5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS: “Make sure you’re addressing a need” with Alexander Deeb and Mitch Russo

Make sure you’re addressing a need. This is a consideration whenever you’re creating any product or service. What is the problem that you’re solving, and how big is that problem? We conducted research and a market analysis before we wrote a single line of code to validate that our product had potential. The amount of due diligence will vary based on your industry and your expertise in that industry. We needed to do substantial research since we weren’t familiar with the Education industry.

As part of my series about the “5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexander Deeb. Alex is co-founder and CEO of ClassHook, the best place to find educational scenes from popular TV shows and movies. ClassHook is a curated library of thousands of short, educational scenes from hundreds of titles aligned to educational standards and made suitable for classroom use. With ClassHook, educators can use The Simpsons to teach a lesson on physics or The Big Bang Theory to teach English grammar. Teachers use ClassHook to make their lessons more engaging, inspiring, and relevant for their students. ClassHook’s goal is to make education more engaging and inspiring for students so that they will have the knowledge and ambition to access more opportunities and become the changemakers of the future.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Thank you for having me! Education has always been a big focus in my family. My parents stressed the importance of doing well in school so that I would have access to opportunity. I also played a lot of sports, so I think that combination helped me develop an ambitious mindset. In high school, I taught myself how to code because I wanted to be able to create anything I wanted. I also realized that my creations wouldn’t make much of an impact if I couldn’t bring them to market, so I went to school for business and continued learning about coding and technology on my own. It wasn’t until I graduated college that I reflected on my education and realized it could’ve been a lot better. That’s when the idea for ClassHook came about.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

The first idea for ClassHook came about during a brainstorming session with some friends. Videos contain a treasure trove of information, but it’s difficult to search through them. You have to watch the video to know what it’s about. I thought there was an opportunity if I created a way to search within videos. The “aha” moment for me was when I reflected on my learning experience after I graduated college. Although I considered myself to be a good student, some classes just weren’t engaging to me, while others were. That led me to think of one question that sticks with me to this day: “How much more would I know now if I was just a little bit more engaged in every single class throughout all of my years of schooling?” That inspired me to research student engagement and the factors that influence it.

After doing a ton of research and talking to teachers, it became clear to me that there was an opportunity to help educators better engage their students. They needed a way to teach students in a way that was engaging and relevant to their lives. That’s what we started ClassHook to accomplish.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

In the early days of ClassHook, we found it challenging to get teachers to use our product. We finally enlisted a pilot group of 10 teachers, but only 1 or 2 of them actually participated. That was a tough moment for us because we needed a strong line of communication with our users to know what to build. Combined with the challenges of using content that wasn’t ours, we weren’t sure how we’d make money and turn this into a sustainable business.

I’ve definitely thought about giving up, and I still get those feelings today. A couple of thoughts help me get through the lows. The first is a phrase that I heard former President Obama say in a video, which is to “focus on the work.” His advice was to not overthink your plans, your goals, and the current state of your organization. You’ve already set the goal and the mission, so do the work you set out to do, and everything will work itself out. This helps me shake off any negative feelings and focus on improving the current situation.

Another one of my drivers is our mission. We’re trying to improve student engagement for millions of learners around the world. In the U.S., only about one-third of students are engaged in high school. Low engagement is linked to lower levels of academic achievement, higher dropout rates, and increased behavioral problems in school. If we give up now, many students will have less access to opportunity in the future.

My most recent driver is feedback from our users. We get overwhelmingly positive feedback from teachers about how their students were so engaged with our videos. It warms my heart to hear that.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Today, we’re on a path towards becoming a sustainable business. We have teachers in thousands of schools using ClassHook, and we’ve made it quicker and easier than ever for them to find the perfect video clip for their lesson.

Without grit and resilience, we would’ve failed a long time ago. A lot of lawyers we spoke with in the first year told us that what we’re doing isn’t allowed and that we’ll be shut down. We finally connected with a firm that gave us guidance on how to operate in a way that respects copyright owners and opens up a path for monetization. We are restricted on how we can monetize, but there’s still a large opportunity for us.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I can’t think of a funny mistake, but ClassHook supports teachers in all subject areas (Math, Science, History, English, Business, etc.) because our original intent was to crowdsource videos from teachers. In reality, we didn’t have nearly enough users at the time for that to be feasible. We also thought that teachers would take the time to submit the videos they use in their lessons; however, they actually came to us in order to find videos. We weren’t wrong in assuming they would submit videos to us, but I think we largely overestimated the number of teachers that would actually do it.

One takeaway from that experience is that we should’ve started with one or two subjects. For example, supporting Science teachers and later expanding to other subjects. The reason for that is we had a tough time supporting the teachers that came to our website in the early days. Some educators would visit us and not find any videos that they can use. If we had focused on one subject area, it would’ve been easier to create a solid product for a specific type of teacher.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think the nature of our company makes us stand out. We often hear from people that they’ve “never heard of anything like before.” We’re definitely a niche product.

Our day-to-day work is also different from that of most other companies. Part of our work requires watching TV shows and movies, looking for educational scenes and references. This means that one day I could be watching episodes of The Simpsons, and the next day I could be watching Teletubbies. It depends on our content needs. Many people would consider this to be a dream job.

