How a bootstrapped entrepreneurial revolution is quietly disrupting education
It takes buckets of cash, a ton of knowledge and years of planning to start a school, right?
Just ask financial services entrepreneur, Jake Thompson.
He opened Heroes Academy, a private school in Boise, Idaho in 2017 after only a few months of planning.
“Everything to get us to Day One cost $27,000. So with 10 pupils on roll, I got to break-even very quickly,” he explains.
Three years later, with 60 pupils enrolled and a bulging waiting list, Thompson’s looking for his next site.
“We’re now super-profitable,” he says. “We haven’t put in any more money and we haven’t taken any outside investment so far. We don’t intend to. We’re looking for other sites to open that we’re going to bootstrap from our profits.”
Heroes Academy’s success story is by no means an outlier. Small schools like Thompson’s are springing up all over the world.
Part of a new wave of school startups, led not by the education sector but by entrepreneurs, this radical, disruptive redesign of school for the C21st is catching the eye of parents, education thinkers and entrepreneurs alike.
An entrepreneurial revolution
Thompson is one of a multitude of entrepreneur owners starting their own versions of Acton Academy.
With its radical, intuitive redesign of learning for the C21st, Acton’s rapid spread is notable for circumventing the establishment and instead harnessing the entrepreneurial zeal of its owners.
“We do not consider ourselves as part of the education reform movement,” says Acton co-founder Jeff Sandefer. “Whilst we respect those trying to reform education, our goal is for the Acton network to serve entrepreneurial parents who believe children are capable of far more than anyone imagined.”
Starting in 2009 as a single site in a quiet suburb of Austin, Texas, Acton founders, Jeff and Laura Sandefer have upended notions of what it takes to start a school, by dramatically lowering barriers to entry for its owners.
The Acton network has since enjoyed explosive growth — rising from 30 Actons in 2017 to 200 by 2020, with campuses opening globally from Austin (where there are nine independently-run Actons) to Washington DC and Kuala Lumpur and Taipei to Bucharest.
Acton equips owners with the tools, content, systems and culture to start up their own schools. Typically serving 15–150 student, each Acton is adapted to fit local regulatory and customer requirements. Opening quickly, often in non-traditional spaces, each is underpinned by systems iterated and honed across a lively, collegiate network of fellow founders.
But what is the Sandefer’s key advice to future Acton owners? Simple.
The Lean School Startup
If you’re familiar with Eric Ries’s entrepreneurial playbook The Lean Startup, the Heroes Academy’s startup story will be instantly recognisable.
“There were so many educational theories that I knew so little about,” says Jake Thompson about Heroes Academy startup story. “But I did know how to test and how to iterate. We tested thousands of different things. There was no dialled-in strategy. We were gathering information — bringing in great ideas and testing them.”
Thompson’s 2017 launch was small but featured rapid prototyping of Acton’s approach in a continuous build-measure-learn cycle. Three years later, with systems and mission honed, Heroes Academy was primed.
Having moved venues to a new 7,700sqft facility during April 2020’s lockdown, September’s pupil roll leapt from 24 to 60.
“Lots of families had been observing us from the peripheries and the pandemic pushed them to take the plunge. It now feels like we’re tipping from early adopters to the early majority.”
Thompson’s Boise-based school was originally housed in a 2000sqft office space in a leafy midtown business park and close to outdoor space. “It was actually only 1500sqft of usable learning space,” Thompson adds.
Open plan and accommodating up to 20 pupils in a mixed-age environment, rent was an affordable $2500 a month. Starting with 10 pupils, Thompson was confident he would outgrow the space, so kept the lease purposely short.
His second-in-command and lead guide, Kara, an expert in Reggio Emilia methods, ensured that their space was designed as a comfortable learning environment.
“I’m not great at design and looked to Kara for her advice a lot. But I did know that I needed a space where parents said, “Hey, this is cool!” when they walked in. I see the space as just another tool for learning. But I did want it to be modular and modern.”
They painted the walls an inviting white and warm, bold blue with yellow detailing to define different zones. A visit to Ikea for tables, chairs, modular bookcases, beanbags and the all-important discussion rug and the duo were away to the races. After 11 months of planning, doors opened in September 2017.
But why would any parent in their right mind commit their child to a brand new school that was running lean? Thompson is very clear.
It’s all about the culture…
Get the culture right
Culture is the engine that drives Acton Academy’s impressive growth.
Whilst attractively low barriers to entry allow owners to start rapidly and cost-effectively, Acton’s well-honed culture aligns effectively with the values of early adopter parents, many of who are entrepreneurs themselves. It is this culture that allows these small schools to transcend the need for full stack school start-ups, with associated high capital costs.
“(Our parents) were classic early adopters. They didn’t care if we were in a normal office building because they had such strong needs,” Thompson explains. “They were willing to scrape by with us as we grew. Several left some of the most prestigious schools to come here. It might have felt like a risk. But I would argue that once they got to know our model, the risk was staying in a traditional model.”
Acton tackles education for the 21st Century head-on, with buzzwords so familiar to educators — self-regulation, metacognition, oracy, agency — packaged in a customer-friendly way with specific references carefully avoided. Instead, Acton’s culture sits behind what Simon Sinek would call their “why”. Jeff Sandefer explains:
“What matters most to us is the belief that each person who enters our doors is a genius who deserves to find a calling that will change the world. A belief in ‘heroes on a Hero’s Journey’ can be applied to any community of any size.”
