Katie Fang, founder and CEO of Austin-based education technology startup SchooLinks doesn’t like to talk about age, but she’s 25. She doesn’t like it when people applaud her for being a woman working in a predominately male industry, but they do. She doesn’t like to think she’s a success story, but she is.
// THE FOUNDATION //
Who knows if any of this would have transpired without a dose of inspiration from the Disney Channel.
As a young girl growing up in Shanghai, China, Katie Fang loved nothing more than to come home from school, plant herself in front of the TV and soak in the loud, ebullient English programming.
“I always admired people who could speak fluent English,” Fang says.
It was a skill she was eager to learn.
Through the glaring screen scrolling with Chinese subtitles, she became fascinated with the American culture. At the age of 12, she decided she had to see it for herself. Fang petitioned her parents for an education visa, making them read, sign and date her handwritten request—a note speckled with placating promises—so all matters were official. Her parents, a successful pair of serial entrepreneurs, acquiesced. They bet their daughter would apply and never hear back.
But she did.
After securing her education visa, she was off to an aerospace engineering camp in Houston. Her fluency in English was next to nonexistent. Outside of what she had absorbed from the Disney Channel, this was Fang’s first immersion into American culture.
“That was fun,” Fang says, reflecting on her time at the camp. Now 25, she’s comfortable standing in a room where she knows no one. “I love going to places where I don’t know anybody,” she says. She’s been doing exactly that for the past 13 years.
When the aerospace camp ended, she wasn’t ready to go back home. Education visa secured, she held the world in the palm of her hand. So she jetted off to Australia—first Sydney, then Melbourne—to attend an English language school. From there, she traveled to London and Toronto for high school before making her way to Vancouver, British Columbia, to attend business school at the university of British Columbia.
Unlike many of her peers, Fang always seemed to know what she wanted and where she was headed next, so much so that family friends started calling on her for advice. Their high-school-aged sons and daughters were on the search for the perfect college fit and needed guidance. If anyone had the right answers, they thought, it had to be her.
“They would ask me, ‘Katie, where do you recommend?’ I would be on the phone calling parents, sending instant messages, preparing application documents, consulting [with a student], trying to understand their background, what they like and what they don’t like, what their strengths were,” she says. “I helped them determine which schools they would be suitable for. Then I would gather all the necessary materials and send in their applications. Imagine, it was very redundant.”
She knew there had to be a better way, a more efficient educational search and application process.
During her time at UBC, she studied finance and completed many prestigious internships. Considering a career in web design, she took a number of classes in computer science and learned how to code—an imperative skill, unbeknownst to her then, she would need to rely on sooner rather than later.
“I wanted to be on Wall Street for the longest time,” Fang says, adding sarcastically that because of her innately aggressive nature she “wanted to yell at people in a training room.”
It wasn’t until the end of college that she realized a career in financial trading and wealth management wasn’t going to make her happy.
“Your job is to make wealthy people wealthier. You buy and you sell,” Fang says of the industry. “I had the wrong concept of what that was going to be about. I wanted to create something.”
Similar to many of the high-school seniors she was advising, Fang approached graduation with a sense of uncertainty.
“I felt what everyone else felt,” she says, “the sense of being lost.”
// THE DRAWING BOARD //
Fang packed up her bags and made the move from Vancouver to her parents’ house in LA. It was a house her mom and dad had bought not for themselves to live in, but because, if history was any track record for the future, they didn’t expect their daughter to return to China anytime soon. It was June 2014. Then 23, Fang started settling into the rhythm of life out of college, buying a new car, getting an electricity account, all the while continuing to advise high-school students in their college quests.
“That was a continuous, ongoing thing,” Fang says of her serendipitous side business. “Whenever I had a request, I’d do it. And then, [one day,]I was like, ‘oh my gosh, this is the thing that I should do! I have the experience. Why not just start doing it?’ So I started coding the website. At the beginning, I wanted to build the Yelp for schools. Then I felt that wasn’t the right way to do it—that [information]is not really useful. You just read reviews, but what can you get out of it?”
She told her parents about her business concept and, with $5,000 in savings, Fang kick-started the education technology startup known today as SchooLinks.
As web traffic started to pick up for the site, she realized one thing was missing: a team. As luck would have it, her family house abutted the university of California, Los Angeles campus. She started posting internship fliers on the university grounds.
“Imagine my recruiting method. I was like, ‘Do you want to come live with me in this really nice house? I’m an amazing cook,’” Fang says.
She managed to build up a staff of 12 interns, seven of whom lived in the house, all coming and going, balancing class assignments while building SchooLinks.
