EverFi CEO, Tom Davidson, a Quiet, Relentless Competitor

Tien Wong (R) gets ready to interview EverFi co-founder and CEO, Tom Davidson, at Big Idea Connectpreneur 2015 Fall edition. As one point as questions flew, Tom quipped:

Tien Wong (R) gets ready to interview EverFi co-founder and CEO, Tom Davidson, at Big Idea Connectpreneur 2015 Fall edition. As one point as questions flew, Tom quipped: “This is like a board meeting.”

Tom Davidson, Co-founder and CEO of EverFi, grew up near Tulsa Oklahoma and graduated in 1994 from Bowdoin College in the coastal town of Brunswick, Maine. After seven years in venture capital, the three-term Maine state legislator moved to the DC area on a remarkable journey with EverFi. The software as a service platform licenses contemporary educational programs that can have a huge impact on whether kids go to college, get a great job, create wealth for themselves, or even survive.

Tom says:

We build and implement sophisticated learning platforms that bring social gaming and really interesting animation, video, simulations that bring issues to life.  We build and implement in schools across the country, but it’s all paid for by the private sector, and that’s the big idea.

He elaborates:

I tell people it’s really a simple model.  I take issues that are devastatingly difficult issue for families with kids, about bankruptcy, mortgages, paying loans, protecting students from rape and violence at school, and more. I put that in front of schools and then I have corporations wrap their brand all over the classes…

Right model + right time = superstar funding

EverFi has come along at an interesting time.  People are impatient with filling educational gaps at all levels.  EverFi’s number and type of courses are expanding.  For example, EverFi is partnering with the National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players’ Association to launch Future Goals, to help promote STEM education in North American schools.

Over the past five years, EverFi has grown from serving 11 students in one rural Alabama school to millions of students across the U.S.  Private sector supporters contribute to license the education software service.  About 1,200 customers have signed 3-4 year licenses for about $1 million per year.

To date, EverFi  has gained support of a collection of coveted investors, which the company maintains have no say in the content of its online lessons.  EverFi has raised about $21 million Series A and B from industry rock stars, New Enterprise Associates (NEA), Rethink Education, Allen & Company, Google’s Eric Schmidt, Ev Williams of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium; and Jeff Bezos.

“We brought them in for a reason,” Tom deadpans, “we are incessant name droppers.” He notes that why these successful entrepreneurs don’t meet with him every day, he is impressed with the degree of granularity they know about EverFi. He admires Ev Williams’ calm, yet relentless, style.

Did he mention that Pharrell Williams came out to perform at an under-served community he supports?  Students had to meet certain EverFi course certification or badge requirements to attend.

Keep  smiling, be realistic

Tom says he tries to keep an even keel.  He feels among his responsibilities is to maintain a sense of humor and optimism because these are contagious. He seems most comfortable when he is gently making fun of himself.

After recognizing that around $8,600 a year public servant salary doesn’t go far enough, even in a small town in Maine, Tom tried his hand as a venture capitalist for the next seven years.  He said he wasn’t very good at it. It also might have been a good basis for managing EverFi as it continues to grow.

His Basic Instinct

Speaking in the featured chat with Tien Wong, a host of the quarterly Connectpreneur networking and pitch event, Tom said the presidential debate the night before had made him reflect on his own political experience as a Maine state legislator. He has come to understand that the three terms he spent reviewing some 4,200 bills exposed him to the inequity of school funding.

The fact that your life is determined by your zip code is just so “freakin’ unfair,” he said.

The deep dive into politics

I was 22 and had never run for anything in life, largely because I would never have won student council office…but I got interested locally during the 1992 presidential election and had the harebrained idea to run for state legislature when a seat opened up.  I jumped into the race and a wonderful guy who represented the district forever, my worst nightmare, a wonderful person, Vietnam vet, decided to run against me in the primary.

Tom learned that he can be relentless when inspired by work he believes in.

  • He successfully knocked on over 35,000 doors to ask for support in the election.
  • He spent two years traveling the country in an RV with co-founders, fellow Bowdoin alum, gathering data points about problems schools in different districts need to solve and how they are solving them now.

He credits his mother for putting a human face on the general topic of serving, not just feeling empathy for, hardworking people.

He says:

My mom taught me to appreciate people working their butts off at their jobs…I remember her pulling over to the curb to have us observe and appreciate someone who was sweeping carefully or thanking the woman who cleaned the rest room stalls for her thorough mopping.

It makes sense that New Enterprise Associates (NEA) is involved.  The largest venture funding in the world needs to chase unlimited opportunities.  The good news and the bad news is that as Tom puts it: “It’s not like I’m proposing a solution to global warming.  The problem of inequitable school funding is never going to get solved — ever.”

The Next Milestone

No doubt about it, EverFi foresees another major capital infusion to “catalyze the next 5-10 years of what we do.” In the last year, Tom says he has spent time with Reid Hoffman [Linkedin] and some folks that build really big stuff.  I learned that an IPO is just capitalization to those folks, not an exit.”

We don’t need to raise capital but we would like to buy some interesting technology so we can ingest core technology — imbed it into our programs and push it out to our schools.  I’d be surprised in the next 18 months to two years if you didn’t see us do something pretty interesting.

Tom concludes:

At the end of the day, everything we do results in a really amazing student on the end of the line learning something super important for their life.  They will make certain decisions that will put them in a better place.  It gives me chills.  I can’t think of a better thing to do.

Venerable organizations like Junior Achievement and big, corporate competitors, such as Discovery and Pearson take note:  You’ve got to watch out for the quiet ones.  EverFi is proving to be a relentless competitor.

After his featured chat at Connectpreneur, EverFi Co-founder and CEO, Tom Davidson, continues the conversation.

After his featured chat at Connectpreneur, EverFi Co-founder and CEO, Tom Davidson, continues the conversation.

About Janice K. Mandel

I've been telling company stories for years and am curious about trends and new ventures. I am an entrepreneur currently in the direct pay healthcare space. Early adopter experience in New York City included: Sr. Editor, EIC/Intelligence, the first online, commercial database (1980s);Communications/Voice of Equinta.com, like Zillow but in 1999; and Reach networks -- like Mosaic, only four years sooner. I am working with a healthcare platform helping to invent the future of United States Healthcare. I contribute to StartupGrind publications.
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