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. This company has attracted funding from top-tier investors like Think + Ventures, HV Capital, and Celtic House Asia Partners.
In this episode, you will learn:
- 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.
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About Mohsen Shahini:
Mohsen Shahini has a solid background in education technology and research. Mohsen co-founded Kritik in 2019, a platform that enhances student assessment and facilitates collaborative learning.
Prior to this, they were a co-founder at Top Hat from 2009 to 2019, where they served as the Chief Academic Officer and later as the Chief Operating Officer. Mohsen started their career as a Research Assistant at the University of Waterloo, where they worked from 2005 to 2009.
Mohsen Shahini completed their education between 2005 and 2011 at the University of Waterloo. During this time, they pursued a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in Mechatronics, Robotics, and Automation Engineering.
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Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
Alejandro Cremades: Alrighty hello everyone and welcome to the dealmakerr show. So so today we have a really exciting guest. You know we have a guest that has done it. You know a few times you know a serial founder and definitely with success and yeah I mean today we’re gonna be learning about his journey. We’re gonna be learning about. The early days how you know he eventually got pushed into entrepreneurship you know talking about making calculated risk cycles. You know when it comes to product. You know, development and many many more things so without further ado. Let’s welcome. Our guest today. Mos Shahini welcome up to the show. So originally you were born in Iran so how was life growing up there and you know give us a walkthrough memory lane.
Mohsen Shahini: Hi Thanks for having me.
Mohsen Shahini: Absolutely yeah, yeah, it’s been quite a long time since I left Iran in 2005 but back then when I grown up in Iran I think um, we didn’t have I guess maybe some of the challenges that it’s there. Nowadays when people hear from what’s happening in I guess in Middle East and especially in Iran with all the all the rights in in women right? and all that. But when I grew up it was I grew up in a very academic environment I would say my my dad was a librarian so I grew up among books and. Ah, and then I went to universities one of you know I was very accomplished as students in class. Always the topest student pretty much you know since early childhood for me, you know, being the top of what I was I was doing was what was important and and. And in in Iran academic and schools was really the the main thing that parents cared about so um, yeah, was there for about 26 years in Iran and I finished my undergraduate and graduate studies in in engineering you know, mechanical engineering and manufacturings. I did work as the you know I guess intern and also full-time in industry in Iran and in in kind of different industries and manufacturing and building things and as soon I realized that it was not really, ah, you know where I wanted to stay so 2005.
Mohsen Shahini: And then I decided to leave kind of leave to go to us origin I was planning to go to the states. But back then it was very difficult at a still is today I guess to get visa especially from Iran to to get to this state. So um, and the best way to get out of Iran was to apply for a studies. So I applied for Phd. And got an admission from university of Waterloo which was the closest that I could get to the border to the to the mit and Harvard which is where I was planning to go. Ah, ultimately as my dream graduate programs and so my plan was always to ultimately get to the states but then life changed when I came to Canada. Um, so I think I looks like things worked out here and I stuck in Canada and I’m happy.
Alejandro Cremades: And what changed what changed because it sounds like you had the eye in the Us you know? So what? what? What would you say that they turned the ah the tables here.
Mohsen Shahini: I think even yeah, so um, when I came to Canada um, well the university of Waterloo where I went to as you know in engineering and you know Waterloo is probably the best school in Canada in engineering. And and but my plan always was that okay well I’m gonna just get into mit Harvard. So actually I was in touch with the schools in Harvard Mit and I was trying to go to do a postdoc or sort of as scholarship in mit harvard there and then. I managed to do that just right at the time that my venture took off which was toppad and I remember I was just postponing that you know my j one visa which I took it to get to the Harvard and I was talking to the researchers that okay, well can you postman because I’m just working this little project here. And maybe next year and then I never actually happened to to go to the Harvard. But what worked out I think for me is that like my business took off um my first business which I founded when I was at the end of my Phd. It just happened to be bigger than what I had originally had thought it would be and I give me stuff.
Alejandro Cremades: Well let’s talk. Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about that for a minute because obviously you know at that point it’s when the recession hit and obviously the recession you know, really changed the plans for everything and that can like push you into really looking into ways in which you could fund.
