Starting a business as a student? Learn how from someone who knows Twitter
By Stephen Wilson
Ethan Binder ’19, co-founder and CEO of GoPeer, has a harrowing college schedule this semester, balancing classes for his economics major on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday while traveling on Tuesday and Thursday to Boston as a participant in Mass Challenge, a global, competitive business-accelerator program for early-stage entrepreneurs.
While in Beantown, he also has an opportunity to check in on his GoPeer staff and clients. GoPeer is an educational technology company that is reimagining the tutoring industry in hopes to make it more accessible, affordable, convenient, and effective through a unique near-peer learning model.
Near-peer learning means tutors are close in age and experience to the students seeking help. That part, the seeking, is how GoPeer is trying to reimagine tutoring: Think less about a student who is struggling in a subject and think more about a student who wants to maximize his or her potential.
Binder and team have had the business named a Top 50 on Fire in Rhode Island and are preparing a pitch for the annual HUBWeek innovation festival in Massachusetts. Their site is averaging 10,000 page views a month, and near-peer tutors now hail from all lower 48 states.
The question Binder is asked the most by his peers as he makes the rounds: How do you start a business? Like a good tutor, he gives his 10 steps here. Not the soft, fluffy stuff to make you nurture a dream, but the nitty-gritty steps to make your idea gain solid footing and traction.
1. Find an idea
Having an idea is important. Having an idea you really care about is more important. We saw friends and family members dropping out of courses because they were more concerned with the grade than learning complex and compelling information. Resources they had available were not accessible or affordable. We saw the opportunity to solve those issues and still provide high-quality tutoring with a unique value proposition.
2. Draft a detailed business plan
Our first draft was 50 pages, much of which was research on the industry, near-peer methodologies, and competitors. We researched case studies and read company profiles to better understand steps they took so that we in turn could make their process our own.
3. Test your hypothesis
Our original value proposition had college students serve as tutors. We thought being close in age and engaging in relevant ways could motivate and focus tutees. So we tested that theory by using a formula-based marketing approach. The algorithm indicated that we should launch our service in areas with a high concentration of schools with demonstrated need and colleges with an available concentration of talent. We launched in Rhode Island using student tutors from Brown, and our hypothesis proved true. We now have 200 college students at Brown.
4. If the hypothesis works, form a legal entity
We formed an LLC, but soon will be incorporated as it is more attractive from a fundraising standpoint.
5. Protect intellectual property
While trademarks and patents can be time-consuming, they are critical steps to ensure that you own your idea. You can complete a patent application fairly efficiently if you have a solid business plan and growth strategy.
6. Refine and specify individual value propositions
We actually have hundreds listed out knowing that different audiences seek different things. For example, a parent on the phone versus one online or a parent with an existing tutor versus one seeking help. It’s important for growth to communicate key aspects at key moments.
7. Gain personal confidence
You designed and created the business. You understand it better than anyone. You have to have confidence to grow the business efficiently and effectively. Our company is very active in Chicago, New York City, Boston, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Rhode Island. We have tutors in 48 states.
8. Tap resources for startups
There are many accelerators out there for new ventures. We have participated in two. Both plug us into a network of advisers and mentors and help us fill gaps in knowledge where we lacked expertise.
9. Start marketing
Growing means getting some exposure. Only then can you attract new users and turn them into advocates. We have used Facebook as a powerful tool in reaching parents. We also incentivize our tutors to generate content that can be linked to their profiles.
10. Maintain team harmony
Teams can often pay the price for all the hustle and hard work. We work to stay connected, communicating and deepening trust. Business building is a marathon, not a sprint. For us, the secret is pingpong. We have bought our own paddles and play each other in round-robin tournaments.
While these steps are not hard and fast, they have helped us move further. What helps is cultivating a mindset to always learn as we go. To grow a business operation means to engage in a constant state of refining, improving, and listening to people who are further along than you.