Artia is one of these entrepreneurs that started very young, found a problem they could resolve, and turned it into a business. Age is really not a problem if you find an idea and stick to it long enough to pay off. Here is what I found out:
Hi Artia, and welcome aboard. Tell us a few words about you.
Artia: I’m 22 and have been running SchoolRack for almost six years now. I started the company by myself when I was in high school as a side project, maintained it while I was in college, but now run it full time with a fantastic team of friends and co-workers.
So you started your first business at around 16 -17.
Artia: I knew from a pretty young age that I wanted to start a business, and the sooner I could get my hands dirty, the better. It all started when I realized how easy it was to build a website and figured the Internet was the best place to start. I began experimenting with HTML, PHP, and MySQL and was finally inspired to build SchoolRack one day at school. It was my first major web project, and needless to say, it was very gratifying once I saw it all come together.
You went to the Columbia University. What influence do you think a University has on an entrepreneur’s life?
Artia: Ultimately, I benefited from my education. Not only did I expand my base of knowledge, but I also had a chance to interact with some really smart students, most of which I’ll keep in touch with and perhaps team up with in the future.
Do you think it makes you more aware and prepared to start your own business?
Artia: Not as much as I originally expected. I think you learn the most from experience, and since you’re preoccupied most of your college career with homework and essays, you don’t get to “experience” business first-hand. However, colleges offer classes to learn more about these things, but again there’s nothing like doing it on your own than reading about it in a textbook.
How did you come up with the idea for SchoolRack?
Artia: During my junior year of high school, a teacher approached me to ask if I could make a website for her because she wanted to post a 70-page instructions document for a final project. Her rationale was to post the assignment digitally instead of having to waste reams of paper printing it out for 100+ students. I happily did so but then realized it would benefit all teachers to be able to do this on their own without having to ask for help. And that’s exactly what SchoolRack does for teachers.
You told me that the service is free, so how do you make money?
Artia: We offer a free service, and most teachers find this enough to meet their needs. However, we recently launched a premium service with extra features for our more active teachers, schools, and districts (we offer different packages depending on the size of the client).
How can a teacher use the service? What are the most important benefits?
Artia: Regardless of one’s position at a school (be it a Social Studies teacher or a Guidance Counselor), it’s helpful to have an online presence to keep students and parents informed. The benefits range from saving paper to noticeably improving the quality of education.
In fact, an Associated Press poll from 2007 found that half of Americans think that schools do a fair to poor job preparing students for college and the workforce. And according to the U.S. Department of Education, learning improves when teachers increase communication. SchoolRack is ideal for improving communication in the classroom – teachers love to talk about how they’ve bridged the communication gap between themselves, students, and parents using our simple tools.
You also had 2 more businesses; what were they about?
Artia: These were also side projects. One was a student discount card I started at Columbia called the Pirate Card that was inspired by a friend of mine who launched something similar at Berkeley. This ultimately helped pay for my tuition. The other business was a website called Trezr (www.trezr.com), which I worked on and launched in the Summer of ‘06.
And you sold them? Does this make you an accomplished entrepreneur?
Artia: No, it doesn’t, but I’d like to think it has pointed me in the right direction. Every entrepreneur aspires to start a business, build it, and ultimately sell it at a premium.
In my case, I sold the businesses prematurely because I didn’t have the bandwidth to maintain them, but I did gain valuable experience from them.
What would be the best advice you could give a student about starting a business?
Artia: Only to realize that it’s a very serious time commitment. If you’re passionate about an idea or product and think you have the time and motivation to execute a business plan, by all means, go for it. But if you don’t believe in your product and aren’t driven to succeed, you’ll end up regretting ever starting the business – it will have been a time and money sink.
Did you have any outside investment?
Artia: No, the project was funded out of pocket.
How does a small business like yours get customers? How do you market it?
Artia: Fortunately, I had time on my side. I launched the business six years ago and didn’t have much of a marketing plan then, so I spent a couple of hundred dollars on Google AdWords. For the next two years, I relied on word of mouth from happy users of the service. When you don’t have the resources or time to market a project, the execution is very important so users can help spread it organically.
Halfway through college, though, I realized that traffic was really steadily picking up and the website was showing signs of potential, so I decided to take things more seriously. I hired three great developers (now partners) to help with the project and have taken up marketing on my own.
Do you remember your first paying customer? How did you feel?
Artia: Yes, I do; I felt a great sense of accomplishment, mainly because it meant more financial security for our business. After our first paying customer, many followed as we expected, and I worried less about having to pay for costs out-of-pocket, and we started breaking even every month.
Do you think it’s best to hire young people if you are young? Or could some older employees bring more benefits to a young company?
Artia: I feel it’s best to have a mixed bag of employees, and most modern companies would probably agree. Personally, I’d prefer to hire older employees for their experience in and familiarity with a particular industry. Still, I would rely on younger employees to be more imaginative and help push the envelope with creative ideas.
How does the future look for you?
Artia: The future looks bright. Though they were hesitant at first, schools are beginning to realize the potential of technology in education, and we’re noticing large gains in traffic. We also have a couple of new products in development for schools and districts that will help increase revenues, but for now, we’re glad to see a noticeable increase in traffic.
People are noticing our product and spreading the word for us, so that’s always a good starting point. I’m sure we can only gain from this point on. You can follow our next steps on Twitter.