Spotlight on NJ Tech Startups: ConnectYard's Donald Doane, Part 1


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N.J. has its share of technology startup companies, although there are certainly not as many in the state as in Silicon Valley or even Silicon Alley, the name of New York’s startup scene. In this article, NJTechWeekly.com interviews Donald Doane, CEO of N.J.-based ConnectYard Inc., a company he co-founded in 2007 with Grant Warner.

ConnectYard, based in Wayne, lets educational institutions connect their Blackboard, Desire2Learn and other learning management systems to Facebook, Twitter, video and text messaging, to better engage students and help institutions get the most out of their platforms.

The company was funded in its first two rounds by Jumpstart NJ Angel Network, a private, member-led angel group that invests in early-stage technology companies in the mid-Atlantic region, with the company’s second round completed in June, 2011.

So, how did the idea for ConnectYard come about?

The company was founded in 2007, when Facebook was just taking hold, Twitter was starting and the whole idea of social media was just beginning. We looked at the social media model and wondered if there was a way we could leverage it to help improve teaching and learning.

What are the founders’ backgrounds?

Grant’s background is education. He and I both attended Cornell together, and after that Grant went on to get his Ph.D. from Columbia University and then teach at both Northeastern and Howard University. My background is full-on technology; the company I was with before ConnectYard sold technology to higher education. I had a background in higher-education products and also understood the purchase process, how they acquire offerings such as ours. The two skill sets came together.

While we were looking at the problem of engaging students in and outside the classroom, we saw how social media affected the day-to-day lives of students, how you couldn’t get them off Facebook or away from their phones. We wanted to figure out how we could use that for learning.

Once the idea was set, what came next?

We spent about a year and a half in research and development, basically doing focus groups with faculty and students, trying to understand how they wanted to leverage social media in their academic environment, and more important, how they didn’t want to use it within that environment. There is a fine line, because students are reluctant to share too much personal information with their professors and in some cases with other students. They don’t want to friend professors or teachers on Facebook for fear of them seeing the photos of last night’s party or inappropriate wall postings made by other friends.

For all of these reasons it’s a complex task to take a platform like Facebook and then direct it so it can be used for educational purposes. We began developing our product and actually launched it in January 2009. We got our first customer, Cornell University, worked closely with their student body and staff to understand what their requirements were and crafted an offering that met their needs.

Did the fact that you and Dr. Warner were alumni help you land Cornell as your first customer?

The alumni factor got us the meetings, got us in the door, but after that we had to go to work. We added on a handful more schools that first year, and we were still fleshing things out. We got feedback from other schools, and they had a different set of needs. Higher education is diverse. Cornell is a four-year institution. We brought on a community college, and their base of students was different, so their needs were different in terms of how they wanted to engage students and the types of tools they used. You have “for-profits,” whose concerns are different from those of community colleges, professional schools and technical schools.

How did ConnectYard find its market?

During the following 12 months we devoted ourselves to better understanding the market and what customer wants and needs were; from a startup standpoint that was critical for us, finding a market fit. In 2010 we brought on a number of customers as well as partners. We were able to partner with the largest provider of learning solutions to higher education, Blackboard Inc. (Washington, D.C.). We also began working with another partner, Desire2Learn Inc. (Kitchener, Ontario), the second largest commercial learning management system offering.

(Part 2 of this interview with Donald Doane of the startup ConnectYard will be published next week.)

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