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Thuto Durkac Somo
San Kim, who graduated from Columbia College in 2006, is the founder of the startup ShowMe, a website where people upload and view educational videos for free. Still in its infant stage, ShowMe is quickly gaining traction with teachers, coaches, and other education professionals who use the website as an accessible and cheap teaching tool. Unlike other online education sites, ShowMe emphasizes the importance of teachers as part of education. Kim tutored students during his time at Columbia and now teaches guitar in his spare time. The Eye talked with Kim about his musical skills, whiteboards, and cresting the right product.
After graduation, you were a musician playing in bars all over New York City. How did you go from there to ShowMe?
So I did a lot of different things when I was going through college, and I was into a few different things, one of them being music and the other being teaching. I was a music major and a musician. But while I was pursuing music, I was also teaching, not only to make money but also because I’ve always been passionate about it. So though I pursued music for a while, and I enjoyed that a lot, the other passion that I always had was teaching.
You were also a philosophy and math minor—your interests must be pretty eclectic. How did your education inform your own experiences with teaching?
I think teaching really is not just the subject matter but also how to approach learning, how to approach topics in general. And those are things that I feel philosophy and math in particular are really good at teaching—how to think. And I think really good teachers are able to teach anything in any topic regardless of what their expertise is, just by sheer virtue of knowing how to teach people. All the teachers that I really loved growing up in middle school, high school, and college—those were the people that I really connected with.
You were working at Proverian Capital when you were getting ShowMe up and running, when it was initially called LearnBat.
Yeah, we started ShowMe, or what was originally called Learn- Bat, two years ago, and the original concept was a little bit different, but
it shared a lot of characteristics—it was based on a whiteboard, and it was about making learning more accessible to more people. It just had a different approach and business model, and it took some time to refine that over a year. You have to take what you learn from your current product and make changes to it to make it better, make it serve users better. And so the main thing I try to tell people is that you’ll find your first idea is probably not going to be the idea—it’s not going to be the big thing. But having an open mind and learning as you go about how people use your product gets you there. We did that a couple times, and each time, we switched names to reflect what it became.
What was your main motivation behind this? Was the goal to democratize education?
I think it really came from my experiences teaching and my belief that teachers are very, very important to us. The great teachers that I had were not just the people who gave information—they were the ones who gave me motivation, inspiration, who guided me through life. That kind of human element, I thought, was missing from what a lot of educational companies were doing. A lot of companies at the time, and still now, are trying to replace teachers and replace them with algorithms. But we want to preserve what makes teachers great, that human element. And so the whiteboard was a huge part of that concept, this sort of blank slate. A whiteboard or blackboard is the medium through which teachers express themselves and not only give the information but also communicate and inspire students. So we built something around the whiteboard, and what ShowMe became was basically a digitized whiteboard and a way for teachers to easily share what they know. Really the most important thing is that we didn’t want to build something teachers had to get trained on and read an instruction manual. We wanted to build something that was so easy that anyone could use it, and that’s what it became.
Did you decide early on to target grade school teachers? The promotional video features schoolteachers who have used ShowMe in their own classrooms, allowing students to also view their lessons at home. Was this kind of application something you had in mind?
It was kind of unexpected in terms of the exact demographics. We had to think of it in terms of an experiment and not so much like a plan. We built this thing that we thought was cool, and we showed it to as many people as possible. We reached out to the teacher community and teaching conferences, and the more [people] we showed it to it became clear what segment was most enthusiastic, and that was K-12.
What challenges did you face in trying to get this project off the ground?
It happened quickly, but only after a long period of time. It took us a year and a half to define the product to what ShowMe is today. After that, it grew quickly, but the hard part was not getting it out once we had ShowMe but getting to the place where ShowMe is now. It took months of cycling through a product that was subpar and trying to make it better. There was a lot of experimentation and getting feedback from users and doing that cycle of getting feedback. Once it was built, teachers started coming after us, and it was pretty easy after that.
What was going through your mind during this stage?
Until just a few months ago, it was all kind of uncertain. We didn’t really have the right product, and as we got closer and closer, we still didn’t really have it. The toughest part about this whole process is achieving the product and continuing to improve something that is imperfect, trying to perfect it over time.
Do you think a lot of it was being in the right place at the right time?
I think it was being mindful and being open to all the opportunities that are out there. Again, the most important thing in all of this was trying to get users involved and get as much feedback as possible— and knowing that your idea isn’t perfect from the beginning and your job is to perfect it through the feedback you get.
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