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Founder Friday: Harry O'Malley, Fill Education


Over the course of the school year, students are bound to encounter a lesson that they can’t quite grasp. They might need to meet with their teacher after class or enroll in an extra help class during study hall.

Traditionally, it’s been difficult for teachers to track each student’s progress on a lesson-by-lesson basis. A teacher himself, Harry O’Malley wanted to use his educational background and entrepreneurial spirit to improve K-12 education. This led Harry and his brother to start Fill Education, a platform that identifies specific lessons that a student is struggling with and automatically places them in extra help classes. Upon completion of a pilot program last year, the data spoke for itself. Students in schools using Fill Education performed significantly better on final exams than those who weren’t on the Fill Education platform.

Learn more about the impact that Fill Education is having on local schools and their plans for rapid expansion in today’s Founder Friday!

How did your startup, well, start up?

The idea came from a need I saw for data to be more relevant in education. As a teacher, I had a lot of experience being asked to look at data that wasn’t relevant. It was either data that was too old to use or too vague to take action on. In addition, we had a clunky system for providing students with extra help. Instead of helping each student when they needed it, we would identify the lowest 10-15 students using last years’ final exam data, and then put only those students into extra help classes for a whole year and do nothing, systematically, for anyone else.

To solve this problem, my brother, Dan O’Malley, and I combined our skill sets to develop software that allows teachers to assess their students on every lesson they teach, two days after they teach it, and schedule students who fail to show mastery into extra help classes the next day so they can get caught back up immediately.

What do you do? Your startup?

As one of two founders, I manage most aspects of the business, including product development, business development, creation of marketing collateral, website development, customer service…you name it. Our startup helps teachers and schools create one-question quizzes that assess their students’ mastery of the lesson they taught two days prior, and schedule any students who didn’t master the lesson into extra help classes the next day. In addition, teachers can use the daily data they collect to identify their weakest lessons from an instructional standpoint, so they can focus on improving those lessons in the short and long term.

When was the ‘aha’ moment for your startup when you realized this could actually work?

This was one of the few ideas I’ve had that I was certain would have a positive impact from the outset, so that ‘aha’ moment came very early on. The more I thought about the ramifications of our method, the more sense it made – and it has certainly lived up to my initial optimism. That said, another really positive moment came when we looked at the final exam data from our first year of implementation. I remember the day. We got the results back that compared our students’ results to the results of students in schools that we used to share similar results with, and, this time, our students’ results were head and shoulders above the previously similar students – beyond even what we expected. It was very validating.

What has been the biggest accomplishment for your startup to-date?

Our biggest accomplishment has been getting the product up and running in districts outside of our initial pilot district. After we proved the results worked, the next step was to see if other school districts and universities would be interested in using it. We pitched it to 20 or so and 7 have signed up, which is a great indication that this really has potential for growth.

Goals for the next year? Three years?

Our goal for next year is to have 150 schools using our product. In three years, we hope to have 600-700 schools on board. We also have a couple of other product extensions, such as online tutoring services, that we hope to have up and running in the next year or so.

Why Buffalo?

We are based in Buffalo because that is home for me. I must say, though, that the resources for entrepreneurs in this city are wonderful. I brought my idea to a meeting with Tom Ulbrecht at Blackstone Launchpad at The University at Buffalo, and he immediately turned me on to the community here. I was introduced to Launch NY, which is a fantastic support organization for startups. They provided me with an expert advisor in Al Culliton, who has provided me with guidance over the last year and has helped me make many meaningful connections that have helped our business get off the ground.

How do you do it? What drives you?

As an educator, I’m passionate about helping students learn and am obsessed with finding new and innovative ways of doing that. As a designer, I love making things. I have backgrounds in graphic design, web design, coding, and film making; and the combined challenge of designing a web-based product and relevant marketing materials really draws on all those backgrounds simultaneously in an exciting and fulfilling way.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

Keep swinging! Starting a company is hard. There are going to be times when you start to question yourself because things aren’t happening they way you expected them to. Just know that experience is normal and you’ve got to keep the faith and keep your nose to the grindstone. There’s no other way to do it except to keep grinding.

Tags: Founder Friday

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