School Newspapers Online began as a casual conversation between two friends on the way to a beerfest in New Ulm. In less than four years, the fledgling company’s customer base expanded 25 times over.
The company, which moved into an office space in Burnsville last spring, builds websites for school newspapers and other media. It boasts more than 750 clients all over the U.S. and is still growing rapidly. School Newspapers Online has launched 19 sites in the first three weeks of January alone.
Co-Owners Jason Wallestad and Tom Hutchinson are still a bit surprised by their success.
Though Hutchinson has had a long career in tech, the genesis of School Newspapers Online is a completely unexpected turn of events for Wallestad, an English teacher and journalism advisor at Benilde-St. Margaret’s School in St. Louis Park. When Wallestad graduated from University of Minnesota-Morris in 1994, he never imagined he would become an online entrepreneur. Rather, he envisioned many quiet years grading papers and dissecting The Great Gatsby and The Scarlet Letter with his students.
“I didn’t use the Internet during college. We were the last generation,” Wallestad said. “I don’t think I did anything with technology until 2008. I had no clue.”
Hatching An Idea
The idea grew out of a fateful conversation that took place in 2008. At the time, Wallestad simply wanted to take his students’ newspaper online. He mentioned the idea to Hutchinson, who was working for Internet Broadcasting, a firm that builds websites for NBC and other major media companies.
Hutchinson and Wallestad set to work building a site for the Knight Errant, Benilde’s student newspaper. Over the course of their work, they made two important discoveries: They found that Wallestad had an innate talent for coding and also that only a handful of schools were publishing their newspapers online.
“I would have expected the yearbook companies would be offering something similar, since often the yearbook adviser and the newspaper adviser are the same person,” Hutchinson said.
Though the technology had been available for over 10 years, many schools were resistant to the idea, Hutchinson said. A lot of school administrators were uncomfortable with the Net—what they perceived as an unruly landscape without clear borders or rules. They were concerned about student privacy and the task of monitoring the site and controlling content.
Hutchinson said the recession changed many school administrators’ attitudes toward online technology. It costs about $600 to print a single edition of a school newspaper, Hutchinson said—matching the cost of building a site with School Newspapers Online. The online option seemed more palatable to administrators otherwise faced with cutting their journalism programs.
Wallestad and Hutchinson had found a completely unexploited niche in e-commerce. Wallestad and Hutchison had no startup capital, but they had time, tenacity and technical know-how, and they sensed an opportunity. Still, neither of the founders thought it would grow into a full-time business.
“I was skeptical. I thought online publishing was so easy that people wouldn’t pay for it, that our window of opportunity was too small,” Hutchinson said.
Growing The Business
A high school in San Diego found the pair through a basic Google search and became their first client, in summer 2008. The school paid with a credit card over the phone.
School Newspapers Online grew quickly through word of mouth, without either founder making an unsolicited sales pitch. Before the end of the 2008 summer, they had 10 more clients. By October, their customer base had tripled. The following year, Benilde-St. Margaret’s site won the National Scholastic Press Association Online Pacemaker award, and the awards ceremony provided an invaluable opportunity for networking with potential clients.
“It blossomed after that,” Wallestad said.
In the first three years of the company, Hutchinson shouldered much of the technical side while working another full-time job. About a year ago, it became clear that holding two positions at once was no longer a sustainable course. Hutchinson quit his day job to attend to the administrative side of School Newspapers Online. Wallestad is still teaching, though he writes code in the mornings before class and late into the night.
The company has built sites for more than 750 organizations: Nine elementary school newspapers, 36 middle schools, 629 high schools and 48 colleges. Recently, they’ve expanded by building sites for professional publications and nonprofits. The pair see only a handful of competitors and more than 98,000 public schools in the U.S. as potential clients.
“This is the best it could have turned out for us,” Wallestad said. “We’ve already hit my biggest goal for the company.”