Interview with StudyRoom co-founders

Did you look at your UC Berkeley email inbox last week and think to yourself, what the hell is Why am I getting invited to it by people I do not know from every single one of my classes? Is this a thing that I have to sign up for or I will fail?

Well, fear not, UC Berkeley students. We sat down with the co-founders of StudyRoom, Emerson Malca and Pindi Albert, to figure out what StudyRoom actually is.


Daily Clog: So, what exactly is the website for?

Emerson Malca: We think of it as an educational social network — you can go in and collaborate with your classmates. If you’re ever stuck or you need help, you can share resources. There’s a way to collaborate on study guides as a class, where you post questions and share answers and you can find study groups.

Our goal, of course, is for students to learn more and to learn better and never have getting stuck or not getting help be an excuse.

DC: How did you come up with the idea for it?

EM: A couple of years ago, a friend of ours needed help with physics, and we helped her over Skype. I asked her why she didn’t ask her classmates, and she said she did, and one of them didn’t know how to go about the problem, and another never replied. I asked her, how many people were in your class? And she said two hundred. And we realized there’s no easy way for you to connect with them, right, so let’s fix that problem.

DC: How did you manage to get the idea off the ground?

EM: We were extremely bootstrapped in the beginning, and we were borrowing money. We got into an incubator, Imagine K12, the biggest education startup incubator in the Valley. At that point, we were focusing on online classes, like Coursera, edX, providing study rooms for those classrooms, until later in 2013, we decided to focus one hundred percent on college students, because that’s where the problem came from. We were living off of credit cards and loans, depleting them until we couldn’t. It was just the two of us, two founders, with no other employees because we couldn’t afford to pay them.

That is, until we hired a college student, a marketing in business to help us, just for equity, and that helped. Last year, we got our first investment, actually from a professor who believed that it was a great way for students to help one another. We later got investors from other people in education technology, like webAssign, where one of the co-founders loved our idea. That was in June or so last year. Now we are a team of 6.

DC: How did you get your start at universities?

EM: We launched at one hundred last semester, and a couple more this semester. One of the really cool things we have is the campus founder program, essentially an ambassador program, but better because we have such a strong connection with students. It’s less about being like, I’m AT&T and I need you to promote me, but more about students helping to grow the best thing for your campus. It can turn into an internship which is a nonpaid position where you help us spread the word and the culture of the StudyRoom, that’s helping one another. I could be really good at mathematics but not that great at biology, so I could help someone with math and get help with bio. Trying to build the culture where you’re sharing notes with other people, like some people are just not good at taking notes and they really need to study their notes so they can benefit. What you do is like on Facebook, where you like things, you can “give thanks.”

We also try to find people who know lots of people on campus, so that’s like fraternities and sororities, so how we can help them and how  they can help us. We get them to sign up and then they can invite their classmates or share on Facebook or Twitter, and if you have really good notes, you can grab the llink and send it to your friends. But one of the most important things is that before we go to a school, we need to have the list of classes. Then you find your class, you join. These are people who find out about them from their friends at other schools, and also look for people on Twitter, on Facebook, any platform we can. And after the word gets out on campus, then there are always people who want to help out.

DC: How has it been working here?

EM: So there are about 27,000 undergraduates at Berkeley, and right now, we have about 4,000 signed up, not just ambassadors. But like at Indiana University, we have upwards of 16 or 17,000 people, at a school of 30,000, so more than half. So there a few things that affect it, right, so there’s if it’s a commuter school. Also how the schoool organizes general education classes, because if you’re a CS major and you don’t interact with departments, then they all stay in one place, right. And if we’re able to get campus founders who are sophomores rather than seniors, so they’re taking more different classes and in bigger classes, and they’re more part of the community, on social media, all that. And Berkeley is very competitive, right, it’s probably the most competitive school we’re at right now, so we’re really going to have to see how this competitiveness will affect the community and the culture and the platform. So we might see less of a percentage of adoption at UC Berkeley, but we’ll see as it goes along.

DC: Do you find that there’s a possibility for cheating?

EM: If people were to cheat, how would you do it? Would you do it in secret, or would you post it on a public platform? Students cheat when they have no other options, like it’s a symptom, when they don’t have help. We’ve talked to professors; one gave me some feedback, and he told me, I’ve seen studetns create private Facebook groups where they go just to cheat. On StudyRoom, there is one page for your class, and so if you get into any grey area, it’s self-moderated by the community, right, and they’ll be like, “Bro, what are you doing,” so it’s nice to see on Study Room that cheating doesn’t actually happen. You can report it if it does.

DC: Is there a greater rate of adoption in specific classes, like STEM versus humanities?

EM: We have more engagement in STEM classes, for sure, and the other one we see a lot is language classes, like Spanish classes. People are posting in Spanish and even talking to each other, so it’s always fun to see that. You can make the Quizlet and share it on the study room, because people are really proud of the flashcards they made.

Pindi Albert: Also larger classes, where you do actually want to get to know your classmates and don’t know them.

DC: Do you have any hopes for UC Berkeley in particular?

EM: Yes, very big hopes. We want Cal to be a ssuccess because we are in the Bay, in the area, we know the area. We have a team director in business from Cal. And we know for a fact that it’s a highly competitive school, students are failed because of quotas, so we hope we can keep it competitive, but move the curve up so we can help more people get better grades. So we’ll see about that. But for everyone, we really just want them to get more access to their classes, with more help.

Contact Holly Secon at [email protected].