A Q&A with Citelighter founder and CEO Saad Alam. The Baltimore, Maryland-based edtech startup announced last month that it has raised $2 million in new Seed funding. Investors in this round include Blu Venture Investors, Baltimore Angels, New York Angels, Gulf Ventures and Maryland Venture Fund. It was founded in 2011 by Alam and Lee Jokl, and has also raised funding through three previous Seed rounds.
SUB: Please describe Citelighter and your primary innovation.
Alam: Citelighter is an education technology company that provides students with writing tools and gives teachers and administrators the ability to assign, monitor and improve students’ work.
SUB: Who are your target markets and users?
Alam: K-through-12 teachers, administrators and students.
SUB: Who do you consider to be your competition, and what differentiates Citelighter from the competition?
Alam: Many of our competitors only perform one function on a single platform. Citelighter does the work of seven edtech platforms in one. Not only is this convenient for teachers and students using the product, but also for administrators that need to make technology decisions based on school budgets.
SUB: You just announced that you’ve raised $2 million in new Seed funding. Why was this a particularly good time to raise more funding?
Alam: We were able to find an efficient customer acquisition model, which can be very difficult in education, and we are scaling our sales team and making additional product refinements prior to raising additional capital in the next six-to-eight months for continued growth.
SUB: How do you plan to use the funds?
Alam: We plan to use the funding to improve Citelighter’s overall functionality, such as updating the teacher dashboard. We are also planning to hire an additional 20 employees to our team of 40.
SUB: What was the inspiration behind the idea for Citelighter? Was there an ‘aha’ moment, or was the idea more gradual in developing?
Alam: I was actually inspired to create Citelighter after seeing my own brother almost drop out of college because he was struggling so much to write papers. From watching his peers, I noticed that college kids who don’t know how to write isn’t a one-in-a-million event. It was shocking, so I set out to create something that took the process in which we all write research papers and make it more manageable.
Students from eight-to-28 can use Citelighter, though we focus mainly on building writing skills in K-through-12 classrooms. We break complicated writing tasks into easily manageable steps so that it makes it less overwhelming for students and more about building on the steps within the writing process. We have been able to teach eight-year-old students how to write full-blown research papers within three weeks.
SUB: What were the first steps you took in establishing the company?
Alam: We literally funded Citelighter by creating another startup. The startup was an iPad case—Mypadlife. We used the money we generated from that company—and a little from savings accounts—to start Citelighter.
SUB: How did you come up with the name? What is the story or meaning behind it?
Alam: When we originally created Citelighter it was supposed to be an ‘Internet highlighter that creates citations.’ However, we are going to be changing the name later this summer as the product and our ambitions have evolved to become so much grander.
SUB: What have the most significant challenges been so far to building the company?
Alam: Originally it was raising capital, but we have surrounded ourselves with a group of really great people that have made it far easier. Now the largest challenge, since we really believe in our mission of helping students realize their potential, is making sure we can get a product used across an entire school rather than just a few classes, even when they have paid for the former. This ensures that we can have the largest impact possible.
SUB: How do you generate revenue or plan to generate revenue?
Alam: We are a SaaS based business model that charges annual per student licenses.
SUB: What are your goals for Citelighter over the next year or so?
Alam: Grow as fast as possible, and create the most comprehensive writing product in the world.