Vince Leung and Kris Chinosorn are very clear in how they want to empower the world’s learners through their startup MentorMob. Instead of users looking for a “how to” do something simply by searching on Google, someone interested in learning a new skill, instrument, or language should be able to find these resources in a more organized manner, for free. MentorMob does this by allowing users to create and view playlists based on Math, Science, Languages, Business Studies, Art, Reading, and several more categories.
In cofounder Vince Leung’s words, “ultimately, Kris and I aspire to create a business with the double bottom line of profitability with providing social value.”
The power of learning is unmeasurable. It’s part of the process that helps us evolve to see our experiences in a new way. Learning and experience allow us to taste chocolate in a new way and there’s an abundance of chocolate available. By empowering users through learning, MentorMob’s aim is facilitate learning in a new and flexible manner.
This flexibility is reflected in the MentorMob’s company culture which includes allowing employees to work the hours that work best for them as long as goals are met. Cat naps are not shunned and neither is the occasional refreshing 12 proof beverage in the afternoon.
MentorMob took the time to speak to Killerstartups about their vision for the startup as well as MobU, their tool for educators. Here’s what they shared with us:
Please tell me about how MentorMob went from an idea to something that could be made concrete and executed as a startup.
MentorMob actually came out of a previous startup Kris Chinosorn and I were working on called BigGroups. It was a social network, but instead of connecting people that already knew each other, like Facebook, it was based on connecting people with shared interests. Most friendships grow out of sharing common interests, and we wanted to facilitate these connections online. I had gone on a trip to Europe, and instead of staying in a hotel or hostel I had used couchsurfing.org, where you can sign up to crash on someone’s couch for free. When I returned from the trip, I raved about my couch surfing experience and how it fostered a community of people who were so passionate about sharing cultures that an extraordinary 98% of all couchsurfing.com users report a positive experience. Kris then got to wondering, if people are willing to let strangers crash on their couch for free, why wouldn’t they teach a stranger about an interest or hobby they love for free?
This was a pivotal moment as Kris and I started thinking more about the idea of sharing knowledge–not factual knowledge like Wikipedia provides–but “how to” knowledge from playing the guitar to snowboarding to calculus. Could we use technology to scale the collective knowledge of the world? We saw an opportunity in the abundance of user-generated videos, articles, images, and blogs already available on the Internet, and thought about how much more helpful these resources would be if they were organized into a logical manner so a learner wouldn’t have to search and sift through millions of Google results. We knew that if we were successful in creating a destination where anyone in the world could go and learn how to do anything for free, it would have global implications. We’ve seen the social benefits that resulted from global collaboration on Wikipedia, and we still believe that our idea is a perfect complement. Ultimately, Kris and I aspire to create a business with the double bottom line of profitability with providing social value. So we pivoted to focus on this new idea called MentorMob.
And was there specific business experience prior to MentorMob that has helped you in the launching process?
One of the experiences that best prepared me for launching a new venture happened when Kris and I had just started thinking about pivoting from BigGroups to MentorMob. Kris had gotten a call from a Paypal founder who asked him to help with a new biotech startup for a few weeks. Although I was anxious to flush out the concept for MentorMob further, I agreed that Kris should go help the biotech startup in Silicon Valley to gain some insight into how Paypal founders run companies. And what insights they were! The “Paypal Mafia” has a Midas touch when it comes to startups. The same tight group of friends and business associates have developed Paypal, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube. And Kris was able to see exactly how they run companies. A couple of the biggest take-aways were to fail fast and build the right team. Failing fast helps you find the right path for your startup with the least amount of time and money wasted. And having a successful startup is really all about having the right team to execute. Ideas are a dime a dozen and the determining factor is the execution of the idea.
With so many daily tasks to take care of and long-term objectives to meet, how do you deal with the challenges that present themselves that are a part of this startup process?
Startups all struggle with the high-level challenge of aligning a long term vision for the company with the execution of the plan to actually get there. MentorMob is no different. This is why investors generally look at founders’ backgrounds to see whether they have the experience and perseverance necessary to make the company successful. Kris and I are extremely fortunate to be co-founders since our personalities and experience balance each other. Kris is the product design guy with a vision for the evolution of MentorMob over the course of the next five to ten years. I’m the operations and technology guy who can assemble the team that builds and markets the product. It helps that Kris and I have been friends for over 15 years and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, so we only focus on the things we’re individually great at.
Can you tell me about the name and how it relates to you vision of education, learning, and improvement?