One of my most memorable moments was when I was working in a coffee shop in Massachusetts. I was watching episodes of a children’s show when several people passed by me. Watching shows suited for kindergarteners became natural to me, so I had never really thought about what other people would think if they looked at my screen. I don’t mind what they’d think, but imagining a grown man watching a young children’s show in a coffee shop always makes me laugh.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

It’s crucial to take care of yourself. Get enough sleep and exercise, and eat nutritious meals. Remember that starting a company is a marathon, not a short sprint. You need to pursue a healthy lifestyle in order to make it. I used to get between 4–5 hours of a sleep a night for years. Since I started sleeping more and meditating every day, I’ve been more productive and have felt more optimistic about the company than before.

You may also have heard about the importance of building a support network, and I think that’s imperative. That network is not only a place for you to discuss stress, challenges, and how you’re feeling, but it also helps to socialize with others. It can get lonely as an entrepreneur, and having a group of other people that are looking out for you makes it much easier to stay motivated and accountable.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I am very grateful for my co-founder, Joyce Ang. Without her, ClassHook would not be where it is today. The company may even not have existed. She guided us towards a social impact focus (education) and frequently brings up the topic of impact, which is the most important metric when you’re working in education.

For example, we were rather comfortable continuing to support educators in finding videos for their lessons, but Joyce mentioned that we needed greater involvement in the classroom in order to amplify our impact. She created an ambitious direction that we’ve since pivoted from, but it led to our current focus of creating active, discussion-based learning experiences for students.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?

We’re not revealing specific numbers at this time, but ClassHook has tens of thousands of users based primarily in the United States. The main steps we’ve taken to build this community are:

1. A referral system. If your product has some element of B2C, make sure you have a way for people to effortlessly invite friends, family, and colleagues to your product. Our largest source of new users is existing users.

2. Influencer marketing. We greatly benefitted from contacting influencers in the space and letting them know about our work. Many of the ones that were interested in us helped spread the word via social media and their blog.

3. Sponsored blog posts. We paid for posts on popular education blogs. A lot of teachers read blogs to learn about incorporating technology in their practice.

What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?

We are a freemium product. We run ads on our website, and we have a paid subscription for teachers, schools, and districts. We have considered other monetization options and are actively pursuing them. One monetization option we’ve considered but didn’t use is to offer advertising slots on our website to video production companies. The premise is that some of these companies want to reach educators, and we have the user base for them. We don’t feel our community is at a point where we can attract their interest, so we plan to take another look at this option in the future.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know before one wants to start an app or a SAAS? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Make sure you’re addressing a need. This is a consideration whenever you’re creating any product or service. What is the problem that you’re solving, and how big is that problem? We conducted research and a market analysis before we wrote a single line of code to validate that our product had potential. The amount of due diligence will vary based on your industry and your expertise in that industry. We needed to do substantial research since we weren’t familiar with the Education industry.

2. Talk to people about it. We talked to friends, family, and others about our idea to gauge their interest. Even if they all weren’t our target audience, it was helpful to hear their opinions, advice, and questions. A lot of first-time founders are scared to share their idea because they think someone will steal it. This almost never happens. Start by talking to the people you trust the most if you’re not comfortable.

3. Test the concept before building. Is there a way you can test your concept before writing a single line of code? If so, you should so that you don’t waste any time. If not, think more about why you can’t. In our case, we created a PowerPoint for a professor. The PowerPoint contained educational videos embedded on each slide. The professor loved our work and became our first customer. That was an indication to us that the general concept had some sort of market.

4. Align your goals with the opportunity. Are you personally looking for a nice exit, or are you passionate about making an impact? Do you want to create a lifestyle business or a large enterprise? Thinking about your own goals will help you find a business opportunity and an industry that best aligns with your goals. ClassHook started out free because I wanted to make an impact in education. In order for us to sustain and grow our impact, however, we need a business model.

5. Don’t use surveys in the early days. At the start, you may want to gauge how people will respond to your business idea. A lot of entrepreneurs will create a survey and send it out. I don’t think this is the right approach. Of course, it depends on your business idea, but I prefer user interviews. Conduct one-on-one interviews with people you think will be your users. It’s a great way to validate assumptions about your idea and your target audience. You won’t get the same breadth and depth of information from a survey, and surveys can lead you down a path based on false assumptions. For example, if everyone responds positively on your survey just because they want an Amazon gift card, then their answers aren’t genuine, and it could have disastrous implications for your business. In the early days of ClassHook, we thought that professors would be our primary users. While we were correct, we learned through user interviews that K-12 teachers would find more value in our product. We also learned what criteria they use to find videos and what makes a “good” educational video. We built our search platform based on that criteria, and teachers have been loving it.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would start a movement to offer free, unlimited access to Wi-Fi to everyone in the world. The internet is arguably the best enabler of opportunity.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Thank you for having me!

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About the author:

Mitch Russo started a software company in his garage, sold it for 8 figures and then went on to work directly with Tony Robbins and Chet Holmes to build a $25M business together. Mitch wrote a book called “The Invisible Organization — How Ingenious CEOs are Creating Thriving, Virtual Companies” and now his 2nd book called Power Tribes — “How Certification Can Explode Your Business.” Mitch helps SaaS company founders scale their own companies using his proprietary system. You can reach Mitch Directly via mitch@mitchrusso.com

5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS: “Make sure you’re addressing a need” with… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.