It's not every day that you meet entrepreneurs who can use the words "life savings" and "startup" in the same sentence and still laugh about it. But the guys from Citelighter--Saad Alam (CEO), Lee Jokl (COO), and Kevin West (Director of Marketing and Partnerships)--stay upbeat and flexible as they maneuver through the twists and turns of the startup life.
Alam and Jokl met and received their MBAs from the University of Rochester, although they joke about getting their business lessons from The Social Network. The browser-based research tool was conceived after graduation and, as can sometimes be the case with great ideas, started with a fight.
A family friend of Alam's told him college was not going well and that he was going to drop out. Furious, Alam confronted the friend. Words turned to punches. "Yeah, a couple of fists were thrown but I was going to push him through college no matter what," he recalled. While tutoring his friend for research papers, Alam realized that collecting and organizing information was a major pain point: "He'd go to Google, copy and paste stuff, have 20 open tabs, and just couldn't read anymore."
Alam told Jokl about his budding idea for a tool for organizing research, but realized that he needed some hard evidence to ensure the need was there. The two ended up doing what they jokingly refer to as "covert ops"--hanging out in the school library and looking over students' shoulders to see exactly how they were conducting research. Their own research confirmed their hypothesis.
But while the idea for Citelighter was blossoming, funding was not.
In a move that would make Sean Parker blush, the two decided to go serial as their first move by using a startup to fund their startup. Alam had an idea based on his experience at the gym--there was nowhere on the treadmill to attach his iPad. He hit up the fashion district in New York and set to work making a prototype iPad case with straps. "My roommates found me in the kitchen, covered in neoprene clippings and said 'Whatever you do, don't quit your job.'" Jokl had a little more faith in the project and the two successfully Kickstarted $11k to cover manufacturing costs of what they dubbed the Mypadlife. Alam explains why they've left Mypadlife to focus on Citelighter:
"Raising money for Citelighter was the end goal. We wanted something that wouldn't take up a lot of our time and that we knew we were capable of doing, but we'll never get into the manufacturing business again--there are a million customer complains, papercuts, and it just wasn't sustainable."
Combining their life savings with the money made through Mypadlife, they were able to fund an early version of Citelighter. However the two still needed ways to market to their target audience of higher ed students. They got in contact with CollegeHumor at a TechStars meetup and pitched them to run a giveaway sweepstakes with goods paid for by Citelighter. CollegeHumor flatly refused. "'No way, we're not going to do it,' they said. They had an attitude of 'We're funny. You're not.'" Jokl remembers. Eventually they convinced CollegeHumor that they were indeed funny and that the promotion would be a mutually beneficial traffic swap. However, the bootstrapped Citelighter needed to find the actual giveaways to
give away. Jokl laughs, "We were poor so we went to friends in consumer products
goods companies and got about $2000 worth of stuff for free." They were able to snag gift certificates to Staples, Urban Outfitters, and an iPad, among other things.
While the Citelighter team has been fortunate enough to exist in that rare intersection of luck, opportunity, and connections, entrepreneurs would be smart to take note that none of these mean anything to a business without preparedness, tenacity, and a willingness to think outside the box to achieve the right goals.
Citelighter recently won first place at the NMC Horizon Project Summit competition. They are currently working to develop a new version of the product that is focused on teachers. Students can try Citelighter for free or purchase a Citelighter Pro account which gives them access to Cengage's Questia database.