Facebook has been distracting students and lowering grade point averages worldwide since 2004. But two students from the College of Natural Sciences and one from the McCombs School of Business have started a business to try to turn Facebook into study mode.
Natural sciences students Sid Upadhyay and Gaurav Sanghani, in partnership with business student Michael Koetting, are behind the creation of Hoot.Me, a Facebook application that allows students to collaborate on schoolwork in a variety of ways, even in subjects such as calculus with complex mathematical equations.
The application gives students the ability to search for other students at their university who are working on the same subject and create study sessions. After finding a study session, multi-person video chatting helps participants collaborate with more than just one other student, and a smart chat feature gives them the ability to type in math equations easily.
“The exciting part about our site is that the barrier to learning is almost completely gone,” said Upadhyay, a third-year mathematics and business honors major and chief technology officer at Hoot.Me. “You don’t have to be this huge corporation to do something like this. You just have to be really dedicated.”
Professors can use the site to hold virtual office hours or question and answer sessions. A Twitter-like tagging and hash-tagging system allows students to follow or un-follow questions and ask or answer questions effectively, without having to sort through questions they already know.
“We have truly created the science behind our own business,” Upadhyay added. “It’s like our child. There are layers of management. In our day-to-day, we fix bugs, build video technology, brainstorm new ideas as well as listen for feedback from students who use the site.”
Initially, Koetting, a third year business honors and finance major who serves as Hoot.Me’s CEO, came up with a business plan to create a new type of collaboration network and a way for knowledge to be shared. A professor suggested that Koetting collaborate with his classmate Upadhyay on the project.
Koetting presented the simple proposition to Upadhyay after their freshman year, and he and Sanghani, now third year computer science major, decided to hop on board.
“At first, it was all just an idea because we didn’t know how to do any of it,” said Sanghani, chief engineer for Hoot.Me. “Sid and I started the design portion during the summer, trying to visit each others’ houses because we both live in the same city.”
After a few months of development, Koetting and Upadhyay took the idea to 3 Day Startup in Austin.
“The idea behind 3 Day Startup is that you bring 40 people together and have them pitch ideas on Friday night, work on the chosen ideas through Saturday, and pitch to a panel of judges on Sunday,” Koetting said. “The judging panel included entrepreneurs from Austin as well as people from companies such as Facebook.”
After positive feedback there, the group decided to take the plan to StartupCamp3, where the idea for Hoot.Me won the competition, which was judged by Google officials and other well-known technology firms.
“StartupCamp and 3 Day Startup were real world experiences that gave us the confidence to take Hoot.Me from an idea to a company,” Koetting said. “And, this is why we set our sights on New York City.”
The business plan was accepted in DreamIt Ventures and the Start1’s accelerator program in New York in the summer of 2011 and eventually evolved into what it is today.
“When it came to creating the system and software, there was a lot we had to teach ourselves,” Upadhyay said. “In our beginning computer science classes at UT there was a focus on how we should build these types of things but the rest was trial and error, like in the real world. I apply everything I learned in my classes everyday I work with Hoot.Me. Even if we weren’t taught something specifically, I have a good foundation of how to reach our goal.”
Although they didn’t take any formal entrepreneurship classes at the university, the group is excited about increased interest building in freshmen and other students who want to start their own companies.
“A lot of freshman are learning to do start ups and want to be CTOs and CEOs,” Sanghani said. “Both Austin and the university are becoming great places for start ups. Things are going in a good direction, and the faculty and staff of the university are playing a huge role, even creating classes such as Mobile Development and other classes that give students the knowledge and skills they need.”
Photos by Sasha Haagensen.