“Those were fun times,” Fang remembers, hesitating. “I was sleep- deprived.”
Months of back-end website work later and the site had transitioned from a Yelp business model into what Fang now touts as “LinkedIn meets Match-dot-com for students and schools.”
In June 2015, after receiving an invite to take part in the accelerator program at Capital Factory, which works to connect entrepreneurs with investors, talent and customers, Fang hastily and without hesitation moved her company to Austin.
// THE VISION //
“Imagine you are a lost high-school junior. A counselor is sitting right in front of you, asking you, ‘So, what would you like to study in college?’ it would be cool to say something that sounds good, like, ‘oh, I want to study engineering.’ But how are you so sure if you want to study that subject?” Fang prods.
Her point: High-school students are being pressured into planning their lives in a 30-minute or hour-long counseling session.
“In education now, there are two important topics that are being mentioned over and over. One is college readiness and the other is college success,” Fang says. “If we’re talking about college success, then how do we prepare students to not drop out? A lot of students drop out for mainly two reasons. One is they don’t have the money to pay and the other is that they’re failing. Well, why are they failing? We are supplying so many technologies to facilitate their learning process. Maybe it’s the motivation we should be looking for. Because they don’t like what they’re doing, they’re not motivated. It’s all about the motivation. With that, they’ll have the intrinsic drive to thrive and succeed.”
When a student logs onto the subscription-free SchooLinks site, his or her search behavior—which colleges and careers they’re looking at—is automatically tracked and analyzed to determine which university would be a proper fit.
“Imagine a student says they’re looking for schools with computer-science degrees,” Fang offers as an example. “That’s what they put on their profile, but they’re actually looking [around our site]for liberal-arts schools. So what does that suggest? It’s not going to be a very good match if we are trying to suggest them engineering schools. There’s a lot involved in selecting a college, not only the factual data like financials, GPA and location, but also intrinsic interest. What do you really like? … I like to think of it as a marriage. If two people are not compatible to begin with, then how much counseling will you need to make a marriage work?”
Fang’s overarching mission and goal with SchooLinks is to make the student-college connection process more streamlined and hassle-free.
“Imagine if we could tell the student to apply to the right school and tell the school to recruit the right students. Immediately, there’s a lot of cost and a lot of time being saved. And guess what? Now we can reinvest into education, spend less on marketing and spend more on teaching,” she says.
So far, the SchooLinks website has partnered with more than 2,400 schools from throughout the world. In the U.S., the site has aggregated more than 650 undergrad campus listings, giving students a snapshot of both what they can expect and what will be expected from them at universities like Rice and the university of California, Berkeley.
A simple search on the SchooLinks website for The University of Texas pulls up run-of-the-mill information (average student-to-teacher ratio, application deadline dates, etc.), as well as some unique campus perspectives, such as an Instagram component through which users can view recent photos taken from around the 40 Acres.
// THE SUPPORT //
Growing up, Fang watched her parents start a semiconductor selling-and-trading business, a company that’s been in operation in China for 26 years now.
Juggling multiple projects and ever-shifting tasks was a constant mode of operation for her mom and dad. Their entrepreneurial spirit struck a chord with Fang. This, she thought, was what work-life balance, what normalcy, looked like.
Without her parents, Fang says, SchooLinks would not be where it is today.
“A lot of times, I see young entrepreneurs whose family pressured them to do things. If I didn’t have my parents’ full support, just to let me do what I do without bothering me, then i would have failed,” she says. “As an entrepreneur, you are already under so much pressure. Family needs to be stable and supportive.”
Although she only sees her mom, dad and 13-year-old brother a few times a year, Fang confidently asserts her family remains as close knit as always.
“The sense of love in my family is very different from other families,” Fang explains. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, your parents must not love you. They don’t sit down with you and eat dinner.’ But I think my family and I have the perfect relationship. We text and call each other every day. We share articles. The sense of care is always there. It’s not like you have to be together all the time. What’s that saying? ‘Distance makes the heart grow fonder.’”
// THE STIGMA //
When Fang enters a room of new people, she doesn’t flock to surround herself with other women or try to find someone her own age.
“I see people, that’s what I see. I don’t see gender,” she says. “I have a very different perspective of feminism. I don’t really like to talk about it. I feel like the more we acknowledge it and make a big fuss about it, that’s going to be an issue. People will say to me, ‘Oh my god, you’re a girl! How does it feel to be in a field where predominately there are men?’ I’m like, ‘I see no difference. I can do whatever [a man]is doing.’ I don’t really like to think about it. I like to use my work, my product to speak.”