The idea behind MentorMob is to crowdsource all the best learning content into an online destination that is accessible to anyone in the world. With the name we wanted to convey the fact that you’re learning from not just one person or authority but a group of people who are passionate about being a part of something bigger than themselves. Just like the US economy is part of a larger global economy, we realized that through the power of the Internet, academic and casual, life-long learning in the States is part of a larger global classroom now. The creation and dissemination of trustworthy information is continuing to move away from single publishers to a democratized model where everyone has a voice.
When did you launch MentorMob and how many people were originally involved?
We publicly launched MentorMob on November 1, 2011, when we had a core team of six with a few additional part-timers.
And how was MentorMob funded at launch and what are both the advantages and disadvantages to how you’ve been funded?
Kris and I bootstrapped MentorMob until just before our launch. Everyone on the team was working for sweat equity because they believed in the idea of MentorMob and the social impact it could have worldwide. We received a small amount of angel funding to build up a runway after launch. It was extremely advantageous for Kris and me to bootstrap as long as possible for several reasons. It taught us how to operate as lean as possible, which is a handy skill today even with funding. It also helped us build up the value of MentorMob to our investors. Every milestone we hit reduced the risk for our investors, which results in an increased valuation of the company. The obvious disadvantage of bootstrapping for so long was that it put Kris and me at more personal risk in the unfortunate event that MentorMob flopped.
What were the roles of the individuals involved at launch and what were the early days like at MentorMob?
The core members of MentorMob included the product, development, and marketing teams. Being a small startup, everyone’s roles overlapped. Prior to moving to our “grown up” office at the Catapult Chicago incubator, we were based out of a finished basement of the townhouse where Kris lived. It was crowded, but we had a great time. It felt less like work and more like working on a project in college. We had couches, makeshift desks, and whiteboards all over the walls where we could brainstorm and come up with crazy ideas. Team members’ dogs would come hang out in the office. As you can imagine, it got fairly crowded with 4 dogs and 8 people. We had a projector connected to a Playstation 3, so we could occasionally take breaks and play a little NBA Live. It was a great collaborative space because if you needed an opinion or had a question, you didn’t even have to move from your desk since everyone was basically sitting on top of one another.
What did your duties include in the early days? Has it changed much in this sense?
Prior to launching MentorMob, I had a wide range of duties and dabbled in everything. As a co-founder I worked closely with everyone from the product, development, and marketing teams. This was a lot of fun because I had the high-level view of the whole company and basically managed the teams so their work lined up. Since the product was still young, I spent more hands-on time in all aspects. Now that the site is launched and the various teams have taken ownership of their respective areas, I don’t have to work as much on specific details and can focus on higher level strategy and partnership opportunities. However, I’m also still the janitor, and that probably won’t change for a while.
So what is the company culture at MentorMob like and do you feel that it reflects MentorMob’s objectives and purpose?
One of the books that has motivated our culture is Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness. It talks about making sure your customers and employees are happy, and how this will directly affect your bottom line. As the cliché goes, a happy employee is a productive employee. What we’ve tried to do at MentorMob is make the work environment mimic our employee’s lives outside of work. That means we try to impose as little restrictions as possible. We have flexible hours for coming into the office, and employees can use the tools that they want to use to get work done. They can also start their own projects that help achieve our goals, take a nap if they’re just staring at the computer screen, and if they want to have an adult beverage in the afternoon then by all means they can have one. This has helped the team optimize their own work styles and also made MentorMob a cool place where people want to work. A complete compensation package for any job – whether it be at JP Morgan or McDonald’s – is the combination of compensation and being fulfilled by the job. We believe we are light years beyond others in terms of culture. And in terms of how our culture reflects our purpose, we are always learning – whether it be at work or in life. You learn more in one year at a start-up than you would in several years at a larger corporation. Also, before bringing anyone onto the MentorMob team, we make sure their passion for doing social good is in line with MentorMob’s.
Can you tell me about MentorMobU and how you feel it will impact learning?
Millions of teachers are using digital media, like YouTube videos, articles, Qwikis, and more, to supplement their teaching materials. This is great since they understand that there is a wealth of content that is freely available on the Internet, and that students engage with the content more than with traditional methods. MentorMob provides a free way for teachers to organize their digital media into an engaging package that also keeps students from “veering off course” as many of us are known to do on the Internet. We introduced MentorMobU after receiving requests for a variety of features which would help teachers in the classroom, such as privacy, quiz results, engagement analytics, and easier student and Learning Playlist management. The goal is to provide teachers with better visibility into the students’ learning process. For example, student engagement analytics provide an indirect feedback loop to the teacher to indicate how engaging or interesting the content is to the students. If most students are only spending 30 seconds on a 5 minute video then the teacher could replace the video with a better one. The analytics also provide accountability for the students to review the material thoroughly instead of just skimming.
