TenMarks, Education Software Startup, Looks to Improve Kids’ Math Skills as Summer Beckons

5/25/11Follow @gthuang

You wouldn’t know it from the weather until yesterday, but summer is on its way. Soon classes will be out of session and students of all ages will be running wild. What that means, besides more Commencement speeches (and, soon, being able to get a seat at a Harvard or Davis Square café), is that millions of American grade-school and high-school kids will be doing their best to forget everything they’ve learned—especially, it seems, in math class.

One local company is trying to do something about that, one classroom at a time. Newton, MA-based TenMarks is a software startup focused on Web-based math education programs. Its personalized software includes interactive online worksheets and video lessons, and targets subjects from third-grade math through high-school algebra and geometry. The idea is to supplement the classroom experience, not replace it. (And yes, the software includes some elements of game mechanics—like rewards for finishing different levels—but it doesn’t go overboard and try to turn the whole lesson into a game or anything.)

Earlier this week, TenMarks released some new programs designed to combat “summer learning loss” and keep kids’ math skills sharp (and improving) when they’re out of school. The company points to a pilot program in California that showed elementary-school kids who used TenMarks dramatically improved their math skills over the summer, as compared to those who didn’t use the software.

Online math lessons are a dime a dozen these days. But what distinguishes TenMarks is its individually-tailored instruction and its “ability to provide help right at the point where the student is answering a question,” says co-founder Andrew Joseph, a veteran of OpenOrders (acquired by IBM in 2000), CommercialWare, Corel, and other tech companies. For students struggling with a question, he says, TenMarks provides hints individually written for that question, as well as video instruction about how to approach it (whether it’s a word problem, long division, or solve for x).

Even so, the startup found that parents, who pay a subscription fee for the software, were slow to hear about and adopt the product. So, in the past year, the company has shifted from selling its software to families to collaborating with schools and teachers to develop a free version for classroom use. That has led to a lot more exposure, and has led TenMarks to move to a “freemium” model in the past few months, whereby schools and parents can get a basic version of the software for free, and if they like it, they can pay for an upgrade to more sophisticated features.

Thanks to word of mouth referrals among teachers and parents—as well as mentions on blogs, Twitter, and other social media—the company has been pleasantly “surprised at the number of sign-ups,” Joseph says. TenMarks now has content to meet math education standards in all 50 U.S. states and is selling its software from California to Kentucky, North Carolina, and Georgia, he says.

TenMarks, founded in late 2008, is part of a cluster of tech companies in Boston focused on the education market—including 8D World, peerTransfer, Boundless Learning, Socrative, College Miner, Learning Unlimited, and Alleyoop, to name a few. The company has a team of about 30 people, and has been backed by angel investors to date (including Jean Hammond, who serves on the board). Down the road, Joseph says, the TenMarks team might branch out to other subjects besides math, such as grammar, spelling, vocabulary, and physical sciences.

But for now, they have their hands full with math lessons. It’s an interesting—and perhaps unlikely—sector for Joseph and his fellow co-founder, Rohit Agarwal, a tech veteran who has worked at companies like CommercialWare (where he first met Joseph in 1999) and Webify Solutions (acquired by IBM).

In fact, the genesis of TenMarks was when Agarwal’s niece received a C in math class. “An Indian doesn’t get a C in math,” was Agarwal’s response. It turned out his niece didn’t want to go back and correct what she was doing wrong in previous chapters. Meanwhile, Joseph’s kids were in grade school and middle school, and he was wrestling with the idea of hiring a math tutor or doing after-school programs. Together, Joseph and Agarwal decided to use their tech expertise to try to help kids and parents, and build their own company.

But startup life has been “definitely up and down,” Joseph says. “We’ve been passionate that what we’re doing is right and adds value. But it’s taken us a while to pull the pieces together and get exposure, and get to a critical mass of users. I’ve been in a lot of early-stage companies. You always tell yourself it’s going to take longer than you think, but you never really figure out how to forecast for it. It’s critical for any startup to make sure they have capital to sustain themselves through that. You need investors who will help you through iterations.”

The potential payoff is what keeps TenMarks going. “This is a little different from a classic tech startup,” Joseph says. “If we’re successful, we can have a positive impact on the lives of millions of people. I can’t say I’ve had the opportunity to do that before.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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