arielle]: so we, we have quite a few users. We’re only live in one city so we’d still consider ourselves in beta, but something that we learned pretty early on was that you know something for kids like anything to do with kids you know the mv p is a whole different concept. You have to, trust is really important and so we actually had to build a lot to get to the point of building this whole marketplace end to end was important for us in order to earn that trust with parents, to make sure teachers can do you know all the administration they needed so our MVP was actually pretty advanced but you know we’re live in one market and we’re growing pretty fast we have you know parents and teachers both using the platform right now and you know an adventure it’s been fun to get this out live into the real world and to iterate. You know since we’ve only been line about about nine months collecting data from parents and teachers.
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[al]: let’s talk about the mainstream education as we have right now i small cookie-cutter regardless of your passions abilities you learn the same thing right in a stand school that’s what you learn. You think that has to change going forward yeah
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[arielle]: you know I think the world is changing really fast and education hasn’t kept up.
so that is you know true across the board from we definitely see at the most at university level. People are choosing all sorts of careers that are actually taught in traditional university and so actually we just take this all the way down to the early years which is how to school prepare kids for the real world. You know there’s a lot of research on this topic but I think the truth is that not one child is alike. So their education being the same I can sometimes be really hard if you’re neuro-divergent if you learn in different ways and so I think mainstream
curriculum prepared us for mainstream jobs that are starting to get automated. So I think re-thinking education as an entirety from you know birth all the way up to university is definitely what we’re in the middle of right now and Grasshopper is really thinking a lot about the early schooling and enrichment side of things.
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[al]: right let’s talk about the funding. so have you raised funds for this or you’re bootstrapped?
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[arielle]: yeah so we raised funds. So we raised a pre-seed round last year which was interesting. We were the pandemic was still in you know kind of up and down, we actually hadn’t launched yet, when we raised our first round of funding. You know there was a few reasons for it, like I said before, we had to really launch both sides in order see how this thing would work, so we had had to raise money that way. You know at the time we had to raise money completely online, so this is, I did a complete zoom fundraise which I think is also different now that I’m seeing you know what life is on the other side, but we raise to pre-seed round of about a million US and was able to build our MVP and you know obviously we’re still iterating on our concept right now.
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[al]: come I did some digging I found out that you spend quite a lot of time quite your time outside of US how did that help with the start-up is there anything you learned push you
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[arielle]: definitely so I mean Like I said my parents exposed us to lots of different topics
and growing up a couple of years that we homeschooled but they were always prioritizing travelling and seeing the world you know a lot of Americans don’t travel the world and my parent’s mom’s from Canada originally French-Canadian and so she kind of immigrated from a young age to the US wanted us to see the world and so they that started when I was little so I think I always knew I wanted to go overseas and work. I had an opportunity a few years ago to move to Sydney, Australia and live and work in the APAC region which I think really taught me a lot about the differences but all also the similarities and challenges that parents and families are facing around the world. I’m not a parent myself but I was working with a lot of parents in my workplace and just saw that actually you know some of the challenges were very similar to what we’re dealing with in the US and then the UK so I think it it really showed me the commonality of challenges and that parenting is hard. And that like raising young kids and having a career is not straightforward and then obviously depending on what your government decides to do, it makes it easier or harder. But I think it showed me a lot of different problems that were worth solving from seeing more of the world.
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[al]: let’s talk a bit about your competitors so I think oh the school course into the school that loosely based on Elon musk experience how he home schools here kids, especially with a state education how do You see that you think you see them as a competitor are are they doing the same thing or trying to accomplish the same goals as you oh
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[arielle]: so, I think you know we have a very common mission. I think they see the world very similarly to us which is that you know we have to rebuild the education system. I think we’re starting from different sides of the equation. So they started with online for 7 to
12 year olds. You know I was that kid so I was actually would have used Synthesis as a kid. I was you know in that same age group. So I do think you know they were solving a really important problem. But I think there’s a world where all these new education systems need
to work together and meet. So you you may learn one you know one part of your school online and then know Grasshopper is maybe where you try the thing for 3 hours with a teacher. They’re probably not going to be the same things, so I see us more as a supplement to Synthesis, but we definitely see the world and we’re solving a very similar problem for kids.
