Learning to make a profit – and a difference

Nov 2, 2013 by

Jill Tucker – Max Ventilla was looking for his next startup.

He already had a strong tech track record, founding social search service Aardvark, which Google acquired in 2010 for $50 million, before taking a lead role in the development of Facebook rival Google+.

Like his fellow South of Market entrepreneurs, he wanted to make money, but not from digital coupons, a smartphone car service or a startup that tracks startups. He wanted something bigger, more significant, with more meaning.

Ventilla decided to design and sell schools.

His vision: a for-profit company with hundreds of computer engineers “building a platform to allow more child-centric education across decentralized schools.”

In less wonky language, he wants to build a global network of one-room, tuition-based schools infused with technology. That could mean bar codes on homework assignments, iPads programmed to project a child’s artwork on a wall, or a phone app to track students while they’re on field trips.
Ventilla’s idea is new, but he’s also the latest in a line of high-tech success stories to take an altruistic or monetary interest in education.

Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Marc Benioff are big public-school donors. Netflix’s Reed Hastings co-owns DreamBox, a for-profit, online math program sold to public schools.

But Ventilla isn’t dabbling. He’s doing this full time, all in. And he’s not just, as the cliche goes, doing it for the children.

His company, AltSchool, is a true tech startup – it has millions in venture capital funding, a crew of computer wunderkinds, and office space in a funky old warehouse with hip seating arrangements and catered lunches.

He founded the company on market-driven demand from parents who want something like a homeschooling experience: a quality, technology-fueled education based on each child’s abilities and interests, but one not actually at home.

It’s a business, and Ventilla has a clear conscience when it comes to making money off it.

“What you don’t want is profiteering,” he said of his business philosophy. “You can do good in the world and create significant wealth for its employees and shareholders.”

The starting point

The first AltSchool is a true one-room school with a wall-size picture window framing a view of a Muni stop in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood.

The cost per student is $19,100, but with financial aid available, current families on average are paying about half that, Ventilla said. The company is spending closer to $30,000 per student, covered by startup funding.

There are two teachers and 11 students, ages 5 to 12, with room for five more.

There are no chalkboards.

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