A post of mine published last week highlighted the Visual Schedule Builder (VSB), its uses, functionality and the Paper vs. VSB game. This time, however, I thought I would do things a little differently. I had the opportunity to talk to one of the co-founders and the CEO of the VSB, Alan Weeks. Not only was it a great conversation highlighting the inception and importance of the VSB but Alan also gave some valuable advice for budding entrepreneurs.
Without further ado . . .
Garima: Where did the inspiration come from to create the VSB, and how do you feel your student experiences came into play?
Alan: When I was in school, I lived off campus. Every day that I went to class (depending on the method of transportation), I spent an extra three to four hours in public transport. This meant that I was trying to juggle school and a part-time job — with a long commute. I knew that there had to be a better way to make my schedule. I used to spend hours, you know, and take pencil and paper with Excel sheets on the floor, because finding that perfect schedule meant that I might save three to four hours every day. If I saved those hours or put in that extra shift to pay off my education, it would make a huge difference. That’s kind of how everything was influenced and how the VSB came to be!
Garima: How was the VSB created?
Alan: My brother Sean, he’s always been a bit of a genius. He was really the brains behind our first version of the VSB — to him it was a huge challenge. When he was at John Abbott College, he created and used the first version of the tool. At this time, we were the only ones who would use it. We would type in the classes we wanted, and overnight it would generate all the schedules possible. That was the very first version.
Garima: Why do you think the VSB is an important tool for students?
Alan: There are actually many reasons. There are so many opportunities that an institution is constantly trying to give to its students, but if students cannot see those opportunities, it’s as if they don’t exist. For example, if only one in ten thousand schedules is going to work with a part-time job, I can now show it to students [with the VSB] — this is something they may have never been able to see using the paper-and-pen method. So a student, rather than taking four classes, so that they can keep their part-time job, and graduating in five years, can now graduate in four years and still keep their part-time job. And it’s that kind of story that makes me see why we are doing what we are doing: to help students see opportunities; to work around all their different needs, persist and graduate on time.
Garima: What were some challenges — both in terms of marketing and technical — associated with introducing the VSB to schools, and how did you deal with those?
Alan: When you are selling to large organizations, government agencies and schools, the sale cycle can be anywhere from one to three years for them to say “yes, we will buy it” or “no, we won’t.” It can be hard because there are very high upfront marketing costs, and it takes a very long time to get a return. For York University, it took almost three years.
From a technical standpoint, the difficulty lies not in the VSB itself, but in the integration and the student experience. Each school has a different system; we want to integrate with those systems, so that students can ultimately send their registration requests straight to the school system. For one school in particular, it cost us about 300,000 dollars just to have that one button! In terms of student experience, you have to continuously think about how the user experience is and how that will come across most naturally. What’s their next step going to be? What can we do so the whole process is as streamlined and fluid as possible?
Bonus: A perspective from Lucy Bellissimo, Deputy Registrar at York University
The biggest challenge we faced [from the York University perspective] was simply having the resources and time among the many priorities we had. Once we were committed to getting this tool, we had to ensure we kept the focus on this project. The other challenge is just the sheer size of offerings at York. We needed to ensure that this tool could handle our volumes. Once we had a test version of the tool up and running, we invited a group of [York University] students to come in and try the tool and provide their feedback. We [also] have a feedback form on the landing page [of the VSB for your suggestions].
Garima: There are versions of the VSB meant for people with disabilities (mostly people who are visually impaired). Could you expand more on this process?
Alan: We actually have our own accessibility liaison who reviews the different versions of the software and ensures that they are, first of all, accessible, but also that they are usable. And those are actually two very different things. We can pass the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) rather simply by just creating a text-based version of the program with a screen-reader. However, is that really usable for someone with accessibility needs? So we have produced a hybrid model that combines the visual aspect with an increased level of text.
Garima: While completing your degree at Concordia, you started two ventures that not only funded your education at the time but also provided the startup capital for the VSB. What advice do you have for students who are looking into their own startups and entrepreneurial ventures?
Alan: The starting point is learning from other individuals, educating yourself on a specific need and problem. Almost everything in this world has been done to a certain extent — everything that is invented is a derivative or a help to another piece. There is always somebody who spends a ton of time researching something that you can benefit from. The internet is full of information, and almost every question you have you can go and research — it’s all at your fingertips.
The second thing I would say is to seek out good advice; find people who are willing to critique your project honestly. Because our culture kind of glorifies the entrepreneur, the self-starter, there are some ideas that people put way too much money, time and effort into — the same energy that could have been redirected into something else.
I hope that this post gave you all an insight into the VSB — its inception, the process and its impact. Furthermore, I hope that this post provides all you budding entrepreneurs out there with some food for thought! With that said, I thank Alan Weeks for taking the time out of his day to share his invaluable experiences with the YorkU community; it was an interview like no other!
If you have any questions about the VSB or would simply like to share your experiences, feel free to tweet @YorkUStudents with the #YUBLOG.