Started as a feedback tool designed for students, Clay, the app created by Christoph Koenig when he was still an ESCP student in 2020, is now an example of how smart problem-solving and good entrepreneurial skills can lead to success.
A little more than two years after Koenig’s solution won the ESCP Innovation Award, the startup was acquired by Italian edtech company Wyblo. We sat down with Koenig to ask him about the key learnings and opportunities these last two years have brought to him and his company.
We left you at the end of 2020 as you were about to launch a massive test phase for Clay. Can you tell us about the developments that have occurred over the past two years?
The test phase was significantly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting shift to online education, which increased students’ need for interaction. However, the move to online education also led to fewer interactions beyond immediate friendship groups and increased barriers to communication.
As a result, many students were struggling. Asking questions regarding classes became even harder for them with little to no live encounters in the classroom or on campus. At Clay, we had to work with this new environment.
To address these challenges, we kept our original idea of a platform that facilitated isolated feedback, but we also developed the platform further to provide opportunities for collaborative work, fast answers through a simple, centralised platform that can integrate and organise other sources as well, and a non-judgmental environment to ask questions and share struggles anonymously, with a clear focus on collaboration and support.
To encourage teamwork, we implemented a sort of “leader board” where you get points for answering questions and supporting one another. This enabled students to have more engagement outside of lectures, reduced administrative effort, decreased repetitive emails and questions, and provided more effective analytics to understand students’ problems and how they were coping.
Beyond active feedback, we incorporated a more passive indicator of how students are doing.
The three pillars that fuelled our growth over the past two years were: product iteration, team, and partnerships.
The second pillar of our development was building a strong and diverse team. Two years ago, we were only four people. We put a lot of effort into recruiting top-notch engineers and designers, some of whom were still in university so that they would understand the product and the problem it intends to solve.
The core team grew to seven people, though we were at times up to 12 people, including interns.
Despite working together across three time zones during a global pandemic, which was challenging, we managed to integrate students’ direct feedback and adapt our solution quickly to their needs.
The third pillar was the maturing of partnerships. For instance, we partnered with a German city for a mentorship programme to help children who had lost touch with school due to the pandemic. We also worked with universities in April 2021 to explore different paths to reach customers, which was quite challenging due to the density and mass of the structures in education.
We also managed to bring on more advisers from backgrounds, from product managers to strategy. This exploration led to the maturing of our product to cater to our target group (universities, students), which was the biggest theme of the last two years.
What are some important milestones or events that led to where you are today?
Receiving the Innovation Award from ESCP in 2020 for our first prototype sure was an important milestone, as well as receiving recognition from various business schools in Europe.
Participating in student fairs also proved to be important events for us. It was a challenging path to reach universities, our potential customers, because it takes time to build a relationship with such entities and reach the right people, but we found that the barriers were much thinner by working with student unions and representatives through opportunities like student fairs.
And our most recent milestone occurred at a pitching competition last year where we were approached by Wyblo, the company now in the process of acquiring us.
Can you tell us more about Clay’s recent acquisition by this Italian edtech company, Wyblo? Were you hoping Clay would sell this fast when you created it?
At first, I was unsure about the timing of the acquisition. But after discussing and understanding their vision, I realised that it aligns well with our goals. They recognise that teaching is now a social and interactive process.
They offer a professional training platform but do not provide any community features yet. For Clay, the acquisition has given us the opportunity to continue supporting the education community, from a new angle.
Overall, my goal for Clay when I created it was not to sell the company but to learn as much as possible and grow. While the idea of selling the company is a big consideration, our primary focus has always been to offer a solution that improves the quality of education and supports the education community as much as possible.
Selling has been a hard choice to make, considering all the work and effort we put into Clay throughout the years. But thinking about it now, I feel like the timing is right. Wyblo is going to allow us to scale Clay’s social learning by embedding it into Wyblo’s ecosystem.
For Clay, the acquisition has given us the opportunity to further develop our solution and continue to support the education community.
What are some key learnings this experience has taught you?
First off, as for my experience with Clay, I have learned that focusing solely on the problem you are trying to solve is crucial and that building a bigger Minimum Viable Product (MVP) than necessary can be a trap which can lead to spending unnecessary resources and time, making direct feedback more complicated.
Secondly, I learned that it is also very hard to sell a product when your end-user is not the same person as your buyer. At first, we tried to please different target groups (students, professors, universities and their administrations), and we got a bit caught up in that process.
We fell into the trap of trying to compromise, which rarely results in a product that actually fits the needs of end-users or precisely solves the problem. That was a big learning experience.
Finally, I also believe that having a co-founder is incredibly useful. Although we had brilliant people on the team, I was the only one dealing with business management, which limited our decision-making capacity.
On my end, managing the business was a less enjoyable experience when everything was remote. I hope to be able to apply these new learnings in any new venture I might pursue in the future.
We fell into the trap of trying to compromise, which rarely results in a product that actually fits the needs of end-users or precisely solves the problem.
Speaking of the future, have you considered where you see yourself after Clay?
The transition period after the acquisition will take some time, and I have had conversations about potentially becoming part of the Wyblo team. However, I am also considering exploring something completely new and different. I am particularly interested in studying neuroscience, as I believe the field offers a lot of potential to advance equitable healthcare.