Hard Lessons for the Teacher Trolley

Editor’s note: This story appeared in our May 2009 issue.

By Jodi McKay

Every inventor has a story. Mine starts with a question. Have you ever really thought about all the mobile classrooms behind schools across America?

Jodi McKay

Jodi McKay

On average, taxpayers paid about $100,000 per trailer. That’s OK because education is a priority in our country. Kids need a place to learn.

What if I told you there are empty classrooms inside all those schools – lots of empty classrooms?

I know because I taught at an overcrowded school and I “floated” between some of these empty rooms.

My year as a floater ignited my “inner Einstein” and started my journey toward inventor-hood.  I created the Teacher Trolley, a complete mobile workstation on four all-terrain wheels.

It is designed to meet the unique needs of nomadic educators and enable floating teachers’ success. I intend to change the way our country views the use of space in our schools and decrease dependency on costly mobile classrooms.

In all honesty, my journey hasn’t been a fast one. However, I have learned a lot along the way.

Since the house is on fire, let us warm ourselves.  –  Italian Proverb

Initially, I saw my invention as simply a product that enabled floating teachers to transport their materials efficiently between several rooms.

For several years, my energy was focused on securing venture capital, creating the perfect design, and protecting a single idea.

However, in my situation, the product is large and it will cost a small fortune (by my standards) to manufacture.

Early on, I made the decision to wait for the right investor instead of taking out a second mortgage on our house to fund the tooling and first wave of manufacturing. This was the right decision for my situation, but it put me in a frustrating place. “Inventor purgatory,” if you will.

Then one day I realized that floating teachers don’t just need a product; they need support.

Teacher Trolley prototype

Teacher Trolley prototype

When I embraced this opportunity and established myself as an “industry expert” on nomadic instruction, a whole new world opened up to me. Best of all, it has cost little more than my time.

As I wait for a manufacturing partner, I have been able to dramatically increase the visibility and value of my company by developing an extensive mailing list of floating teachers, creating Sink or Swim (a bi-monthly online newsletter geared to floater issues), hosting a first-year floater to be our “Blogger in Residence,” marketing professional development workshops directly to schools, and slamming YouTube and Facebook with PSA-style promos bringing awareness to the available space in our schools and our ridiculous dependency on costly mobile classrooms.

Surprisingly, as soon as I started marketing my skills, as opposed to my product, my story was picked up by several national trade magazines. Consequently, I gained great free publicity and validated my company and product.

I have never met a man so ignorant I couldn’t learn something from him.  – Galileo

Despite all our success with expanding our visibility and organic marketing, the smartest thing I did was surround myself with people who know more than I.

Early in the process, I created a voluntary board of advisors to guide my business decisions. After all, I am a teacher, not an MBA. On average, we meet once a quarter. They are a motley group that come from a variety of backgrounds and they seem to enjoy the challenge of trying to get a new company started as much as I do.

I recommend taking the time to create a list of people with knowledge in areas foreign to you (i.e. accounting, small-business development, customer service, marketing and banking/financing). Don’t be afraid to ask them for help. You’ll probably be surprised how many agree to join your adventure.

What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight,

but the size of the fight in the dog!”  – Dwight Eisenhower

I am a woman with no formal business experience who took a sabbatical from the classroom for several years to raise three young kids. My husband is also a teacher, so we aren’t wealthy. However, I have two very important skills that all good stay-at-home-moms have mastered – patience and persistence.

The journey has sometimes been paved with potholes. There was the important urban school official who ate candy bars and answered her cell phone multiple times during our short courtesy meeting. I recall the former advisor who earned my trust then tried to line his pockets with a manufacturing deal through a friend. There is the superintendent who didn’t think a mere teacher could solve his city’s important education budget issues “with her little idea.” And the big school-supply company that showed a lot of interest in acquiring my start-up company as a backdoor approach to learning our product secrets.

These could have been viewed as show stoppers. Instead, I see them as stepping stones on a path to success. I am a little dog with a lot of fight. I may not be there yet. But I’m a lot closer than I was yesterday!




E-mail Jodi at: [email protected]