From its humble beginnings in 2002, Gradelink has grown from an experimental project to a comprehensive school management system and school website design firm, serving nearly 2,000 schools worldwide. We sat down with one of the company’s first employees, Steve Lockwood, to learn how it all started.
Steve, it’s a pleasure to have you on the blog. Our readers are interested in hearing Gradelink’s history. How did Gradelink begin?
It’s a pleasure to be here as well. I believe at the heart of Gradelink’s story are the teachers devoted to investing in young people and showing them the value of personal integrity, grit, and devotion to God. As is often the case, Gradelink’s founders struggled to find direction in their youth but they were encouraged by teachers and people close to them to develop these virtues which are now part of Gradelink’s culture.
For instance, Don Puls, Gradelink’s co-founder, and CEO admits to lacking academic discipline in elementary school. In third grade, his parents enrolled him in St. John’s Lutheran School where his teachers made certain he always put forth his best effort. His experience at St. John’s made a lasting impression on him. Over time he developed a strong work ethic, personal integrity, and established a relationship with God. He went on to Concordia University and eventually took a job at Texas Instruments as a software developer.
Gradelink initially began as a project to study web-based database apps, a hot new technology in 2001. At the time, people typically accessed the internet with dial-up modems and the idea of using a browser-based application (rather than one installed on a computer) was very new. In fact, Gradelink was probably one of the first internet-based SISs.
A chance encounter with a college friend who was then running a K-8 Lutheran school gave Don the chance to demonstrate his project. Volunteering to beta test the new system, it became an immediate success with his school families and teachers who benefited from the time savings and improved communication.
The first paying client was a Lutheran school that only had a dial-up modem on one computer in their office. They were willing to try it because their teachers also had modems at home. After a three-month trial, the principal was extremely positive about Gradelink. He said it was so popular he would have an uproar on his hands if he canceled it. The parents and teachers loved Gradelink and how significantly it improved communication. Don was blown away and it was at this moment that he truly thought Gradelink had the potential to take off and really help schools.
But getting Gradelink off the ground as a company would take some serious effort and sacrifice. Don worked at different full-time jobs while developing, selling, and supporting Gradelink on the side. It wasn’t until 10 more schools had signed on that he was able to focus solely on Gradelink full time.
Eventually partnering with two other co-founders, Don and company began planting roots in Southern California, visiting each new school in person to demonstrate Gradelink and train teachers and administrators. With every interaction, the team found more ways to help schools streamline their operations by adding new features and functionality to Gradelink.
From the left: The three co-founders enjoying the outdoors. They traveled to hundreds of schools in person, racking up nearly 250,000 miles in the first few years. Early in Gradelink’s history, all available space in Don’s home was put to use.
What is Gradelink and what’s unique about it?
- It’s easy to use.
- It’s budget-friendly.
- It includes a dedicated tech support rep for each school.
- It includes private-school-specific features like tuition collection, chapel attendance, and more.
This is a great value for private schools because it allows them to cut administrative costs by consolidating multiple tools into one school management system.
How did Gradelink get into the cloud space?
In the early 2000s, Microsoft and other database heavyweights began launching web-enabled database tools that allowed the creation of browser-based applications which would work cross-platform, and essentially anywhere in the world, not just on a PC with physically installed software. Gradelink leveraged these technologies from day one and thus never had to switch its codebase to work in the cloud.
What is Customer Care like at Gradelink?
Customer care is essential to every business and we are devoted to giving schools the best treatment. Gradelink provides dedicated account representatives for each school who act as a single point of contact. We found our customers enjoy getting to know their personal rep and it improves efficiency for the school tremendously. This is in contrast to a general ticketing system used by many other companies. And it’s working. We’re happy to say the feedback from our clients is overwhelmingly positive. People truly value having a care team fluent in English, Spanish, and Chinese.
How has COVID-19 impacted schools using Gradelink?
The ability for school staff to use Gradelink to work remotely has been essential. We can’t overstate enough the change schools felt when moving from in-person teaching to online, but at least school staff, teachers, and parents could continue major administrative and communications tasks seamlessly online with Gradelink. All that’s needed is internet access and there’s no need for special hardware or software.
How has Gradelink helped schools provide distance learning?
Many distance learning tools were already part of Gradelink before the pandemic hit. So as schools were forced to provide distance learning, schools were able to use their existing toolset for communication, lesson planning, online admission, and payment. In addition, Gradelink added integration with Google Classroom plus a dozen other education apps through Classlink.
One big advantage was the ability for schools to use attendance to mark students as present in person versus present online. The ability to customize attendance has always been there, which became essential for many, many schools this past year.
What lesson have you learned over the last ten years at Gradelink?
Each of us has the ability to change lives by caring about the people next to us. Gradelink might not be here if the teachers at St. John’s Lutheran hadn’t dedicated themselves to their students. We at Gradelink are so grateful to be able to give back to schools and faith-based organizations like St. John’s.
What is your five-year vision for Gradelink?
Because we communicate with our schools on a regular basis, we try to keep a pulse on their needs and use their feedback to prioritize updates. Schools want to run as efficiently as possible and grow. We aim to do all we can to help them pursue these goals.
What advice do you have for startups in the EdTech space?
Our greatest successes in life are often found in helping others succeed. This kind of thinking can be foreign to a culture that often sees the world as one giant competition. There is great freedom when you realize everyone can win and that being the catalyst for someone else’s “win” is more important than your own.
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