Midway through my sophomore year at Truman State University I got a call from Joe Dallago, a good friend of mine since high school. Joe was studying at the University of Iowa and he was just pissed; complaining that he had bombed a test because of one question he couldn’t get on his study guide. He emailed his professor, his TA and was sitting in the middle of the library but he couldn’t find the answer. There were 400 students in that class and he had no way to talk to any of them. One of his classmates could have probably answered his question in a couple of minutes and he would have been fine.
Joe is a developer and he said he was going to throw something together to solve those pain points and he wanted to know if I would join him as we had always worked on things together. We both paused for a little bit and said, “Wait, isn’t there one of those tools already?” We started scouring the internet. Very quickly we found that similar tools were either not free or dominant in the market.
I had been playing football on scholarship at Truman but because of an injury and the resulting second shoulder surgery I’d already been thinking about the possibility of doing something different with my college career.
We decided right there that we were going to make a company out of this, so I transferred to Iowa at winter break. I was in a giant sling from the surgery and couldn’t drive but we started anyway. Joe and some other friends came and picked me up every day and we worked from a bonus room at Joe’s parents house. We outlined every wall of that room with giant pieces of paper and mapped out the very first “clusterFlunk”. Granted we don’t use anything from that version today but it got us in a room together and working. The next semester came and we both had jobs and class so clusterFlunk got put on the back burner.
Is this something that you really want to do?
That next summer Joe had an internship with Survey Monkey and was living in Palo Alto. I was living in Iowa City working with Dell. He called me up one night, while he was at the gym, and said he had just met a “VC”. We had no idea what a VC was at that point, so I googled this guy and found out he had invested in a TON of really successful companies. We decided it was probably a good idea for Joe to go and talk to him again while he was still at the gym and ask if we could get a meeting for clusterFlunk. He said yes!
We had two weeks to finish the product and get a pitch together. We read our first “How to pitch to a VC” book, wrote up a business plan that was twenty pages and had a product ready to demo. I flew out there and we were ready to raise $5MM for our awesome idea. We wanted campus reps across the nation, and were ready to scale this non-existent product. We go into the meeting, hand him our business plan, he says to us, “Oh, thank you, but we don’t read business plans”.
WHAT? WE JUST POURED OUR LIVES INTO THAT THING.
He sat through our entire pitch (30 minutes long). He probably should have just laughed at these two 19 year old clowns but instead he asked us after we were done, “is this something you two really want to do?”
We both looked at each other and responded with, “Hell yes”.
He said “if this thing takes off, are you prepared to drop out of school?” We both hesitated a little bit, and responded, “yes”. He said “Okay, so here’s what you’re going to do. Go back to Iowa, build an MVP (minimal viable product), read up on the Lean Startup, build your product with the students at Iowa in mind first, then once you hit scale there, take that recipe to other schools, then maybe in a few years we can talk.”
We both said thank you, he walked out of the room and we left the VC firm. We were crushed, we hadn’t raised any money, and clusterFlunk was just a dream again. We pouted for awhile but decided that he was right, that was our plan of action and that’s what we needed to do. We came back to the University of Iowa, worked for an entire semester getting together our first real product. At the end of that semester, we decided to run a smoke and mirrors test. We built out a basic interface where students could pre-register and join their courses for the next semester. We had 900 students sign up the first week on that test. From there Joe and I didn’t have a conversation about it — we just knew that it was time and that if we really wanted to make this a reality, we would have to drop out. We did and we have no regrets. We like to think it was more of a calculated risk. A lot of blood, sweat and tears made this decision really easy. Once you put a portion of your life into something, it becomes a part of you. In those terms, dropping out wasn’t even a question for us. We’re not telling anyone to drop out of college by any means, but if you have a dream and a work ethic, go do whatever it is you have to do. Life is short.
Since then we’ve gathered 11,000 active users at the University of Iowa and successfully scaled to 50 more universities across the country. We’re constantly learning. We’re both technical and we’ve learned to be business-oriented. As of today we are at 31,000 users and growing at a rate of 2,000-5,000 per week.
Coming full circle
As I am writing this post, we are sitting in a coffee shop in downtown San Francisco and we just met with that same investor who advised us 18 months ago. He had the craziest smile on his face when he had heard that we actually followed his directions and are where we are today.
We still have a long ways to go but we’re excited for our future. This post is meant to inspire some of you and show you that chasing your dreams is possible, you just have to go out and do it. Some guy named Steve Jobs once said:
"When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and you're life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money. That's a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you'll never be the same again."
AJ Nelson is the co-founder of clusterFlunk. AJ and his co-founder, Joe, launched cF at the University of Iowa one year ago and today they’re at 50 public universities around the nation, with tens of thousands of students using the software. The team is headquartered in Iowa City.
Photo Credit: clusterFlunk on Facebook.