3 Entrepreneurial Lessons Learned on the Path from Intern to CEO

Khalil Fuller is the CEO of Learn Fresh, which makes NBA Math Hoops, a basketball board game and mobile app that uses math problems and real-world NBA and WNBA statistics to improve students’ math literacy and engagement. He’s also a college senior, studying education and social entrepreneurship at Brown University.

image Growing up L.A., Khalil saw his friends become increasingly disengaged from school, especially math class. “I started tutoring kids and realized there was nothing fun to make math really relevant to them, so they didn’t make the connection between math class and the rest of the world. And they didn’t want to do their homework — they wanted to go outside and play basketball.”

At Brown, Khalil met Bill Daugherty, an entrepreneur and former NBA executive who’d teamed up with Tim Scheidt, veteran math educator and inventor of a prototype math board game. “For the earliest versions, it wasn’t Kobe and LeBron,” Khalil recounts, “it was Johnny SlamDunk and Andrew ThreePointer. Bill and I said, ‘if this is somewhat fun and the kids like it, it could be much more powerful if it had real NBA players.’”

When it was clear that the kids did like it through some early testing and incubation with Big Picture Learning, they brought the game to the NBA to see about those real-life players. “The NBA really liked the fact that we had a purely social mission,” Khalil reports. “They actually gave us a royalty-free license for the first time in their history.”

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NBA Math Hoops officially launched along with the opening of the NBA season. Starting with Cleveland this year, the nonprofit will partner with various NBA cities to work with the local school district, get teams involved in classrooms, and build networks around the game.

While Khalil took some time off from Brown to focus on NBA Math Hoops, he’s back in his senior year, taking a full course load, running the business, and still making it to hockey practice. He’s also approaching this year differently. “I’m getting a lot more out of my classes now, having this ‘real world experience.’ I realized I may be young, passionate, and energetic, but I do need to learn more about education if I’m going to be in this field for a long time. I need to grow my educational prowess.”

Khalil is also growing his business prowess, advancing from college student and intern to CEO in only a few months. Here he shares three lessons he learned along the way about entrepreneurship and making a successful product:

1.   Be guided by simplicity to avoid the trap of adding too many bells and whistles in response to feedback.

We had a few small pilots in 2010 and a national pilot last June with about 130 schools around the country. With the small pilot, NBA Math Hoops was just the physical board game. The teachers said they wanted something more robust, so we had the bright idea to create what we call the “classroom kit”, which had eight full board games in a big box and much more fully thought-out curriculums surrounding the actual game. And that’s what we used for the national pilot.

In theory it was great, but in practice it wasn’t, because the classroom kit was very complicated. You were overwhelmed when you opened up the box. So we’ve moved back down to an individual game, which is really simple with quick start instructions, and you slowly move into a more complicated curriculum.

2. Get to know your audience to gain traction and figure out how to scale.

We also learned that things need to be very easy for teachers, because they’re so overworked, overwhelmed, and inundated. If it’s not easy, it’s going to sit on a shelf.

The biggest lesson was to make the barriers to entry lower, and once people get hooked, gradually growing the depth of engagement.  We almost didn’t realize how difficult it is to get people to use what research shows to be a great product, even if it’s free. Making it easier helps with that.

Our thesis is that learning should be fun, that kids should want to do it all day. There was nothing out of school unless parents bought the board game, which is not really what we’re trying to do. We realized through research that a lot of kids, even within low income environments, do have smartphones. We wanted to create a free app so they could engage with something that’s educationally enriching as well as fun outside of school.

Long term, we’ll have the board game but probably 90% of the people who know about NBA Math Hoops will know about it through the app just because the distribution‘s so light.

3. You prove yourself in times of trouble and uncertainty, not when things are going well.

I joined the team as an unofficial co-founder and intern and turned into the CEO in less than six months, which is crazy.

We had just finished a small pilot. The NBA had extended our license, Hasbro had committed to giving us $100K and production rights for a national pilot, and then the NBA lockout happened — which was months of standing still and hoping that everything goes okay. Everything was in flux, but that was probably the time when everyone realized how committed I was.

Tim runs a school district out in San Diego, Bill is semi-retired. They’re really passionate, but I was the one pushing forward and keeping everyone hopeful. Once the NBA lockout finished, I was doing most of the day-to-day work, which necessitated decision-making.

It got to the point where Bill said, “Listen, Khalil, there’s a lot of work to be done and I don’t have the bandwidth to do it. I was thinking of hiring an MBA, but since you know it so well and you’ve been doing such a good job, would you like to take over as CEO?”

That was the impetus, but I think it would have happened eventually anyway, hopefully. Since then, it’s been really interesting taking it on as my own with Bill as a strong mentor — we talk three times a day — but it’s been amazing and so rewarding.

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