Ottawa startup EssayJack on write path to success

For anyone who has stared at a blank white page trying to figure out how to write an assigned essay for school, two Ottawa entrepreneurs want to help.

With more than 15 years of experience in English education in high school and university, former teacher Lindy Ledohowski found struggles with essay-writing to be a persistent problem for students and decided it was time to do something about it. In 2014, Ms. Ledohowski founded EssayJack with partner Rueban Balasubramaniam, an associate professor at Carleton University’s department of law and legal studies.

The pair developed a web application they say has been met with an enthusiastic response from students and educators. The application recently landed the firm a major partnership with one of Canada’s leading educational publishers.

“We didn’t want to be the kinds of people who got frustrated with students or started to blame teachers or class sizes, or any number of excuses,” says Ms. Ledohowski. “We thought instead of focusing on the problem, let’s try to find a solution.”

Even in the education technology space – a market that’s expected to grow 17 per cent a year to more than $250 billion by 2020, according to a report by EdTechXGlobal and IBIS Capital – EssayJack’s solution is rather unique. The interactive web platform is designed to deter procrastination, reduce anxiety and improve work quality by pre-structuring student essays and providing tips along the way.

Ms. Ledohowski notes there is no shortage of resources to help students with research and content aggregation, nor is it hard to find help with finishing touches, such as spell-checking and bibliography building. But it’s the middle phase that tends to be the most troublesome yet the least addressed by tech tools.

“It’s the difficulty of getting what you know into a format that your teachers and professors are looking for, that adheres to the conventions of scholarly writing,” she says. “We wanted to make that blank screen less intimidating.”

Problems with writing don’t start and end in school, either; a 2016 study found that blue-chip businesses in the United States are spending up to $3.1 billion a year on remedial writing training for their employees. Another report found that 26.2 per cent of U.S. post-secondary students had deficient writing skills, according to employers.

EssayJack built a prototype in 2014, launched in beta in the fall of 2015 and took part in the L-Spark incubator program the following year. Now, a new multimillion-dollar partnership with Nelson Education could be the young firm’s ticket to major revenue growth, with the company handling the sales and marketing of EssayJack at schools across Canada.

After acquiring roughly 1,400 users in its beta year, EssayJack has doubled that number since signing the partnership in October. Ms. Ledohowski says she’s very optimistic about future sales, given the success the company has had marketing the product even in the middle of the school year.

While formal educational institutions such as high schools and universities will certainly be a large and stable part of EssayJack’s revenue, they won’t necessarily be its primary market.

The most promising revenue stream comes in the form of tutoring and test-preparation services, Ms. Ledohowski says. Those smaller, privately run organizations have much shorter adoption cycles – a bulk licence at a school, for example, takes about 12 to 18 months to implement – and their spending power isn’t as bound by budgets, she notes.

Venture capital investment in education companies reached nearly $2 billion in 2014, having grown at a rate of 45 per cent in the previous five years, according to data collected by GSV Advisors, an organization dedicated to education entrepreneurship. EssayJack, however, has remained bootstrapped by choice – in the firm’s early stages, it was offered investments amounting to $200,000, says Ms. Ledohowski.

“Because nothing like EssayJack really exists, there’s a large risk associated with creating something new,” she says. “If we were going to really and truly believe in what we were developing, we felt responsible to take that risk on our own shoulders.”

Ms. Ledohowski adds the company is founded on a deep knowledge of the problems faced by its customers as well as a strong commitment to learning.

“We’ve done our 10,000 hours,” she says, “so we put that 10,000 hours’ worth of expertise into building our product.”