Striving for Access to Education: Interview with Katie Kapler of CourseHorse

Posted by Liyan on September 24, 2012
NYU Entrepreneurs Challenge, Startup Stories, Women and start-ups

Have you ever wanted to try out pilate but did not know where to find an inexpensive one? Or have you secretly wished to improve your cupcake-baking skill by only staying in your neighborhood? CourseHorse does the trick for you.

Passionate about education, Katie Kapler and Nihal Parthasarathi, two NYU alums, founded CourseHorse in 2011. Their goal was simple – to help people in New York City connect to classes that they want to take, no matter it is yoga or wine-tasting.

With CourseHorse, users can easily search for classes by keywords and filter search results by time, age, neighborhood and price. Simply one click, and you get a list of classes that fit with your interests.

That idea to provide access to education helped CourseHorse to win the new venture competition of the 2011-2012 NYU Entrepreneurs Challenge. Today, CourseHorse connects users to between 20% and 25% of classes offered in New York City.

The CourseHorse Team (From left to right: Nihal, Sophie, Evan, Katie)

What are the secrets of success for CourseHorse? How did they achieve the remarkable in such a short time? Last week, I sat down with Katie to interview her experience with start-ups, CourseHorse, and the Entrepreneurs Challenge.

Liyan: How did you get into the start-up world?

Katie: As far back as I remember, I always wanted to be a journalist. I went to NYU with that intention. In my freshman year, I worked at a production company for my journalism professor, and it was there when I met someone who started a company. I was writing copies and worked on advertising materials, using my writing skills to help him. But that’s where I got my feet wet with someone to build a product and position a company.

I realized that a lot of things that drew me to journalism – the fact that you have to create your own story, go on research, find what people want, and give them what they want – are the same fundamentals of building a great company. I started my graduate program and left two weeks into it, because I was approached by two gentlemen who were starting a company that was looking to solve the problem of access to capital for small businesses. There was a huge information gap, because as small business owners, you don’t know the best decision for your business, and CFO is too expensive to have. So there was a real need for it, and we built a company that automated the process.

I signed on to really build out the site and product – I went to India, hired and built the tech team there. We launched each product version and tested it. Initially the product was nothing like what it is today. We completely had to reposition the product for small businesses. I worked with a team to sell it to a partner.

Liyan: Where did the idea of CourseHosre come from?

Katie: It was at that point that the idea of CourseHorse came up with someone that I went to NYU with. We have always been fascinated by the idea of education. Actually the first start-up at NYU that I worked with was in the education sector. It was in a similar range of what we are doing now, which is solving the problem of connecting students to schools that make sense for them. Now lots of companies are trying to solve the problem in different ways, but back then no one was doing anything. There was a real opportuity but we just lacked the skills to do it.

Then a different version came up again. It was the same fundamentals of providing access to education but in a different sector. Nihal had, after school, started consulting for a major test prep company, and he is fascinated by education. It was there in a focus group that he heard people were struggling to get access to local education. It was the same problem, access to education, but the opportunity presents itself but in a different area of education.

We looked around in the market and we found that people searched for classes but couldn’t find them for whatever reasons – either it does not fit in their schedule or they can’t find classes. At the same time, we were talking to schools and asked them what’s going on. They were small businesses and that locked the resources. Again what I learned at Biz2Credit about small businesses came up again. It’s been a common theme. We wanted to build a product that makes education extremely accessible and helps small businesses grow their businesses without hurting their business.

Liyan: Was it your passion for access of education that inspired you to start CourseHorse?

Katie: Yes, technology enables solutions for real problems. There are lots of sexy startups out there trying to build really cool products that go viral, or insert another buzz word. But it’s always been our passion to tackle a real problem and make a real impact. You can do that if you are filling the gap and solving the pain point. There’s definitely a pain point in that market.

Liyan: What were the challenges in the beginning?

Katie: Initially the challenges were where to begin. There is a bunch of how-to-start-a-company, but it is different in every industry because you have different things to tackle. The benefit was that I had experience building the products and launching something, and Nihal had experience with education technology. He had the domain expertise and I had the bootstrap, but we didn’t have any money. How are we going to build this and bring people to it? So we put goals together for the most part executing them.

