Interview with Philipp Mackeprang of StudyDrive: Getting from entrepreneurial idea to successful business

After completing his studies at the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics, Philipp Mackeprang, along with Sven Gasper, founded StudyDrive, Europe’s leading student platform for sharing study materials. Based in Berlin and Cologne, the young team at StudyDrive launched its beta site at Maastricht University, and is now working to bring StudyDrive to every university in Europe. Ulrike Hahn talks with Philipp Mackeprang about what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.

When and how exactly did you come up with the idea for StudyDrive?
During my studies at SBE in Maastricht, I co-founded a student organisation called oikos Maastricht. Back then, we created a Dropbox that we named “oikos Box,” and we used it to share all our study materials. We promoted it to our fellow students. Within two weeks, over 500 students were using the oikos Box, and some students were also uploading their materials. We got great feedback, and suddenly a lot of students knew about the organisation.

However, the Dropbox got quite messy, and we had to put a lot of effort into maintaining it. I started looking for an alternative, but couldn’t find anything—so we abandoned the oikos Box.

It took another year until I picked up the idea of a sharing platform for students again. Sven [the other co-founder] and I were doing our exchange semester in Brazil. During a six-hour car ride back from the Carnival in Rio to Sao Paulo, I remembered the success of the oikos Box and wondered how we could make a feasible and sustainable business model based on it. And particularly one for which the students would not need to pay.

StudyDrive co-founders Philipp Mackeprang, left, and Sven Gasper, right.

StudyDrive co-founders Philipp Mackeprang, left, and Sven Gasper, right.

I remembered the Finance Day that was held the last semester of my studies in Maastricht [an event in which companies who are actively recruiting attend to meet students]. I was impressed by what effort, time and money companies spend to get to know you as a student.

Hence, the answer was simple: let partnering companies pay for the site. To ensure StudyDrive is free for students, we have partnered with companies such as Allianz, Roland Berger and KPMG to support the site and offer value to users—including leads to job openings.

What various stages did you have to go through from the initial idea to the realisation of StudyDrive? Was there a stage that was especially hard or complicated to get through?
The stages were the following: beta preparation, February/ March–April 2013; beta phase in Maastricht, April–July 2013; growth testing—how to bring StudyDrive to other universities, July–December 2013; shaping the business model, October–December 2013; scaling (growth), last semester.

The hardest time was the growth testing after our successful beta test in Maastricht. The main problem was that we still didn’t have enough money to incentivise our student ambassadors who are responsible for introducing StudyDrive at their university. So it was really hard to recruit and motivate students without being able to give anything back but friendly words. Luckily, with initial sales, advice from the hub:arum accelerator and a scholarship from Gründerwerkstatt, this changed in January.

With what size of a team did you start the StudyDrive adventure? How big are you now, and how would you describe your organisational culture?
We started with four people, of which Sven and I are full-time and in the driver’s seat. In addition we have two full-time employees and two interns. Concerning the culture: the whole founding team was born in 1988—we are young, open-minded, risk taking “do-ers” and friends. That’s how we are, and hence that’s what the company´s culture is today.

What do you find especially appealing about working in a start-up?
The young people, the fast results. It’s adventurous, the daily ups and downs.

The concept of StudyDrive is based on supporting each other, a two-way relationship. Many students know a person who constantly “free rides” during their study time. How do you prevent free riding on StudyDrive?
If we would prevent free riding the whole platform would not be working. Of course there are free riders and there always will be. There are three different motivations for students to share their study materials:

1. Good karma: You simply like to help.
2. Social recognition: You like to be thanked and the feeling that the whole class is studying with the documents you created.
3. Rewards (compensation): We motivate the uploaders by giving them rewards for their documents and hence giving them a compensation and motivation for sharing their materials.

Now you can define many different profiles for the typical uploaders. Of course there are some students who are mainly motivated by 1 and/or 2. Until January, we didn’t have any reward system, and a lot of students shared their materials. However, the number of uploaders increased significantly after we introduced the reward system.

With respect to the “free riding problem,” you can only speculate about a conclusion, but I claim that students who are rather motivated by rewards care less about the free riding problem, because they are compensated. The ride is still for free for the downloaders while the riders get compensated—that’s what I love about our business model.

How do you prevent content being uploaded that the creator does not desire to be shared (e.g., presentations on which students worked hours on or the solutions to assignments which could then be downloaded in a second)?
We informed the users that they are only allowed to share content that they created themselves. If you detect a document is not supposed to be up there, we have a “report file” function and we will get a notice and check/delete it from the platform.

In general, what are the specific characteristics you believe a promising idea for a start-up should have?
That’s a tough one. I guess you could rather ask, “What characteristics of a business idea let you detect as quickly as possible whether it can be feasible?” I think the earlier you can start testing your product with the target audience, and the earlier you get feedback, the higher your chance is of successfully shaping your idea according to the market. Consequently, your idea should allow you to build a prototype quite quickly, which allows you to test your hypothesis quite early and adapt it accordingly.

What are, according to you, the most important ingredients for the successful foundation of a start-up?
A driven, honest and 100% committed team. But of course the idea also has to be a good one.

What would you say to students who have an idea for a start-up that could potentially change the way we live, but are reluctant to go for it?
Depends on the reason why they are reluctant! Are you not a risk taker? Then you will never be an entrepreneur, and it’s better if you are reluctant.

Do you not have time, because you have another career focus? I’d like to answer that with the words of German tech entrepreneur Oliver Samwer: “Don’t waste time at McKinsey, don’t waste it at Goldman, don’t waste it at Morgan Stanley.” Extra systematic thinking skills gained by years in consulting will be offset by a tendency to over-analyse, and never actually “jump” on an idea.

“What are all the corporates for? They are one big safety net. That’s how you have to look at it. If it doesn’t work, I go there,” Samwer said. “I promise you the CEO will look at you more because you look different.” Although you are studying, start something up on the side and gain experience. Build the foundation to accelerate after your studies.

Are you reluctant because you have no money? There are dozens of scholarships out there, and you will be surprised that even the government gives you opportunities to financially support you in the beginning [depending on where you live]. We had no investors for 18 months. It’s hard, but it’s possible to manage and we got great support from a scholarship from the Gründerwerkstatt.

Most important, I like to encourage those students to get out of their smelly rooms and talk to as many people about their idea as possible. Feedback is gold. Don’t be scared of someone stealing your idea – it’s not going to happen. Talking to people does not only give you valuable feedback, but also reveals opportunities as useful contacts or you might meet your co-founder.

In general, what is your stance toward failure?
“Don’t worry about failure, you only have to be right once.” (Drew Houston, co-founder of Dropbox)

What StudyDrive projects are you working on next?
While further improving the platform, we want to accelerate our growth, especially in Germany and the Netherlands. Afterward, we want to reach the next level by connecting our many local communities at different universities to one global student community. We see a big need and great potential there: if your classmates are out of reach or do not know an answer, simply ask the global community of, for example, business students for quick advice. For both issues we need more people and money. Hence, we are currently looking for investors who believe in the idea and in us.

Ulrike Hahn (contributor), SBE alumna, graduated BSc International Business, Marketing (2013)  
Philipp Mackeprang, SBE alumnus, graduated BSc International Business Economics (2012)
Sven Gasper, SBE alumnus, graduated BSc International Business, Finance (2012)

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