In this episode of the Dealmakers’ Podcast, we delve into the inspiring journey of Mohsen Shahini, a visionary entrepreneur who overcame challenges and pivoted his way to success.
From his early years in Iran to founding Top Hat, a groundbreaking education technology platform, Mohsen’s story is about resilience, adaptability, a relentless pursuit of innovation, and a willingness to learn from both successes and failures. These are the qualities that led to his current venture, Kritik.
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A Scholar’s Foundation
Mohsen’s upbringing in Iran was marked by an academic environment. He remembers being surrounded by books that instilled a deep appreciation for education. His early success in academics set the stage for a future marked by excellence and a desire to make a significant impact.
With a background in mechanical engineering and manufacturing, Mohsen set out to seek opportunities beyond Iran’s borders. His determination to reach the prestigious institutions of MIT and Harvard ultimately led him to Canada.
His first stop was the University of Waterloo, where he applied for a Ph.D. From here, he embarked on a path that would forever alter his career trajectory.
Navigating Recession Pivoting Towards Opportunity and The Evolution of TopHat
The early 2000s presented Mohsen with the challenge of navigating a recession. However, rather than being deterred, he saw this as an opportunity for growth. His original plan was to develop a few app store games and make enough money from selling them to go to Harvard-MIT.
However, Mohsen and his team quickly realized that the market was already saturated with apps and games. They also realized that the apps they developed would have to reach the top 30 or top 10 of, say, the Apple App Store to get any attention or sales. They were also totally reliant on the app distributor to sell the games.
That’s when Mohsen knew they had to develop a better system to sell their apps and actually make money–a short of an enterprise app store. They would also have to figure out better unit economics and a pricing structure.
As Mohsen and his co-founders explored the concepts, they came up with the idea to build an app that could help teachers by making their jobs easier. They started by developing a few markups or MVPs and giving demonstrations to professors.
The birth of Top Hat, an interactive education platform, was driven by a vision to revolutionize how students learn and how professors teach. However, it was obvious that professors did not have the money to pay for the apps. So, Mohsen’s next approach was to target deans and University administrations to fund buyers for his app.
The Agency Model: A Paradigm Shift in EdTech
Top Hat’s innovative business model was inspired by the textbook publishing industry. It introduced a groundbreaking approach to education technology. Professors could adopt the platform for free, but students have to pay for it as a requirement for their course. In this way, Top Hat disrupted the traditional education technology landscape.
Mohsen started with a simple concept – interactive learning tools for educators. Armed with a prototype, he hit the streets, going door to door to engage teachers in conversation. Their feedback became the cornerstone of iteration, pushing the concept beyond its initial boundaries.
However, Mohsen quickly realized that innovation alone wouldn’t sustain the venture. The financial aspect required equal attention. He would have to navigate the complex landscape of education budgets and procurement processes. That became a vital part of the business model validation process.
The Early Days: Risk, Innovation, and Personal Investment
In the early days, Mohsen and his co-founder took a bold step, investing their own savings and even maxing out credit cards to fund the venture. Their optimism, though bold, proved to be an asset. Mohsen acknowledges the fearlessness that comes with youth, knowing that even in the worst-case scenario, they had fallback options.
With grit and determination, Mohsen secured grants and early investments, gradually propelling the project forward. The pivotal moment arrived when they acquired their first paying customers – a validation of their vision.
Students were open to purchasing subscriptions to get their course assignments done for the upcoming semester. Mohsen estimated that students would pay $20 each, and after doing the math, realized what a significant opportunity they had.
Raising the Bar: Lessons from Top Hat
Top Hat’s journey was marked by significant fundraising, raising a total of $234.4M over several rounds. While Mohsen looks back on this period as crucial in validating their concept, he also reflects on how success wasn’t without its challenges.
Mohsen talks about how he realized that developing products and solving problems is a good thing. But, you should also be able to solve the problem more efficiently and partner with someone who can handle the business aspect of the idea.
As the company grew, so did the complexity of managing stakeholders. The need to balance diverse opinions and interests highlighted the importance of maintaining control over the company’s destiny, a lesson Mohsen would carry forward.
Reinventing the Future: Enter Kritik
After a decade with Top Hat, Mohsen found himself at a crossroads, reflecting on the path ahead. A sabbatical and a Vipassana session provided the space to contemplate. The sessions of deep self-contemplation and concentration led him to the decision to embark on a new entrepreneurial journey with Kritik.
This time around, Mohsen leveraged his experience and network, streamlining the fundraising process. Armed with a clear vision, Kritik was born – a platform revolutionizing peer assessment in education. Mohsen started the company using his personal savings, which were around $150,000.
Storytelling is everything, which is something that Mohsen Shahini was able to master. Being able to capture the essence of what you are doing in 15 to 20 slides is the key. For a winning deck, take a look at the pitch deck template created by Silicon Valley legend Peter Thiel (see it here), where the most critical slides are highlighted.
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A Vision for Efficient Learning: The Future of Kritik
Looking ahead, Mohsen envisions a world where learning is accelerated, where interaction and community play a pivotal role. Kritik seeks to revolutionize educational content creation, empowering students to participate actively in the learning process.
In this envisioned future, learning won’t be bound by traditional structures. Instead, it will be dynamic, driven by a community of learners and educators collaborating to create an environment conducive to rapid, efficient learning.
Lessons for Entrepreneurs
Mohsen’s journey is an inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurs in the education technology space. As Kritik continues to shape the future of learning, Mohsen’s legacy stands as a beacon of innovation in the world of education.
Mohsen offers invaluable lessons for aspiring entrepreneurs. His emphasis on problem-solving, rapid iteration, and the need to create solutions that are not just better but significantly superior highlights the essence of successful entrepreneurship.
Mohsen’s transformative journey from Iran to the forefront of education technology exemplifies the power of determination and a commitment to innovation. Top Hat stands as a testament to his vision of revolutionizing education, leaving an indelible mark on the landscape of edtech.
Aspiring entrepreneurs can draw inspiration from Mohsen’s story, recognizing that with the right mindset, any challenge can be transformed into an opportunity for growth and impact.
Listen in to the full podcast episode to find out more, including:
- The journey from Iran to the forefront of education technology is marked by determination, resilience, and a commitment to innovation.
- The early academic success in Iran laid the foundation for future endeavors, driven by a deep appreciation for education.
- The pivot from app development to creating Top Hat, an interactive education platform, showcases an ability to adapt to market needs and challenges.
- The innovative agency model employed by Top Hat disrupted the traditional education technology landscape by empowering both professors and students.
- The early days with Top Hat involved personal investment, risk-taking, and a relentless pursuit of funding, highlighting the importance of youthful audacity and determination.
- Lessons from Top Hat include the need for efficient problem-solving and recognizing the value of partnering with individuals skilled in the business aspect of an idea.
- The new venture, Kritik, reflects a vision for efficient learning, emphasizing active student participation and a dynamic, community-driven educational environment.