On January 23rd, 2020, the ESCP Foundation, in partnership with the AGORA ESCP Business School Student Union, launched the Innovation Prize. The prestigious award, worth €24000, went to our Bachelor in Management (BSc) alumnus Christoph Koenig, Founder & CEO of the startup Clay.
Born and raised in Berlin, after finishing high school Christoph went on a gap year to volunteer in Latin America. He was sure that after that enriching experience, he would return to Berlin and start studying at a local university. As often happens in life, we find ourselves achieving success by following other paths than those we had initially planned, and Christoph is no exception.
Things changed for Christoph when a fellow volunteer pitched the idea of studying abroad and, coincidentally, his father told him about ESCP Business School. “The prospect of studying in three countries seemed to mesh well with my objectives. So, I applied,” he told us while talking about the set of circumstances that led him to apply to the ESCP Bachelor in Management (BSc) and later become one of the School’s most promising young entrepreneurs.
Clay, the startup founded by Christoph, helps educators better understand their students through simple and effective feedback tools and will soon be tested at 15+ universities, business schools and independent educational programmes around the world.
Tell us more about Clay and what it offers to its users. What role did the Bachelor play in its development? Have you had the opportunity to put into practice some notions learned during the programme?
My studies started in London. I was intrigued by this bustling city, but more so, by the intercultural mix of students in my Bachelor cohort. While I enjoyed the programme, I wasn’t happy with the teaching evaluation process. In my opinion, the surveys were unnecessarily complicated and I thought that their results would have little effect on my course experience. Even more, I discovered that this was not an isolated case, but a typical scenario for all higher education institutions around the world. Teaching evaluations have not changed since their invention in the 1920s.
This opportunity for changing legacy systems and impacting education got me excited. I quickly started building a MVP (Minimum Viable Product, ed.) and a month later students began testing. The MVP was rather imperfect (e.g. here are the illustrations I made for the in-game character Felix). Nonetheless, the few students trying it, loved the idea of making teaching evaluations more fun and flexible. Accordingly, I rebuilt the MVP and continued testing throughout my studies.
Since my graduation, I have been working full-time on Clay. We are now a team of three developers and one designer. Clay creates value by enabling professors to better understand their students. We deliver significantly higher response rates than competitors (e.g. Qualtrics), because we redesigned the teaching evaluation experience from a students perspective.
Firstly, sharing feedback through Clay is simple. Students don’t have to fill out a survey. They simply select predetermined feedback tags from a list of smart suggestions. This mechanism shortens the process from minutes to seconds and enables more direct and actionable feedback to professors.
Secondly, we are making feedback more effective. Professors access a dashboard online which highlights aspects students consider important, helping professors organize and prepare lectures more effectively. We are working closely with educators around Europe to ensure we build a tool that constructively aids teaching. Through this diligent process, we can guarantee effective feedback that translates into a better learning experience.
In the beginning, I had no idea how to build a company (and I am still learning), but ESCP provided structure to my startup process. We learned how to create business models, do accounting and create marketing materials. Other topics, such as statistics and law, were covered adequately to understand fundamental principles that helped to get advice from someone with a more thorough understanding.
Have you always had the desire to create your own business or did this idea come up during your Bachelor’s studies?
When I was a child, I wanted to become an inventor. I tried to design flying cars with pen and paper and dreamt up machinery helping with household chores. Unfortunately, as I grew older, I abandoned my dream, but the desire to build products that make life more convenient and exciting stayed. In high school I met the founder of a startup called Congenial24 (helping consumers get discounts by collectively organizing bulk purchases). His passion inspired me. I realized that the best way to have an impact is by founding your own company. This idea stuck with me until I started my bachelor at ESCP Business School.
In our first semester, classmates started a laundry delivery startup. I was animated by their courage to start a company, but not passionate enough about their cause to join. Looking for the perfect opportunity, a week later, I realized the issue of ineffective feedback between students and professors. Solving this problem would be a great way to pursue my childhood dream, so I followed the example of my classmates and started building Clay.
