Luke Liu started Learnerator from his dorm room at Northwestern University in 2011, but it took a few years of trial and error (and day jobs) "to find our direction and focus." The perseverance and hard work paid off - in January 2014, Liu and cofounder Will Yang officially launched their test prep platform. They raised $300K in seed funding in June and moved into Catapult. Since that time, the still-young startup has been a full time effort for the two cofounders. (Also, check out an interview with Liu on Bootstrapping in America from July.)
At its core, Learnerator is an education company. Their online test prep platform provides comprehensive, challenging and interactive practice questions - to engage students but ultimately to best prepare them for the test. Currently, courses represent the higher end of the academic spectrum (AP, ACT, SAT). This is just the thing Liu would've wanted when he was taking 11 AP exams in high school! His love of learning, entrepreneurial spirit, and drive to succeed has always been a part of Liu.
We sat down with the cofounder to get the answer key to all things Learnerator.
Tell us about where Learnerator is right now? What has your team been working on recently?
Right now we are working to expand our content base and develop better features for teachers to monitor their students' progress. We are expanding to subjects outside of AP exams, which has been our core product, while better understanding how educators would ideally use our platform.
Where do you see your company in the next 2-3 years?
We see ourselves becoming the most trusted and accessible source for exam prep materials online for a variety of standardized exams.
How do you market your business?
We generally market through search and social media. People find us very organically because of the breadth of our content and its openness to search engines. We also work to build a strong reputation with teachers and parents through our blog and social media.
How do you handle conflicts among the founders/leaders of your company?
We split the company up into functional areas and each founder has final say in their domains. Although we sometimes have heated arguments that are productive, that respective person has the final say to make sure that we don't get bogged down in debate. Making a bad decision and adjusting quickly is better than making no decision.
What would you say is the most important skill needed to be a successful entrepreneur?
I think it would be to have an acute sense of rebellion and dissatisfaction. You have to be willing to challenge things that may not seem to be broken, to arrive at some insights that no one else has considered, and be willing to fight for it when others do not see it also. And when you achieve more and more success, you have to keep that sense of never being satisfied to keep innovating. Perhaps not a good life philosophy, but a good startup one.
What is the best startup/entrepreneurial advice you ever received? What was the worst?
The best is from one of our advisors, Ben Slivka, who constantly reminds us to focus on making customers happy and working on only a handful of initiatives at a time. I think it is a common tendency to try and bite off more than you can chew and never building a strong enough foundation in any one area. Ben's advice has kept us focused and I am glad that we have done so.
I think the worst advice we have gotten was to hire a salesperson when at the time what we needed was more product people. We ended up hiring a product person and in retrospect I am sure that was the right decision.
What does your team do to bond/relax?
We play ping pong and grab drinks and dinners together.
Do you ever find it difficult to take a break from your business? How (if at all) do you find work/life balance?
I personally do, but I think that is normal for most founders because we all are passionate about what we do. For me, it is easier because I am not married and don't have kids, so work/life balance is mainly just about making plans ahead of time with friends. You also have to take breaks to achieve optimal productivity so when I am alone and need a break, I usually just play some music or watch a movie while doing some busy work.
What is most beneficial about sharing a space with multiple entrepreneurs?
It's the ability to learn about interesting things other companies are working on, drawing parallels to your own company, and benefiting from their trials and learnings. We tend to share very similar concerns and issues such as how to hire, raising money, managing software development timelines, content marketing, etc. and everyone has useful insights to share. Most importantly, you know that their advice is candid and grounded in experience.
What is the best part of Catapult?
My favorite part of Catapult so far has been the Founder's Forums. It really helps to build a sense of community and support of one another. They always include some funny anecdotes that only founders would appreciate and I always walk away with a better perspective about what we are doing.