For one Master of Digital Media student, his goal of becoming an entrepreneur was finally realized this year, when he and his venture team received $100,000 in pre-seed funding from First Fund, Canada’s largest pre-seed investment fund. BBBook, a collaborative, web-based platform for university students to share notes and insights on their assigned readings, immediately appealed to Samarth Chandola, First Fund’s founder. During the Centre for Digital Media’s annual Industry Showcase (which took place virtually this year), an event that introduces industry guests to MDM students and their projects, Samarth reached out directly to the team to set up a meeting - the next day!
“We saw in BBBook all the components for an explosive cocktail,” said Samarth. “The Founding team was strong and well-rounded, they were attacking a problem that was very relevant, and the scope for what was required to scale and grow was realistic and achievable with the resources we could bring to the table. It was a no-brainer for us to get involved.”
I chatted (virtually) with Mohit Malhotra, the project team lead and now current CEO of BBBook, about his time in the MDM program, what he learned, and his advice for other entrepreneurs.
Tell me about your experience in the MDM program.
I wanted to continue along an entrepreneurial path. I’d already completed one masters degree, and I knew the MDM program would help me further my goals. I’d read about the opportunity to do a pitch project during the third term in the program, and I was excited to form a team and create a product.
The first two terms really set the stage for the third term. From day one, I was learning real-world skills like how to develop user tests, implement user and market research, and the importance of iterative development - all things that informed our design process. I learned how to develop a short-term design thinking process and I was armed with the tools to move an idea to action.
Classes like Interdisciplinary Improv and Foundations of Digital Media provided me with notes and resources that I still refer back to. I also watched my team members open up, grow, and become confident in their roles. One of my electives, Business and Management, was what really gave me the competitive advantage. Through exercises like strategy games and mock pitches, and with actionable feedback provided by the faculty at every turn, I honed my skills for pitching, negotiating, and approaching legal discussions.
For Dr. Dave Fracchia, Professor of Professional Practice at CDM and a digital media consultant, there was a clear level of talent and a strong work ethic apparent in Mohit and his team from the beginning. Dave recalls that in addition to being fearless and determined, they faced every new challenge in a way that reminded him of a quote by Randy Pausch from his talk The Last Lecture: “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. The brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough.”
What inspired BBBook?
It started out as simply wanting to help students read and better understand their coursework. We realized in our previous classes, students would often complete tasks individually, like making a mind map for their textbook readings, then come together to discuss their individual tasks as a group. We asked, “Why can’t the students complete these tasks as a group? Why can’t the collective knowledge of the group be used to help support everyone’s learning?” Once we experienced the collaborative environment and team-based approach of CDM’s classes, we had our inspiration for a product we knew all students would find useful.
What were the biggest challenges?
Our first challenge was building a product that addressed all our needs. We were familiar with the model of “forced” collaboration where students are asked to engage with each other on discussion boards to receive participation marks, and we knew we didn’t want that. We turned to online platforms like Reddit and Quora to study how users participated and interacted with each other. We decided to design a platform where students could create their own study groups (independent of any specific class), so that collaboration was not limited by a student’s current course load.
We also encountered COVID-19 related challenges. Because of the restrictions in place, we weren’t able to meet in person. Our team was spread out across the globe, working from multiple time zones. Working remotely also made it difficult to implement user testing. Instead of being able to ask a quick favour of the classmates, staff, and faculty sitting next to us, we had to send and resend dozens of emails, which would just get lost in people’s inboxes. It was a great learning opportunity for us, however. We were pushed to reach out to users outside of our usual silos, and we were able to collect feedback from a diverse range of users.
The team, pre-Covid, outside the Centre for Digital Media building.
What’s next for you and for BBBook?
It was a whirlwind journey from our Industry Showcase presentation to where we are now. In less than two weeks, we went from sharing our project, to creating a formal pitch and revenue projections, to finally meeting with a legal team and signing an agreement. It was quite the learning curve for our team, but we’re excited for what’s next. We’re working with faculty at CDM and local universities to expand our user testing and get BBBook into the hands of students for their feedback. We’re also in communication with my high school back in India about starting some user testing at the secondary school level.
For me, I'm completing my venture internship as the final term of my MDM program journey. I'm connecting with Colin Macrae from SFU’s Venture Connection program, the university's flagship, early-stage startup incubator. As a Mentor-In-Residence at SFU, and the Embedded Mentor for CDM, he supports teams like mine that are pursuing entrepreneurial ventures out of the MDM program.
What advice do you have for other aspiring entrepreneurs?
I’ve learned a lot from this experience in particular, and these are the things that stood out to me:
- Don't aim for perfection in the first design phase. Start by creating something small, and make changes from there.
- Design with functionality at the forefront, and let the “cool” element follow. People want something useful.
- Understand the importance of design thinking and the design process.
- Never say never. Anything truly is possible with the right mindset.
- Be ready to work hard - and a lot!
- Be flexible, be collaborative, work as a team, and trust your team.