Richard Erdmann is what is known in the venture capital business as a serial entrepreneur. Syfr is his fifth startup, and the first started without investors. He has taken one company public, watched two of his companies be sold (including the company he started with his partner in Syfr, Christine Drew) and another be assimilated by its investors. Four of these five companies have been in the education market, so his work has been about education since 1971.
Richard’s first education company was the one he took public, and, like his other companies, it was built on the edge of both technology and education. The company designed and created the first truly networked instructional software in K-12 education. It pioneered several firsts in the industry, ranging from integrating computer tools like word processors, databases, and spreadsheets directly into the courses (at that time the company had to create its own word processor, spreadsheet and database), to using interactive graphics in science to open-ended lesson designs that allowed students who completed a lesson early to go into considerably more depth while staying in the same topic.
He started his second company with Christine Drew, his partner in Syfr. This company designed software that integrated teacher and student materials, lesson designs and assessments with state standards. Richard’s fourth education startup, Syfr, began in 1999 as a way to bring superintendents together with thought leaders from other fields that researched, wrote about, and studied public education, but worked outside the field. These included economists, sociologists, journalists, historians, and scientists. By 2003, Syfr’s audience included a bigger cross-section of educators than superintendents, and in 2008, Christine Drew joined Syfr as a partner to launch the Intersections™ programs with a professional development service named FieldWork™. Syfr’s approach was the same as it had been with superintendents, to create solutions for education from the intersections of ideas from diverse fields.
If one believes that a person’s interests during their youth has anything to do with what they do for a living, then Richard Erdmann was destined to be an entrepreneur, using technology, an educator, and being somehow involved in music. In San Antonio, where he went to junior high and high school, he began his own gardening business while in junior high school, and by high school was teaching music lessons, tutoring students in reading, taking programming courses on Saturdays, and playing in his own band. He worked his way through college selling and teaching Evelyn Woods Reading Dynamics, and did some gardening for faculty members on the side. Gardening remains his hobby. Education is still his passion. Syfr is his fifth company, and the only one that is about technology, but not actually a technology company. Music is a part of every Syfr seminar.
When he left military service in 1969, Richard joined a friend from college who had just started a financial services software company. He began as a programmer and eventually became the president. At the time, he programmed using set theory to evaluate and manage stock portfolios. That experience gave him some interesting viewpoints on education and technology. First, the math reforms in the post-Sputnik era are generally viewed as a failure, yet set theory was first introduced into the curriculum at that time and was his basis for programming, and today drives probably all search engines. Maybe the reform deserves a better reputation. Second, technology changes at an almost lightening speed. In 1970, the financial services company that he and a friend started was the only company in the United States that could open a business day with the stock prices from the day before loaded into stock portfolios anywhere in the country, and it took overnight and almost eight hours for that to happen. Within ten years, the delay was minutes, and within twenty years, it was instant.
Richard went into education sales in 1971, and within a year became a regional manager of sales and operations for reading and math programs serving over 30,000 students. The company was the country’s largest performance contractor, meaning that the company was paid only if students were closing the gap as measured by a norm-referenced test, so he had an early exposure to high stakes tests.
At Syfr, Richard returns to his college interest—the relationship between improving education and improving standards of living. Syfr has allowed him to focus his experiences in economics, history, music and the arts, technology, education, and entrepreneurism on education, with the help of experts from all of these fields and others.