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Launch HN: Coursedog (YC W19) – Resource Planning Software for Higher Ed
61 points by jwenig on Aug 27, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 45 comments
Hi HN! I’m Justin Wenig, a co-founder of Coursedog (https://www.coursedog.com). We build enterprise resource-planning software for higher education, starting with schedule and curriculum planning. As of today, 40 universities such as Columbia and BYU use our platform to build their class schedule, manage degree programs and publish the catalog to students.

My co-founder Nick Diao and I were CS majors at Columbia. We were motivated but mediocre students, skipping class and constantly building sorta-used not-product-market-fit apps that never took off.

During our Junior year, we realized how difficult it was to register for the CS classes we wanted to take, and had the unspecific but weirdly prescient lightbulb moment that all university students have where they say "wow university software sucks".

We reached out to Columbia University's IT department and learned that most universities build their schedules with a combination of excel spreadsheets, manual horse/brain/caffeine-power and SQL reports to clean up inevitable errors. It seemed like an obvious opportunity to take a swing at a business.

We spent that summer working out of a sweaty lounge at Columbia, awkwardly cold-calling University Registrars and building a Vue/Node web app to help universities optimize their class schedules. We utilized a mixed integer programming algorithm to optimize time and room assignments based on student + faculty preferences and space constraints, and reluctantly built a user interface for manual edits when university politics inevitably messed up our Moneyball-esque optimization. And we had bugs. Luckily for us, compared to the existing on-prem solutions and excel spreadsheets that could make the most dedicated investment banker blush, 40+ universities tolerated us enough to buy our $150K+ multi-year contract solution within a year and a half.

Although we’re focused on schedule and curriculum planning for now, it turns out that all higher education administration software is sort of very bad. Fun fact: There are 5 universities in the country on a cloud based enterprise resource planing solution. 5. As such, we feel pretty good about going down the line and rebuilding the whole thing from scratch: registration, advising, financials, all of it. That's the long-term vision. If you might want to work on something like that, please get in touch. We're hiring for the long term, but also right now 30 schools call us at all hours of the night, we launched 4 products this year and will be launching another 4 next year, and we could use engineers with brains that are more developed than ours.

Nick and I would like your feedback on all of the above, are happy to answer questions, and look forward to hearing about your experiences and ideas to improve university software. Fire away HN!

I'm super interested in this because I've developed an opinion about software used in higher ed:

It. All. Sucks.

Not one piece of software I have used (Canvas, Sakai, Slate and numerous in-house tools) are easy to use or easy to integrate with. A group of students here at UNC created https://www.coursicle.com/ which deals with the student scheduling side of things and actually looks pretty great but I've not used it. I'm sure you've seen it already.

I'm curious how many CIO/CTOs have had concerns with moving to your system or if you've got a canned response for all the FERPA FUD that gets tossed around?

Appreciate your interest, Lee. Coursicle is a pretty cool product: lots of users and engagement and really nailed the B2C2B play.

I'm inclined to agree that the best Higher Ed products are not actually all that great. Some of the VC's that I've spoken with joke that a B+ product in Higher Ed is a unicorn.

As for the CIO's - we're able to standardize a lot of that using something called the HECVAT which is basically a tell all for security reviews. If you're interested in learning more, looks like you have a super interesting github and would love to connect, just shoot me your email

I work for a ... reseller/host/supporter... of various higher ed platforms (Banner/Blackboard) and those systems make me sad. Glad to see someone disrupting the space! Good luck going forward! As a dev, I can't imagine setting my sights on those targets. It seems overwhelming.

Great to hear that - that's why we need help. Would love to get in touch to learn more

cheveedodd - gmail. Feel free to reach out.

Congrats on selling into universities. That's a tough market - long sales cycle, lots of bureaucracy, multiple decision-makers.

It's definitely not a fast sale. But at the end of the day, with all the murmors of Higher Ed changing and/or dying, universities are working toward becoming more cost-efficient and student-success oriented. In many cases states are incentivizing schools by offering grants or even direct funding to undertake these types of initiatives.

It's really a new day and age that we're living in where school will spend a lot of money on software - as 5 years ago this would have been crazy.

