Startup Spotlight: RiipenJuly 3, 2016
This week we speak with Dana Stephenson, Co-Founder and Chiief Connectiing Offiicer of Riipen. He is sharing his passion for using experiential learning for students to showcase their value to relevant employers, as well as offering companies access to qualified talent pools.
GH: What is Riipen?
Dana: Riipen is a web platform that enables meaningful project-based experiential learning at scale. Riipen supports professors bringing more experiential learning into their classrooms by matching their course assignments to industry. Students gain real world experience and an opportunity to showcase their value to relevant employers, while companies get access to qualified talent pools that meet their recruitment needs. By adapting experiential learning projects directly from existing course curriculums, Riipen eliminates the need for lengthy planning between faculty and industry partners, and provides a diverse range of companies to match student career interests.
GH: What is your name and role?
Dana: My name is Dana Stephenson. I am Co-Founder and Chiief Connectiing Offiicer of Riipen. While I wear many hats, my primary role is head of education partnerships. This encompasses developing our overall strategy around which schools and departments we target, generating interest from targeted faculty, developing collaborative partnerships with schools, and building out our education team to manage the growing demand of our services in the education space.
GH: What was your Eureka moment: how did Riipen get started?
Dana: Riipen started when Dave Savory and myself we’re in our last semester of our business program at the University of Victoria back in B.C. We we’re nearing the long awaited transition into the “real world” and we started thinking to ourselves: Does our resume really represent who we are and the contribution that we can make to an employer? So we looked back at our education and wondered how much more could we have done to better prepare ourselves for this transition and to demonstrate all the employable skills that we developed throughout our schooling.
We kept coming back to class projects… In school you do a ton of projects, but most of them are fictitious, made up by the professor or downloaded off HBR and recycled year after year. Even they are done on a real company and relevant employable skills were demonstrated… Who Cares?! No company ever sees it and no student ever gets a job out of it. So we thought to ourselves, how much better off would both sides be if the projects that we did in the classrooms were done on real companies who could actually benefit from the work and use it as a way to build our their talent pipeline for upcoming roles in their organization. Students could get real world experience, feedback from company representatives and build an industry-validated portfolio to show off to future employers instead of just a transcript and an embellished resume that looks the same as every other college grad. The rest is history.
GH: How did you build your team?
Dana: Well.. you may have heard of this platform called RIIPEN. We used it to identify rockstars right out of university who were passionate about our mission and would graduate knowing the ins and outs of our company, enabling them to hit the floor running with very little training and onboarding costs. We really drink our own Kool-aid and, let me tell you, it’s #Riipe and delicious!
GH: What is your company philosophy driving your company culture?
Dana: We really live and breathe by our company’s core values: Passion, Community, Learning, Ingenuity, Integrity and Empowerment. Anyone we bring on has to truly believe in our mission and fit really well with our core values. Once you’ve developed strong core values and a framework around them, company culture is easier. When making a tough decision, you can ask yourself how the decision affects Riipen’s core values. We trust and empower our employees to do the same.
We also have a rule that whenever we attend a networking event (and we do this often), everyone has to wear a Riipen t-shirt. If you forget it, you owe the team a case of beer. Those t-shirts are the best marketing dollars we’ve ever spent.
GH: Startup life is full of failures and ‘make it work’ moments – can you identify how you bounced back from one of yours?
Dana: In the early days, we focused so much of our time and energy on the look and feel of our website. We we’re very quick to make changes based on feedback from a few customers long before we really had a large enough pool to offer any legitimate validation. This took us away from focusing on business development and talking to more and more potential customers. Not only that, but it caused unnecessary stress to our development team who ended up having to constantly change things back and forth to whatever the most recent potential customer said might be a good idea. Once we finally agreed that we we’re going to leave the website alone for the next six months and just get out there and pound the phones and pavement selling to anyone who would listen to us, we finally made our first few big sales and realized that most of what we had before and were changing back and forth was mostly all wrong anyway. It was a wasted effort.
What helped us sell our first customers wasn’t the look and feel of our website, but our own messaging in our conversations. We honed our messaging by talking to as many customers as we could and figuring out what they responded well to. Eventually, the messaging that ultimately sold our customers ended up becoming the basis for our product road map.