Mohsen Shahini: Yeah.
Mohsen Shahini: Is he.
Alejandro Cremades: Your life and then also find your studies and that’s basically you know like the result and how top hat you know came came about so walk us through you know what was the incubation process. What happened there. And how did you know something that you thought it was just like a lifestyle thing you know just to pay for the Bills. You know, ended up, you know, like turning into something so big.
Mohsen Shahini: Yeah, sure. Yeah like I guess you know it’s funny like you know people may may many many of your audience may not minimum might have been tooous too too little at the time to to recognize there was another recession then the recession is you know gets sort of a periodic happening so going through 1 recession sort of. You know you learn a lot so that the next time it happens and you you’ll freak out less I guess so I know that the market is pretty bad these days but having gone through that you know at the beginning of a previous venture and knowing that actually you know that was more of an opportunity than actually a threat. Um, you know makes me more calm and I guess more optimistic right now in this kind of environment in general. But yeah, you’re right like I think that was basically the first recession I ever experienced in my life I never knew what the meaning of recession was I was you know was at school so I never really had to deal with you know making economic choices in my life. You know. You know I was just a student so I was not really sort of responsible for you know making monies and all that and then but it was my graduate studies where it actually recession got all its way to my ph d because my my fund for my research was such that it would get renewed every year for whatever reason I and know but it was almost guaranteed. No one thought that you know your research you know ph you would not get renewed. You know you you get a scholarship so but you you I was always signing a contract at the beginning of my ph hey this is not guaranteed but you know this another year of scholarship which I was like you know it looks like it was just like a formality at the time but except in 2008.
Mohsen Shahini: My supervisor told me that hey well you got to finish your ph d earlier than what you plan because um, because there’s no fun for you in 2009 and I was like well what what happened and I was I remember I was very upset about this because I was doing my I loved my research and I was very ambitious. And I felt that my my my supervisor was not really accommodating I remember I was not really happy about the way that he he told me that you have to go and work in Tim Horton Timorton is like ah you know is a franchise sort of a a Starbucks coffee in in Canada one knows so that was the wording my my professor says like hey look. If if you really want to do go to this mit harvard which you plan to go as as ah, visiting a scholar you have to fund yourself which means you got to go take maybe you know a four months off and go and work Tim Morton then save your money and then you go there because I have no money to send you to Harvard mit and obviously mit Harvard guys. They also said you know they theyre in a position that. They had a lot of applicants so they said you need to be self-funded when you come here so sort of that pushed me basically that kind of pushed me to start something and yeah original idea was that it you know it was 2009 and it was just right a year after Apple store was open.
Alejandro Cremades: I Hear you.
Mohsen Shahini: And we were hearing from Waterloo especially being in Waterloo I was hearing you know, almost on a weekly basis that dude you know, made an app and then released an app store ninety nine cents and they got 10000 download over you know over a week or over a night and made $10000 so I was kind of start see hearing these stories over and over and. My my roommate who was also you know just finishes studies in in Waterloo he was building these apps and was telling me that okay he was going to release it and then um and then ultimately I decided to join him and and and just because building mobile apps. I was thinking that I started building mobile houses. Maybe for a summer. Maybe we can release some some games in Apple store and maybe 1 of them hits the market and then we can make you know ten Thousand fifteen thousand dollars and they can save it and then I go to mit Harvard that was my original the sort of a dream of becoming a venture I sorry become an entrepreneur so that’s how it started. And then so I don’t know I guess if you want to ask questions but like how did it evolve was that.
Alejandro Cremades: Yes, so so so how? so obviously you know like how did the team come together. You know and and then also how did you guys you know iterate you know the product and the and the business model so that it ended up becoming what it is today I think that if first if you could walk us through the incubation.
Mohsen Shahini: Right? right? right? Absolutely So yeah, when we is funny you we didn’t actually what what it ended up becoming. Ultimately I would tell you that had was not anything close to what we were in initially planning so there was a.
Alejandro Cremades: To you know? ah finally launch it and then you know what ended up being the business model that will be fantastic.