How would you describe a MentorMob user and how does that reflect on how MentorMob distinguishes itself from its competition?
With any start-up, ideas are dime-a-dozen but the same idea can be executed a million different ways. One way MentorMob is differentiated that we are most proud of is how we’ve built our community. Our community of users not only love the MentorMob product (don’t take our word for it, you can read about it in the numerous blogs and tweets – (http://gettingsmart.com/blog/2012/05/mentormob-what%E2%80%99s-on-your-playlist/) – but also share our vision to make learning free and accessible to the world. We’ve attracted the most passionate users who constitute the foundation of MentorMob – it all starts with them. With any crowd-sourced model, like Wikipedia, the first few passionate users will start a cycle that brings in more and more users. It’s not an overnight thing, but when done correctly, it can be an unstoppable force.
How do you reward passionate staff members of MentorMob?
Everyone on the MentorMob team is passionate. Our interview process is quite thorough and includes a one month trial period to work with the team before an offer is officially made. This trial period not only lets us know whether the candidate and the culture fit together but also provides insight into longer-term personality traits that don’t show up in a traditional interview. Outside of equity in the future success of MentorMob, which is a given, we believe that our culture is one of the most rewarding things. It’s a fun environment with top notch people to work with and learn from. There aren’t a lot of work environments where you are excited to come to work for your daily duties and can also work on a world-changing tool that will affect millions of people.
Can you share what the next step in MentorMob’s evolution will be?
Since we’ve launched MentorMob and have been gaining traction, we’re now moving toward developing the next revolutionary phase of our core product. The next big phase is using Learning Playlists as the basic building block for a framework that will accomplish our mission of making MentorMob the destination for free and accessible learning.
I just did a search on learning the banjo and about black and white photography. I didn’t find videos on either unfortunately. How do you go about widening the market and trying to get the most diversity for MentorMob users?
Although our vision is to have MentorMob be the destination for free learning for a wide-range of topics, we first launched MentorMob to test the Learning Playlist concept and answer the questions: do people understand it, will people use it, and do people like it? We’ve successfully proved the concept based on the feedback and traction we’ve received. Our next big development phase will provide the framework for the product we’ve envisioned since launch. We will then roll out topic after topic. Similar to Wikipedia, there will be a ramp-up period as MentorMob’s community reaches a tipping point where they become the engine of the site.
What keeps you motivated to improve MentorMob?
It’s been a wild ride since the conception of MentorMob to the launch to the growth we’ve seen post launch. We see the traction we’re getting as more people around the world use something that we created from scratch that has never been done before. It’s really exciting to see people use something that you’ve created. When I worked at Motorola, I was part of the engineering team for the original RAZR phone. When I saw people purposely show off their phone in public I felt a certain sense of pride knowing people were enjoying a product I worked on. With MentorMob, I feel a sense of pride, but also an incredible excitement as we get one step closer to realizing Kris and my original vision. We believe that eventually MentorMob has the ability to make a huge social impact around the world.
What advice would you offer someone wanting to launch a startup?
There’s a lot of advice I would offer! First, you have to be willing to sacrifice a lot, including money, time, and relationships. When you’re working 18 hour days, your relationships with friends, family, and significant others will suffer from lack of attention. Second, you have to be truly entrepreneurial, and know how to change course if you see that your business isn’t going according plan – which is inevitable. And you have to be willing to do a bunch of jobs that you weren’t trained for. Third, find a co-founder, because there’s too much work for even two, but with more than two co-founders decisions will be difficult to make. Fourth, you need to ensure your idea has legs by running it by people before spending a lot of resources developing something people don’t want. Lastly, don’t half-ass it. If you’re truly going to start a company then take step 0 and quit your job and commit to it!
What are your daily tasks right now specifically?
My daily tasks are still very similar to MentorMob’s early days; however I don’t have to spend as much time with the smaller details since the individuals on the team have taken ownership of their respective roles. I am still involved with high-level operations across product strategy, marketing, development, business development, and investor relations.
What is MentorMob’s vision for its users as well as for itself as a business?
Similar to how Wikipedia is ubiquitous for facts and Google is for search, our long term goal is for MentorMob to be ubiquitous with learning how to do anything. Currently there isn’t a single destination for free “how to” learning where the solutions available aren’t limited or sub-optimal. Not a lot of people know that most of Wikipedia’s millions of articles are maintained by only about 1,200 Wikipedians. We’re continuing to build the MentorMob community of passionate users who want to help create the best way to learn any topic online for free. What’s amazing is they are a part of something big – a way to pull together the world’s collective knowledge and make it available to anyone, anywhere, anytime.