She Built Her Startup With No Money or Team. How the CEO of Piazza Did It.
Pooja Sankar gave new meaning to the word 'scrappy' as she built her online question-and-answer forum.
In the Women Entrepreneur series My First Moves, we talk to founders about that pivotal moment when they decided to turn their business idea into a reality—and the first steps they took to make it happen.
“My undergraduate experience was one of real isolation,” says Pooja Sankar, founder and CEO of Piazza, the online platform where students can anonymously ask and answer questions on assignments and gain feedback from fellow students as well as professors. “I was surrounded by brilliant students but didn’t have access to them,” Sankar says of her time at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur. “I was so shy, struggled to speak to boys and was in a male-dominated major. Every night I’d stay in the lab until 6 a.m., watching boys finish their projects and go home, while I was left to fight through [the assignments].”
Years later, in 2008, Sankar was one of few women engineers at Facebook when Sheryl Sandberg joined the company as COO. The future Lean In author gathered her female employees in a room to discuss challenges they’d faced in their education and careers. “I thought my experience was unique to me as a shy, female, Indian student,” Sankar says. “But it was American girls, too—girls from Harvard and Stanford undergrad who said they didn’t have the support they needed in school.”
Sankar started thinking of ways to solve this problem for female students. Months later, in a class on entrepreneurship, she had a breakthrough. “Founders would come speak to our class and share their story, and there was this constant theme: baby steps,” Sankar says. “Step one wasn’t ‘Raise millions and build a board.’ It was ‘Find one thing to do today to get to tomorrow.’” With that advice, she set out to build Piazza, and today, the platform is used by two million students across 1,500 universities and 90 countries. Here’s how she did it.
Step 1: Build a template.
“I downloaded some free wireframe software,” Sankar says of her first attempt to map out the structure of her imagined platform. “You had 14 days to use it before you had to pay for it, and I was a very poor grad student, so I did not want to pay.” At the time, she was in a program at Stanford and worked on building the wireframes during her classes, tinkering with features like notifications, in-platform email and landing pages. “I was always late to class, so I got stuck in the front row, which meant that all my classmates could see me working on this outside project.”
Step 2: Understand the problem you’re solving.
Sankar set out to talk to any student and professor who would listen to her to better understand the problem at hand. “I’d walk up to people at coffee shops—and that makes me deeply uncomfortable,” she says. “I learned that a decade of having a laptop and internet in every dorm room had isolated students who used to go to the library and collaborate. My story of a shy girl in India was the same story of a social, outgoing boy in America. Piazza could bridge a gap that, ironically, had emerged because of technology, regardless of gender, socio-economics and ethnicity.” After every conversation, Sankar would use what she learned to tweak the wireframes.
Step 3: Commit.
Sankar was still interviewing for full-time jobs as graduation approached, but when an advisor encouraged her to go all in with Piazza, she turned her life upside down. “I moved in with my brother’s family to save on rent and food,” she says. To stay on track (and protect herself from the time-consuming charms of her two-year-old niece), Sankar created a grueling schedule. “I’d head to a work lab each afternoon before my niece got home from school, crank until 10:55 [p.m.], go get one last coffee before the shop closed at 11, head back to the lab and crank until 5 a.m.” She’d go home, sleep until 1 p.m. and repeat the grueling cycle.
Step 4: Ask for help.
The wireframes Sankar built could only carry Piazza so far—she needed a developer to actually build the thing. “I left a super-awkward voicemail for this developer I know, asking him to build it,” she says. When he called back, she was en route to dinner in Los Angeles with two friends in her car. “I pulled over on highway 280 so the call wouldn’t drop and talked to him for an hour. My friends stayed silent.” Despite her best pitch, he turned down the project but offered some advice. “He told me what book to buy and really served as a resource while I built this platform myself, all out of my brother’s garage, in 10 days,” Sankar says.
Step 5: Make a strategic hire. (And stretch pennies to do it.)
With the prototype built, Sankar was able to share the product to get better feedback and make further improvements. But she still needed a more experienced developer to launch Piazza. “A job ad on Craigslist would cost $75,” she says. “I was just so poor. I stared at my credit card that night, deciding whether or not to do it. It’d either be the best money spent or just go down the drain.” It was the former. She hired a developer, paid him in equity and today, he’s Piazza’s lead engineer.
Step 6: Iterate.
Piazza launched in August of 2010, and Sankar expected students to start posting questions on the site, flooding the platform with engaged conversations about their studies. Instead? Crickets. “Nobody [posted] a single question,” she says. The online forum’s question-and-answer structure relies on student participation, so Sankar reached out to students again, bribing them with gift cards to ask questions. “It finally led to 12 questions being asked in four months.” But the slow build resulted in valuable lessons about design and function. “We completely redesigned the front-end by December; each iteration led to more engagement,” she says. It led to more connections, as well. As Piazza’s profile in the Stanford community grew, Sankar was introduced to a new network of players, including investors, and eventually raised an angel round of funding. “My last semester at Stanford, I was out meeting investors,” she says. “I actually missed too many classes, so I didn’t graduate on time—I had to make up units the next fall.” At least she knew where she could get answers to her questions.