Class Tracker / Women Owned
Alist Nation Magazine has made it a point to support Women Owned Businesses. In each issue you will get to know several women owned businesses. You get an exclusive interview with each of these inspiriting women and we help you connect with their businesses. It’s time to put our money where our mouths are and support local businesses that are owned and run by women. In the July 2021 issue we interview Lesley Martin, founder /owner of Class Tracker.
Lesley Martin, founder /owner of Class Tracker
Tell us a little about yourself and your childhood.
Entrepreneurism runs in my family. My parents started their own business while I was in high school and I was recruited to help out on a regular basis. I took orders, worked in the warehouse, unloaded containers of product and helped out at sales conventions. During the summer, I worked at the office and often recruited friends for special projects. It was a true roll-up your sleeves kind of business and my parents loved it but at the time, I had no personal interest in it. I wanted to do something where I could make a direct impact on people. I went to college and ultimately launched my career in education as a high school teacher. After eight years in the classroom I had the opportunity to take a sabbatical and took that break to evaluate my career and see if there were other options for making a difference in students' lives. I authored two books that support student success (Where’s My Stuff and Make the Grade), I worked one-on-one as a tutor and developed a greater sense of empathy for today’s students and their challenging and complex lives.
When did you decide you wanted to start your own company?
I launched Class Tracker while taking a sabbatical from teaching high school. I saw first hand how school demanded a level of organization and time management that many students didn’t have. I had started working with students one-on-one to help them with their academic classes and I noticed we were spending as much time planning out their weeks as on homework. When I asked them to pull out their planners to help us with this task, I quickly realized that the planners that their schools gave them were ill-fitted to planning: they were either too small or too cluttered and most importantly the weekly planning pages didn’t reflect students’ complicated school schedules.
What I knew from my tenure in the classroom and my tutoring business was that a student’s ability to track their assignments and manage their time correlates directly with their success in school and beyond. Thus, creating a tool to make this easier seemed like an important and worthwhile venture. Class Tracker was born out of this realization. Class Tracker has two parts to the business: one that sells custom planners directly to schools and the other that sells planners directly to customers.
Was there a specific moment when you knew this was what you wanted to do?
I was at a crossroads in my career path and running Class Tracker on the side. The company where I worked had restructured and my new role held less of an opportunity to make a difference than I believed I could do by growing Class Tracker. So I left my position and became a full time entrepreneur.
How did you fund this project?
Initially I worked full-time and ran Class Tracker on the side and was able to self-fund. As the business grew, I was able to use upfront order deposits to keep the business running.
After you made the decisions, what steps did you take?
I developed new ways to increase sales of the existing products directly to schools. I updated my brand and changed my sales approach. Rather than trying to compete with bigger companies, I positioned myself as a small, woman-owned local business. As a result, schools were much more interested in talking to me.
My client list doubled that first year and then doubled again two years later. In addition, I started to develop prototypes for a direct to consumer product that I ultimately launched four years ago. Working directly with students, I tested different layouts until we landed on a simple, yet intuitive product designed specifically for students. I launched an online store and started selling on Amazon. Students just LOVE these planners and sales have increased exponentially since launch.
What were the hardest hurdles?
At a certain point, I kept getting the advice that I should turn my paper product into a digital one. More and more educational tools were going online and shouldn’t my product follow suit? What I knew instinctively then, and more categorically now, is that for most people, paper is a better place to plan and prioritize. We live in a world full of distractions and need tools that help us to focus. How many times have you grabbed your phone or laptop to look something up and found yourself on social media or watching a YouTube video 20 minutes later? Paper doesn’t have alerts or notifications and is the perfect tool to help one zero-in on what needs to be done and by when.
Being able to stand behind that instinct and couple it with personal experience and research was challenging. I wasn’t able to initially articulate exactly why paper was the better solution beyond my experience. But now I can confidently argue that we need paper even more than ever based on the many evident distractions in our daily digital life.
What advice do you wish someone would have given you?
Hire professionals sooner. Because I was self-funded my budgets were tight and I tended to “figure it out” rather than hiring professionals. Once I started to hire people and invested in the business, the business grew and I was able to focus on the parts of the business where I could add the most value.
Did you have a mentor?
I have what I call a personal board - a group of women that I reach out to for advice and guidance. The support of this group has been invaluable and helped me to both solve day to day challenges, as well as support long term strategic planning. I also have an accountability partner who I meet with weekly to help me stay on track!
At any point did you want to give up?
In the fall of 2019, I decided that the strategic direction of Class Tracker would be to focus on growing the direct-to-customer online business. By May 2020, the social media and marketing team I had hired broke their contract due to COVID: the principal had a young child and could not complete her work and take care of her daughter. I had neither expertise nor interest in social media and marketing and wasn’t sure how I was going to sell the inventory I’d just ordered. I felt stuck and deflated.
What made you keep going?
I questioned whether or not it was worth trying to grow this part of the business. But in my heart, I knew that this product really helps students and more than ever, students needed help. I was able to put together a new team, we rolled up our sleeves and made it happen. Despite COVID, our sales doubled from the previous year and continue to grow.
How long did it take to become profitable?
From the beginning, I sold my products at a profit if you don’t count the time I put into the business:). I acted as the designer and producer for those first years and set my pricing so that I’d be in the black from the get-go.
What was the best thing you did to grow your business?
I developed products and an online store to sell directly to customers. From the start, I’ve been motivated by the opportunity to serve as many students as possible. I wanted to expand beyond the students who attended schools that bought Class Tracker planners to serve any students who wanted a great tool to help them manage their busy academic and personal lives. There is clearly a demand: my online store sales doubled last year and is on track to do the same or more this year.
What is the happiest memory from this journey?
When I got my first sale from the online store that wasn’t from a friend or family member!
Do you feel it was more difficult because you are a woman?
Fortunately the education world is well-represented by women so I felt supported and honored by my colleagues and clients.
Do you think social media is important?
YES!!! My products are used by 14-25 year olds. They spend a lot of time on social media and are known to learn about brands through those platforms. And my sales data from this past year has shown a direct correlation between increased social presence and sales.
Was there any life lessons you learned along the way?
Challenges lead to creativity and innovation. Throughout this journey I have had bumps in the road - some small and others large. And from each one I’ve had to take a step back and think differently about how to get over or around it. That flexibility in thinking is exciting and stimulating.
Please tell us if COVID-19 has affected your business? If so, do you have a plan in place to try and get back on track?
At the beginning of the pandemic my school planner business crumbled. With so much uncertainty, half my client list backed out of their contracts. For the remaining schools, they had no idea what school would “look like” and the highly customized planners I made for them in previous years no longer made sense. I pivoted quickly and provided new designs that supported student learning and self care during a pandemic. My clients were grateful that I’d taken one of the challenges of COVID off their shoulders and offered solutions and flexibility. A few clients that left are now returning and I’m working closely with each school to determine how to create a tool to support academic life in a post-distance learning era.
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