Before there were digital platforms like YouTube and iTunes that efficiently distribute bits around the world, there were publishers that excelled at the efficient distribution of books. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, headquartered in Boston, traces its lineage back to that era.
Not only was it responsible for many of the textbooks that you toted around in your grade school backpack, but in the 19th century, the company published iconic American writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau, and the Curious George books your parents may have read to you at bedtime. But now, as reading and education shift to tablets and laptops, the company is working to remake itself. Can it become a digital platform, too, distributing content, software, and cloud-based services to schools?
That’s the question that led to the creation of HMH Labs in 2014. The fifteen-person group was formed in the aftermath of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s acquisition of a small software company called SchoolChapters, Inc. That company’s CEO, Claudia Reuter, was chosen to lead HMH Labs. We spoke with her recently, on a day that she was hosting a meetup for Boston-area software developers at HMH headquarters.
Mission: Facilitating innovation
InnoLead: Tell us about the mission of HMH Labs. Your company was acquired by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Claudia Reuter: After our product got integrated into the core HMH offerings, our mission became, “What else can we do to leverage technology or create new solutions that could foster and facilitate innovation?” It’s not that the Labs team is the center of innovation. We’re facilitating innovation via technology. Our first step was deploying a set of APIs [application programming interfaces] to the developer community, so that we could extend HMH’s offering and allow developers to integrate more with us.
This year, we launched a marketplace (see below), which is really an environment for the creators of other solutions, whether those are supplemental lesson plans or new apps, to have a commercialized environment [that makes them available] to our customers. It’s a platform for anyone who is out there trying to improve the educational experience to have an opportunity to come to one place to do that. We’ve already seen folks come in, ranging from individual teachers who are making their own resources in a new way all the way to big providers. Microsoft is in our marketplace now.
InnoLead: Is there a business model like the iTunes Store, where you guys take a little slice of the revenue?
Reuter: Yes. Right now, it’s in beta, and there’s no fee to participate. There is a revenue share on paid transactions. It’s completely up to the providers to set their own price, but it’s really an opportunity to engage with a larger education ecosystem, to let our customers see what else is going out there. At the same time, it’s a way have it be in the confines of appropriateness for the classroom.
InnoLead: The API, can you go back to that? Give us a concrete example of how people are using it.
Reuter: Two really easy examples. There’s a company called Spritz. They developed a software application that extracts text from a paragraph one word at a time, and their mission is to help learners who struggle to be able to focus on one word at a time, and then help measure the speed at which they’re reading. They’re not makers of content, but their solution needs to interact with content.
InnoLead: It sounds like the mission today is, “We want to develop technologies that benefit the company as a whole,” but not to be a new product development group or a skunkworks that’s going to invent new products or new pieces of software.
Reuter: Right. We’re really focused on developing technology solutions that can facilitate innovation around the company. One of the things we’re doing in the marketplace this year…is a way for teachers to submit different ideas that they have, and things they’re looking for, and then help connect that feedback to what’s happening in the developer community.
InnoLead: Sort of a wish list, basically?
Reuter: Yes, but we’re really just helping to make those connections, and then [our product development groups and other companies will] take it from there, in terms of what gets made.
Partnerships with Accelerators & Involvement with Hackathons
InnoLead: Are there some ways that you are responsible for interacting with the world of startups that are creating educational technology?
Reuter: Yes. We’ve been working with groups like LearnLaunch here in Boston [an accelerator program], participating in their annual conference, and going to some of their different events. We’ve been hosting events here in Boston, like developer meet-ups. There’s actually one here tonight. It’s just an opportunity for developers to get together, and learn more about some of the things HMH has been working on.
We’ve also been participating in events like TechCrunch Disrupt in New York, and we were there as one of the [companies] people could build with in the hackathon there. We got to see what people could do in 24 hours. They used our APIs, plus IBM Watson, or plus Amazon Alexa. It was pretty exciting to see.
InnoLead: Obviously, you want these relationships with other software developers to use the APIs and to potentially sell their products in the marketplace. Are there other benefits, maybe in terms of trend-scouting, and seeing what’s happening out there?
Reuter: Absolutely. HMH is just first and foremost a global education company. That’s our mission. It’s to reach learners around the world, and our mission in Labs is to find ways that technology can help facilitate these interactions.
InnoLead: Your team is mostly software developers. You said you’ve added to it a little bit since the acquisition. Is that more software developers, is it user experience people or designers?
Reuter: There’s a variety of skill sets on the team. We have some folks who are primarily focused on design, and working cross-functionally with the core design team at HMH to make sure we have a unified visual identity. We also have two folks on the team who are purely working in the developer relations capacity, making sure that, if someone chooses to use the API, they have a good experience, that we’re onboarding them correctly and, if they choose to commercialize, that we’re holding their hand in that process. There’s a set of engineers who are on the team who are full-stack, and can do everything from the DevOps component all the way through the launch and design.
InnoLead: Hiring is really tough for anyone with technology skills in Boston right now. It’s often tougher for big companies, versus the startup that can say, “Oh yeah. Shorts and a t-shirt are great. You can come in at 11:00 and leave at 8:00.” How have you addressed the challenge of hiring?
Reuter: We have worked really closely with Human Resources, and we go to a lot of the local events. Part of the reason we do meetups here for software developers is so we can stay in tune with the community. It’s also a great recruiting opportunity for folks who want to see what it’s like and see what the people are like here. That has worked really well.
And if you’re a developer, an engineer, you have a certain skill set that is so valuable that lots of different companies want it. But I think there’s a lot of people right now who like to feel that they’re building something for a greater cause. We really are trying to make a difference in education.
Nurturing an Ecosystem
InnoLead: It’s interesting… I don’t think that every company needs to think about cultivating an ecosystem, but it feels like a lot more companies need to think about it than are thinking about it today. A lot of established companies will look at Apple and say, “Oh, yeah, obviously they need an ecosystem of apps, because they make an iPhone and an iPad.”
Reuter: I do feel like you could look at a lot of industries and say, “Well, why aren’t you interacting with startups and software developers to get them building stuff?” HMH provides an amazing core set of resources for the classroom through a core curriculum and we know that people are looking for supplemental [materials and software], so why not help cultivate an ecosystem where we can help folks find this supplemental stuff?
InnoLead: What’s an area that you’re still trying to learn about, or something that is potentially on the horizon?
Reuter: Every day, we’re looking at how are people actually using some of the things we’ve already put out, like the developer portal. How are they using the marketplace? We’re trying to base our decisions on what to do next based on what we see them do, with the real data we have in front of us.