Life as a Startup #1 – The Birth of an Idea

Founding a startup company has easily been the most terrifying, stressful, exhausting, most incredible experience of my life. In October 2013, I made the decision to leave my job and pursue my dream of becoming an entrepreneur, launching an education software startup. I have learned a lot on my journey so far, made a ton of mistakes, met some incredible people, and hurdled countless obstacles. Ever wonder what it’s like to start a company? Join me on the highs and (many, many) lows in the Life as a Startup.


A Little Context

If you asked me 5 years ago where I thought I would end up today, aspiring entrepreneur and founder of a tech startup would not have even crossed my mind.

I had largely flown under the radar for most of my life – an average student, introverted, not particularly charismatic – the type of person you meet and forget (Except for the fact I had pretty long, blonde dreads. People tended to remember those). I was finishing up an undergraduate degree in sociology at my home state university and had no real direction as far as job prospects. I had a long interest in urban education, and for the next couple of years, ended up working in schools and various education programs tutoring students and working with them after school.

One of the ways I was able to connect with my kids was through games. I’m a pretty big gamer – everything from FIFA, Skyrim, and StartCraft to Dungeons & Dragons, Magic the Gathering, and Warhammer. I started pulling in ideas from games to help motivate my students. It started with giving students the plot to a childhood favorite of mine – ToeJam and Earl – and having them write creative stories. I drew pictures of the two alien pals and played the soundtrack to the game as they wrote, and I got some of the best work out of my students that day. I would give students points when they got right answers and create friendly competitions during my tutoring sessions. And they loved it! Even a year later, when I went back to visit my students, they still brought up those characters and the games we played.

In my opinion, this is how a lot of the more genuine startups get launched – they are people who are involved with their field, experience a specific problem (in my case, motivating students), and come up with a creative solution. The startup is then born to create a working product to share with others (and possibly profit), and will ultimately help out other people experiencing that same problem. I began to build on this concept of infusing games into learning and motivation. It was about this time that Jane McGonigal and Gabe Zimmerman began making a name for themselves on the TED talk scene with the concept of “gamification”. I started pouring over the research and articles that were emerging on the topic, and refined the idea I was working on. Eventually, the concept for ClassXP was born.

ClassXP was designed to integrate video game mechanics, such as points, leveling up, badges, and achievements, into traditional classroom grading. Every time a student handed in an assignment, project, or test, they would receive experience points (XP) and work towards Leveling Up, much like you would in a video game. I created spreadsheets of the concept and how it would look in a live classroom, including the algorithms involved. I sketched out mockups of how the app would look, and took my ideas to the Games, Learning, and Society conference out in Wisconsin that summer, which got really positive feedback on the idea (I would later learn that this process of getting user feedback is called “customer validation”, and is arguably the most important part of the startup process. I’ll touch more on this concept, and what I should have done better, in a future post).

I was pumped! But then I ran into my first obstacle…Now that I have this great idea, how do I get it made?

 

Starting Up

When you read about startups, it seems like they go from an idea some friends randomly come up with in a bar one night to a multi-million dollar company the next morning.

Let me be very clear here – Starting a tech company is a long, stressful, meticulous process. But that shouldn’t deter you.

Five years ago, I had no intention of ever creating a company. I had no background in business. In fact, I was more focused on non-profit work, and had launched a non-profit program that promoted education through soccer in West Africa. But after coming up with the idea for ClassXP and receiving some positive feedback, I decided to try and get it created. At that point, I had no experience with computer programming, an issue that I feel is common with many people trying startups. How many times have you come up with an idea for an app only to have the initial excitement of the idea fizzle out once you realize that there’s no way you’d be able to make it yourself? So, not having any close friends with that knowledge, I turned to the only real network I had at the time – Facebook.

Facebook Post

The post I used to find a programmer.

A friend of mine in the Netherlands responded that her boyfriend was a programmer, and had even programmed some games and apps previously, so I got in touch. We corresponded over the next few months as he finished up a project, and I solidified my idea further. It’s worth pointing out again that I had no technical abilities at this point, so all I could judge his skills by were his girlfriend’s recommendation, a previous project he worked on, and his college degree in computer science. He seemed cool enough at the time though – we had a mutual interest in games and even played some League of Legends together (even though I’m awful at the game) – so I trusted that he knew what he was doing. Around November 2012, we got started on the development of ClassXP.

As I continue writing this series, I will incorporate a specific lesson about each step of the process of starting a company. I hope that by sharing these experiences, other entrepreneurs will be able to avoid some of the issues that slowed me down. Coming up on Life as a Startup #2 – Lessons learned from the hidden hassles of starting a company.