First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Mike Fee: We’re fine. Thank you for asking! My son and daughter are both in college; they’re living away from home, but taking classes online. My other son, in high school, is also doing remote school. None of them like it, but we’re healthy and able to make it work, so consider ourselves fortunate.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Spotlight.
Mike Fee: I have spent my career in education, starting as a Teach for America Teacher in a small town in rural Arkansas. About ten years ago, I transitioned to Edtech, as that’s where I felt I could forge an exciting career and make significant, positive change.
Six years ago, a friend told me about a company he was starting, entirely dedicated to turning education data into something that anyone can access, understand, and put to use, regardless of background. This really resonated with me, and I decided to sign on as a co-founder.
How does Spotlight innovate?
Mike Fee: By working very hard to understand users’ needs. We want to avoid the trap of innovation for its own sake, or building applications that are cool, but that don’t actually effect positive change. We work very closely with clients to understand their users’ backgrounds, desires, and needs, and collaboratively build tools that address those.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Mike Fee: The short-term effect was harsh: We’ve developed several applications that enable students and families to understand and act on state assessment results. Those tests were canceled last spring, and we thus lost a considerable part of what had been a rapidly growing business.
We hunkered down in response: We sadly had to lay off staff and focus resources on critical projects and little else. We’ve thus been able to keep the business moving forward, however slowly.
However, by staying very close to our customers and our users, we see new opportunities. During uncertain times, consumers are even more desperate for clear, personalized information — information that helps them understand the impact of huge forces on them personally. That’s exactly what we do: personalize information. So now we’re getting calls from newly interested clients who want to fill this information gap on behalf of their users.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Mike Fee: Yes, as I said, we had to lay off staff — great people doing good work that unfortunately wasn’t absolutely core to our being able to remain in operation.
We’ve learned several lessons, but I’ll point out two: First, tear the band-aid off. Stringing employees, along with or otherwise putting off difficult decisions, never works out well, and only makes a troubling situation that much worse.
Second, somewhere in an organization’s plans should be prepared for the worst. We’ve all heard this pandemic called a black swan, and read sentiments like, “No one could have seen this coming.” That’s absolutely false; a lot of people did see this coming and knew that it was just a matter of time. Certainly, you can’t prepare for every possibility, but through diversification, very strong customer agreements, establishing client relationships that go beyond the work, and developing disaster-preparation plans, you can be ready for about anything.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Spotlight in the future?
Mike Fee: Personally, I exercise. Recently when smoke here in California made being outside impossible, I was really going crazy! But now I’m back to managing stress and tension through working out.
With respect to our company, we’ve sought to be very transparent. Just as we founders can’t afford to let ourselves be surprised by “unforeseen” events, we owe it to our team members to provide clear information about Spotlight’s context and progress. I try to project optimism whenever I can, but only if it’s backed by evidence.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Mike Fee: Like any good entrepreneur, I don’t believe we have any true competitors; no one can do what we do! On the other hand, there are many substitutes for our technology, other application types that “check the box” of providing educational information to stakeholders. We will remain in the game by continuing to innovate: we have a five-year headstart on other groups that might be trying to develop similar technologies, and even during this time of cost minimization, we continue to invest in new features, and also in scalability and security.
Your final thoughts?
Mike Fee: This is a stressful time for everyone, but COVID has hit the education sector as hard as virtually any other (except health care, of course). Too often, we see that the solution is to load more work onto teachers, ask them to shoulder the burden of teaching virtually, of course, and analyze data and communicate with parents. We believe it is arming educators with technological tools that help teachers work and live more effectively and more efficiently. By automating data-rich communication with students and families, we’re seeking to support these teachers whom we all agree to play an even more vital role than ever right now.
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