Bharani Rajakumar & Arthur Tu: LearnBop
Many people want to do good and do well at the same time. Very few people execute on this. The two founders of LearnBop are an exception. And while they may not be there yet, because their company is a startup, they are moving in the right direction!
About Arthur. Arthur Tu, co-founder of LearnBop, is another young entrepreneur who started with the technology generation’s version of the lemonade stand. A youth or 13 in Taiwan, he got together with some other programmers. “Our business idea was incredibly simple,” Arthur recounts. “We basically would get together, pick cases, and work on them. We built websites for people who needed them. It was fun.” Then the group realized that they could put up their own websites to further drive business. Still a high school student, while the others in the group were a bit older, Arthur wasn’t interested in growing a business so much as having fun with technology. And he was really interested in education. So he built a tutorial website: “I wrote computer tutorials for people to read. It was kind of a how-to for computers.”
Arthur’s site became one of the top ranked Mandarin IT tutorial sites at the time, and attracted the attention of Cisco in Taiwan, which asked Arthur to put up promotional information for their programming competitions and classes. But they never charged ad money for the promotions. As Arthur put it, “we saw this as a service to bring more people to the IT scene.” The site died out as Arthur approached college age, “After Google came along, tutorials were still relevant, but people got used to writing dispersed tutorials on blogs and expressing how-tos in Q&A form, letting search engines do the indexing and organization, as opposed to building and maintaining hefty document bases, so the idea of tutorial sites became more or less obsolete.” LearnBop is Arthur’s fourth attempt at entrepreneurship, but only his first after graduating from Carnegie Mellon (B.S. in Computer Science and Philosophy, 2007; M.S in Logic and Computation, 2009).
About Bharani. Bharani Rajakumar always knew the importance of education in his life. Bharani was born in India, but immigrated to the US when he was four. He credits his education for enabling himself to move out of the low income neighborhood he grew up in. “I was never the smartest kid in the class but I was always in academically accelerated programs like the International Baccalaureate program and I enjoyed learning from those around me,” he explained. Bharani also loved business although he never thought of that as a career direction.
After graduating from the University of Florida in finance, Bharani worked for Lehman Brothers, but kept his dream of moving into the education industry alive by participating in educational non-profits. While he was not thinking about entrepreneurship per se, he was a founding board member of a non-profit called nycTIES (young professionals impacting NYC). He was also on the junior board for Children’s Hope India and organized a program that sent American college students to India to learn about poverty alleviation businesses. This got him thinking about starting something that could be both for-profit and socially responsible in the field of education. As he describes it, “I didn’t think that I was very entrepreneurial, but one of my friends surprised me when he told me that I would be an entrepreneur.” Bharani continued, “I loved my job, but I wanted to do so much more, and I really want to make a difference. At a corporate job, that just wasn’t going to happen.”
So, Bharani came to CMU’s Tepper School of Business to start a business where he became a Swartz Entrepreneurship Fellow. He gave up a corporate job as senior operations analyst at Lehman Brothers. But, even there, Bharani had entrepreneurial inclinations; he invented a new way of doing something in operations, an innovative way of reconciling trades more rapidly, which the firm’s operations division eventually used. Bharani finished his MBA in May, 2011 but not before launching LearnBop.
The beginning of LearnBop. Bharani and Arthur met through Project Olympus, an initiative within Carnegie Mellon to foster and encourage entrepreneurship among faculty and students. In perusing Project Olympus’ project posting board, Bharani saw Arthur’s resume and when he saw the focus on education, technology and, more interestingly, break dancing, he knew that “I just had to meet this guy!” Bharani continued, “Anyone that can fit computer science geekiness and break dancing beats into the same brain is probably not afraid to try new things. Now, I just need to convince him not to take a real job!”
Arthur’s initial idea for a company involved creating an educational website that was similar to the tutorial website that he built back in Taiwan. Arthur wanted to find a way to learn on the internet and to learn more interactively. Bharani wanted teachers to create educational resources that could be put online. He wanted something intuitive where people could drag and drop. Their ideas did not at first coincide. But Arthur listened to Bharani from a computer science perspective and realized that it was natural to merge the ideas. Thus, Bharani had the business idea, Arthur had the idea of how to create the interactive experience and how to put it online. And LearnBop born.
The name comes from the movie, “Kung Fu Panda.” Both Arthur and Bharani love that movie. As they got to know each other, they talked about the movie and ended up calling the wooden post that is used in Kung Fu practice a “bop.” As Bharani explained, “Because the LearnBop website is envisioned as a tool to be used by people that want to practice math-based skills to learn and master them at their own pace, it seemed kind of natural to name our company LearnBop.”
LearnBop today. The vision for LearnBop is educational technology that enables experts to create educational content with hints and feedback messages that respond to student behaviors, just as experts normally would provide. This is a bottom-up approach to developing educational content that the startup’s founders think is more effective than a traditional top-down curriculum approach. The company enables experts to develop content using familiar web technologies that are accessible on pcs and smartphones.
The company has received support from CMU in the form of accelerator funding from the Don Jones Center as well as incubation and mentoring from Project Olympus. During the summer of 2010, Arthur and Bharani virtually lived at the Olympus incubator space. “They were always here,” says Kit Needham, Senior Business Advisor for Project Olympus. “I think that if we had a better kitchen and showers, they might never have left” she exclaimed!
During that summer, LearnBop conducted a beta of their system with CMU. They used the feedback from users to guide product development. Today, the company is in several closed betas. They will soon be raising money and earning revenues.
The founders have recruited a team of rock stars including two CMU engineers, an experienced designer from the baseball card company, Topps, and Director of Marketing from the Wharton MBA program. At DreamIt Ventures, for the past seven weeks, the founders have sought out teachers, parents and students to provide brutally honest feedback on LearnBop’s product. They are working really hard to incorporate that feedback into the product iterations. So hard that DreamIT gave them a futon to put next to their desks since Arthur has spent more nights at the office than at the start-up’s apartment.
The founders are very well aware that most start-ups die which may explain their insane work hours. As Bharani recalls, “I remember watching this video in my high school biology class about sea turtles. Did you know that the mother can lay 50 to 200 eggs? ! They may all hatch, but only a few of them will make it to the ocean without predators gobbling them up. I hope that we, like the surviving sea turtles, make it to the ocean.”
On August, 10th, 2011, LearnBop aims to hatch its product during DreamIt Ventures’s Demo Day in New York City, marking the end of the incubator program and hopefully the beginning of a successful venture.
Good luck, LearnBop!