I was at a birthday party last Sunday for Zoe, a friend who has been instrumental in PelotonU’s growth. As she blew out the candles, I looked around and realized her twenty guests were strangers two years ago, and now we were friends.
At some point, nearly every guest had taken a meeting, made an introduction, shot down an idea, or listened to my fears — and I had done the same for them. Without them, we wouldn’t have made it this far.
For PelotonU to come this far we needed each of them, because it takes a village to build a business that can solve social problems. Building a social enterprise necessitates collaboration and solving hard problems and finding creative revenue streams.
So I want to tell you about the friends who showed up and taught us to walk. A startup is the story of people, and we would have gone out of business long ago if friends hadn’t seen the world we hoped to create and given themselves to help us grow.
There are key players I’m omitting. 38 students who have taken a risk and pioneered a new way to go to college. Our board (Mary Ellen, Karen, Van, Kirk, and Rex) have all proven irreplaceable.
But, neither our students nor our board are the focus of this story. I want to highlight the unsung friends who asked the right questions and brought the right skills. As I reflect on the past three years and dream about the ones to come, these are the folks I don’t thank enough. They are why I’m grateful.
I vividly remember picking the name PelotonU, building our first ugly website, and the call home to Dad when I paced Leona Street off E MLK to tell him I wasn’t going to get a real job. My previous startup had just failed, and I wasn’t sure I could build a business. As it happens though, when we started the first tasks seemed within reach.
My first job was to find an apartment where our students could live. To do that, I needed a place to work every day. Vintage Heart Coffee had recently opened, and the proprietor, Mallory, collected a band of creatives to sit by the espresso machine and stay until the afternoon shift change. This is where I met many of the key people in PelotonU’s story.
Without Mallory, I wouldn’t have learned that where we belong influences the quality of our work — she taught me that community is influenced by the space within which it occurs.
I quickly decided to supplement the students’ online curriculum with teaching of our own. I needed to understand pedagogy when my trade was international development. Luckily, Reagan began working from Vintage Heart. An erstwhile friend-I-helped-move-one-time and college professor, he became a confidant.
Reagan taught me to prioritize the stories and dreams of our students. When I was stuck in a spreadsheet, he weaved personalization throughout our model.
Eventually, we found an apartment and a university. We only needed students. It was a tall task to risk on a new path to college graduation. Matt, the Executive Director of RBI-Austin, had been a neighbor, and he knew three players from his baseball team who missed the deadline for college.
Matt leveraged his social currency to find our first three students, and he taught me that trust is earned by showing up and building relationships one at a time.
With Matt’s endorsement, Jared, Jimmy, and Val enrolled in October 2012.
In our first two years, I lived in apartments on E. Riverside alongside our students. When I had a single night to build IKEA furniture for two units, Mary Katherine and Pedro drove over from Westlake to stay up all night and help me decorate. Six months later, their son was our first donor.
Mary Katherine and Pedro taught me that good friends show up when we feel overwhelmed, and then we work together to tackle the next project at hand.
And then PelotonU grew. We needed to hire a second mentor. I emailed James and asked him to forward the job description. Instead, he applied himself. I was looking for an idealistic college grad; James was a veteran, husband, and father of two — exactly who I didn’t know we needed.
James taught me that high expectations are the best way to serve our students, and his dedication showed me that caring for our staff is another crucial way to care for our students.
Within the year, it became clear that our residential approach was ineffective. I believed, more than ever, that working adults needed a better path through college, yet didn’t know if a new strategy would yield better outcomes.
James and I needed expertise — we needed someone to organize our collection of friends into a team who would wake up early, map ideas on a white board, and push us to test our assumptions. We needed Candice.
While my eyes were fixed on our current students, Candice rallied a team to imagine a better way to support our students. She sailed PelotonU to safe harbor, when the present felt overwhelming.
So we closed our apartments. The first step was finding a place for our students to study. We stopped at Center61 (now Impact Hub: Austin) for advice, and Christina and Steve (Austin’s Ira Glass) invited our team and a dozen college students to work alongside them.
Before Center 61, we offered our students community but didn’t have one of our own. My learning accelerated rapidly under the tutelage of the social enterprises who called C61 home.
