By GREGORY ZELLER //
Entrepreneur James O’Sullivan has reached a critical point familiar to many innovators, particularly those offering digital services: How to monetize your beta-test hit?
In O’Sullivan’s case, the hit is Sullstice, a digital collaboration tool helping teachers and students connect in after-class discussions. The online forum is designed to benefit students, who get answers to sticky problems from multiple sources, and educators, who share the burden of extracurricular instruction and eliminate classroom redundancies, maximizing teaching time.
O’Sullivan, a former software-development intern at Calverton-based digital communications platform Buncee, began coding his proprietary platform in 2014 and officially incorporated Sullstice Inc. in November. It’s catching on fast: Over 1,900 users – including professors, teaching assistants and students – have participated in beta tests at Stony Brook University, St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue and Fulton-Montgomery Community College in upstate Johnstown.
And early returns are very positive, according to O’Sullivan, with testers confirming the “streamlined forum” – wherein students post questions and teachers, TAs and classmates provide answers – “saves professors time and helps students learn.”
Just don’t call it a chatroom, he warns.
“With chat, you lose good content because there’s too much going back and forth,” O’Sullivan said. “With the forum structure, you’re going to think ‘how can I best phrase my question?’ and ‘how can I best phrase my answer?’
“It’s a lot more efficient than going through all the content in a chatroom.”
Whatever you call it, Sullstice’s beta tests are earning high marks, establishing O’Sullivan’s classic conundrum: Sure, everyone loves it when it’s free – and “it will always be free for the end users, the students and the professors,” he noted – but how do you commercialize it?
The founder and CEO, also a former business-development intern at Manhattan app-maker Preo, has a few ideas.
Since graduating from SBU in December with a degree in computer science, O’Sullivan has been meeting with educators to explain Sullstice’s advantages in person. His goal, he said, is to get an army of professors on board – focusing primarily on “professors who are into technology, the early adapters” – before meeting with school administrators.
“You kind of prove the value first, and the money is the only missing piece,” he said. “You eliminate a lot of the risks that are there if you come off cold and try to sell without proving anything. Maybe in the future we’ll be a little better known, but this is a great way to start.”
Selling professors on the concept hasn’t been hard. The forum has “an easy in and easy out feel,” according to O’Sullivan, who noted minimal demand on a teacher’s time: Instead of repeating lessons during valuable class time or scheduling a number of tutoring sessions, professors can check into the forum, review the student questions and answers posted by TAs and classmates and note which are correct.
Sullstice is also proving to be an inspiration for aspiring teachers. Students have risen brilliantly to the challenge of answering their classmates’ questions, O’Sullivan noted, with one beta-test professor referring to a particularly helpful student as “an unofficial TA.”
“This is one of the best parts of Sullstice,” he said. “There are so many awesome students who love helping out, and Sullstice gives them a medium to do that.”
The inspiration for the forum, he added, actually came from his experiences tutoring a classmate.
“I realized, for me, it was really beneficial,” O’Sullivan said. “Whatever I was teaching him I had learned myself the day before, and it occurred to me that helping others understand was something students should have an opportunity to do.”
Students really get to play teacher through one of the forum’s most popular features: a “quiz” function that allows learners and TAs to create short tests based on class material. Users can register how many others tried the quiz and what percentage passed; professors can even reward students by borrowing their questions.
“Some professors kind of do this on their own already,” O’Sullivan noted. “Before a midterm, they’ll ask students to think about what questions might be on the test, then pick the top three student questions and actually put them on the test. Now, they’re doing it through Sullstice.”
That function might help Sullstice expand to the high school level. O’Sullivan said he’s had “casual conversations” with some Long Island school officials about bringing the forum to regional high schools – which makes sense, the CEO said, considering the emphasis placed on multiple-choice tests like AP exams and the SAT.
For now, O’Sullivan is “considering everything” as he formulates his growth strategy. He presented Sullstice during January’s pitch night at LaunchPad Huntington and would like to raise somewhere in the neighborhood of $500,000, which would allow him to hire programmers and a business-end staff (its been three interns so far).
The company has attracted some investor interest – O’Sullivan noted “stuff in the pipeline that might bring money soon” – but right now the founder is focused most on a pending relocation. Still operating out of O’Sullivan’s East Setauket garage, Sullstice has been accepted into the Incubator Without Walls program at SBU’s Long Island High Technology Incubator, while O’Sullivan is also considering an available spot in the university’s Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology.
Wherever Sullstice winds up, and however O’Sullivan manages to monetize it, the innovator is “extremely happy” with the professional path he’s chosen.
“Up until I graduated, I had this debate in my head: Should I pursue a full-time job or should I pursue Sullstice?” he said. “I’m really satisfied with how things have gone. I’m presenting at all these events (including the NYEdTech Meetup tech showcase in January) and doing the things I’ve always been too busy to do.
“It’s great to have these warm introductions to people who are interested in this, rather than just cold calling,” O’Sullivan added. “Now that those betas are over with, I just have to figure out how to make money from it.”
What’s It? A “digital collaboration tool” for teachers and students
Brought To You By: Entrepreneurial programmer James O’Sulllivan
All In: About $5,000, for website hosting fees and “third-party plug-ins” such as an embedded chat forum
Status: Rocking beta tests at Stony Brook University and other New York colleges