If you’re in New York this summer and still need something to do, check out CourseHorse.com, brought to you by two NYU alums, Katie Kapler and Nihal Parthasarthi. The website provides an easy, innovative way to search for classes involving anything from Yoga and Blogging to Public Speaking and Advanced Pet Grooming in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. You can also refine your search based on price and schedule, so you can find a “Negotiations Skills” class that fits around your Wall Street job.
The duo just won $75,000 in this year’s Stern New Venture Competition for their idea, which they say they created after a frustratingly unproductive search for a cooking class. Katie was nice enough to answer a few questions.
How did NYU help make this happen?
Our patron saints at NYU have given us money, shelter and access to an incredible network of advisors and mentors – they’re basically our surrogate parents. We won the NYU Stern New Venture Competition (run by the Berkley Center) in April which gave us a $75,000 cash infusion. The entire process was hugely helpful, especially considering we were simultaneously building and launching the site. We consistently had 2 or 3 mentors that solely focused on poking every hole imaginable in our business model and strategy to make sure we were launching on a really solid foundation. Then, on top of that, the Center gave us office space on campus for a year and access to their expert adviser network including accountants and lawyers. Already we’re more productive now that we don’t sit 3 feet from a kitchen full of snacks and that we don’t have to debate whose apartment we’re working out of each day.
How are you looking to expand the website/add more classes?
Expanding the site by adding more classes is our biggest priority. We assembled a team for the summer to help us reach out to more schools in the city. Luckily, schools have loved our concept just as much as the people forced to spend hours scouring Google for the perfect salsa dancing class. So far, around 100 schools in NYC have signed up and are actively posting classes on CourseHorse. This translates to around 600 courses and 3,000 to 4,000 class sections that people can enroll in. We have plans this summer to triple this, which probably overly aggressive — then again we wouldn’t be starting a company unless we were slightly delusional/crazy.
We’re also going to be adding a new section to our site for free classes! We’re launching that in two weeks.
What are you guys doing next?
While we hate to succumb to Web 2.0 cliches, we will admit that we’re working to make our system even more “social” than it is today. So far, over half the people buying classes on our site have purchased with a friend, and we’ll make this easier to do. This includes things like user reviews, which are somewhat of a moral imperative — soon we’ll offer ‘verified’ reviews from people who have purchased classes on our site, as well as comments, questions and reviews from other New York class-takers.
Users will also be able to use the site more like their own personal concierge for things they want to learn. If they love a class but can’t make the times, they’ll be able to receive alerts when new schedules are posted and eventually request their own times. One thing about this industry we learned (and are really excited about) very early on is how eager local schools are to understand what people are really interested in learning about. Schools are more than willing to launch new classes or tweak their existing programs to fit user demand – they just don’t have the bandwidth or the tools to effectively and consistently poll the community.
What advice could you give to fellow entrepreneurs/startup enthusiasts?
Simplicity and honesty goes a long way – especially when you’re managing someone else’s expectations. With our first group of schools, we were very honest that we were new in this market and that initially the process might be a bit bumpy. They really appreciated this, and even helped promote us to their existing class-taking community. For the most part in the consumer space, we think the age of trying to appear like a company ten times your size when you’re really just a small group of passionate startup-ists is long gone – and thankfully so.