David Jaffa is a fierce advocate of education, of students, and of providing a launch-pad for career and life for youngsters in U.S. and U.K. schools.
He has created a successful business using technology to deliver a fun learning experience for students that leaves them and their teachers expecting success. In fact, as a result of these online learning programs, more than 10 million students in the U.S. and U.K. have seen increased test scores and improved life chances.
Both the idea for the business and its success can be traced to David’s own educational experiences.
The business idea sprang from the end of his time at college. A hard-working student growing up, the final years of David’s education had worn him out.
“I was not a diligent student in college,” David remembered, “and I’m dyslexic and I couldn’t spell. So I had a few challenges there and had to find some pretty idiosyncratic ways around them.”
It became clear to David that there was a way to use his experiences to help students that weren’t being served well by traditional teaching techniques.
He took the methods he had learned to overcome his own educational challenges and turned them into a viable product: computer-based learning programs for students that are more efficient, more effective, and more fun than traditional methods.
It was a good idea and David knew it would work – he’d done it for himself, after all – but taking it from idea, to product, and then to business was bumpy.
For one, though he didn’t know it yet, he’d had the idea just a little too soon. The best computer option of the mid-90s was CD-ROM which wasn’t a financially viable product because of the amount of steps between the company and the customer.
Using Lessons Learned
This was where the other major lesson he learned as a student kicked in. He calls it ‘the habit of persistence.’
It was a lesson learned at a young age, when an unexpected move had him starting at a new school mid-year. His first set of exams were disappointingly dismal but he didn’t let it set him back. He dug in and was near the top of the class the next year. It was that determination that has served him well.
“There were other periods in my academics when I found myself behind the other students, and I wouldn’t let it worry me, and I would just say, ‘No, I will persist with this and I’ll get where I need to be’ and I think that became a habit. So while the specifics of math and science and language arts are long forgotten, the habit of persistence is still there.”
He didn’t give up on his idea of better learning for all students, and the initial challenge resolved itself with the advent of the internet. Turning the programs into online software opened up the market in a new way.
It turned out that, even with persistence, David didn’t have the skillset or connections to make the sale on his own. So he found a partner that complemented his abilities and, together, they got their product right where they wanted it: into local schools.
Their program – which now covers 27 subjects of the British curriculum – is in over half the state-funded schools in England. With the help of his team, he also expanded the business into Penda Learning, a science and math program used in U.S. schools for grades 4-10.
And Learning New Lessons
The experience has taught him a new lesson in entrepreneurship: you need to have the right people doing the right tasks.
It was the same mindset that led David to hire a virtual assistant.
“I am no longer first-line on my emails,” he said with a smile. “And so I’m not in the email vortex for an hour and a half a day.” In addition to handing over administrative tasks, David meets with his remote EA, Andrea, every week to see what special tasks and projects she can take off his ‘top five tasks’ list, freeing up more of his time.
It’s simple enough stuff but it makes a surprising amount of difference in his work day.
“I, like many entrepreneurs, create havoc and new possibilities in equal measure,” he says. “Entrepreneurs can come up with a business idea a day, and probably three or four actually good ideas a year that we ought to do and would be very successful. And so delegation is really critical.“
Being able to cut back on his daily tasks in favor of handling any business challenges and dreaming up the next success makes a difference in David’s stress level and, therefore, in every aspect of his life, including his time with his family.
“Being stressed at home is really damaging for the family dynamic. And entrepreneurs are up there with four or five times the level of stress as anyone else. It’s a different scale of pressures. Work-life balance isn’t just about how much time you have at home, it’s how are you when you’re with them and if you really are with them.”
Accomplishing The Mission
All in all, it is the lessons David has learned in life – about studying, about persistence, and about delegation – that have contributed to his own success and the success of literally millions of others.
“Our company mission is to see young people experience academic success and improved life chances. And we have done that. Ten years of reputable studies have proven that students using the SAM learning system have seen really, really good student gains, particularly for students with low prior results – those who have never before experienced educational success. They tend to improve nearly double what the average student sees,” David explained.
“So, to have a vision for a better way of doing something, to bring that vision to fruition, not just as a product, but to achieve success in the market and get to scale, and have an impact on large numbers of young people’s lives is very, very gratifying.”
In this edition of the Boldly Leadership Series we shared the story of David Jaffa, founder of EdTech companies SAM Learning and Penda Learning, and how his own educational experiences and habit of persistence allowed him to improve the lives of millions of students.
Updated on February 25th, 2019