How did he do it? By taking worksheets he was already making for his classes and offering them up to the global market via the Internet.
It’s a formula that succeeds again and again, according to Thomas Ulbrich, executive director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the University at Buffalo’s School of Management. Someone maximizing his or her own unique expertise and opportunity, and leveraging the Internet’s reach.
“A lot of us have ideas, but an idea is not an opportunity,” Ulbrich said. “An opportunity is when there is a market; someone willing to pay for it.”
A self-described computer nerd, it seemed natural to Weibel to take the worksheets he designed for his students – the practice handouts once called “dittos” or “mimeographs” – and share them on a website for other teachers who could print them out and use them with their own classes.
The Canisius College grad got a couple of cents each time a user clicked on one of his site’s ads, which brought him an extra $20 or so a month.
Since it only cost him about $100 to start the site, it was good pocket change.
But when he saw that the site was getting millions and millions of visitors, he started to do the math.
“I said, ‘Whoa, maybe I should be doing more with this,’ ” Weibel said.
There were other worksheet websites out there, but they were charging more than Weibel thought they should be and their quality wasn’t nearly as good as what he had to offer.
He made the difficult decision to leave teaching and began beefing up the content on the site. He hired a graphic artist (his cousin, Chris Weibel), rented an office space in the city of Tonawanda and brought on a freelancer to help revamp SuperTeacherWorksheets.com as a paid-subscription site. He started charging individuals $20 a year and schools $300 a year to access the site’s materials.
A year and a half later, the Web site has more than 250,000 paid users from 178 different countries.
Most of the site’s users are teachers and home schoolers from the United States, but another big segment comes from non-English-speaking countries that use the site’s reading comprehension worksheets to learn English. India, where call centers have sprung up to provide customer service to Americans, is one of the site’s top five users.
What he’s selling is deceptively simple.
There are math drills (2 x 2 = 4), reading practice (“Do you see the bee?”) and writing prompts (“Imagine you woke up and saw a dinosaur in your backyard. Write a story telling what you see and do.”). There are puzzles, crafts, flash cards, science experiments – almost all of them aimed at students below fifth grade level.
But there are plenty of pitfalls that could trip up someone without Weibel’s 10 years of classroom experience.
Competitors’ websites display content in pop-up windows. Weibel knows schools block pop-ups. Competitors use irregular fonts. Weibel knows letters need to look exactly like the ones the students are learning to make themselves. Competitors use computer-generated math problems and scrunch them together on the page. Weibel devises the math problems himself and knows children need room to line up their columns and show their work.
He knows firsthand how picky teachers can be. He once misplaced an apostrophe on a worksheet and received nasty emails about how he was corrupting the English language and sending tomorrow’s youth astray. Weibel said he understands that kind of passion, because he was also protective of what his students were exposed to.
“These other sites aren’t run by teachers,” he said. “They don’t know what it’s like to actually use these things in a classroom.”
It also doesn’t hurt that Weibel’s website is easier to navigate than the competition, looks clean and professional and costs half as much as the others. He has also perfected search engine optimization in such a way that his site lands at the top of any Google search for “teacher worksheets.”
“The Internet quickly levels the playing field for businesses,” Ulbrich said. Adding later, “[But] it’s not a magic bullet.”
It’s not that Weibel took the materials he used every day, slapped them on the Web and started counting cash. It took a lot of smart decisions and a year of long days getting the site to where he could feasibly charge users money. It takes a staff of eight people to keep it running in such a way that teachers keep renewing their subscriptions.
They’re working hard to keep up with demand.
“See this pile?” Weibel asks, plunking down a thick stack of papers that fills his entire fist. “These are all suggestions.”
Teachers in Australia want money-counting sheets depicting Australian currency. Others want lesson plans about rocks, minerals and erosion. Everyone wants Spanish.
“In order to do that one well, we need a native Spanish speaker who is fluent,” Weibel said.
Attempts at customizing the curriculum country by country got hairy – even with the English-speaking ones.
In American math, for example, a three-dimensional box is called a rectangular prism. In the U.K., it’s called a cuboid. In Canada, the word “color” is spelled “colour.” And don’t even get Weibel started on the differences in decimal points.
“We would like to diversify more, but it’s hard to do,” he said. “We’ve decided we have to design everything for America and [other countries] can figure out how to use it.”
The next big thing
The SMART Boards allow teachers to project lessons onto the touch-screen-type board and call students up individually to solve problems, the way they would on a traditional blackboard.
“Tons and tons of schools have these SMART Boards but not a lot of people are creating content for them,” Weibel said.
Those who do offer lessons to be used on the boards have made rookie mistakes, such as placing content too high on the board for pint-sized students to reach.
They’re mistakes Weibel knows better than to make. And that’s why he’s taking the time to get it right before launching.