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[al]: right let’s talk about who’s paying for this right right now I’m assuming the parents are paying for this out of their pocket do you see going forward the states going to from this alternate method of education as well just like the men education
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[arielle]: It’s a great question. I think this is something that you know we’re only just starting to understand. But I think, our hope is that ‘yes’. You know there’s there’s all sorts of different pilot programs happening, you know something abou the US is that a lot of education is dealt with by the states, like individual states. So actually you know that this answer may look different depending on where you live. You know different states already look at homeschooling differently. There’s a lot of different requirements that you have to meet, but what is what is pretty pretty important is that states are finally starting to look at things like Universal Preschool, Universal Pre-K like in the US those still aren’t covered. And so parents right now are still paying out of pocket up to age five. So I think the big opportunity for us is first to be able to fit in and supplement kids that are you know going through traditional school but yeah as homeschooling picks up we think there’s a great opportunity for our enrichment to kind of fit in to places that government already funds this. Places like Arizona where my home state is just you know passed a bill that funds extracurriculars and we think that can apply to us one day too.
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[al]: right I’ve found this interesting thing I mean you were working on rubies campaign and I think the same time compass running yes how did that effect you is there any learning from that working on election campaign compared to running a start-up think that you can maybe take from that
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[arielle]: Absolutely. I think political campaigns, at least national level campaigns like presidential campaigns are very similar to startups. I don’t think I realized it as much at the time. I’d worked for a startup previously, I was early employee. But the similarities where, I think you know, being able to fundraise as fast as you execute is a very common between the two we you know in the Rubio campaign at least in the US is mainly self-funded from the campaign so you know you build your list you also fundraise from that list and that list votes for you so it’s honestly a massive marketing machine. You know my role in the campaign was you know part of online fundraising and the digital side of things and so you know our goal was to turn regular people into advocates for us, and so I think you know you don’t realize how similar that is to your early users because you know startups can’t really rely on ads either similar to political campaign. There’s a lot of you know barriers for each. For startups, it’s usually fun that you can’t really typically at least in the past people have done this but it’s not as possible anymore to really rely on Google and Facebook ads when you’re a startup. You have to get people to love you and really advocate for you with their friends and their family so the biggest thing I learned was how to do a lot with a little. Very similar on a campaign you have to get people to love what you’re doing and believe in what you’re about your mission and you have to be able to deal with the pressure that comes with like you know like day in and day out trying to acquire users, fundraise and do it all and I think the pace is very similar and I took that from you know that experience even though we didn’t win you get back up and you try again which is also important in startups.
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[al]: all right let’s say go into from that marketing how did you manage to get your initial uses what kind of market means did you use
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[arielle]: Very grassroots marketing. So this is something we’re you know obviously still learning about since we’re you know early. But you know for a product like ours like I said before there’s high trust. So this is not so that you you know try without thinking about it we you know we have to convince you that we can solve your problem, but also that you can trust us with your most precious family member you know these are kids and so I think the first thing that we did was you really get really excited early adopters. We ran a waitlist campaign before we even you know launched because we wanted to see who’s excited about this already, um you know where do they live, what communities are they in and can we start there. So we actually you know we went pretty slow to start with and went directly to users and we actually helped them activate their own community so this reminds me a lot of the political days where we instead of going very wide with our marketing, we have to go very deep. So if we find one user that really loves us the chances are as they have you know friends that are very similar to them, they might have kids and their classmates that they can share this with or our entire marketing revolves around a referral flywheel because that’s how people you know can gain that trust quicker in a company like ours. So we optimize everything for you know people inviting their friends, people telling their friends about it and so we a pretty strong word of mouth, because we went after those very excited users early instead trying to go very wide.
