Inside the INCubator With Village Virtual

Holly Ashley

Startup Name: Village Virtual
Year Founded: 2012
Founder: Debi Crabtree
Number of employees: 2 Full-time, 2 Part-time, 1 intern, 35-40 adjunct teachers



Q&A with Debi Crabtree

Title: Founder
Hometown: Chattanooga, TN
Family:  Two sons and a daughter-in-law to be
Favorite thing about Chattanooga: Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul and the revitalization of downtown
Biggest benefit of the INCubator: Affordable, supported space to help newbies launch and get their feet under them

Describe your startup’s purpose in five words.
Connect students to online learning

What are you selling and how is it better than what your competitors are selling?
Village Virtual offers customized, online learning solutions for schools and districts that range from offering an individual course for a single student to launching a full-time online learning program.  We offer customized learning experiences that utilize best-in-class content across a number of vendor partners as well as build our own courses. With a current catalog of nearly 300 course options, Village Virtual serves students in Tennessee, Ohio, Louisiana, and Oregon.  In partnership with St. James Parish, Village Virtual is the fourth largest provider to Louisiana’s Course Choice program and serves approximately 2500 students per year across all its programs.

Our competitive advantage is remaining hands on with clients and keeping the emphasis on the relationships we are building with students, parents, and schools. This includes:

  • Connecting our students to best-in-class courses across an array of providers all from within a single learning management system.
  • Customizing our courses for any sub-set of clients (to meet specific state standards, for example) or for a specific student (to meet the specifications of a single IEP).
  • Providing access for every learner to both a content expert, a certified online instructor, and a student support specialist who is available during business hours every day to help answer questions, address technical problems and encourage students in their learning.  This includes text, phone, email, and screen-sharing support.
  • Creating an account in the student information system for every person at school- or district-level who will be assisting in student oversight and support and provide free training in SIS/LMS tools.

What’s your background?
I have worked as an educator for the Department of Corrections and in public middle school, high schools, and three colleges.  My work as a Media Information Specialist and in preparing pre-service teachers to utilize technology in the classroom was the most enjoyable of my teaching experiences and fueled my interest in online learning.  I helped to grow the Hamilton County Virtual School from an online summer program to a full-time public virtual school during my six-year tenure as Coordinator of this district program.  Prior to my work with Hamilton County, I worked as a full-time musician for 15 years and was the first performer in the Chattanooga area to utilize a computer regularly in live performance.   I was also the first teacher in Hamilton County to utilize an online gradebook.

Was there a defining moment when you knew you wanted to launch/work for a startup?
Making the decision to “jump,” as a friend of mine put it, into entrepreneurship was a difficult and weighty decision to make.  I had created the business plan and was ready for launch when a client who had pledged to outsource their district program to me decided to pull back from this commitment.  The district had made me an attractive offer to remain with its program, making the decision even more difficult.  The deciding moment for me came when I asked my 22-year-old son what he thought I should do.  He said, “I think you should go for it.”  What I realized in that instant was that I could not tell him to reach for his dreams if I were too frightened to reach for my own.  In that moment, I made my decision and there was no turning back.

Talk a little bit about your business growth to date and what level of success you envision for Village Virtual in the next few years.
The growth of the company has been phenomenal, I think.  I launched with a small loan from my personal bank and paid the money back within just a few months.  We have been debt-free ever since.  The biggest barrier to our growth is that too few people know about us.  School systems are slow to change, but few will argue that technology will play a major role in any vision of education for 21st century students. In the meantime, we continue to expand our ability to serve schools and their students by adding courses that increase personalization and promote workforce development.  We meet a lot of needs that school districts have and we do it very cost-effectively.  We just need to get our message out there.

Any recommended reading for other startups? For other humans?

For startups: Influence by Dr. Robert Cialdini, Leading Change by John Kotter, and these titles by Daniel Pink: A Whole New Mind, Drive, and To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others

For other humans: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

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