What was the emotion you felt when you received the Student Entrepreneur Award? Do you already have plans on how to invest the prize received? What is the next step in the development of your startup?
The greatest part about creating something, is the moment you show it to others and see their reaction. You immediately sense whether your vision has translated into reality or not.
When I started working on Clay, I was the only one seeing its potential. My friends were supportive, but not excited. The tenor was that other ideas sounded sexier. Most people I met considered Clay an idealistic student project. “Well, that’s not exactly a million dollar idea, is it?”.
This rejection was helpful to make me try harder. We started seeking more feedback and doing more user research. We went to multiple universities, talking to hundreds of students to understand their pain points and how to solve them. As a result we have created something that is not perfect, but makes others share our vision.
Going from rejection to acceptance was highlighted in the Innovation Prize. While no one would even listen to my idea a few years ago, we managed to excite a full room of top educators and businessmen in January 2020. That was very rewarding.
Through the Prize we have received a bit of attention. Education institutions from around the world started approaching us. Most educators like our solution for enhancing student-professor communication. We have a waiting list of 21 institutions that want to test Clay. For the next few months, we will put all our effort (and money) into optimizing Clay, before we launch officially in late 2020. In addition, we also work with nonprofits where we provide our solution for free to return some of the good will others have put in us. Get in touch if you know someone that might be interested!
It is often said that entrepreneurship has the power to change our approach to the world and our view of ourselves. Was it like that for you too?
I agree. A particularly valuable course at ESCP triggered my development in this regard. Based on the Lean Startup Method we learned that the only way to get a thorough understanding of reality is by trying, measuring and improving your product continuously. With my first MVP, I did not do that. I mostly avoided critical feedback, by focusing on approving classmates. We implemented features I considered interesting, not the ones actually wanted. As a result, Clay did not progress.
For the second MVP I planned to deceive myself less and gather more honest feedback. We went to universities around Berlin asking students for their candid opinion. We went to four different master degree conferences and exchanged with experts on teaching evaluations. This enabled us to build a product that actually improves the feedback process for both students and professors.
I also started losing fear of trying new approaches in other domains. For instance, when promoting usage of the Clay beta among my bachelor cohort, I employed rather unconventional measures (have a look here).
What would you recommend to a student who is considering right now the opportunity to join the Bachelor in Management (BSc) and wishing to embark on an entrepreneurial adventure like yours?
The typical rationale of entrepreneurship is that great risk results in great rewards. However, in some circumstances you can decrease this risk.
Entrepreneurship at university entails two types of risks (or costs) given you have spare time aside your coursework. The opportunity cost of forgoing a safe income and that of forgoing a safe benefit for future employability.
It is obvious that you won’t be able to work another job, when trying to start a company. Some may be lucky enough to get financially supported by their parents. If this is not the case, you can apply for state funding to cover living expenses (e.g. EXIST). Limited time also means that you may not be able to accrue as many great internship positions on your CV. While it does make sense to get work experience, putting dedication into building your own startup signals clearly that you are bold, curious and persistent – irrespective of whether it works out or not.
These qualities set you apart from others, making you an even more attractive applicant (in case it doesn’t work out and you do have to seek employment). Another benefit of starting your company at university is that others will be likely to help you. You are a curious but inexperienced student. Professionals appreciate that and are usually happy to give advice. Depending on your product, you also have plenty of classmates as an eager test group at your disposal.
Pressure to earn money inevitably increases after you leave university. Commitments grow and your freedom to pursue entrepreneurial ideas, with little certainty of success, is limited. It is exhilarating to start a company. So go for it as long as stakes are low.
Beyond a rational calculation of costs and benefits, you also need to become used to the idea of exposing yourself and your idea to uncomfortable situations and critical feedback. As mentioned above, it took me some time to learn this.
If you aim to become an entrepreneur, there is no doubt that it makes sense to start a company while you study. The experience and learning definitely outweigh the costs. But make sure that you actively seek uncomfortable situations that prove whether your understanding of reality is coherent with that of others.
Gather as much feedback as possible and prepare to make a bit of a fool of yourself.