Wednesday, August 3, 2011

CourseHorse is Off and Running Thanks to Two NYU Alumni


Katie Kapler (CAS '07) and Nihal Parthasarathi (Stern '08) are two NYU alumni who had a brilliant idea, a site that allows people to find and enroll in classes around New York City. Their idea won them $75,000 in this year's Stern New Venture Competition. We had a chance to ask Katie some questions about NYU and CourseHorse.

CAS Alumni: Can you talk a little about your memories of NYU? Professors who had an impact? Favorite places on campus?

Katie Kapler: I was fortunate enough to have many really stellar professors, but there were primarily two that had a sincere impact on the way I analyze and think. William Easterly turned the world of economic development on its head. It’s easy to digest knowledge and information fed to you by a teacher, boss or some authoritative figure; it’s much more difficult and rewarding to question and investigate the basis of that information. He taught me how to be an analytical student, to really challenge information presented and not simply passively consume media as fact.

The other was Suzanne Cusick. She taught Expressive Cultures: Sound—a class that examines sound and music’s place politically and socially. To be honest, I was only taking it to fulfill the “artsy” requirement of the core curriculum. At first, I was slightly intimidated by the course; if you’ve ever heard me sing, you’d immediately understand why a class on music was a somewhat masochistic choice. I remember in one of the first classes we were tasked with identifying the change in ostinato (a fancy word for tonality). After receiving blank stares from a room of tone-deaf individuals, Suzanne started dancing wildly around the room, changing up her style as the ostinato changed. Anyone walking into the classroom would have thought this gray-haired lady had lost it completely. She was the best educator I had at NYU because she would iteratively adapt her teaching method until we grasped the content. I try to emulate her craft, not only on the dance floor, but also when I present, train and manage. Plus, any class where I can write an entire paper on Nine Inch Nails' "Ruiner" is going to get an A in my book. Overall, I think details, facts, and stats can fade from memory, but these skill-sets – how to teach and how to really listen/learn – have become an invaluable part of my entrepreneurship.

CAS: For those who don't know, can you tell us what CourseHorse is?

K: CourseHorse is a marketplace for local classes, like language, art, social media, cpr, etc. We aggregate course content from local schools so that the user doesn’t have to visit each school’s web site to find information like curriculum, schedule, teacher, location and price. Think of us as the Kayak for local education. People can purchase their spot and enroll directly through our system.

CAS: How did the idea for CourseHorse come about? How did you meet Nihal?

Nihal and I met as opponents in an intramural volley-ball game. I’m pretty sure my team won (and I’m pretty sure Nihal would contest that.) As with the amorphous state of social circles in college, our friend groups merged and we quickly became best friends. We both had a passion for product development – the idea of creating something and learning. It became our ritual to brew an entire pot of coffee and bounce ideas off of one another. We seriously considered another idea in the education space, tried it, tanked it and realized we needed to gain a bit of real world experience before building our own system. After graduation, I headed the product development for a startup launching in the small business services space, Biz2Credit. Nihal went to work for Capgemini as a management consultant within the technology and education sector. He was assigned to revamp a class management system for a major test- prep provider. It was there he saw the potential for an aggregator in the space, called me, picked my brain and here we are!

CAS: What are some of your favorite courses that can be found by searching on your site?

K: I just advanced from beginner to advanced beginner in Argentinian Tango, though I still have an incredible knack for getting under people’s feet. We also recently added Kayaking and Sailing classes and I’m super excited to get out on the river.

CAS: You entered the idea into the New Venture Competition at Stern and won $75,000. What was that experience like?

K: We made the decision to enter the competition as we were submitting our prototype to the development team. We thought “Hey, we’re going to have a business plan prepared anyway, why not give this a whirl?” Of course, we grossly miscalculated the amount of work that would be required of us. At each step in the competition, we’d have additional advisers who would conduct mini stress tests of our business, identify the weak points and send us scrambling back to the drawing board. All the while, we were busy selling to schools and launching our site. It ranks as one of the most intense 2 month periods of my life—in CAS speak, it was like a 2-month long period of Renzi tests (Conversations of the West). That said, we wouldn’t be doing so well right now if it wasn’t for the competition. Money aside, the process of constantly pitching our business to a highly critical, yet talented pool of entrepreneurs and professionals helped us chisel our sales spiels to the point of perfection. We formed great relationships with our mentors and were able to meet some incredible entrepreneurs who might have otherwise been inaccessible.

CAS: Who came up with name and were they a fan of Mr. Ed?

K: Nihal and I were in what seemed like our 100th hour of brainstorming names when one of our friends, who happened to be eavesdropping at the time suggested CourseHorse. We immediately checked on the domain availability and then added it to our list of “maybes” (along with,,,,,, and about 200 others…). We then shortlisted those we thought were memorable and inviting. We wanted the name and the brand to break the stiff, serious vibe that a lot of education-based sites give off. It was also important for it to be something that everyone could remember and for search engine optimization purposes, included the word class or course. When we harassed our family, friends and friends of friends for feedback, CourseHorse outperformed all the others. It was a definite crowd pleaser. When Nihal’s grandmother remembered the name out of the list it pretty much sealed the deal-- that and the fact that our horse looks so great in a tutu.

CAS: What advice would you give to NYU students with dreams of owning an online startup?

K: It’s easy to sell yourself and your experience short when you’re starting a venture, especially if it’s your first startup. It’s also easy to get lost in the massive amount of help content that’s available on the web. It’s much more difficult to trust your gut instinct when you’re a newbie and remember that there are multiple ways to reach a goal. When Nihal and I were first starting out, advisers in the form of VC’s, entrepreneurs, every tech/media blog demanded we have a technical co-founder—so much so that we seriously started to think we should take a break and learn how to code. After we wasted a solid 2 or 3 weeks self-agonizing over the fact that we weren’t churning out php scripts, we ended the pity-party and started building our vision for CourseHorse in a tool that required no technical expertise and created a very true-to-life user experience. We used this prototype for user testing to get the product right and then shipped it to a development team that we contracted. We saved loads of time and equity, and even got a sweet prototype out of the process that I repurposed for sales demos.

Ready to start tap dancing? Want to learn the art of french pastry? Check out some of the great classes available through CourseHorse!