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Instin's cross-platform education tools bring schools into the digital age

Kansas City, Missouri-based Instin is already hard at work helping students keep track of their daily assignments with a cross-platform app called myHomework -- their nifty replacement for the student agenda book -- and the company is now looking to reach across the teacher’s desk with a brand new tool that will enable educators to communicate with one another while organizing student assignments.

Formerly members of the city’s Cerner healthcare company, the Instin team has been hard at work developing the new apps to help schools tap into the growing presence of mobile devices and improve upon the largely outdated education tech of the past few decades. With myHomework app already a success, and the release of the teacher platform on the horizon, the company is hoping to create a whole suite of cross-compatible education apps to bring our schools into the digital age.

We took some time to chat with Instin co-founder Keith Entzeroth, who talked about the risks of leaving a cushy corporate job for the startup world and the importance of taking time to find the right team.

What was the inspiration behind Instin?

This starts a while ago. The original creator of myHomework is Rodrigo Neri. He was at Park University when the iPhone came out and he was having problems getting his own homework done and turning things in, so he created this app for himself and put it on the marketplace.

A few months later he went to work at Cerner, which is a big healthcare IT company here in Kansas City. Both myself and our other co-founder Ryan (Niemeyer) were already working at Cerner. I had been there five years and Ryan had been there almost eight years when Rodrigo got there.

Initially we didn’t work together but in the fall of 2010 the CEO had a high-profile project that he needed done. Me and Ryan were asked what we really needed to do it and Rodrigo had recently been transferred into our group so we said, “Get rid of all of our responsibilities and let us have Rodrigo and put us in a room.”

The project went really well and one night in November in my basement we started pitching around all the ideas of what we could work on together and myHomework was the one that we agreed on and we stayed there for a couple of hours and laid out this massive, ambitious, 20 year education plan and started really that night.

From there it just continued on until a little over a year later when we all quit our jobs and that was kind of the second catapult, if you will.

When did you know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

I personally had trouble getting into the real world from the beginning. I went to Purdue University and got a computer engineering degree. As I was graduating I scuffled with some different ideas.

At one point I tried to get a loan so that I could go down to Chile during the summer and become a snowboard instructor. My whole plan was to build a service that would help snowboarders and ski instructors who wanted to be private. That didn’t work because only one other person in the world apparently wanted to go to the same class that I did.

My next try was to be a poker player, which I was pretty good at. But going to the casino too many nights a week gets really depressing. At the same time, later that summer, I got recruited into Kansas City by a couple of different companies and ended up signing with Cerner.

In hindsight I really had a good run at Cerner. They put me in a lot of good growth in the enterprise and they helped with the free education they gave me. I’m really appreciative of the career that I had there because I have a lot of experience that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have figured out.

What is the hardest thing you’ve had to do as an entrepreneur?

One of them is asking the other guys to quit their jobs. That’s never an easy step to take, especially with some of the risk that goes along with the positions we were in. We had nice cushy corporate careers going.

To leave that sense of comfort and in today’s world where one of the biggest problems is health insurance for our families -- stuff like that makes it difficult to leave. Everybody wanted to do it, but somebody has to jump first.

Who are some people that inspire you?

First, my co-founders. If I had to do this all over again I’d pick the same guys and I’d be doing the exact same thing. I couldn’t have asked for better people to work with. They’re just a really great working team.

I’d also have to go and say my parents. I was brought up to believe that I could do almost anything if I really wanted to. I was given a really open playing field by them and encouraged to try and do pretty much anything. Even if I called home with a stupid idea like that snowboarding one I mentioned earlier, my mom would put the fake smile on and say, “If that’s what you really want.”

I’ve also had a great example with my dad, who’s just really worked his tail off. He’s been a really good example to me of how to work hard and raise a good family.

What advice would you give to any beginning entrepreneurs out there?

The first piece is to be careful when it comes to who you jump in with.  I meet people and I read about people who seem like after a cup of coffee or two they’ve chosen a new business partner.

I don’t have a lot of experience in choosing; I just know that I was really careful. Even though the second I started my corporate career I was always looking for potential people to start a company with, it ended up taking over six years before I really met some people that I trusted.

The other thing I would say is not to underestimate experience or education. A lot of people read about the Zuckerbergs and Bill Gates of the world and think that that’s the best way or the only way to be an entrepreneur; It’s not the most common path. The experience and the education that I’ve been fortunate enough to have really helped get us to where we are and help us move forward, too.

What is your idea of happiness?

I want to wake up every morning and be challenged by what I’m working on and what I’m trying to do. I want it to be meaningful, but in the end I’m really here to support my family and raise my kids. The end goal is to use my skill set and the tools I’ve been given to help people and help my family.

What's next for Instin?

MyHomework was fairly successful on its own before we even left our jobs and the main reason we took the leap is we wanted to go and really create something similar and great for teachers to use. Right now we’ve really just gotten started with that, so most of our focus over the next six months or so is going to be creating a great experience for teachers and to continue to improve myHomework.

The real next step is in the teacher space and then hopefully beyond that we start getting into the tools that we want to have as parents.

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