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Bootstrap First, Raise Money Later, Build an EdTech Unicorn from Canada: John Baker, CEO of D2L (Part 1)

Posted on Friday, Oct 2nd 2020

This is a terrific story of bootstrapped entrepreneurship in EdTech. The company also has a great PaaS strategy.

Sramana Mitra: Let’s go to the very beginning of your journey. Where are you from? Where were you born, raised, and in what kind of background?

John Baker: I’m based in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. I was born in a fishing village on the northeast coast of Newfoundland. When I was 22 years and in my third year of engineering at the University of Waterloo, I started a company with the mission of transforming the way the world learns. 

Sramana Mitra: What year was that?

John Baker: That was 1999.

Sramana Mitra: The internet boom was happening then. The dot-com bubble was in full swing.

John Baker: It was. Starting an education technology back in 1999 was not a typical path. There was very little investment going into EdTech in the early 2000s. 

Sramana Mitra: What was your plan? What did you want to launch?

John Baker: I saw the power of education. I was thinking about one key problem that would have the biggest impact in the world. I couldn’t think of anything bigger than transforming the way the world learns. Education has this ripple effect. It passes from one to the other. It has this potential to help people achieve more with their lives. 

Sramana Mitra: What did you want to offer? Who would be the customer?

John Baker: The first wave was around digitizing the traditional experience. How do we take what happens in the traditional classroom and make it digital? Since then, we’ve expanded out into many different areas including corporate, government, and other sectors.

Sramana Mitra: When you launched, what segment did you go after?

John Baker: We had clients in the K12 education system and also in universities. By year two, we had a large company starting to use our platform to support employee education.

Sramana Mitra: Talk to me about how you got the company off the ground.

John Baker: It wasn’t easy. I decided to take a summer off instead of going to a traditional workplace. I decided to start a company and work from my house. I would go knocking on the doors of professors to ask them if they wanted to put courses online.

It started off modestly. In our case, we bootstrapped our company for about 12.5 years until we got to a certain stage where we went and looked for an investment to help scale faster.

Sramana Mitra: I want to hear about that bootstrapped phase. How did you monetize this? What did you go out to market with? What was the version one product? 

John Baker: I was literally going door to door. In many cases, I’d walk them through how the product would work without the internet. You’d normally have to go down to the computer lab to have access.

It went from winning those early professors and teachers to winning departments and even launching an MBA program online. Eventually within two or three years, we were doing the first ever state-wide implementation.

This segment is part 1 in the series : Bootstrap First, Raise Money Later, Build an EdTech Unicorn from Canada: John Baker, CEO of D2L
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