Anant Jain - Co-Founder, CommonLounge

Anant Jain is a co-founder of CommonLounge.com, an educational platform with wiki-based bite-sized courses on advanced topics like Machine Learning, Data Science, Web Development etc. Anant is originally from New Delhi and he did his Bachelors from Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi — one of the most premier institutions in India. As part of his undergrad studies, he had a short stint at Microsoft Research, Bangalore where he worked on improving Bing Image Search results.

After graduation, he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to help co-found a startup called EagerPanda which aimed to organize all of the world’s knowledge by building better creation and curation tools. The company went on to raise over $4 million from some of the top angels and VC firms in Silicon Valley. In 2016, seeing a more realizable opportunity in the education space, the team decided to focus on CommonLounge.

Cost is a huge barrier in online quality education — CommonLounge wants to bring it down to almost nothing. They are cheaper than any other alternative for the quality of content and support they provide. Their unique Wiki-powered tutorials format encourages contributions from users, thereby reducing content creation costs while keeping the content up-to-date.

Anant strongly believes that higher education should be fully democratized and CommonLounge is his effort in that direction. He currently lives in San Francisco and loves reading and long-distance running.

How did you get started in this business? What inspired you to start this business?

The first iteration of CommonLounge was a place for people to form online communities — much like Reddit, but only a modern, cleaner and mobile-friendly version of it. However, we learned the hard way that the network effects were just too strong — we were not able to retain users in most of our general-purpose communities. However, we noticed that learning communities on topics like Competitive Programming, Algorithms, Web Development, etc. were doing really well. We talked to our most loyal users in these communities, and not surprisingly, we found that the primary reason they loved us was a list of tutorials and problems that my co-founder Keshav (an ex-competitive programmer) had compiled. These students loved going through the list and marking items as complete. So, we decided to double down on this “list of tutorials and problems” idea and that became the genesis of the new CommonLounge. In hindsight, this should’ve been obvious to us. When I look at how I learn anything online, it’s mostly by following simple, text tutorials or how-to guides on personal blogs, Medium and other places. CommonLounge wants to become the best place to publish this type of content.

We want to build something that feels like a lightweight education product that primarily consists of bite-sized tutorials, code exercises, quizzes, visualizations, etc.

How do you make money?

While every Tutorial on CommonLounge is free, our students pay us for access to Quizzes, Exercises, Projects and Certificates of Course Completion as part of our “CommonLounge Pro” subscription plan. We’ve tried to build the most affordable high-quality online learning solution available to the students today — at just $9 a month, it costs less than a Netflix subscription, and is arguably a much better investment of your money (and time!).

In addition, we offer a text and video based mentorship marketplace for students who’re looking for a high-touch mentor and willing to spend more. It currently ranges from $49/month to $199/month.

How long did it take for you to become profitable?

Operationally, we aren’t profitable yet. We have been lucky to have had amazing angel investors with us through our journey — this has given us an opportunity to invest more in our core product experience and expanding our content creation teams. Having said that, we’re a very frugal team and understand the value of being self-reliant. We’re on track to hit profitability by end of 2019.

When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?

All the time. I don’t think the self-doubt ever goes away. There was plenty in the start, and even today we’re constantly questioning everything — from product features to marketing/growth efforts. Entrepreneurs, by their very nature, are highly optimistic people. I believe that including a small dose of skepticism/self-doubt in your daily working isn’t that bad — it helps you clearly chart out every way something won’t work and doing that sets you up better for success.

How did you get your first customer?

My co-founder, Keshav, is one of the top competitive programmers to come from India. We first built up an audience by creating the most comprehensive Competitive Programming course available on the web. We put it up for free and that got us a lot of word-of-mouth and organic link sharing across the Competitive Programming community. (Even today, we rank #1 for “Competitive Programming Tutorials” search term on Google!) Later, when we launched our Pro and Plus subscription plans, most of our first customers came from this community of highly smart, curious folks who are also interested in learning advanced technical topics like Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing, Data Science and so on.

What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?