But  there wasn’t any one big challenge. There were lots of little things. One thing that we overcame and we take for granted now: Nihal and I had worked together some in college, but not to the extent that we worked together now. And it just put a lot of stress on our friendship and working relationship, because we were together all the time. It’s hard to find someone compatible in terms of skill sets and that you can resolve conflicts and move forward with. We had very different skill sets but we had overlapping values, so it made a great partnership.

But there’s a learning process of working with someone how to resolve conflicts. When you are stressed and you disagree, who is going to concede so that you guys can move forward? Just getting used to each other was a big challenge. Especially six months of the business, we entered the Entrepreneurs Challenge and that was a whole set of responsibility. When we entered the competition, we thought naively that we were going to be doing this anyways and we would just submit the business plan that we were already compiling. But it was a whole additional set of efforts. It was a full-time job on top of our part-time jobs on top of launching. It was very intense.

I remember we were sitting in the auditorium and there were 300 people. There were over 200 teams. We had such different personalities. Nihal was like we are going to win this. And I was “hmm, there are three hundred people” in the auditorium. And then the date when we presented, I said I think we just won. And Nihal was like “no no, I am not sure we won.” It is funny how it came full circle. It was great.

Liyan: You mentioned in the beginning that funding was a big issue and it was difficult to get people onboard. How did you solve that problem?

Katie: We personally funded it. We wanted to launch and build our product and make our first dollar by spending only $10,000. What we did was to work with schools and students to understand the basic functionality for someone to use it. Again it is such a risk because people would say one thing and you build a product and the traffic can be completely different. You never know until you push it out there. We ran a bunch of usability tests so that we can minimize expenses. But still, you never know. We had schools that were already onboard before we sold our site. So we had our inventory, but we didn’t know if we would have any customers aside from friends and families. That was nerve-racking.

To do it really cheaply especially because Nihal and I don’t have the skillsets to code, but we do have the skill-sets to manage development and we both worked with development partners, so we know how to structure it. We basically built an off-line prototype that did not require any coding knowledge, worked with a development team to get it down to a point that they can produce it for less than $10,000 and that will satisfy both students and schools.

We launched April last year. I remember we were basically blasting on friends and families. Nihal was very active in the Reddit community and he posted there – they just loved it. We were the first page on New York City Reddit, which got a lot of traffic. That’s why our first anonymous purchase came from. When we got our first anonymous purchase, it is probably one of the most intensive gratifications. We were like “wow, this person found value and he spent money on our site.”

Liyan: What was the pace of the growth after you launched it?

Katie: It was interesting. We were growing and doubling every month after we launched in the summer, but it stopped in the fall. It was our first failure. We had hired a bunch of interns right after we launched, and they really helped us grow over the summer. We had our goals and we hit every single goal in terms of traffic and revenue. But then they left, and we were not planning for the transition. So when they left, Nihal and I had to assume the workload of six full-time people, which we could not do. We didn’t plan for that hand-off. Because of that, we stopped growing our inventory, so we stopped adding classes. The biggest feedback from users was that “I can’t find classes.” Even though we had two, three thousand classes, it was not enough. So we really just focused on building up the inventory, and now we have around 20%-25% of the schools in New York City in our platform.

We were down in October and November because we were completely overwhelmed. We basically outgrew ourselves. We originally wanted to shepherd on our own, but it was at that point when we realized the value of funding to help provide the resources for that scale of growth. We were not at the capacity to handle the demand from both sides.

Liyan: What will CourseHorse focus on in the future?

Katie: It’s helping people to find the right class for them. We believe that this type of education enriches every aspect of their life, whether be a class to take for fun, or to enhance a skill-set to do their job better, or buy a class for their child. There is an enrichment angle which is really important for us. It will be 360 degrees of enrichment of your life in terms of learning. That’s what we discovered – there are people who are really dedicated to enrichment.

The CourseHorse team in their office in the NYU Poly incubator.

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