Startup of the Week

Challenges Building an Ed-tech Company in the Midst of COVID with The Thinkers

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Every week, the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute elects a Startup of the Week (SOTW). We then invite the founders of these startups to share a blog post with our community. These posts can be inspirational, educational, or entertaining. Founders can share founding stories, resources, lessons, or any other topic of their choice. 

This blog post was written by Rina Patel (Gallatin '20), co-founder of The Thinkers, which provides live online 1 to 4-week courses for students, taught by passionate coaches and professionals from the world’s leading organizations.

In the past 3 months since school started, COVID has forced us to rethink our marketing, sales, and product strategy in big ways. In many ways, the summer worked in our favor since many teens were looking for programs to replace the summer camps that were being cancelled across the country. We were able to develop a partnership where we provided life skills curriculum for students from the City of Charlotte. 

At the end of the summer we implemented the lessons learned for the school year. The plan was to sell directly to parents of female identifying teens and expand our social and emotional skills offerings, onboard and hire facilitators, and launch a few pilot courses. 

While we’ve run workshops and shorter form courses during the school year in the past, this would be the first time we tried to do this during the fall. We followed the plan mentioned above and built valuable partnerships with youth platforms and organizations like the Girl Scouts. 

Other than at launch we had low enrollment, and had to take a step back to understand why that’s the case. We’ve had to extrapolate a number of variables: problem with the distribution channel, fall semester being busy for high school students, and the hybrid/virtual ping pong game that students find themselves in the midst of as schools close again. 

What has COVID taught me as a founder? Here are the 5 takeaways:

1. Getting clear on my roots:

The best advice I’ve ever received has been that some things need to break to rebuild, or sometimes we need to go through a death to be reborn. The challenges I’ve faced with selling have forced me to go back to my roots and get clear on why I started this company in the first place. The Thinkers was born after I had lived in India for 2 years and spent 8 years working in rural communities. I had experienced the incredible power of community and wanted to create spaces for youth in the U.S. to develop meaningful connection through dialogue. Students over and over again told me they lacked spaces where they could develop meaningful social connection with peers and those who were older. They didn’t feel they had adults in their life that they could really turn to to talk about the challenges that come up as a result of being a teen.  

In India, I had experienced the transformational power of deep, meaningful connection through dialogue and I wanted to come back and provide teens with that very thing I wish I had when I was their age. Eventually, the ways we did that were through life skills courses and programs. However, community and building a company that facilitated meaningful connection was what I had set out to build in the early stages. Going back to my roots reminded me of the problem I had initially set out to solve and how I could leverage that to get clear on my path forward.

2. Develop shorter feedback loops: 

I was recently on a call with a fellow founder and he said being a founder is about creating rapid feedback loops for yourself. It’s about shortening your learning cycles and recognizing where to pivot/what to change as quickly as possible. Thanks to Talking to Humans and Testing with Humans by Giff Constable (edited by our very own Frank Rimalovski, Executive Director at the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute!), I’ve had to develop tests, talk to customers, and look at the customer data and test data to evaluate next steps. This leads me to my third takeaway.

3. Rapid, better decision making:

In the early stages, so much is about collecting data from customers and making informed decisions based on that data. I’ve had to take a step back and make a decision as to which route to pursue and when it’s time to give up on a particular strategy (or at least put it to bed for a little).

4. Stop, just STOP!

Sometimes it’s mentally and strategically harmful to continue spinning your wheels when something isn’t working. I’ve also needed to tell myself when it’s time to give the company and myself a break. I’ve done tech detoxes, locked myself in a room and did values and visioning exercises, or just took time off to be alone or with family. Perpetual stress and anxiety amongst founders is a real thing and taking care of your mental health is so, so necessary. I wish we talked about this more! 

5. Everyone’s pace is different:

This is a unique time for all of us and being a founder (just like life) can be very nonlinear. We can set out to achieve one thing, and end up in a completely different place. I believe it’s important to stay true to why this is important for you and acknowledge that it takes time. Don’t be hard on yourself or fall into the trap of comparing your progress to others. Everyone’s pace is different. Your journey is yours alone, so make sure it’s well worth the time and energy for YOU.