When I requested an interview last week with Stoodle CEO Arjun Mehta, the startup’s PR rep told me he wouldn’t be free until Sunday.
The reason? He was busy studying for the SAT.
“It went pretty well,” Mehta told me after the Saturday-morning exam. “All that studying helped.” He’ll find out his scores in about three weeks; he’s hoping they’ll be good enough to get him into a school like Stanford.
If you’ve been forming the impression that today’s technology entrepreneurs are starting earlier and earlier, you’re correct. Mehta and his co-founder at Stoodle, Divyahans Gupta, are seniors at the Harker School, a private K-12 academy in San Jose, CA. They’re both 17 years old. The startup’s third co-founder, Simar Mangat, is 18 and a freshman at Stanford.
But as young as these founders may seem, Stoodle is actually Mehta’s second company. Back in 2006, at the age of 12, he co-founded PlaySpan with his dad, Karl Mehta. A virtual goods marketplace for aficionados of online role-playing games, PlaySpan went on to be acquired by Visa in 2011 for a whopping $190 million.
It also makes a certain amount of sense that Stoodle is the creation of three students. The company’s product, which is being officially unveiled today, is a collaborative Web-based whiteboard and voice-conferencing app designed for high-school and college kids who are helping each other with homework. Users can sign on to a private Stoodle “classroom,” invite their friends via Twitter, Facebook, or e-mail, and then use basic writing and drawing tools to share visual concepts in real time (think calculus equations or molecular structures), while also communicating via a Skype-like audio connection powered by Twilio.
It’s like a two-way, peer-to-peer version of Khan Academy.
When students don’t understand a homework problem or need help with a concept, “they don’t go to tutors,” Mehta says. “They turn to their friends on Facebook and Skype. But those platforms weren’t built for education. That is where Stoodle came from. I thought, ‘Here is this problem I’m seeing first hand.’”
The app is free, and for now, the server and bandwidth costs required to keep the virtual classrooms running are being covered by the non-profit CK-12 Foundation, a Menlo Park, CA-based publisher of open-source science and math textbooks co-founded by Neeru Khosla, the wife of venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. Eventually, Mehta says, Stoodle aims to find ways to earn revenue, perhaps by licensing Stoodle to private schools. But they won’t consider putting advertising into the app, and “we know for certain that we don’t want to impose any costs on students,” Mehta says.
Mehta says the idea for the app came to him in 2011, after he transferred to Harker from a public high school in Fremont, CA. “Immediately after I transferred I noticed this really big difference,” Mehta recalls. “Private-school kids have access to a much better quality of education and access to more resources. I saw the potential to share information and knowledge between schools. What if I could connect students from this school to students from my old school and get some interaction going?”
Gupta and Mangat, then Mehta’s classmates at Harker, liked the idea and signed on to help build a prototype. (Both Mehta and Gupta are self-taught programmers, and Mangat previously designed a social application for community service called OneThing.) Mehta got encouragement from his dad Karl, who was CEO at PlaySpan and is now a venture partner at Menlo Ventures. But the key break for the project came when Vinod Khosla visited Harker to give a keynote talk at a research symposium.
“After his speech I approached him and gave him a quick pitch about the platform,” Mehta says. “He thought it was pretty cool and suggested that we talk to his wife, who runs the CK-12 Foundation. They were exploring a peer tutoring network, and we were doing exactly that. So we went in to CK-12 and pitched Stoodle to her and she absolutely loved it. She provided the funding we needed to get off the ground.”
Since then, the three students have been working on Stoodle during their summer and weekend time—but it’s a squeeze, since all three are also active in sports and other extracurricular activities. Mehta rows crew, Mangat was varsity soccer captain, and Gupta tutors students in calculus, writing, and programming and volunteers at San Jose’s Tech Museum.
Mehta’s team had an early version of Stoodle up and running by the summer of 2012, but there was a problem. To get the prototype done faster—the better to gain early user feedback—they’d built the collaborative whiteboard using Adobe’s Flash technology. But that meant the app wouldn’t work on Apple’s iPad or other iOS devices. So this summer, they rebuilt the app from the ground up, using HTML5 so that the whiteboard would work in the Web browsers on any laptop, tablet, or smartphone.
The HTML5 version of Stoodle went live in August, and users have created more than 1,000 private classrooms so far, Mehta says. Other learning management systems used by schools and colleges, such as Blackboard or Moodle, can include interactive whiteboards, but most of them are based on Flash, and they’re usually controlled by schools or teachers, meaning they aren’t available to students on demand, Mehta says.
“We’ve seen students from a lot of high schools around the Bay Area, but also Alabama, Milwaukee, and Mississippi, without even promoting it at all,” he says. Well, almost not at all: the startup has recruited about 60 volunteer student “community leaders” who act as Stoodle evangelists at their schools and colleges.
Mehta concedes that it might take a while for the idea of real-time collaborative whiteboarding to take hold among students around the country or the world, especially in communities that lack adequate access to computers, touchscreen devices, and the Internet. “It will take time to distribute the technology and get to ‘one laptop per child,’ and schools are very slow to adopt technology,” he says. “But once it does get there, it could have a tremendous impact.”
And Mehta points out that students are already turning to their friends for homework help every night on networks like Skype and Facebook. “We are building on top of an existing use case and just making that interaction easier,” he says.
How does the team plan to keep building Stoodle as a company once Mehta and Gupta are also in college? “I haven’t given much thought to that,” Mehta says. “I can see myself remaining active with this for a while, but I guess we’ll just have to see how it goes.”
One of the schools Mehta would like to attend is Stanford. Though the famously entrepreneur-friendly school admitted just 6.6 percent of applicants in 2012, Mehta’s chances would seem to be excellent. Even in Silicon Valley, few high-school seniors can say in their college applications that they sold their first company for almost $200 million.