Each week, staff writer Paul Wood talks with a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet MRINAAL MITTAL, a University of Illinois senior pursuing degrees in computer science and innovation, leadership and engineering entrepreneurship, with minors in business and South Asian studies, and who has already created several startups.
You've been working on two different ventures. What is Great Mind Exchange?
It's a recruitment platform for startups focused in the area. It was born out of a trip to the University of Chicago's Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation during the iVenture Accelerator summer program in 2017. At that time, I was working on a startup called TranslAPI with my co-founder, Yuxiang "Yoshi" Luo, but we were looking to pivot. We found that a lot of founders at the Polsky Center were looking for engineering talent from the campus, and were asking us for recommendations. Looking deeper into the problem, we found that early startups in Champaign-Urbana also faced similar issues, and that's how GMX was born. Lucy Chang, another iVenture fellow, joined our team in a co-founder capacity very soon and is the CEO of GMX.
PuStack is an education-technology platform for Indian students. You've had over 52 million views in the last year on your videos. How does PuStack work and how did you get so many views?
PuStack started when Divyam Gupta was approached by a friend (from his class) to explain a physics concept that he missed in school. When Divyam shared this with his older brother Shivam, Shivam asked him to make a video to explain it and also published it on YouTube. That's how the PuStack YouTube channel was born, where we got most of our views. We then extended it to an Android app, which will be followed soon by the iOS version. PuStack asked me to join as a co-founder to focus on the business side. We have focused on keeping the quality of videos really high and getting maximum feedback from our customers (the students). We have previously grown mostly through word of mouth, and are now focusing on expanding our marketing channels to bring a larger audience to the mobile app. We have a very data-driven approach and all our decisions are based on the data we gather from our customers. For example, we found that about 98 percent of all mobile users on the platform were using Android-based smartphones, thus we pursued an Android app before the iOS version.
Who else in on your team?
We currently have Shivam, Divyam and me as the co-founders. We also recently hired a team of three content and video creators, one video editor and two developers.
Did extending your web apps to mobile apps alter your business model?
Yeah, that was definitely a big change for our business model. In fact, today, 92 percent of our views come through a mobile interface, as compared with only 7 percent on desktop. Previously, we were relying on mostly advertising revenue as our main source, but now we are looking more towards the freemium model on the mobile app, where the video content would be free but notes, exercises and exam preparation would come with charges. Our goal is to be the go-to app for education help in India.
Have you had any support from the UI? You've been selected as an iVenture Accelerator 2017 Summer Cohort, Huawei Innovation Award winner, a Serra Ventures Prize winner and a Cozad New Venture Competition 2017 Finalist. Anybody else?
The university has been really helpful in helping me with a lot of support and advice. The Technology Entrepreneurship Center in the College of Engineering and the Academy of Entrepreneurial Leadership in the Gies College of Business have been really generous with all the opportunities and support they have shown. Both of those units have provided me with amazing networking opportunities to meet established entrepreneurs as well as VCs and learn from their experiences. Other than that, EntreCORPS and iVenture Accelerator have been really helpful in providing access to some of the best in the Midwest area.
What's your best advice for someone who's starting up?
The best advice I have for others is what my father gave me right before I started my first venture. He said don't be scared to fail.
Did you ever make any mistakes that you learned from?
One of the biggest mistakes I made was underestimating the value of customer feedback. Before building a final product, it is very important to test the prototype with the customers and to get their feedback on what you plan to build. No customer cares about how great the technology behind your product is; all they care about is how well it solves their problem.
TECH TIDBITS ... from MRINAAL MITTAL
What's your favorite app? Wunderlist. I love keeping to-do lists, and this is probably the best way to manage them.
Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? Books any day! I am on a reading challenge to finish 26 books by year's end. I am currently reading "Angel Investing" by David Rose.
Do you have any wearable electronics? Nope, though I love classic watches.
Do you have an entrepreneurial hero? Definitely Jack Ma of Alibaba Group.