A Q&A with MentorMob co-founder Vince Leung. The Chicago-based startup, which is a platform that allows experts to create curated social ‘Learning Playlists,’ launched its private beta in late August. It was a recent participant in the TechStars/Kaplan Accelerator in New York City.
SUB: Please describe MentorMob and your primary innovation.
Leung: We’re solving a problem that everyone has but don’t know [they have]. Everyone turns to Google when they want to learn [about] a new hobby or lifestyle, like being a photographer or snowboarder, or even if they are a cancer survivor; but Google gives them millions of disorganized results saying: “here you go, now learn by yourself with this.” We realized how much of a pain it is to learn this way, so we created MentorMob to be the best way to learn online. Like Wikipedia, we’ve created a site where the community of enthusiasts and thought leaders curate the best online content, whether it be articles or videos, into a step-by-step order—the order in which you should be learning. Unlike Wikipedia, where it’s an encyclopedia, MentorMob is a crowd-curated how-to guide. We’re like a learning filter for the Internet.
SUB: Who are your target markets and users?
Leung: To be honest, everyone in the world is a potential MentorMob user. Everyone learns and you never outgrow it, but in order to not bite off more than we can chew, we’re starting with hobby topics—things that people are really excited about learning.
SUB: Who do you consider to be your competition, and what differentiates MentorMob from the competition?
Leung: Our competition really is a pretty fragmented market of sites. There isn’t a learning destination that everyone turns to like they do for Google—search—or Facebook—social networking. People generally start with Google to try to piece together the hobby or skill they’re trying to learn.
SUB: What were the first steps you took in establishing the company?
Leung: We knew we couldn’t do it alone, so we found a co-founder. Luckily for me, Kris Chinosorn, my old college friend, was the perfect creative and product-focused complement to my ‘git-er-done’ tech- and task-oriented self.
SUB: What was the inspiration behind the idea for MentorMob? Was there an ‘aha’ moment, or was the idea more gradual in developing?
Leung: It was more of a gradual development. However, we did have an ‘aha’ moment when we were developing the predecessor to MentorMob—an interest-based social network. We were wondering if we could connect experienced and newbies together to share knowledge faster. Instead of connecting the individuals to learn from one another, we moved towards connecting the learners to the information that has been curated by the experts, and voilà, MentorMob was born.
SUB: How did you come up with the name? What is the story or meaning behind it?
Leung: It was really hard to choose a name that wasn’t already taken. During the days of adding ‘ster’ to the end of a word, like ‘Friendster’ and ‘Flixster,’ the new movement was combining two words together so you would be able to reserve a domain name. We chose ‘MentorMob’ to convey that people are learning from a group of enthusiasts and experts—or being mentored by a mob of people. Plus, MentorMob has a certain amount of alliteration that rolls off the tongue.
SUB: You moved into private beta at the end of August. What was behind that decision?
Leung: Over the past year we’ve grown our MentorMob EDU product to have been used by millions in over 20 countries, which allows anyone to curate any content and share it to learn. The new MentorMob we’ve developed is a product based on the same concept; however, we’ve designed it to be an amazing experience from the very start—from the user interface, to the experience of learning from the content, to the actual content quality. This was the right time for the new MentorMob. We’re seeing trends of people learning from the Internet more than ever, and our product team has been itching to create this product for some time. It also helped to be part of the Techstars/Kaplan Accelerator to gain access to a network of brilliant entrepreneurs and business folks to make it the best product available.
SUB: How restricted is the beta?
Leung: At the moment we are in private release. This is so we can continue to take feedback from our users and analyze our data to identify any areas for improvement in the MentorMob experience. We have a huge backlog of people who have requested access, and we’re getting around to sending out invite codes to more-and-more of them. We appreciate the response and just want to ask everyone to please be patient.
SUB: How long do you anticipate remaining in beta before a full-scale launch?
Leung: We plan to do a public launch within six months, but of course everything is dynamic and it could be as soon as one month.
SUB: Have you raised outside funding to this point?
Leung: Yes, we’ve been extremely lucky to have the support of some amazing investors who not only share the vision of MentorMob, but also are great advisors and friends. If we started another venture tomorrow, we’d want the same caliber of investors again without question.
SUB: What have the most significant challenges been so far to building the company?
Leung: The biggest challenge, and the most fun, has been the fact that there is no one way to build a company. Certainly there are guidelines and best practices for building a company, but they are very general, like ‘iterate quickly.’ We’re building something that has never been built before, so we don’t know what kind of hurdles we’re going to face in the future. The best we can do is use the data that we have, user feedback and our instincts to develop the company into something that will be used by millions of people around the world.
SUB: How do you generate revenue or plan to generate revenue?
Leung: Fortunately, we have the funding and support to focus on building a great product and growing our user base. We have some really interesting revenue models in the pipeline, but one of the early models is partnerships with brands to interact with our highly-engaged learners—and I’m not talking about banner ads or anything like that. Everything we do will always have to provide value to our users, and that includes monetization.
SUB: What are your goals for MentorMob over the next year or so?
Leung: We have a lot of work ahead of us, but the biggest goal we have is to launch our beta publicly and grow our audience organically. Even in private release we’re seeing a lot of word-of-mouth bringing new users to MentorMob and requesting access. For us, that’s the best indicator that we’ve built something valuable.
MentorMob – www.mentormob.com