By LAURA LOREK
Founder of Silicon Hills News
Five years ago, Zeynep Young founded Double Line Partners in her dining room and has since grown it to $20 million in revenue with 120 employees.
The Austin-based startup provides data system dashboards and other tools to schools to improve student performance in grades K-12. Before founding the company, Young worked for the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.
Last week, Young participated in the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network conference, a gathering of 200 female entrepreneurs from all over the world who run companies with revenue of more than $3 million. The three-day conference took place at the W Hotel and Austin City Limits.
Telling stories through data to help students and educators is Young’s passion.
Young was one of those students at risk of falling through the cracks when her parents immigrated to the U.S. and moved to Houston when she was in sixth grade.
One day, Young’s teacher called her mom and told her that her daughter would just smile and nod her head when the teacher told her to do something. Her mother told the teacher that Zeynep didn’t speak English. The teacher didn’t know that. That piece of data had not made it to her. Armed with that information, the teacher became one of Young’s biggest supporters.
“At middle school and high school, kids aren’t able to tell you what their problems are,’’ Young said.
Double Line Partners created a dashboard product that brings in a student’s records for attendance, discipline, grades, credits, local benchmarks, state assessments, AP, ACT and SAT scores.
The school districts already collected a tremendous amount of data on students. But Double Line’s system sits on top of all the existing systems and pulls the data together and recasts it in a student centric way that teachers can understand, Young said.
To develop the product, Young said they started off listening to the educators and their needs. Double Line also looked at the metrics that predict student success and then drafted a prototype product. Then they held focus groups nationwide with more than 3,500 educators and asked for feedback.
“We built the dashboard based on that, “ Young said. “The data provides a picture of the kid. It really resonates. It’s about the kid. It’s not about the technology. It is focused on individual kids in individual classrooms.”
Young first saw the need for the product when she worked at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.
“We were trying to fund projects just like this to give teachers the power of data right in their classrooms at their fingertips,” Young said. “And every time we tried to make a grant and find a vendor that would help our school districts we just fell short. There weren’t very many people out there that had the right skill set and the mindset.”
It was difficult to find a company that had both cutting edge and innovative technology and a deep and nuanced understanding of the education sector, Young said.
“And finally after a frustrating year of trying to get these projects off the ground I thought surely I can do this faster, better and cheaper,” Young said.
Her background was in starting software companies. She was at McKinsey for eight years. Then she worked at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation for four years.
“I felt like I had that combination of tech skills and analytical skills with that real understanding of what our grantees and our clients needed,” she said.
She left the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation in 2009 and started bootstrapping her new venture.
“We decided to forgo raising capital in favor of working directly with our clients on Beta projects and self-funding the development of the systems through consulting engagements,” Young said.
The company started with a collaboration with the Texas Education Agency and the Dell family foundation to create a statewide system that would allow any school district to load up their data and power their dashboards for teachers on a voluntary basis and for free.
Double Line started at the state level because Texas has 1,200 independent school districts and 85 percent of them have less than 5,000 students, Young said.
“Our vision was to do this at the state level, create it once and allow districts to opt into the system for free,” she said.
Young named the company Double Line for its focus on profits and social good.
“What drove me, and I think what drove the success of the business, was the focus on the second bottom line – it has to drive value – social value to the sector,” she said. “It has to improve teachers’ lives and it has to improve students’ success. It has to make an impact at the end of the day. One of the things I wanted to protect was the focus on the second bottom line.”
That’s one reason the company didn’t raise venture capital, Young said.
“When you take capital the focus is on maximizing revenue,” she said.
Focusing on social good has paid off for Double Line.
“The other thing I’m really proud of is the culture that we’ve created in our company,” Young said.
The company’s culture drives success, she said. The first part is “amaze yourself.”
“I never started the company so we could fulfill our contractual obligations or even meet or exceed our customers expectations,” Young said. “I wanted to hire the smartest, most passionate people and at the end of the day have them step back and go wow I cannot believe we pulled this off.”
The next part of its culture is to assume goodness and lastly, people are expected to pick up the ball.
“Working at Double Line partners is an active, not passive job,” Young said. “We expect everyone to be a leader.”
In the future, Double Line sees more growth from existing and new customers and it plans to expand internationally.