I feel almost a little uncomfortable revealing this, but Quora ads have worked out really well for us — especially in the start. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the audience alignment is near perfect — a lot of curious, smart people who’re trying to learn new things spend a significant amount of time on Quora. Second, Quora ads are relatively new and any new paid marketing channel is not yet saturated in the very start, leading to better return for every dollar spent. This is generally a great piece of marketing advice itself — always be on a lookout for new, unsaturated channels for growth.

What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?

Earlier this year, we explored getting into selling group subscriptions to businesses via a new Enterprise plan. We realized that while our content works really great for individual consumers, we don’t have a comprehensive offering in areas that businesses need the most. So, while we could’ve pursued that space and still made some sales, we decided to put our efforts in that direction on hold for now and focus just on our Pro and Plus plans for consumers.

What do you think it is that makes you successful?

Taking time to improve yourself is probably my #1 advice for everyone, and in my opinion, it is one of the biggest contributing factors for anyone who seems to be doing well. There are so many second and third order gains that you’ll get from becoming a better execution machine. Improving yourself could mean reading books, finding and talking to mentors, learning new skills, or whatever else works best for you. Have a growth mindset.

Another thing that I learned from Paul Graham’s essays, and that I try to bring to life every day is to be “relentlessly resourceful”. For me, it means impacting everyone around me in the most positive way that I can.

What has been your most satisfying moment in business?

Being in the education space is an extremely satisfying and fulfilling opportunity for me and my team— everyday, we get so many testimonials thanking us for providing this learning platform and making it so accessible by bringing down the cost. We even have a Twitter hashtag #CommonLoungeWallofLove where we collect some of our favorite messages. The impact our work is having is very real — as they say, teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime — we get a chance to do just that everyday through CommonLounge.

What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?

First and foremost, I’m extremely excited about all the new courses that are currently being produced. Over the next two quarters, we should be able to roll out a couple of very high-demand topics like Java, Android App Development, etc. Next, we have a few experimental innovations that we’ve been working on. First, we are building a tool that aims to make production of educational videos 10x easier. Second, we’re working on ways to integrate small widgets/apps within our tutorials to explain concepts better by manipulatable animations, very similar to Explorable Explanations (https://explorabl.es). The web as a medium has so much power and so much to offer, and yet we’re stuck with recording instructors on traditional videos which is not only limiting, but also extremely expensive.

What business books have inspired you?

I’ll give you three. First, “Hard Things about Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz is my absolute favorite business book. Straight to the point, hard-hitting advice that comes from one of the most successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalist in the Silicon Valley.

Second, I really love “Founders at Work” by Jessica Livingston, who is a co-founder of YCombinator. It’s a collection of interviews with startup founders — the interviews themselves might seem a bit dated today (the book was published in 2001), but the lessons are still golden and the stories are extremely inspirational.

Last, I’d add “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman to this list. It’s not really a business book, but a deep dive into behavioral science and human psychology. It’s shocking, entertaining, and introduces you to the fallibility of your own brain in quite a delightful way.

If you want more suggestions, I like to document some of my learnings from the books I read here: https://index.anantja.in — there are about 50 book reviews on the site.

What is a recent purchase you have made that’s helped with your business?

I recently got a “Time Timer” for myself. It’s an amazing productivity tool for time-boxing tasks and meetings. It’s like a table clock, but you can visually see how much of the time you allocated has passed. So, if you allocate 30 minutes for a conversation, everyone in the room can visually see the passage of that half hour from a half-full (for 30 mins) red circle to nothing. It’s so simple, yet so effective!

What’s your advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?

Have a clarity of purpose in what you’re doing. Ideally, you want to be serving painkillers to rich customers in large markets. Always think about distribution first, i.e. if I build this, how will I get it to the customers.

It’s almost always cheaper and easier to seek out a few (say 5) potential users and just spend 30 mins on a call with them before you write any code. The rise of no-code startups is very encouraging, and a lot of developers are already using these tools to quickly prototype and experiment with their ideas.

Last, and I know this is almost a cliché, but it cannot be said enough: Persevere. Obstacle is the way. Don’t get demotivated and give up because your original plan isn’t working out. Willing something real into existence is hard work. You may have been a top student, a top employee, a top whatever-you-may so far in your life, but all your usual tricks will stop working when it comes down to building a real business with a real profit & loss line.

Finally, good luck and don’t forget to enjoy the journey 🙂

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