Hey Justin & Nick,

Recently I have been experimenting a lot with optimization strategies and their performance/results. I have tried to code some, including mixed integer LP, and applied them to multiple problems. I did this such that I could get a deeper understanding which sort of optimization algorithm is suited and well-performing for which kind of problem.

So far my results have been very inconsistent: sometimes genetic algorithms produce surprisingly good results, other times simulated annealing proves to be the clear winner, sometimes a plain old depth-first search, with a custom scoring heuristic produces greatest results... Since my results seem quite random to me so far, I get the impression that the only way to find out the best match for a problem is to try them all. Is this correct?

Since you're using mixed integer programming, could I ask you why you chose this optimization strategy? Also, if you would happen to have some more information about the specifics of choosing a correct algorithm for an optimization problem, could you provide me some insights?

Anyways, good luck with Coursedog!

I wish I could tell you that I was an expert, but the truth is that we worked on a slow as 1990's software genetic algorithm before we found success with the MIP. :-) If you shoot me an email jwenig@coursedog.com I can connect you with our algorithms engineers who have the background to discuss

Congratulations! I've been trying to crack the higher ed nut for a while with no luck whatsoever. And I used to be a professor- I'm solving a problem that I know exists, and that the people I talk to know exists! (I think the problem is partially that they don't know what a solution looks like).

Hats off to you for getting this thing going so strong! It ain't easy in that space, that's for sure!

Would love to connect to learn more about what you're trying to solve and exchange insights. Feel free to shoot me a note at jwenig@coursedog.com

Congrats on the launch of Coursedog!

I work in HE in Australia and a number of unis have switched from manual/xls to Akari [0]

A comparison page on your website with CourseDog vs X would be welcome – just so it’s easy to see what you provide vs the market

A scheduling tool that works with academic workload models (not sure if this is Australia specific thing) that optimises[1] academic and resource/room allocation would be very welcome

* No. 1 complaint from students is class scheduling!

[0] http://www.akarisoftware.com/index.cfm/page/solutions

[1] with multiple optimisation models

  - students want more classes at student friendly times that allow work+study
  - universities want less classes
  - academics want classes in work friendly hours etc...

Hi also Justin,

You described what we do perfectly. We're pretty interested in expanding internationally, and would love to connect via a call if you are open to it?

Curious what is your sales process like. While these universities obviously would benefit from your solution, I also wonder to what degree they’re willing to move to a bette system, and if they’re willing to do it a a pace that works for you as a startup.

Our sales are very outbound: personalized cold emails & cold calls have been very effective for us. We also attend lots of tradeshows and have found some success with webinars and digital ads.

To your point about moving to a better system - it's been an age old critique that universities are a slow moving bureaucracy.

We'd argue that the slow pace is a more or less an allergic reaction to the poor solutions that universities have been force-fed over the past 20+ years: including but not limited to incessant acquisitions, companies going under and products that don't work or integrate well.

Given that university administrators often work within a school for 20+ years, you end up with a lot of people who are just flat out skeptical of new products.

The good thing is that going from 0 to 1 product within a university is exponentially more difficult than 1 to 2 or 1 to an entire back-office solution. Now that we've got a couple of strong references and high NPS scores, we think that up-selling and cross-selling is going to help us break down these traditional barriers. Rather than rip and replace, why not go down the line with us and rebuild?

If you haven't looked at it, another big player in campus scheduling/optimization is EMS. They operate from the event/room reservation side of things, with academic optimization as an add-on.

Yeah they are one of these players that has been working on scheduling since the 90's. We've taken a few schools off of their tool mainly because it's not the most intuitive, it does not really provide course demand projections and we have a department scheduling piece that EMS is lacking. Have you used EMS before or how are you aware of it?

Yeah, I work at an EMS using university. We started using it about a decade ago because the alternative was Ellucian's R25, which didn't really compete well on features, and my previous boss had use EMS at Harvard. Overall, I think EMS has worked pretty well for us, but even now, we still deal with the politics of automated scheduling vs. faculty desires. These tools can work very well, if people will let them.

Open to connecting? Would love to exchange insights here and show how we incorporate faculty preferences to see if it could be helpful to your role.

What's the best email to reach you at?

