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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 9, 2017 1 year ago

School Session

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The education market is ripe for technological disruption. An enterprising techie hopes to be a big part of the shift.
by: Alicia Ceccarelli Contributing Writer

As a former partner at an IT training facility, Chris Beach saw firsthand the pain course providers feel when classroom seats go unfilled. On a national level, Beach calculated a loss of nearly $60 billion in unsold class seats.

After two years in development, Beach has devised a business plan to aggregate those lost dollars with a platform he describes as “the Priceline of education.” The online booking platform links course providers looking to fill extra seats with course takers willing to purchase at a discounted rate.

In developing Cape Coral-based BooqSmart, Beach took cues from discount travel-booking sites and applied it to serve a supersized global market — the training industry. “It's a tremendous pie,” says Beach. The model serves the IT, vocational, health care, culinary and recreational education markets where Beach estimates enrollment caps out around 65-70%.

Instead of hotels and airlines, like Priceline, BooqSmart's market space lies in the potential 39,000 course providers nationwide. Beach is confident that BooqSmart's model, which he says is the first of its kind, will be a hit with schools and students. Beach is starting with Southwest Florida schools, but plans to go international as the business grows. He officially launched the site in April.

“We are the only real-time discount booker out there,” Beach says. “We created the market, we are first to market.”

Here's how BooqSmart works: Course providers offer up for bid last-minute seats on BooqSmart's website. Course takers, the users, create free accounts, to search for courses available in their location through BooqSmart's search tool. They place a bid on their desired course. The course provider has the option to accept or counter the bid.

From there, the BooqSmart site books the course on behalf of the school, handles the payment from the student, keeps a 20% flat fee, (netting 15% to BooqSmart) and passes the remaining 80% of the purchase price onto the school. The service is free for schools. Fees for classes course takers pay vary widely.

For schools, says Beach, it's an easy return because BooqSmart has done the scouting to “put the butts in the seats.” Students, meanwhile, benefit from more affordable access to instructor-led training, including, in some cases, licensing and certificates, at discounts up to 60%, according to BooqSmart's website. “It's phenomenal that we are able to give individuals access to those kinds of discounted pricing that the HRs, businesses and government entities have always had access to,” says Beach.

Beach's sales team will recruit the schools. Marketing dollars will be spent in advertising through social media and television ads, among others, to attract users. “Right now,” says Beach, “we are steeped in sales-team building and marketing kickoff.”

One of Beach's biggest obstacles is to fund the enterprise, though he's recently had some victories. In early 2016, he was chosen for a Silicon Valley accelerator program, Founders Space. Beach was among 1,100 applicants. “We were lucky enough to make one out of 14,” he says.

In nine months at Founders Space, Beach attracted the attention of several investors, including Andreas Ramos, former manager of global SEO for Cisco. Another win was IBM investing in BooqSmart's initial software development: a free allowance of $10,000 per month over the next 12 months. Beach has used a portion of those funds to build out BooqSmart's server. “We have to be on a robust enterprise,” he says. “A really strong platform that can handle that kind of traffic and security.”

And in March, Beach won $25,000 from a local angel investing event, VenturePitch SWFL. Finally, there's a personal investment of more than six figures, plus sweat equity and time away from his family. Beach is confident it will be worth it.

“I don't think you can consider yourself successful,” he says, “or that you will be successful unless you have put it all on the line.”

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