GH: What did you learn from your first customers?
Dana: What we learned from our first customers was that a little over service can go a long way. We made it a point with our first customers to try and over-communicate, over-service and over-deliver. We originally did this for our own selfish reasons of wanting to learn as much as possible from our first users as we could, but soon realised that we were developing huge champions and evangelists for our technology and services. These first deans, professors, students, companies and other stakeholders have been generating more business for us through referrals than we could’ve ever hoped for. They are incredible references who will always put in a good word for us when we need it and have been instrumental in providing quality feedback to help us improve our technology and services because they truly believe in us and our mission. It’s important to note that our first product wasn’t perfect and our first customers knew that. Because of our strong relationship, they we’re extremely patient and really went above and beyond to help us deliver a positive experience for all those involved.
GH: You hail from Canada – but what has the Boston ecosystem provided you?
Dana: As an Canadian ed-tech startup focused on higher-ed, you couldn’t possibly ask for a better place to launch our entrance into the US market. Whether it’s the LearnLaunch mentor network, my uber driver, our air-bnb host or our newest customers, everyone we meet has been able to connect us strategic partners and educators who absolutely love what we’re doing. Boston is one of the top education hubs of the world and we are looking forward to building out our US team down here among the best and brightest in the world.
We’ve connected with the Canadian Consulate in Boston and they’ve introduced us to the Canadian Technology Accelerator and the Cambridge Innovation Centre. We’re very excited to start our membership there in the fall.
The Capital Network events have been great to meet fellow entrepreneurs and learn from some really experienced VCs, Angel Investors, and other individuals.
LearnLaunch Institute put on a great series of ed-tech sales workshops called the Ed-Tech Sales Playbook. I strongly encourage this series for any up and coming ed-tech companies.
GH: What is the Boston ecosystem lacking from your perspective?
Dana: Hard to say since I’ve only been down for two months. I love the city. Still lots to explore and lots of connections to make. No complaints as of yet.
GH: What’s the best/worst piece of advice you were given along the way?
Dana: I have two pieces of best advice. Reid Hoffman, Founder of Linkedin, was quoted saying: “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” I can’t actually remember who first showed me the quote, but it really resonated with us. Back to my point earlier, if you spend all of your time focusing on your product without getting it to market, you’ll never learn what your customers are really looking for fast enough and somebody else will. First mover advantage, in my eyes, comes from the knowledge that you gain from working with your early clients and users to build a repeatable and scalable business.
The 2nd piece is: Focus. Focus. Focus! When we first started, we wanted to be everything to everybody and you just end up being nothing to nobody. Every time, we’ve narrowed our focus, our (realistic) attainable market and customer base has actually grown significantly. Once you are the leader in your space you can take your replicable system and start owning other target market segments.
Worst advice??? I have no idea. “Always take the red-eye flights”…. I’m 6’5 and sleeping on a plane just doesn’t work for me.
GH: What was the best thing that happened to you last year?
Dana: I’d have to say that the best thing that happened to us in the last year was bringing on the angel investor, advisor and mentor network that we now have. The support that we get from our mentors is unbelievable. We can always count on them to help put things into perspective and advice to help us steer our ship in the right direction.
Based on this success, we are now building out a faculty advisory board, corporate advisory board and student advisory board. We plan on meeting with our top power users/influencers once per semester to get their feedback on our technology, services and plans for the future.
GH: What does the future hold for Riipen?
Dana: Today, we are an ed-tech company mainly focused on helping post-secondary schools offer more enhanced experiential learning in their classrooms at scale, but Riipen really sits where education and recruitment intersect. For this reason, we are very excited for the opportunity to transform the way all life-long learning is done and completely disrupt the recruitment industry with verifiable and industry-assessed skill data that future employers can actually trust when making their next hiring decisions. Today, we focus on students because we live in the age of the highest graduate underemployment rates in history and because post-secondary schools are at risk of becoming irrelevant if they can’t keep up with increasing skill and experience demands from industry. In the future, Riipen will be for anyone who feels underrepresented by their resume. Eventually, anyone who wants to develop and demonstrate new skills will be able to use Riipen to prove how they can make a positive contribution to our economy and land meaningful, relevant employment.