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Online K-12 Education IPO In The Great Recession: Archipelago Learning Co-founders Cameron Chalmers, Dave Muzzo, And CEO Tim McEwen (Part 1)

Posted on Wednesday, May 12th 2010

David Muzzo and Cameron Chalmers cofounded Study Island in May 2000 and have been vice president and director, respectively, since January 2007. Both received a BS from Vanderbilt University. Prior to founding Study Island, Cameron served as a software engineering lead developer for Lucent Technologies, and David founded Captive Marketing Concepts, which he sold in 1999. In early 2009 the group rebranded under the name Archipelago Learning, keeping Study Island as the core product while branching out into other “islands of excellence” united under a single brand.

SM: To begin, I would like to get the personal background of the first character in the story. Where does the story begin?

DM: Cam and I met in college, and we were fraternity brothers. We went to school at Vanderbilt. Once we got out of college, Cam worked as a software developer for Lucent Technologies and I started an advertising business with another friend. We stayed in touch after school, and I ultimately sold my other small business. Cam was eager to get out of the corporate world and do something on his own, and I was eager to start another company.

CC: We had always discussed various ideas. The genesis of this company was an idea we had in college. We were always talking about a project that I had worked on in college, which was a flash card application for the PC. This was in late 1999, when people began to develop applications on the Web. At that time all we knew was school, so we started talking about the idea of taking an application like the one I just developed as a Web-based application.

DM: The idea was to let students enter the material they were trying to learn, which they could then can share with other students. Our vision was that it would evolve into a shared library of academic content. The application would test them and keep track of the results. Instead of every student individually making his or her own flash cards, it would be a collaborative community. Students could use the computer to learn. When we were in college, the only thing I used the computer for was writing papers.

SM: What type of students were you thinking about in 1999? Were you thinking about college students or K–12?

DM: We were thinking about both. We lump them together.

CC: We felt it could be used by anybody who needed to learn anything.

DM: The site was free. Users could go in and create their own topics and and notes. It could be a college student or a third-grade student. It could be a vocational education student or even someone learning something for work. The idea was just to enter in what you were studying, and then the computer would quiz you and keep track of your results. There was no real business model at time, and in 1999 that really didn’t matter.

SM: So you just quit your job to start this company on that nebulous idea. What did your families say?

TM: Having met both Dave’s and Cam’s parents, they seemed very supportive. I think a lot of parents would tell their kids to go get a real job. When I talked to their parents, they felt their kids were young, smart, and that they were doing something neat with the Internet. They felt it was important that their kids should go for it. One of their grandmothers had a condo in Fort Lauderdale that she was not using, and she let them go live there. Cam drove them both there in a used Ford Contour, and they spent a year and a half developing what has become this company. They did not have a lot of distractions and worked really, really hard to develop the product.

This segment is part 1 in the series : Online K-12 Education IPO In The Great Recession: Archipelago Learning Co-founders Cameron Chalmers, Dave Muzzo, And CEO Tim McEwen
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