Saad Alam and Lee Jokl are the CEO and COO, respectively, of Citelighter. Since founding the company together in 2011, Saad and Lee have evolved Citelighter from a research library into an advanced writing proficiency framework educators can use to track their students’ cognitive development. The technology aims to accelerate the writing process not only to save teaching and administrative time but improve classroom outcomes and standardized testing performance. Today, over 3,000 schools across the U.S. use Citelighter, and the company has won six prestigious national awards. Its investors include the Baltimore Angels, TCP Venture Capital, Blue Angel Investors, the EdTech Fund, and others.
EDWIN WARFIELD: What has been the biggest obstacle standing in the way of N&C’s mission?
Tell us about your beginnings.
SAAD ALAM: The company started about four years ago when my little brother had come to me to tell me he was going to drop out of college. It wasn’t acceptable, because I was paying for his education, and I said it’s going to be the single largest differentiator between his success and not. So, I literally show up to his dorm room, we get into a fight, security comes—the whole nine yards—and I say, “Buddy, you’re going to hate this, but from 8 in the morning until midnight every single day I’m just going to sit behind your back and push you through to the end of the semester.” Here was a kid who almost got a perfect SAT score, and he was struggling writing. I give Lee a call, and I say, “Hey, you know what, there is this massive opportunity—75% of the kids in this country are below proficient in writing, so let’s quit our jobs and create a company.”
And so, Lee and I quit our jobs, we funded the company with an iPad case we put on Kickstarter, and then we built several rooms in a Wall Street loft that we had and housed several developers over there. What started off as a really simple tool that helps kids highlight information and capture the corresponding bibliographic citations became the single-most comprehensive writing platform in K–12 education, and we’re moving into higher ed pretty rapidly at this point in time.
[To Lee:] Do you want to talk about how you ended up coming here from Arizona?
LEE JOKL: Yeah. So, I was working for a company called CGI, do IT consulting. I was living in Phoenix. I was managing datacenter operations out in Arizona. And, my wife had not yet… After I convinced her that I was going to quit my job and have no income, which turned out to be quite a while, I also told her that I was going to leave her in Arizona so that I could go live on Saad’s floor on an air mattress for four months while she looked for a job in Manhattan, and we got all of our affairs in order to move across the country in a U-Haul van. Initially, we didn’t even have an office; we would sneak into the NYU library. We’d bring a bag packed with our lunch, because if you left for lunch, you couldn’t necessarily get back in, so we would bring everything we would need for the whole day, would sneak into the NYU library, and that was where we were able to find free internet and an easy place to work.
How did you end up here?
Saad: In terms of why we came to Baltimore: we built this company that was winning national award after national award, and the reality is that it was an amazing company, but it didn’t really have a business model. And so we ran it to [Baltimore entrepreneur] John Cammack, and John says, “Hey, I think you guys should move down to Baltimore.” You know, we’ve told this story a ton of times, but we said, “It doesn’t really sound like a great idea. We live in New York. I literally live right on Union Square, I walk out my front door, and it is one of the most populated, exciting places in the world, bar none. So he goes on to tell us about Baltimore, and it’s really an exciting story. The first part is you’ve got an 18-year-old kid who sells his first company to Blue Cross Blue Shield, takes the money that he earns to buy a struggling tutoring franchise—that then becomes Sylvan, takes it public when he is 24, spins five businesses off it in education that become major players, and then spots the largest international arbitrage opportunity, and then he creates what is Laureate: which is now the largest education company in the world. So, he says, “You have all of this talent within Baltimore that can help you build your company.” So, that was one piece. Then, you get the second pieces: all of these teachers who are leaving the classroom right now, and they’re starting their companies because they realize change needs to be made within the classroom. And then the third part of it is we ran into a guy named Frank Bonsal, III, whose father, Frank Bonsal, Jr., created one of the largest venture firm capitals in the world—bar none—and he basically says, “I think the current incubator model is broken. Can’t take an education company, bring them inside, give them a little bit of guidance, and expect within three months they’re going to land on their feet, because of two things: the sale cycle is long and you have to prove efficacy with students, which generally takes 12 to 18 months. So,” he said, “I’m going to take this entire city and turn it into a massive accelerator by creating the right support structures. Lee decided to man the team up in New York. I moved myself too here over in Betamore. I had one seat in the corner—and this was September 2013 now—and we went from that one seat to about 35 people in Baltimore, about 50 people in the company about 18 or 19 months later. And it has been the single best decision for us to come down to this city. To bring the story full circle: the same kid who inspired us to start this company, my little brother, just got accepted into Hopkins Business School and moved five minutes down the street from me. And then, Lee obviously moved his whole family here as well too.
Lee: My wife works at Johns Hopkins. So, we just keep moving around, following Saad wherever he goes around the country.