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[al]: you said you’re only live in a single city where is that
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[arielle]: yeah So we’re live in den in Denver, Colorado. I’m only smiling because we always get to asked why Denver like
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[al]: exactly i was literally going to ask you
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[arielle]: so right so I’ll just to go in there. So this is a very common start-up story but you know we actually, the Grasshopper as we know it came out of a previous idea. So this previous idea was a B2B startup, so this is like kind of you know a little different from that but we were in an accelerator program that was based out of Denver called Techstars, and you know we were selling this B2B concept, it was an employee benefit. And we were selling it to Denver companies and so we already had a bit of a base there during Covid. And the other thing that we love about Denver is that it was very funny and it sounds kind of weird but during Covid it was very important that the weather was good because we had a lot of our experiences outside because parents felt more comfortable with that so even though lots changed in the last year Denver was a great starting point but we did have to cold start Denver. Like I have family that’s there but beyond that like we don’t have a huge base in Denver so we had to really launch this thing without a network which I don’t recommend other startups do but it taught us really quickly what people wanted and what they didn’t want because we didn’t rely on our friends just telling us they loved it it had to be completely pure in terms of feedback from users.
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[al]: so you you mentioned that there was another start-up before this another company did you pure to this concept
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[arielle]: Yes, so again something that I wish I would have known before starting the journey is just sometimes you know even if you’re wrong about one concept what you learned might be really important at the time. So you know our original concept was something called Care Split it was a child care startup that had an employee benefit angle like I was saying earlier and what we found was actually, you know we thought we could sell this startup to employers and they’d sell it to their employees but he ended up happening is that users started sharing it with their friends way more aggressively. They were like and maybe it was a Covid thing but people felt you closer to their neighbours and friends and people they go to church with than they were you know their colleagues and we ended up our B2C play started actually working and so we really listened to those early users and it turned into a different concept called Grasshopper but now we’re glad we started with with the employer but now you have to pivot, be willing to if you’re a founder and listen to what users are telling you what they were telling us is they want to do this in groups with their friends with their mom’s groups all these places that you were at the office, that we thought it was.
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[al]: I mean potting can be really a tough thing right more mentally than anything else because you are tied up to their initial idea now suddenly you make a outen how did that feel for you how did you come back
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[arielle]: yeah a good question. I think you know for us where we’ve always been very customer-centric I think as I’m a marketer my co-founder Chris she’s, you know has always worked in products and engineering her whole career and really focused on consumer products and you know we kind of believe that the best marketing campaigns, the best political campaigns, the best products come from users themselves. They tend to, these these moments that you read about are, like these slogans that you read that typically come from a focus group you know a lot of time. So I think for us it was more about like what are users telling us, how are they behaving and being willing, you know you have to put your pride aside right, and you go out and fundraise and you tell investors this is going to happen but actually you know if a user starts pulling a product out of you that’s more powerful than anything and so I think it was important to listen to users and that that gave me the confidence to throw my old idea away and you know really take a bet on a new company and you know that bet’s paying off now for us.
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[al]: as a female founder did you face any challenges maybe found raising or building the start up at all no yeah
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[arielle]: I think the answer is yes. I think, but it’s you know I think it’s more it’s like It’s not one moment, its many moments I think that you know you look backwards and you you look back I think something that’s important that I’ve observed not just with Grasshopper, you know we’re two female founders, starting a company about kids. And, so I think there’s sometimes a disconnect between you know the funders and the people whose problems you’re solving. So obviously Grasshopper serves parents, dads, moms but the vast majority of our users are moms. So we had to not only it wasn’t just being a female founder was actually building a company targeting moms is actually sometimes difficult right to, because sometimes investors would say well I don’t have that problem and then you know typically we’re like well are you sure you’re your partner doesn’t. So there was actually, we probably experience more pushback from the product we’re building, than the female founders, but I think what’s important to know is that you know we are making progress I just went through you know a program full of female founders. I think you’ve met Capri where I think I met more female founders in a week than I had in a year and so we were all able to share learnings and share contacts and all of a sudden I feel like the in the field is evening. But I do think you know founders have to do more and you have to prove that people really want what you’re building and that there’s a market for your product when it’s not the investors’ problem you’re probably solving some of the time.