Congrats you guys! I’ve been following Coursedog for a while, and if there’s anyone who I believe can crack this market, it’s you two. As someone who just spent the past summer creating software integrations with legacy learning management systems like Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, and Sakai, I can’t emphasize enough the need for disruption in this space.

They’re a rocketship!

Thanks Brad!!

Really cool to be introduced to coursedog. It’s funny to hear your experience of higher ed software, because I work in a public high school and we have a very similar challenge re: catalog management and curriculum planning, but the landscape of solutions is nonexistent.

If anyone knows of a provider that would work with a high school on these points, we would be first in line.

Is your student information system handling that for you? I know some powercampus schools handle it that way. I can ping some folks and follow up if I get any recommendations

I’d appreciate it! Catalog management isn’t a feature of any k12 targeted software that I’ve been able to find on my own.

Some good looking solutions for higherEd (eg courseleaf) aren’t available at the high school level, probably because there’s a big need but very tricky to get meaningful funding for it

Hi! I work at Abl and this is related to what we do. Take a look at our site, ablschools.com. You can shoot me a note if you’d like: ishwar@ablschools.com

If you haven’t checked it out, I have a similar product for UIUC, WU, among others. Haven’t updated it in years, but is still highly used:


Tells students the difficulty of their semester, estimates hours they will have to work, expected grades, etc.

Happy to discuss, feel free to reach out.

Yeah we’ve come across easy a and loved some of your blog posts. Will shoot you an email to connect! Nice product :)

This is a super interesting project. What are the 5 schools currently using cloud systems?

It's being pretty closely guarded, but one of them is Wellesley College which is using Workday's Cloud-Native Product.

The piece that is really holding back schools from moving to an all cloud erp is the "Student Information System" (SIS), which is the Higher Ed specific scheduling, advising, degree audit, credentials, advising, registration etc. piece of the ERP stack. A lot of companies that built Student Information Systems in the 90's/early 2000's are working to port their on-prem solutions into the cloud, but they are somewhat slowed down by having to support numerous legacy on-prem systems.

On the schools end, it also takes a lot of courage to flip off a system you've been using for 20+ years and start with something new, and right now there are basically no positive case studies of launched, cloud-based SIS systems.

Ah, very cool (and relevant). I happen to work in lower & upper schools helping build schedules and all the things that go along with that. I believe I came across your product in the Spring via Google.

Very cool. I believe there is a company https://www.ablschools.com/ that has a pretty good solution for k-12. You might want to check it out if you have not already!

What kind of penetration do you have in the institutions that use your platform? i.e. Are they using it for scheduling all courses within the university, or only certain colleges, certain departments etc.

Many of our schools like BYU or UMontana have campus-wide deployments and do all of their scheduling with us, while some other campuses have started with a subset (Columbia Law School) during the first year with us. We don't work with individual departments for the most part just because they often don't have serious budgets to work with.

To follow up more specifically - most of our schools right now are only using one or two of our products (scheduling vs. catalog publishing vs. degree program handling) but more than 90% of those schools are using that product across campus.

We're seeing a lot of schools now procure additional products once they enjoy their additional experience with us, like this school Laguna College https://coursedog.com/case-study123

been seeing your posting for interns since last semester. are you starting to hire interns now?

my college's scheduling system is very painful to use.

Yeah definitely - we're always interested in seeing if there could be a mutual fit, want to shoot me an email at jwenig@coursedog.com ?


This is so awesome. I’m really interested to hear how you progress, build out more solutions, etc.

how to reach you for working on the project

jwenig@coursedog.com, would love to hear from you!

Great example of taking a problem and turning it into an opportunity.

Appreciate the feedback!

Yeah of course. Are you guys mainly focused on classic 4 year universities or do you have your sights on/have you worked with community college and trade schools as well?

We have lots of community colleges and one trade school. Not to get philosophical, but CC's are some of our favorite schools to work with because you feel so close to the mission. CC's have huge huge huge scheduling problems that actually impact grad rates

I agree with this whole-heartedly. I've moved over to the tech industry now, but was pretty focused on community college education for a while. If it's fine with you, I'm going to grab your email from another thread and send you an email about connecting.

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