Here at Knewton, we put a high value on creativity and entrepreneurship, and it shows in the way our team members choose to spend their time outside of work. At any given time a large number of Knerds are working away at side projects — artistic endeavors, business ventures, athletic competitions, and more.
Before he started working in edtech at Knewton, Senior Marketing Associate Robbie Mitchell was working on a different educational project: rap songs.
Robbie is the co-founder of educationalrap.com, also known as Rhythm Rhyme Results (RRR, pronounced “Triple R”), which sells educational rap songs for middle school teachers and students. The songs cover math, science, language arts, social studies, and economics.
I talked with Robbie recently to learn more about his experiences running RRR.
How did you get started?
My close friend Ben and I had been making music together since high school. He’s an incredible musician with teaching experience; in the winter of 2005 he and I were living together, and we spent a week working on some songs and recording them in our apartment.
One of those original songs was the Circulatory System:
We shared the demos with our friends and family and they all got a kick out of them.
How did you move from just doing this for fun to making a business out of educational rap?
We kept being told we should do more with the songs. After some pilot testing in schools, we got together with Ben’s parents, one of whom was an orchestra conductor, the other a trained musician with many years of music education and arts administration. They stepped in to help as angel investors.
At the time I was working at Harvard as an assistant to a couple of economics professors. I was trying to do entrepreneurial things while there, but realized that I wasn’t long-term interested in economic development and trade. So, I left my job to work on RRR full-time. Ben would be the music guy and I would be the business guy.
After building a network of professional contributors — we hired lyricists, producers, and performers for every song — and producing four albums, we put them up on iTunes, but there were some downfalls with that — we didn’t get any data, the money was delayed, we had little control over presentation. I also arranged meetings with VPs at big companies like Disney and Viacom, but they didn’t really know what to do with the songs.
Eventually I put together an e-commerce system where teachers could buy the songs (or CDs — which we created due to popular demand) with credit cards from our site, and that’s when we really started selling. We also contracted with some people to build an inexpensive streaming system that we could use to sell subscriptions to schools and hooked it up to be an automated signup and billing process. And that’s where we are today. iTunes is a small part of our business. Most of our revenue now comes from individuals buying the downloads or CDs, or subscribing to streaming. All of the songs now include related games and worksheets for teachers to use with students.
What lessons did you bring to Knewton from your time running RRR?
The cool part about RRR early-on was that I was doing a little bit of everything myself. By the fourth album I was overseeing production, running the website, customer service, drumming up business development meeting, learning about SEO… The nice thing was that I got a really strong sense for tight feedback loops. People would call for support because they didn’t understand something on the website, so I would go back and edit it so it was clear. I figured out how to automate a lot of things that were annoying. I came to Knewton with a bunch of tools that were really helpful that we use here now, like WordPress and Formstack — tools that helped me do things quickly by myself.
Do you have a favorite song?
There are so many. Over time, we put a little more money into songs and we got better at the collaborative production process. We also did an economics album with Flat World Knowledge aimed at high-schoolers — we had gained more experience by then, and the songs reflect it.
Here are two of those:
My favorites from the “core subjects” songs are probably “Layers of the Earth”, “Dots and Dashes (Punctuation)”, “Don’t be Negative”, and “Civil Rights Movement”. I’m really partial to the production in the songs (like in general music) and these songs have such interesting things going on. We put a lot of care into things you might not hear unless you listen to an instrumental version. (Each song pack and CD includes each song in four versions, including instrumental.)
Students have also made some great YouTube videos out of the songs for class projects and extra credit. There’s a playlist of our favorites, and here’s one of them.