Early last year, Evan Hiner, Gary Knopp, and Jassen Bowman connected at a Startup Weekend event over the shared goal of building a valuable company. They decided to innovate in the continuing professional education space (CPE) space.
After three weeks, the co-founders built CPEsuite.
“We originally started aiming to create a modern, efficient, and enjoyable experience for accountants to complete their yearly continuing professional education (CPE — hence CPEsuite),” said Hiner, who serves as CEO. “We quickly discovered that one of the fundamental problems, for not only accountants but lawyers as well, is that it’s extremely difficult to find high-quality, relevant courses.”
CPEsuite is a peer-to-peer education marketplace where users can build and sell courses to other professionals seeking continuing education credit. Users are incentivized and rewarded for sharing their knowledge.
“We’ve built the industry’s first nano-learning model which allows professionals to make progress in 10-minute increments — allowing them to complete their hours more efficiently and improve information retention,” said Hiner.
The three-person team is currently working through the 9Mile Labs accelerator in Seattle. We caught up with Hiner for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature.
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “We make completing the Continuing Professional Education (CPE), which licensed professionals are already required to complete, easier and more valuable. Instead of being a box to check, it becomes a great way to learn new, profitable skills, while also saving valuable billable time.”
Inspiration hit us when: “Our co-founder, Jassen, became really frustrated trying to complete his own continuing education hours as an IRS Enrolled Agent. In 2014, he traveled to 42 different cities to teach live continuing education classes that were more valuable to professionals. As a result of this exhausting and time-consuming experience, he started looking for a more efficient way to deliver an equivalent educational experience online, and was disappointed at the lack of options. Seeing the inefficiencies in every aspect of the continuing education industry drew us to take a clean-sheet approach to building a learning experience that professionals would find simple, convenient, and effective.”
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “Until 9Mile Labs, we’ve been entirely bootstrapped. In the early days, we spent a lot of time determining exactly where we sat in our market and where the acute pain points were. As we learned, it became clearer and clearer what our identity was. We’re still a young company and now that we’ve validated the need for our product and refined our vision, we’re ready to partner with smart investors who will help us increase our velocity across the board.
There are a lot of great angels in the Pacific Northwest. Many of them have worked in a professional industry and intimately understand the pain we’re solving, the size of the opportunity, and have strategic connections to help guide us. Those are the exact types of partners we’re looking for to help us build the future of professional learning.”
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “I know I’m at risk of sounding cliché, but this one, fundamentally, has to be our team. We come from diverse and very complementary backgrounds. We have deep industry expertise and connections, an amazing architect and developer, sales, marketing, product, and a clear vision. Better yet, we all have a common foundation of business and technical knowledge that enables us to communicate effectively and work well together.
As a team, we’ve been able to come up with crafty, resourceful, and innovative solutions to pervasive problems that have plagued the continuing professional education industry for many years. We’ve been able to connect the right pieces to solve those problems in elegant ways.”
The smartest move we’ve made so far: “9Mile Labs has a really strong network and our mentors have graciously given us a lot of their valuable time and expertise. This has been a tremendous boost and a guiding force to get us pointed in the right direction and doing so with speed.
We also clearly defined a culture and a framework that revolves around trust. We each have areas of domain expertise and we trust each other to make the right call for the business. This has given us the speed and agility we’ve relied on to test, learn, and refine quickly.”
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “Not tying some assumptions to metrics. There were some fundamental issues in our initial strategy that took us longer to figure out than we would have liked. Ultimately, it was all part of the learning process but better diligence tracking and revisiting those assumptions early could have saved us time.”
Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Mark Zuckerberg has unlocked an enormous amount of potential in human networks, and we aspire to do the same in professional learning. A phrase we often use internally is that we aim to ‘unlock the collective knowledge’ of professionals to help make entire professional industries better. There is a huge amount of institutional knowledge that can be transferred if the right people connect to the right knowledge at the right time.
I also think he’s also done a great job building an innovation culture and staying connected to it as they’ve continued to grow, which is extremely difficult to do successfully.”
Our favorite team-building activity is: “Building and chatting with Laphroaig Single Malt Scotch Whisky in hand.”
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “There has to be passion. Passion breeds curiosity, curiosity breeds learning, and learning is absolutely paramount to a startup.
Passion is what pulls you forward when things get tough (and they will get really tough). Passion allows you to stay optimistic and keep your eyes on the bigger vision. That resilience is what it takes to persevere when everyone else would quit.”
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “You need to have a strong vision for the future you think ought to exist. With that in mind, you also have to be self-aware and open-minded enough to be comfortable with constant change. You have to be ready, able, and willing to learn from your experiments and customer feedback to craft your unique, winning recipe. In short, don’t equate ‘strong vision’ with ‘I’m right’.”
Editor’s note: GeekWire is spotlighting each startup participating in the 9MileLabs cohort in the lead up to its Demo Day pitch event on March 3.