That spring, James found his dream job and we needed a new Director of College Completion. My first choice was Sarah, a local high school principal who had rebuffed my prior attempts to recruit students. When she was looking for a new opportunity, she joined us — even though she could have picked any education job in Austin.
Sarah was our first professional teacher, and the dividends were immediate. She taught me how to track data, use hiring competencies, and stick to our strategic plan.
Sarah’s first day was the moment PelotonU transitioned from scrappy startup to growing enterprise. The parts of our work that others want to use are all artifacts Sarah built.
While at Center61, I met Zoe, the founder of Unltd USA. She came to Austin to build an ecosystem for social entrepreneurs (and succeeded, and here’s the map). She hired Mark (who, in a twist of fate, was the college friend who talked me into this line of work) and set about finding Austin social entrepreneurs and giving them resources to grow their impact.
Zoe gave me permission to believe PelotonU could change higher education for working adults in the United States. She showed me I’d become an expert.
One of the first introductions Zoe made was to Donna and David at A Glimmer of Hope Austin. They fund early initiatives that have the opportunity to make a big difference in Austin. Glimmer takes their work seriously, and met numerous times with our team and looked closely at our numbers. Then they said yes, and offered us our first grant.
Donna and David’s endorsement gave me courage, and provided the credibility for me to build relationships with other funders in Austin.
We now had a strong foundation, and began to use words like scale, ramp up, and impact. We needed more applications, and decided to hire someone to build the relationships we needed to grow.
Finding the right fit proved difficult. We interviewed four folks we planned to hire before we met Samantha (her friends call her Sam). Sarah’s excitement was palpable when she got off her first call with Sam. There’s this intangible culture you look for on a small team, and Sam had it.
Samantha is the first person prospective students meet — and it’s a good thing. She’s bright, and interested, and never forgets a name. Sam’s become the heartbeat of our culture (and doubled our applications along the way).
At the same time, Center61 closed. PelotonU needed a new home, and I didn’t know where to look. A local church offered space for nonprofits, and I met the new space manager, Sarah C, before her first day of work.
She took the risk of inviting college students to study in Vessel Coworkingalongside her posse of creatives. Nine months later, when we outgrew Vessel, she helped us move into our first office in the same building.
Sarah C. taught me to partner with people we get along with, and her support in the small details of the past year reminds me to work with people we enjoy.
As we looked ahead, we knew we needed a new board. This was something I’d never built nor seen done well. The UT McCombs Board Fellows program offered MBAs to help with this task, and we were given Michael to help us make that transition. As these things go, he was a (1) fellow Vandy grad, from the (2) same fraternity, who had (3) worked for the same non-profit after college, and (4) spent his career in education in Austin. We lucked out.
Michael taught me that governance matters, and he helped recruit a board that shares an empathy for our students and passion for their success.
Two weeks from now our board will meet to plan 2016, and I know there are friends old and new who will help us serve our students even better.
We’ve come along way since Hillside Villas in October 2012. The friends above only skim the surface of the shoulders I have stood upon to get this far. Alicia, Trevor, Mark, Paul, Jonathan, Kathryn, Josh, Austin, Steve G, Gilbert, Chelsea, Sam’s Dad, Robert, Temp, and the teams from General Assembly, UT-MIS, and Concordia’s MBA program all played a role. Austin itself, with its accessible culture and rich educational ecosystem, has been instrumental in our early success.
But the most important person in our story is Rex.
The husband of my high-school rhetoric teacher, Rex was the one who hired me to read Academically Adrift, asked me to research post-secondary outcomes in Austin, and offered to fund a two-year pilot to see if we could help working adults earn their degree.
Rex taught me that if you believe in someone long enough, they’ll begin to believe in themselves. His trust, especially through our early stumbles, gave me the confidence to persevere.
Notice a theme — certain people and certain places made all the difference. PelotonU’s story has been shaped by the people we met and the communities we joined. We want the same for our students, and it’s why we put as much effort into introducing them to industry mentors as to tutors. It’s why our staff take meetings with young entrepreneurs, even when our calendars seem full.
We take the idea of peloton seriously, and it’s why spending time learning together matters so much. It’s where lightning can strike and friendships develop and the early embers of our dreams find the fuel to catch fire in our gut. We want our students to see the road to their goals, and at each step, they, like us, will need guides to reach their goals.
Thank you for walking with us, thanks for being our peloton,