Legal Blog

A Video Conversation with Saad Alam and Lee Jokl of Citelighter on Finding a Team and Network in Baltimore

Click here for Part 1 Improving writing proficiency by accelerating cognitive development leejoklcoosaadalamceocitelighterSaad Alam and Lee Jokl are the CEO and COO, respectively, of Citelighter. Since founding the company together in 2011, Saad and Lee have evolved Citelighter from a research library into an advanced writing proficiency framework educators can use to track their students’ cognitive development. The technology aims to accelerate the writing process not only to save teaching and administrative time but improve classroom outcomes and standardized testing performance. Today, over 3,000 schools across the U.S. use Citelighter, and the company has won six prestigious national awards. Its investors include the Baltimore Angels, TCP Venture Capital, Blue Angel Investors, the EdTech Fund, and others LEE JOKL: As Saad was saying, when we first moved here, the company was him by himself, so we clearly hired a lot of Baltimore-based employees. We’ve hired a number of people straight out of the classroom. Some really, really great former educators that were very tech savvy came in to help us create our implementation department—basically customer support, helping students and teachers get on the platform and able to use it effectively. We’ve hired lots of salespeople, sales leaders. I mean, there’s really a great network of people that you can tap into to fill out almost any role in a company where we’re going to be building our development team and we know there’s going to be plenty of talent in that pool as well. SAAD ALAM: Going back to my earlier point about the educational ecosystem within Baltimore, we have the former director of literacy that we hired from Sylvan. We have the former director of operations, who managed 700 Sylvan centers. We’ve got talent from Laureate. We’ve got VPs of sales from Blackboard. Recently, we were able to find a VP of business development from a Baltimore-based company, that we can mention shortly—that was a very strategic hire for us as regards our tackling state and larger district level contracts. I mean, you get Comcast, you get Verizon that knows how to build inside sales infrastructure—that’s not prevalent with an education as well. How would you do things differently if you started the company today? Saad: If we started over, we’d create a revenue-generating company from day one that we know could pay the bills and would allow us to go cash-flow positive before we made our first couple of key hires. Lee: I mean, looking back on it, I wished that we had started the company in Baltimore because a lot of the things that we struggled with in New York were again partly because of the access that places like Betamore would create for us. We wouldn’t have had to struggle with those issues down here. Tell us about getting involved in Betamore. Saad: Betamore, for two guys coming to Baltimore for the first time, is kind of like oxygen in a sense, because you don’t necessarily know where to go, you don’t necessarily know who to meet. Greg Cangialosi and Mike Brenner—when he was at Betamore—took us in and literally said, “What do you guys need?” And stopped at nothing to cultivate those channels, whether it was helping us find someone to build the website and helping us do marketing copy, helping us look for additional potential partners to help us fundraise. Now, we were just incredibly fortunate that Greg and John are good friends as well too, and that they helped us find additional investors. Now, when Jen came into Betamore, it was a completely different game. In the sense that our company was expanding incredibly rapidly; we went from two people to about 33 or 34 desks in 18 months, and Lee and I had a lot of demands, just because we had to make sure we nurture the company and make sure it grows the appropriate way. Jen did everything she possibly could in her power to make sure that happened. She helped us get press. She helped us personally manage our own psychology very often. It was a great experience. Lee: Yeah. I mean, it’s funny because I was just talking with a couple of entrepreneurs last week and lot of them came in asking for advice. They’re very early, starting a company, and it just kept going back to if Jen could help with that or Betamore would offer that. I mean every single thing that one would need to start a company, they can provide access to it. You want to form a company, you need legal advice, they know lawyers. You need accounting advice, they know accounting firms. They have access to everything you’d need, and not only that but the foot traffic that comes through there is incredible. I mean, Steve Case was just there. There’s always something happening at Betamore, and that’s actually a big reason why we wanted to stay so close to Betamore. I could walk there, but I typically don’t—it’s less than a minute drive back over there—to still be part of the community as much as we can. Saad: And we don’t want to leave Betamore. To be perfectly clear, we had to leave Betamore just because they couldn’t house us anymore.

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