Mohsen Shahini: very very different so yes as I said what we store it was just building gate building a bunch of you know app app store games and and just you know selling it in episode that was what original idea was but then the way that we pivoted was that so. It was me and my my co-founder both of us are engineers so we knew how to code he knew better than me and I had to learn objective c but it was it was not difficult so I started learning and and building up. Um, so it was 2 of us that started working and then the other things happened was that because it was a recession a lot of. Calledop students here in Canada like a student school in intern like you know they have to go in in some semester of work industry. There were no jobs for them out there. So there was a lot of these cooper of students in in school where they were willing to work for free for sort of as industries as a gaining experience so we tap into that actual opportunity. And we went to Waterloo and we posted the job we said hey we’re looking for. You know, 2 or 3 coop students these are engineers they were probably you know younger brain and they just also you know fresher and also we we just wanted to you know develop faster so we hired I would say like 2 or three co-op students. Um, you know 2 of them pretty very sharp. They were you know decoding very well so there was a small team and we brought them into our you know apartment we turned our living room to a sort of office space as sort of um, the like typical I guess story of garage office and.
Mohsen Shahini: Yeah, so there was a small team of us and then we are building games so we we did that for about two months I would say like building various kinds of games relea in the app store and we just realized that the mark you know the a was already saturated. It was not It was no longer easy to just you know, release a game and then it gets to the top. You know top hundred and ultimately top 30 and top 10 and just gets it way to vir all grows we we did that for a couple of games and realize that that a strategy is very difficult to get to the market basically releasing something on an an app store and relying on a distributor which is app a store to make your money. So. The next the next idea which I had was that okay, well let’s just build something that we can control the sales because right now we can’t control the sales we have to we can have to be. We’re lucky to maybe be featured in Apple store because apps are just sometimes randomly featured some apps and those features apps. Sometimes you know made their way up to the top 30 or whatever. And if you’re not really in top hundred in Apple Store you’re never gonna grow at all like I don’t know if feel what it is today I don’t I haven’t actually I’m not really checking the Apple but back then the way that to grow is that you just release something and then you happen to be in more top hundred and if your app is very good then you just go coming down. You know 40 thirty ten and then just like becoming like you know virl grow. So. It wasn’t possible then so the next was that what is it what is it you could do to control the cells. We’re like okay, let’s build some sort of of called enterprise app store like building something in you know, releasing something in an app but not at the at the dollars of Ninety nine cents which makes no sense for us to sell but some things that is more expensive.
Mohsen Shahini: Which makes it you know has the unit economics in it that we can actually go you know door-to- door or hire sales peopleop to sell that was like the initial idea it was not even not it. It was not even a product. It was just like an idea of how to sell something in the app store which makes sense and so we’re sort of thinking various ideas what we can sell. We can build that can you know sell more than you know and we talked about a couple of ideas. 1 of the idea I had was that they you know sell training cocktail training app for restaurants where we can go to restaurant and sell it for them so that they can train their staff. You know much more efficient needs so that they can learn how to you know, make cocktails by like some sort of ah you know interactive apps sort of like a you know training apps. For the staff members that was 1 idea and and I mean along in the same ways like you know the Dis education sort of started coming to to my mind and you know we start thinking about and I was thought at the time I you know was t in in the university so I was thinking about teaching students in in in a classroom of a student calculus. So. And then I present that to my co-under and I said okay, well you know what? Why don’t we just build some things in a set of these games. Why don’t we just build these games to teach students some things and then we sell it to the teachers so teachers can use this to make their job easier. So that was again that’s the sort of iterations of of second and then again we we have to pivot it because we went to teachers. We built a few of these you know markups and you you know sort of ah Mvp we you know want to you know you know, talk to a bunch of professors and we realized that obviously teachers didn’t have money they’re like okay well we don’t have money to pay for this and then we’re like okay well we should do we then start talking to the deans and university administrations and realize that.
