A software company created by a UMaine alumnus is connecting people with educational resources providing lifelong learning opportunities.
Matt James ’05, co-founder and COO of software company CourseStorm, streamlined educational resources for communities in Maine and nationwide. Whether you’re seeking to take piano lessons, get a handle on the pottery wheel, or even learn a new language, CourseStorm is making it easier to do so.
James developed a love for technology at a young age. After enrolling at Ellsworth High School, he made friends who shared the same passion for computers, video games, and video editing, but it took a “LAN party” for him to realize the potential of the technology available.
A “LAN party” is a computer party where people gather to play games while connected to a local network. It’s where James created his first software program.
“We had this thing where we had so many friends interested in doing this that we rented out a grange hall in Trenton for three days,” said James. “We set up this huge network of 30 computers, and people were just embracing playing video games, but I also made movies and an application.”
James used his technological skills to make the process of ordering pizzas for 30 teenage boys in the grange hall a little easier.
“I programmed an order form for the local pizza place where you can go and fill it out, and it would save to a file,” said James. “We did it for only that purpose, but that’s where I got the bug and realized that I could use these skills to create software that meets my needs.”
Creating software became a strong interest for James, leading him to the University of Maine. James started his studies at UMaine in the early 2000s with a 21st-century focus. James was one of the first students to enroll in the New Media program here in Orono, and he felt he had found his home to grow and explore the world of technology.
“I heard that the New Media program worked with video and did a lot of cool stuff, so that’s what got me hooked,” said James. “I was fortunate to enter as a freshman with a brand new program…because I’m interested in following your passion and your curiosity to see where it leads you. You got to have a say in where the program developed informally, and that was just fantastic and the perfect program for me.”
James credits his supportive parents for pushing him to see where his curiosity would lead in the technology realm and said all of the computers he broke along the way were worth it.
During his time at UMaine, he continued to develop software for local schools’ websites. After graduating, he built software for small businesses in the Bangor area at Sephone Internet Solutions, but it wasn’t long until he found himself working with his future business partner.
“I left to work for RainStorm consultants, which was a similar type of web agency run by Brian Rahill, and I became a programmer for him, and we worked with different software together,” said James.
Little did he know that Rahill would not only become a mentor but an entrepreneurial ally and friend. A couple of years after James joined the RainStorm team he and Rahill partnered to create an offshoot of the company, focused on a new business venture: adult education and online registration. Thus, CourseStorm was born.
“We built this site, essentially there were eighty [adult education] programs throughout the state in local pockets,” said James. “We created a portal where all these programs could have all of these classes listed, and you could find any class you’re interested in. We worked with them, added another layer, and said, “what if you could register for those classes too?”
The two took the idea further, after realizing that the software solution they had developed had vast applicability beyond the Maine Adult Education system. Starting and growing any business is difficult; but, James and Rahill used every tool available to make it an enjoyable and successful endeavor. The University of Maine’s Top Gun Entrepreneurial Program undoubtedly assisted with that.
“Brian took those [Top Gun] classes, and I can’t overstate how transformative that moment was when we had the instruction for building a startup business which is different from how you’d build a small business,” said James. “What we learned from Top Gun is that you have to learn and adjust in small loops. That was the difference between a successful CourseStorm and not. If we had not learned that, it would’ve failed.”
The classes in the UMaine Top Gun program also prepared James and Rahill for a pitch of a lifetime. Greenlight Maine, a local show referred to as the gentler Shark Tank, put CourseStorm in the hot seat.
James and Rahill had the opportunity to pitch their software company to a statewide audience, where their enthusiastic approach helped them win the head-to-head competition in episode 3.7 Behind the scenes, the program also provided consistent mentorship from three successful entrepreneurs.
CourseStorm announced in 2019 the completion of a $1.15 million early series round of financing, according to CEI Maine. CEI Ventures co-invested in this series of financing for CourseStorm as well as the Maine Venture Fund, Maine Angels and LearnLaunch of Boston.
After 12 years of growth and success, CourseStorm’s future is looking bright. The company was named one of the Best Places to Work in Maine in 2022, and they recently celebrated an exciting milestone, connecting learners to 1 million informal learning courses.
“The mission of CourseStorm is to streamline access to education,” said James. “We are interested in empowering people’s personal growth.”
This mission was something that James began to embrace as a teenager, creating software to streamline a pizza order all those years ago.
“The silly things are not silly,” said James. “So you should follow your gut instinct to pursue your passion, and you’ll be able to connect the dots and see how that was influential in your growth as a person.”