The Hero’s Journey in question typically describes the classical narrative of the struggle that has to occur before triumph and enlightenment. So too do Acton’s ‘heroes’ embark on a similar path, empowered to take total control of their own learning in mixed-aged classrooms.
Actons are learner-driven environments. Inspired in part by the Montessori approaches, ‘teachers’ are ‘guides’ — process experts, rather than subject specialists. Skilled in the Socratic method that favours questions over doling out answers, the one or two guides in each studio stand to the side as much as possible while heroes employ grit and focus to find the answer themselves.
“We can have 30 students and one guide. It’s almost better with fewer adults,” says Thompson.
Daily learning is split between self-paced online learning for core skills such as maths, literacy with an emphasis on reading and project-based learning — or ‘quests’ — running in six-week cycles, each ending with a High Tech High-style public exhibition.
Complete ownership of their space and delegation of responsibilities is further encouraged with Heroes collaborating to devise and sign up to a self-determining contract that outlines expectations of behaviour and freedoms. It’s a contract that works in surprisingly effective ways, especially in a one-room school where noise and disturbance is always a concern. Whilst technology provides some solutions (a Yakker Tracker glows red when noise levels get too high, and if it gets too much, heroes use headphones to complete their work), it’s the contract that helps guide the noise.
“Some days, it’s chaotic and can get loud. But our heroes are empowered to ask others to quieten down. Our role as guides is not to be corrective and enforce discipline. They need to be accountable for each other’s behaviour, tied to a promise that they made to each other.”
Three years in, Thompson’s vision for his micro-school remains impressive. When asked him what he would do if he had access to more capital, Thompson’s answer is equally impressive:
“It would be fun to have different furniture options. But the culture here is so strong that we don’t need it. Even if I were offered $5m, I would turn it down. It would ruin the journey itself to start from scratch.”
It’s October 2020 and Thompson’s in a reflective mood.
“Early on, I thought I was in the business of creating systems and process that would change people. I’ve realised that we’re actually giving them the opportunity to change themselves. My job is actually to create meaningful, important challenges and let the students and parents choose.”
He’s spent three years perfecting his messaging too.
“Overloading with detailed explanations of how it all works makes parents glaze over. Instead, I ask them — what if we spent our time helping children discover their unique gifts and passions? What if they could explore them in the real world, instead of memorising information that they could easily find on Google? How much more value can we add by helping children understand themselves?”
Thompson is under no illusions. The journey at Heroes Academy is often as much of a challenge for the parent as it is for the child.
“You don’t have to micro-manage kids — they want to make good choices. Let me be clear about the greatest challenge for parents. You’ve got to step back and trust your child. If you do this, you’ll open a dialogue that really matters — one that will last way beyond when they turn 18.”
Is bigger really better?
Humour me, just for a minute.
Let’s talk America’s cheap-and-plentiful vs Germany’s bigger-is-better WWII’s tank-building strategy.
Inferior in firepower and armour to their German counterparts, American Sherman tanks were cheap to build, reliable and easier to maintain through its vast network of spares. By contrast, the Tiger 1 — legendary tank-killer, technological marvel and pride of Germany — was hugely costly to build, complicated to maintain and resource-hungry.
50,000 Shermans were built between 1942–45, whilst only 1,300 Tigers made it onto WWII’s battlefields. Half were lost to mechanical failure.
The Tiger might have won battles. But the war was won by the Sherman.
The Sherman is to the Acton Academy network what the Tiger is to traditional education.
Small, agile and cost-effective to set up, Acton’s network supports fellow owners to respond rapidly to opportunities and challenges and adapt to the individualised needs of each and every student.
Traditional education’s scale is the marvel of successive governments. But its capital requirements and focus on incremental improvements in pursuit of a better fit with the current paradigm renders it cumbersome to manoeuvre, trapped in the proverbial mud that is preparation for exams rather than life.
But which will prevail in the battle for the future of education?
Clayton Christensen’s book, Disrupting Class, predicts the wholesale disruption of the current education paradigm.
Christensen, the mastermind behind the economic theory of innovative disruption, suggests that as technology drives down the cost of high-quality curriculum content, so too does the costs of delivering this content outweigh the benefits of scale economies. In turn, the education establishment struggles to adapt and will continue to incrementally improve their own fit within the current paradigm, ignoring the needs of under-served customers.
Innovators and innovations move into this market by delivering to this underserved group with a simpler, more convenient or ultimately cheaper product. Then, improving incrementally themselves, these disruptors travel up the value chain, chase out the incumbents, before tipping into mainstream adoption.
The rapid proliferation of Acton Academy fits the early stages of Christensen’s disruption playbook neatly. A system so wholly focussed on the actual needs of the next generation at the hands of galvanised entrepreneurial doers, is perhaps the only way that change can — and will — happen.
As Acton’s small battlegroup of agile Shermans quietly rolls onto the battlefield, the impressive Tigers tanks will likely ignore them as just another small scale threat. But as Acton’s movement gathers ever more pace, attracting more willing entrepreneurs ready to create their own disruptive version of a C21st school in their own communities, so too might this entrepreneur-led revolution win the war — and change education forever.