In anticipation of the final round of the 2017 Pitch Dingman Competition, the Dingman Center is interviewing each of the five startup finalists about their progress and upcoming challenges as they prepare to compete for a total of $30,000 in startup funding on March 7.
Aaron Bloch, Co-Founder (pictured right)
Benjamin Khakshoor, Co-Founder (pictured left)
CourseHunter is an online platform that is revolutionizing course registration for college students. Students looking to get into important classes often encounter too-full classes with long waitlists that jeopardize the overall timing of their four-year plan. The CourseHunter website integrates with existing registration systems to help notify students when a class they are interested in opens up, allowing them to sign up for classes without worrying about waitlists. After achieving success with students using Testudo at University of Maryland, they launched at George Washington University and University of Southern California, and are looking to adapt to supplement registration systems at more schools.
DC: Have there been some key decisions or milestones along the way that have led you from an idea to now pitching for $15K?
Ben: The initial software was actually developed just to fix a problem that we had. We couldn’t get into our Introduction to Computer Science classes and were therefore wait-listed. I wrote some software that would basically constantly check for open seats and it would notify me when that spot would open, and within a few days I got into that class. My friends started using it, people started texting me and I started getting random texts from people I didn’t know asking to use it, so it got to the point where I couldn’t handle all the people who were asking me for this favor, that’s when we decided let’s turn this into a business.
Aaron: About the competition, and this goes farther back to when we first started getting involved with the Dingman Center, most of it is not about the money. It really pushes us to do better and competing—being around other people doing the same thing—creates a structure. Just coming in here and preparing for it, to hear “This is what the judges are looking for, this is what your business needs to improve,” and getting coaching sessions and feedback from everyone has really propelled us forward. Even if we didn’t win any of the money, just going through this whole experience really pushed our company forward. I don’t really know if we’d really be here today if it wasn’t for Dingman. Starting with Terp Startup was the big first step, and after that we never looked back.
DC: What have you learned from the Semifinals that will help you better prepare for Finals?
Aaron: We learned that we have a lot of competition. I didn’t realize how much money everyone was making during the semis, and that definitely intimidated me. We hadn’t made any money up until that point, which was fine, but we thought that at the finals we’d have to show that we are making money. So the day after semis were over we started charging $5 and we’ve been really successful with that, so we feel pretty confident going in that we can hang tight with our competition.
Ben: We were really scared to charge $5 initially because we were really just trying to grow as much as possible and we weren’t sure if people would pay or not because we would get a lot of mixed reactions when we asked them. But it turned out really well. We started charging $5 a class and we’ve made about $1,200 since the competition. For us that was a proof of concept.
DC: What has CourseHunter been working on since Pitch Dingman Competition Semifinals?
Aaron: We launched at USC. And that’s been pretty good.
Ben: We launched right at the end of registration period, but it should definitely be very big for next registration period. We’re also trying to expand to UC Berkeley right now, which should be out soon.
DC: What are some goals you are looking to reach before Finals?
Ben: Probably preparing for the Finals and for the next registration period. Developing new features. We’ve been thinking a lot about what we can do for our users during their down time, not during registration period. In the Semifinals we talked about creating a schedule builder, and we’ll probably be releasing that next registration period after the finals.
DC: If you win Pitch Dingman Competition, what will you do with the $15,000?
Ben: Largely toward marketing, and toward the initial marketing we have to do at each school. At University of Maryland, we had to do a lot of marketing initially to get the CourseHunter brand out there and create a very positive vibe about the service. Once you get that initial bubble of people talking about it, it spreads around and is familiar to everyone. We were able to do it here at Maryland because we’re so ingrained in the community, but at other schools we’re not ingrained in the community as much, so we would need to spend a little bit of money to create that initial bubble.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Read our previous feature on CourseHunter when they participated in the Summer 2016 cohort of Terp Startup, the final phase of our Fearless Founders accelerator program.