She takes a similar blind-eye approach when considering a person’s age.
“I process all the HR documents [for SchooLinks], and I never look at a person’s date of birth. I look at potential only, not age,” she says, abashedly confessing she never knows how many candles to buy when it’s time to celebrate an employee’s birthday in the office. It’s easy for her to forget how old her team members are.
Blake Garrett, founder and CEO of Austin-based app Aceable and a friend of Fang’s, admits it’s easy for him to forget she’s only 25.
“She’s super smart and very mature,” the 32-year-old Garrett says, adding that the more willingness a person like Fang has to put themselves in uncomfortable situations—like, say, navigating a room full of new faces—directly correlates to how successful he or she will be as an entrepreneur.
// THE MOTIVATION //
“When I look back, if I knew how hard it was going to be today, I wouldn’t have had the courage to start [SchooLinks],” Fang admits. “Back then, I was this ruthless kid. I thought, ‘OK, two years down the road, I’m going to be a millionaire.’ You build a product, you attract venture funding, you sell more, you scale and then you get acquired or you go public. And that’s it. Now, I understand it’s way more than that.”
More than financial riches, she values positive user feedback.
“When people say the platform is useful, that’s the most rewarding part [of my job]. That means we really helped someone,” she says.
In the early days of a startup, Garrett confides, when you don’t have a lot of money, you have to be resourceful and people have to make sacrifices.
“What I’ve seen,” he says, “is that people are willing to make sacrifices in order to follow Katie. She’s a hustler. She’ll do whatever it takes to get something done.”
There are two types of motivation, according to Fang.
“One is intrinsic and the other is external. The majority of people are powered by external factors; you have to listen to a TED Talk, for example, to get inspired and motivated,” Fang says. “For me, it’s this intrinsic drive. To be honest, I don’t need anything. I have a comfortable home. I have a nice car. For me, the drive is really that I want to leave a dent in the world. I want to change education. That’s my goal: to be impactful.”
As founder and CEO, Fang wears many hats. Key among them is serving as the company’s self-designated cheerleader.
“When you are a very small team, one person’s emotions can easily affect another’s,” she says with an air of aged wisdom. “I’ll go the extra mile to make sure a person is motivated and happy. They can come to me with their family problems, boyfriend problems, girlfriend problems, everything. So I’ve become this janitor/cheerleader,” she says.
// THE EXECUTION //
A recent Kauffman Index report on startup activity found that between the years 1997 and 2015, the percentage of young entrepreneurs—those ages 20 to 34—has declined from 34.3 percent to 24.7 percent. In that same time frame, the share of new entrepreneurs who were female has also fallen, from 43.7 percent to 36.8 percent.
“The number of startups that don’t make it past one year is an astounding percentage,” Garrett says. “So, just that alone means Katie is doing something right.”
Most mornings, Fang heads to the SchooLinks office, located in the heart of downtown at Sixth Street and Congress Avenue, at 8 a.m. to join her eight-person team, all ranging in age from 22 to 29.
At 8:45 a.m., they gather for their daily stand-up, or scrum, meeting.
“[It’s a time when] everyone, the entire company, is standing up and they tell the team what they accomplished yesterday and what they are going to do for today,” Fang says. “It’s a great way to engage and put everyone on the same page as to what you are doing and achieving.”
For her crew, the workday normally wraps up by 6:30 p.m. For her, the final work hour can easily extend to 1 or 2 a.m.
“Sometimes, I go home, run on Congress for 30 minutes, go back home, eat cereal for dinner and continue working. That’s very typical, even now,” Fang says.
Truman Boyles, the product designer for SchooLinks, has witnessed this one-woman show firsthand.
“It’s amazing how far she can go with such little amount of sleep,” Boyles says. “When I first visited Austin, before deciding to take the job [at SchooLinks], I stayed in Katie’s guest room. We would go to work, come back home and she would still be working. She’d set up her laptop and just be going. It’s a part of who she is. She has ceiling, I’m sure. I just haven’t seen her reach it yet.”
Some weeks, Fang’s feet barely touch the ground. Take the week of her 25th birthday, for instance, which started off with a road trip to the Circular Summit Women’s Entrepreneur Conference in Houston. Shortly after the conference ended, she was on a plane to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to meet with the president of ACT, a standardized-testing company, before heading to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with the U.S. Digital Service, the president’s digital team at the White House. Then she was off to a meeting with McGraw-Hill in New York City before catching her return flight to Austin. Added up, that’s four cities in one week.
