Reetu Gupta’s startup wasn’t getting the traction that she wanted.
The model for Cirkled In, her Seattle-based company, was to sell high schools a product that helps students apply to college by assisting them in creating portfolios. It was tough pitching to schools. And then she heard a talk by tech guru Mark Cuban saying that data and AI were the keys to corporate survival within the next 5 years. Gupta hustled back to the drawing board to devise a new business and marketing strategy.
Almost a year after her pivot and reboot, Cirkled In has 100,000 students using its product, which Gupta describes as “LinkedIn for students and colleges.” The six-employee business has raised almost $700,000 from angel investors. And just last month, Cirkled In won best for-profit enterprise at the annual Fast Pitch Awards hosted by Seattle SVP (Social Venture Partners).
Cirkled In is free for students to use, and 400-600 are signing up every day. Through the platform, they can collect all of their college application information in one place, including their academics as well as extracurricular sports, volunteering efforts and other activities. Cirkled In helps them tell their story — which in some cases will be a more positive narrative than what an admissions official might find searching social media.
Another piece of the pivot included consulting colleges and universities to understand their needs, now they’re customers too. Accredited, vetted institutions can pay to access students’ profiles to recruit candidates that fit their programs. For years, universities have largely relied on databases of students provided by ACT and College Board, which administer admissions tests including the SAT. The information provides little detail about the students, making recruitment inefficient and expensive, Gupta said.
“They are very easy to compete against,” she said. “They are from the dinosaur age.”
And Cirkled In is still selling to high schools. Its product helps teachers track their students’ performance, and provides analysis to schools and districts to follow where students are going post-graduation and to better understand which students are successfully moving on to higher education.
Gupta, who was born in a small town outside of New Delhi, India, is focused on making Cirkled In a tool for all kids to use.
“Education was my way out, so I need bring education to every child,” she said. If a student opts to not pursue higher ed, “it should be a conscious decision. It can’t be because nobody ever talked to [them] about college.”
Before launching Cirkled In, Gupta was a manager at Honeywell for more than 10 years. Prior to that, she was a software engineer at AT&T Wireless. We caught up with Gupta for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: Cirkled In matches high school students with best-fit colleges and universities, creating a win-win on both sides.
Inspiration hit us when: I personally experienced a painful application process for my daughter. It took me three weeks to upload all her records in an online application platform. She got accepted, but I lost access to that platform and our own data because the platform was handcuffed to that school. For the next application, we had to start all over again. That got me thinking. You and I have LinkedIn. Shouldn’t there be something built just for students, too? Something that’s designed to capture the activities they do with the security they need. To my surprise, I didn’t find anything. So, I put on my hat of mom, marketer and engineer, and decided to make one. And Cirkled In was born.
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: How about all three based on the stage of the company? We started bootstrapping as we came up with the idea. This initial bootstrap stage included market discovery, validating the pain, minimal viable product launch and establishing product-market fit. We needed to do that on our timeline without any pressure to “get returns.” Last year, we raised our first angel round to establish user adoption at scale and start revenue generation. Next year we’ll raise VC funding that will help us scale and grow.
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: Our focus on the end user — the student — is our secret sauce. The future belongs to youth and that is who we want on our side. Even though our offering is also for K-12 schools, youth organizations, and colleges and universities, we remember everyday that we work for students. Our product is taking off because it resonates with them. And that is who we serve. I know it’s a cliché, but our mission starts and ends with students.
The smartest move we’ve made so far: Engaging high school students and talking to them from day one and every day ever since. Right after I came up with the idea, I talked to 100 parents and students before writing a single line of code. Since then, we have conducted numerous interviews, focus groups, exhibitions and city fairs, and talked to tens of thousands of students, teachers and parents. Every piece of feedback we get helps with our next move. We have high school interns who give us feedback and test our product, as well as create our social media content. They teach us “teen-language.” We learn from them how to make chocolate-covered-broccoli.
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: We don’t believe there are any mistakes. There are plenty of learning opportunities. We believe that each decision is based on current information and context. The future will bring new information in a new context, and hence prior decisions may not be suitable anymore. That’s called a pivot. We pivoted our marketing strategy and business model at the end of 2017, and since the launch of Cirkled In 2.0 in Jan 2018, we are seeing massive growth.
Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner? Mark Zuckerberg — but an older Zuckerberg. Partially due to the similarities of our offering and partially due to his capability in attracting talent like Sheryl Sandberg. No one can do it all and it’s important to surround yourself with smarter people. Building a category-defining offering that’s used by billions of people all over the planet is something we are working to do with Cirkled In.
Our favorite team-building activity is: Hanging out at our home on Friday night with Costco pizza for team dinner. (What can I say — we are a startup!)
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: Are you cut out for a startup? Do you have what it takes to do the job? Do you have a do-or-die attitude? Working for a startup is fueled by the passion and ambition to make a difference. It requires hard work, grit and a growth mindset.
Additionally, we look for core values like integrity: a combination of transparency and ethics. Alignment of this core value is extremely important to maintain an open and transparent culture in our company.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Know what you are getting into and be mentally prepared. Entrepreneurship is hugely glamorized. A tiny percentage of companies succeed and end up in the media. The majority fail — and you don’t get to hear about them. But they do exist, or did exist. It takes a lot, and then some, to succeed. Know the true cost of entrepreneurship. It’s not for the faint of heart.