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Student Entrepreneur to $10M+ Business: Blaine Vess, CEO of StudyMode (Part 2)

Posted on Saturday, Mar 8th 2014

Sramana Mitra: What was the motivation? If I am a student, why would I want to load up my course notes?

Blaine Vess: The main motivation is to get access to other people’s course notes or research. Say you’re writing a research paper on global warming and you have a writer’s block or you’re three pages in to a five-page research paper, you could get ideas from other people and see how they approach the topic.

Sramana Mitra: You launched it for your own school? How did you get users?

Blaine Vess: At that time, we told our friends. We emailed other students at the school. It was pretty organic in that sense. Actually, the domain had existed in 1997 and another student decided that he didn’t want to run it anymore. People had linked that domain to their website. It was a very small base of traffic – maybe 100 people a day. But that combined with us telling our friends and getting the word out gave us enough traffic to grow it. We weren’t necessarily starting at absolute zero traffic.

Sramana Mitra: Did this have a business model?

Blaine Vess: No, not really. We eventually put advertising on the site. We caught the tail-end of the crazy dot com boom in advertising dollars, but it was still quite small – a couple of hundred dollars a month. We also got some private advertisers on the site. First off, we were 18 years old. It seemed like a ton of money. It gave us the ability to continue to focus on the site rather than spending time on other jobs.

Sramana Mitra: We?

Blaine Vess: My co-founder Chris Nelson and me. Our third co-founder’s name is Todd Clemens. He started a website hosting company in college. He was hosting our site back then. He actually joined the company full time nine years later in 2008.

Sramana Mitra: You said you moved from North Central College to San Jose State. Did Chris shift too or did he stay at North Central?

Blaine Vess: Chris stayed at North Central College. I moved to San Jose alone. At that time, it was only the two of us. We didn’t have any other team members. We just kept running it through college. The business model started to evolve. We were still doing advertising and also at some point in 2002, we added a paid membership. It was a one-time fee where you could join the site. We weren’t completely reliant on advertisers. Eventually, we ended up switching to the subscription model or the recurring billing model in 2005, which is what we use today.

Sramana Mitra: What year did you move to San Jose State?

Blaine Vess: I moved in 2002.

Sramana Mitra: After those three years of your journey in StudyMode, you were a junior?

Blaine Vess: Yes.

Sramana Mitra: How was StudyMode progressing at that point?

Blaine Vess: It was still a very unprofessional business. We were putting a lot of work into it. In terms of dollars, it was probably making around $30,000 to $40,000 a year which is great for a college student. I ended up doing contract PHP programming for some clients in Chicago and was going to school full time.

Sramana Mitra: Chris was also still involved in the business?

Blaine Vess: Yes.

Sramana Mitra: You graduated college in 2003?

Blaine Vess: 2004.

Sramana Mitra: Chris graduated in 2004 too?

Blaine Vess: Yes.

Sramana Mitra: So when you graduated, you had this business that is bringing in about $50,000 a year?

Blaine Vess: Yes, it was about that much.

Sramana Mitra: What happens next?

Blaine Vess: I wasn’t sure this was going to be the business that it is now. I ended up getting a consulting job in New Line Cinema. I had interned there in Los Angeles and ended up really liking Los Angeles. I moved down here at the top of 2005 and took on that consulting gig while running this business and doing contract programming. Chris then moved out here in June of 2005. We were back working together in the same place and continuing to evolve the business.

This segment is part 2 in the series : Student Entrepreneur to $10M+ Business: Blaine Vess, CEO of StudyMode
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