Will they be able to turn it into something that sells?
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This is the first short story in my product fiction series.
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“We got an A.” Sanjana sent a WhatsApp message to her friend, Priya.
“Neat!” Priya replied. “You know what, I think we can make a lot of money with the project.” In the third year of college, Sanjana and Priya had taken a liking towards web projects. Web development was their favourite activity to do, after playing basketball.
“Let’s build some additional functionalities that high schools would like and start selling the product to them.”
“But there’s a huge difference between a college class project and a proper working app.”
“Why, what’s the difference? Our app works! At this point, teachers can upload notes and share them with their students digitally. This is the best thing we would be able to make.” The app even had features to convert handwritten notes to text and share them with students.
“But what about hosting?”
“Don’t worry. I’ve already set up AWS for us. They are giving free credits worth $500. We’ll figure it out.”
“Don’t think so much. We should sell the product to schools now.”
“But this is not how you do it. The web app doesn’t look professional at all. It’s all jagged.”
“Can you create a logo and fix up the visual design?”
“I have a test tomorrow,” Sanjana replied.
“But your test won’t matter if this works. Come on, it won’t take a lot of time. Maybe half an hour or so.”
“Let’s meet tomorrow morning at 10 then. I’ll bring my scooter. Let’s drive to a few schools and tell them about it.” Priya was excited. This was her moment to be called an entrepreneur. In the future, if this worked, she would likely take the CEO title.
But Sanjana was confused. Made for their “Web Design Fundamentals 201” class, she and Priya had worked the hardest on this project so far. Priya had fleetingly mentioned that they should try to make money by building web apps for others, but Sanjana never expected this project to be the guinea pig.
If she failed on her Java Fundamentals test the next afternoon, the teacher might fail her in the semester exams. Failing a programming class would be bad for her campus placement prospects. Yet, it was true that she couldn’t stand Java. The language was her nemesis.
While holding a book for her Java test the next day, she couldn’t stop thinking about the app’s terrible design. Also, they didn’t have a good name for the product. After thinking through Instax, Matrix, Schooldi, etc. she arrived at ‘studie’ as the name of the app. This name made for excellent branding, as it was close to an actual English word, and could also be used as a verb in the future. Her dream was to see this in the Oxford English Dictionary.
She worked on identities, logos and came up with ideas on the website design. Over the next few hours, she modified the CSS to make the website look familiar to what a student would want to see. The orangish-red tinge of the app made it look fresh. The typography was very modern and minimal. She also started making a suite of tweaks- adding reference checks, integrating APIs to verify email addresses and some testing to see if the app handled hundreds of accounts.
It was 3 a.m. when she went to sleep.
The next morning, while Priya was waiting at their college for Sanjana to arrive, she called up a nearby school and asked for an appointment. The school was surprisingly quick. She got an appointment confirmed at 10:30.
“Sorry, dude, I can’t make it,” Sanjana sent Priya a message.
“I was working all night to fix things up. Please send me the AWS credentials so that I can push the code and make it live.”
“But it’ll be great if you could go with me.”
“No, I need to study for my test this afternoon.”
Priya sent her the AWS credentials. Sanjana confirmed in half an hour that the website was up at studie.in. Priya drove to the school and waited for her appointment with the Principal of the school. The school had more than 500 students. If Priya was able to strike a deal today, she would have 500+ users waiting to use the app.
For pricing, she had thought of a flat Rs. 2499 pricing, after doing basic math on her phone’s calculator.
Dressed in a formal off-white shirt and black pants, she reached the school. She was slightly embarrassed that she wasn’t wearing pointed heels this morning. But as she looked around her when she reached the school, she realized no one cared.
School kids were carefree.
While she was waiting for her appointment, the trophies hanging outside the principal’s office brought back nostalgic memories of her own school days, when she had an impeccable record of winning almost all kinds of art and craft competitions. Painting, sketching, poetry, writing, anything! But ultimately what mattered was how much she scored in her twelfth-grade entrance exams.
A peon came to her and asked her to go to the principal’s office. “Madam is ready to meet you.”
“Hello, ma’am! This is Priya. I had sent an e-mail yesterday afternoon about my proposal for your school.”
“Yes, I did read through the e-mail, but didn’t understand why we would need something like this.”
“I’ll be happy to explain. My friend and I have created this app called Studie, which allows teachers to talk to their students and vice versa. At the same time, it gives teachers powerful tools to solve doubts, share notes, track attendance and also reward students.”
“Okay.” The principal looked indifferent.
“I’ll show you a demo of the app.”
Priya opened the lid of her MacBook and turned it around to the principal. Priya started explaining. She went from registration to messaging to attendance and rewards, all in one go. The principal didn’t interrupt, so Priya kept going.
“Currently, we maintain all of this through Excel and WhatsApp groups. They do the job just fine. In fact, using Excel is much better for us from documentation and archiving perspective.”
“Ma’am, but what if you get more students tomorrow? Excel becomes a pain to use when you have a lot of tracking to do. Excel doesn’t scale.”
“Well, but we have a fixed intake of students every year. I don’t think, at least in the next decade, we are going to increase the intake of students. Every year, we get about 90 new admissions, and the same number of students graduate.”
