When he began his exchange semester at Singapore Management University in 2012, Maastricht University School of Business and Economics alum Frederik Hagenauer (BA, International Business, 2013) expected to enter the corporate world post graduation. But a chance meeting with Felix Klühr awoke his inner-entrepreneur, and together the former roommates founded qLearning, a platform for sharing high-quality study materials among business and engineering students in Europe. We spoke to Hagenauer about his inspiration for his business and how he made it a reality.
Did you always know you wanted to start your own business, and what inspired the idea for qLearning?
As these things often go, it was all a bit of a huge coincidence. I say coincidence because one of my co-founders, Felix, who had been hatching the idea for a while, happened to be my roommate while I was doing my exchange semester in Singapore in 2012.
At the time, I would not say I was a natural born entrepreneur—does that even exist? In fact, I was probably more or less headed for a corporate career. But when Felix and I discussed his idea, its business potential started dawning on me.
The general idea—to find a way to share and gain from knowledge on a particular subject among students—was mainly born out of own genuine need. At the time we first thought about the idea, there were no good alternatives for accessing additional study materials—especially for courses with multiple-choice exams—unless you wanted to pay for steeply priced private tutors or revision courses.
Once you knew you wanted to pursue this idea, what steps did you take to get from a good idea to an actual business?
Back then, a very early version of the app had already proven successful at one university—the LMU in Munich, Felix’s alma mater. While Felix was the one who created the initial content, two students enrolled at the Center for Digital Technology & Management (CDTM)—who later became our co-founders—developed the first version of the app.
And being in Singapore, which is a huge exchange student hub, gave us the opportunity to talk to a large number of excellent students from all over Europe and get their feedback on the idea, and get them motivated to work with us. This is when we first expanded to several German universities.
The moment that qLearning first turned into a serious business was, in my opinion, when we received venture capital funding from hub:raum, the tech incubator of Deutsche Telekom. That was the summer after we finished our studies in 2013. This enabled us to pursue the project full-time and also gave us the external validation that there is potential in what we do.
Who are your users and who are your content creators?
In a nutshell, qLearning is a platform through which top students enrolled in business or engineering schools in Europe can create relevant and tailored materials for future students—so our users are those students who are looking for a way of revising course content and preparing for exams with the most relevant materials out there. With the qLearning app, we offer these students a way of doing so.
To create content we work with a network of the very best students, our so-called qLearning tutors. All of these are currently enrolled at any of the above mentioned schools, are among the best of their cohort and consequently, have completed the courses for which they create content with excellent grades. This allows us to offer decentralized content that is tailored to each university’s course, the professor teaching it and the semester the students are in.
For example, say you are a student enrolled in international business at the SBE and you are looking for supporting content for the course “Finance” someone who has taken the exact same exam you have to take and has done exceptionally well on it has created multiple choice questions and flashcards for you to use right in the app.
What differentiates qLearning from other mobile learning offers is the already mentioned decentralization of content. Our questions and flashcards perfectly cover each student’s individual classes and hence, their very personal study needs. We are also making studying a more fun, interactive experience, for example by adding the Challenge Mode that enables users to compete with their classmates on relevant course material.
Lastly, we also have corporate partners who use the app for purposes of employer branding and mobile recruiting. They present themselves with a corporate profile as potential future employers and offer exclusive career opportunities, such as recruiting events or entry-level positions to our app users.
What was behind your decision to make qLearning a mobile experience?
Everything has become mobile, from messaging to banking and shopping. With the qLearning app we capitalize on this mobile trend. According to a 2013 study conducted by Marketing Charts, students spent more than 3.6 hours with their smart phones. Moreover, Duke Research found that approximately 70% of 18–25 year olds not only use their smart phones for job hunting, but also wish for more career services on their phones.
The qLearning app gives students the opportunity to learn “on the go” and use every bit of their time wisely. So while waiting for the bus that takes you to campus, you can now easily repeat last week’s lecture and get to campus well prepared.
On top of that we connect these students with our corporate partners offering attractive career opportunities that already fit their interest, which definitely is a nice value-add and taps the potential of mobile recruiting.
What is uniquely challenging about the entrepreneurial experience and running a start-up?
It would be incredibly vain to think that there is one correct answer to this. Everything and anything can be a challenge. I guess the best summary is that there are no superiors or resources that you tap into.
Normally, if you start a job as an undergraduate and you get stuck, you can just ask your boss for guidance and whatever next steps to take. The absence of such a construct forces you to having to build up expertise very quickly on your own. Having a diversely skilled and broad founding team can definitely help with that. This is why we are now a team of five co-founders with both business as well as technical backgrounds.
Advice on fundraising is also rather hard. The only thing I can recommend is pitching your idea to as many people as possible and refine your pitch every time. In our case it was an interview in a German start-up blog that made hub:raum notice us for the first time.
I would also say it helped a lot that we had a working MVP and already around 7,000 students using the app at 8 universities. Fundraising is about demonstrating “proof” of certain things. Traction is the best proof of product-market fit you can have.
How has your business grown since 2013 and what are your goals for the future?
Our team currently consists of 5 co-founders, 2 full-time employees and a team of 6 interns and working students. Right now we are looking for students joining us for a Business Development internship to tap the Polish and Italian market as well as web developers and sales personnel in full-time positions.
The qLearning app is currently available at 80 universities in Germany, France, The Netherlands, and Scandinavia and used by more than 50.000 students. That is fantastic, but our goal is to become the mobile learning platform in Europe and hopefully even beyond that. So we are definitely planning on expanding our business in the near future.