“Sometimes, people think, ‘Oh my god, your job is so fun. You’re just traveling.’ But you have no idea how lonely it is,” Fang says with a deadpan stare. “It’s not like I’m going to a new city and having drinks with people. It’s more like: fly into the city, prepare for the meeting, go to all your meetings and then fly to the second city that evening. It just repeats and repeats and you’re always alone, having these conversations where you have to be super energetic even though you’re so tired. It doesn’t end. And I still have to correspond with my team while I’m on the go. It’s not like I’m only negotiating for partnerships. It doesn’t work like that.”
If there’s one thing Fang has down pat though, it’s the ability to meet with people and convince them to integrate with and invest in SchooLinks.
“When Katie told me about this idea, I was kind of dumbstruck,” Boyles says, referring to the concept of SchooLinks. “I was like, ‘Why isn’t this a thing yet?’ I felt like she was sitting on a goldmine.
“Through one conversation talking to her, I knew this was a person I needed to work for,” he says of Fang. “This is a person who could be selling socks online. It could be some terrible business idea, but Katie is somebody who is going to make it happen. I was sold on her, more so than anything else.”
// THE ROAD AHEAD //
Since moving to Austin from LA, Fang likes to joke that, if anything has changed about her, it’s her tolerance for alcohol.
“I didn’t know day drinking was a thing until moving to Austin,” she says. “I also didn’t know people could be this nice. I didn’t know a city like this existed. It’s walkable, affordable and there’s [a focus on]tech.”
She strives for SchooLinks to grow in the same direction she sees the skyscrapers reaching on her morning walk into work: up and only up.
“I don’t think we are successful yet. We have a long way to go,” Fang says humbly. “I feel like once you’ve raised the money, people say, ‘Oh my god, you’re done. Congratulations!’ But I feel like there’s nothing you can congratulate me about. After fundraising, once you’ve got the money and you’ve got the check, now you’ve made a promise to investors. Now the death clock starts ticking. It’s no joke. It’s just the beginning.”
Still, Boyles justifies, the amount he’s seen the company grow in the past three months is staggering.
“The amount that we’ve accomplished and how much I know we’re going to accomplish in another three months is insane,” he says. “Everything is moving so fast, but it’s in the best direction.”
Schoolink’s latest web feature, a student planner, made its debut May 4.
“It’s where we generate a customized planner for [the student] to follow every step of the way. It’s really easy to digest and we tell you exactly the steps you need to take,” Fang says of the new addition.
The vision, in the long run, is for SchooLinks to be the go- to place for anything education-related. The company’s end goal, she emphasizes, is not to create its own test-prep content. Rather, it’s to integrate and serve as a frictionless tool for students, counselors and educators to plug into.
“When you want to search for something, you go to Google. When you want to post pictures, you go to Instagram. But when you think about education, you don’t have anywhere to go,” Fang says. “We want SchooLinks to be this de-facto standard of education, so, when you want to search [for education], you go to SchooLinks.”
As a young girl, the same one who hurried home from school to watch the Disney Channel, Fang flirted with dreams of being an architect, a surgeon and an astronaut.
“I had a lot of dreams,” she admits, her cheeks dimpling. “The thing about me is I have a lot of interests. I never get bored because I see everything as interesting.”
She pauses, just long enough to clasp her hands together and transition her train of thought.
“I see myself being a serial entrepreneur,” Fang says matter-of- factly. “I’m not going to stop at one venture. [SchooLinks] is the first, but it’s not the last.”
// KATIE FANG’S TOP FIVE TIPS FOR SUCCESS //
1. Keep an online, searchable journal to help ward off doubt.
“Sometimes, I need to force myself to stop thinking and just do things. I learned to keep an online journal on Evernote to keep track of my thoughts, because doubts will not just come once; they will hit you time and time again. You want to be able to go back and trace what thoughts you had before and compare it to now. You want to see what made you realize you shouldn’t doubt yourself.”
“I know the single challenge I face is to focus. Being an entrepreneur, you are tempted with so many things, so many opportunities. You can chase after a lot of things, but you don’t want to half-ass something that’s already on your plate. You have to be able to focus and go after one thing.”
3. Do more faster.
“I love that saying. Once you’ve decided you want to do something, just chase after it. Why have that period of hesitation? Just do it.”
4. Use advisors.
“They’re your best friends. Don’t be ashamed of any stupid ideas you might have in your head. Talk it out.”
5. Clear Your head.
“Go for a run. Go to yoga. Take time for yourself. It’s important.”