“Okay. Yet, from an organization perspective, the app does the job for you very well. You don’t have to maintain 50 excel sheets.”
“And what is the cost of this?”
“It will be Rs. 2499 per month, but we are giving a 3-month free promotion right now.”
“Okay, thank you. I will let you know.”
“So, what’s the plan now?” Sanjana asked. They had pitched to three schools so far, and each one was happy to see their product, but none had confirmed if they were willing to pay for it.
“I think we need to re-think what we are doing here,” Priya replied, “I’ll go back to more schools tomorrow and see if we could build something which suits their purpose.”
“Wait, so you mean you want to create something entirely new?”
“It depends on what we see happening at these schools.”
“You know this is going to take a lot of time, right? My GPA is down to 6 this semester, down from 8.3.” Sanjana hesitated.
“I know. My GPA has always been down too. But what if we quit and work on this start-up full-time?” Priya asked instantly.
Sanjana nodded her head in disapproval. There was no way she was jumping ships so early, especially when they didn’t even have a standing product. Schools had rejected Sanjana’s proposal. Why would they buy something if it was not better than what they had currently?
Later that night, Priya compiled a list of things they would have to change with the Studie app to make it better than WhatsApp and spreadsheets. It was clear that they would have to make massive changes to the app to make it useful at all. She thought of all the new feature ideas she could implement but had not validated any of these.
She kept going like a kid who was obsessed with a new toy. But she did realize that none of this was useful. She was not actually solving problems for the high schools.
When she put herself to bed that night, the thoughts of students and teachers kept revolving in her mind, eventually arriving at the conclusion – “What they teach us in college projects is useless. What is the point of a class project that can never be used by anyone?”
After ranting for a few minutes to herself, she fell asleep.
It was her alarm clock that woke her up the next morning. Priya had to attend three classes today, after which she intended to pitch the product to one school. She knew that if she found even one school that would buy their product, convincing Sanjana would be easy.
Sanjana was already in the class when Priya reached. The subject was barely of interest, but they had to maintain minimum attendance in order to qualify for the semester exams. The professor, Mr. Sharma, announced that he would be conducting a test in three days. Everyone frantically looked around the class to find class notes for the subject. No one would read the entire textbooks, so finding the quickest way to gain enough knowledge was necessary.
Later in the day, another professor announced a test in four days. The topper of the class was surrounded with people soon. The big problem – the topper could explain things to only so many students. They decided to organize a late-night study session, but study sessions didn’t work for everyone. Some people performed better if they studied alone.
“Can you share your notes in the WhatsApp group? Click pictures and share them. We’ll study from them,” a few people were saying. The topper, however, stated that he didn’t have all of the notes either. He had been sick for almost a month this semester, so it was hard for him to have those notes.
“We should go and study online. There’s enough resources online.” The topper stated.
“Well, but going through all this material in three days would be hard!” Priya replied. Though she didn’t care much about her grades, she had to study at least to pass. She decided not to visit the school she had an appointment with.
“So, what to do?”
“If Sharma finds out that someone shared their summarized notes with the class, it would be terrible.” Mr. Sharma was an eclectic person. No one had been able to predict his moods or grading patterns. If he came to know his notes were shared without permission, he wouldn’t hesitate in failing people.
“If there was a way to share notes anonymously…” someone said.
“I have a way!” Sanjana screamed. “Just give me an hour or so.”
“I’ll be back.”
Sanjana headed to a nearby lab, opened her laptop and forked the studie app. She stripped the app down to only include the modules of uploading notes and sharing them with others. Although not very accurate, the app was able to parse text out of photos to a fair extent. As a result, she had a way to make the note sharing process anonymous, thus ensuring that Sharma would never find out the original source of the notes.
“One of my cousins mentioned this website to me. It’s called studie, as in s t u d i e.” They have a feature where you could share notes anonymously. I put up some notes and saw that this works. Check it out!
Later that night, there were images of more than a hundred pages uploaded to the database, which had been parsed. In cases when the parser was not able to convert to text, it showed errors. But when the parser worked, it made for amazing results.
On the website, concepts, questions and solutions were catalogued according to topics. There was no name of any person on the website, leading to complete anonymity.
In the process of creating something for high schools, Sanjana and Priya came up with a solution to a problem faced by their own kind. Would the app ever be used by an actual school? They didn’t have an answer. But there was a smile on their faces when they realized that there was a user base in their college using the app before the exams.
As a result, almost 80% students had a higher grade than they would have.
After the tests were done, Sanjana and Priya realized that many notetaking tools nowadays had image-to-text capabilities, but the notes were not easily shareable and searchable by others, even if anonymity could be established. They thought of creating tools to improve on these capabilities.
“Ideally, Sharma should be sharing the notes himself! Just like the other profs.” Sanjana stated, while starting to fix a few bugs she had recently noticed.
Priya and Sanjana had tasted what solving problems with technology felt like. It was time to learn how to make money in the process.
This story is inspired by Paul Graham’s essay how to start a startup –
“What you should do in college is work on your own projects. Hackers should do this even if they don't plan to start startups, because it's the only real way to learn how to program. In some cases you may collaborate with other students, and this is the best way to get to know good hackers. The project may even grow into a startup. But once again, I wouldn't aim too directly at either target. Don't force things; just work on stuff you like with people you like.”
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