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[al]: what are the challenges you’re facing right now at the moment in your company what
will be your biggest challenge right now
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[arielle]: I think, you know right now the world is really uncertain as a whole. So you know I think even 6 months ago when we first raised our first round of funding I think the economy was in a different place, you know customers were, had a different sentiment. So I think you know us understanding you know how users are feeling I think everyone’s gotten you know this pretty price sensitive. For an example, like the people are like figuring out what stays in their life and what goes, I think for us we’re really trying to understand how you know what’s the path forward in terms of launching in additional cities, where should we go, is our roadmap still the same, you know all of that sort of thing. But I think, what’s exciting about it is that we’ve definitely seen on the teacher’s side of things, teachers really want to earn now more than ever. So you know how quickly can we launch outside of just Denver would be the you know the challenge we’re thinking about. We’re going to be launching our our next city in a couple of months actually. So that’s kind of on my mind constantly is can we take what we and Denver bring it to a different city amidst all the craziness that’s happening in the world right now.
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[al]: let’s look back to your previous answer you mentioned launch house right we spoke to our founders from much house recommended highly what your experience with launches how much did it help you as a hand yeah
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[arielle]: Launch House was huge. So you know I had a great experience with you know I actually am the type of founder that joins a lot of different networks. I did Launch House, Techstars and On Deck. All the founders programs, obviously this was over you know a period of time. So it wasn’t at the same time. But Launch House is special because of the in-person component, which obviously my company is all about in-person education. You know IRL interactions. But I didn’t realize how much I really missed that and I think Launch House was able you know to put a bunch of smart people in a room and just see what happens. Like Launch House doesn’t have you know like a specific program that makes this effective. I think it’s bringing people together and letting serendipity happen. And also like you know Launch House just treats you like you know you’re just anyone else in the sense that like we’re female founders but we’re just Launch House members. I think that was also pretty important is that we just got the normal experience and you know in the process we got to a lot of cool founders and got to get, build real genuine relationships they aren’t just transactional they’re real because you have that in-person you know bonding.
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[al]: but all right if you had to go back when you’re ten your soul if you had to give advice to your younger self what would it be knowing what you’re not right now
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[arielle]: I think you know this is pretty common for founder types. Back then I was impatient. I think I still am in a way. You know you want to see things happen pretty fast but I think I would tell my younger self that it’s okay if things you know take longer than you think or go a different direction because you know those unexpected twists can really lead you to where you’re supposed to be. So kind of relax go along for the ride and you know let life surprise you a bit. Because I do think some of the best things in my life have been these surprises. Even with Grasshopper, it wasn’t exactly the company I started, but it’s you know where it is for a reason.
00:24:50,442 –> 00:24:52,207
[al]: But this is going to take the last question
So the first thing first book was ‘ The Hard Things About Hard Things’. It was probably the first founder memoir that I read that kind of showed what it was really like to build a company and lead it through you know all sorts of growth and how hard it could be. Let’s see, I think the book ‘Hooked’ by Nir Eyal, so it was about building products that was kind of a you know a great primer to how growth and product aligned to build these like iconic companies. You now Nir invested in Grasshopper which is very exciting and you know building a habit-forming product has really informed me and I think ‘The Alchemist’ which is not a business book it was you know a story about how your life can change and you know you could become who you really are if you just listen to your inner voice, it was really important for me too. thank you thank you both for having me.
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[al]: yeah thank you