Mohsen Shahini: Oh their sales sucker so big like it’s not mean we have to basically rely on them meeting one at ah once every few months which we we can really go as fast because how we we were small like I was planning to just do this in a four months and then get $10000 and I was like. it’s it’s um it’s very risky for me to to be just waiting for like couple of months to see if my idea is going to work out. Not so then we again like my cofounder had came up this genius idea that okay, well you look? Why don’t we just sell it to the professors but ask a students to pay sort of an like sort of agency model. And then he got that again from the experience of seeing that textbook publishers do that so publishers. You know, have the textbook for centuries professors adopting it and then the students pay were like oh wow, that’s interesting idea. We never saw it in software. We’ve seen it in I guess textbook in publishing industry but it was a unique idea so it was a little bit. I was I was a skeptical I was like I’m not sure if professor is gonna agree with that because they say that this is not a hardware is not make you know is that a physical things but you know what when we learn and talk to the teachers we you know he proved me wrong and we we realized that actually teachers were open with that and then that’s how basically our business models started working.
Mohsen Shahini: They have had this business model where they would approach professors and then they sell their textbook to professors the professors Obviously don’t buy them. They don’t really pay them.. In fact, they get a copy for free, but it’s their students who end up paying for the textbook So That’s sort of an agency model where you sell some things to someone. Who doesn’t have to pay which is attractive. Obviously I Wast I was skeptical because that was my co-founder opinions and I thought and back then after you talk about 2009? There was not really the liy.. There was not many you know software Saas software and education and so I was skeptical that if if professors or or teachers would be all. Comfortable with this asking a students to pay for a subscription for something that is not physical. It just not something that they can hold and and buy and get home and put in the library but we tested out so we talked to professors we told them hey this is our business model and that took off because that that made professors comfortable to. To to adopt tava.
Alejandro Cremades: So then how why ended up being the business model. How were you guys making money with top hat.
Mohsen Shahini: Yeah, exactly. That’s what was like just saying was that the business model after iteration became that we will sell subscription to the students so we sell it to the teachers so teachers are you know the ones that they made the decisions to adopt this software as a part of the course. Assignments and students obviously have no choice but to buy it because they’re like like a doctor that they ask their patients to you know, buy a certain prescriptions even though the prescription is is prescribed by a doctor but the students or the patients have to basically go and and use it same model here as students had to pay to get their. Course assignment done and then professors basically make the decision.
Alejandro Cremades: So at what point do you realize? hey you know what it seemed to be like a small project now is getting out of hands and is becoming something pretty big. So.
Mohsen Shahini: Yes, it would um as soon as we we were able to get this first adoption which would be a few professors in the university of Waterloo where I actually had you know. 1 them door to door and and got them to to adopt it in their upcoming semester and I noticed that okay, they’re really like going to adopt it in their upcoming semester. So now we’re talking about and I started doing the math in my head I was like okay well we’ve got you know thousand of students and each of them going to pay us $20 so we’ve got to get $20000 just like. What if we do this more what if the what if we do this 10000 students to you know 100000 students like can start doing math and it’s like oh wait like this is actually a serious opportunity here. Um, so that’s I decided to pause my phd I didn’t quit in a sense I was like okay, let me just pause page d let’s just do it bit more. And and and you know ultimately I finished my ph d on the weekends and evenings. But but but they never left you mit harvard.
Alejandro Cremades: Now when he came to ah perhaps you know like the the product because I mean you’re you’re a product kind of guy. You know what? what did it look like you know going from 0 to 1 and then also talk to us about product a cycles when it comes to development.
Mohsen Shahini: Who for sure. Yeah, so look I think as a like you’re right like I am a more of a product type entrepreneur I I can’t think of business model without thinking a product. Like I can’t think of like making money without thinking about. Okay, what’s the how I’m adding values or what’s the things that I’m fixing the problem. So um, and I would say that you actually need both to to just like if you’re just product person and you don’t really you know the business you know making business. Sense our thinking but about how we make money is not your strengths you definitely need to kind of partner up with someone who who thinks that way because that was my biggest I would say at least early days of my I now I learned how to think you know the business side but but I would say like you know, basically the way that it works is that you definitely need to. Think about ah a pain that someone has and then you need to and there’s probably like a lot of books written about it but you need to be able to solve that pain in a much more effective ways than you could other people do and more more effective I mean like. You know as as you have maybe seen in the in the book of 0 to 1 is not just we make it. You know one point five x better or 2 x better like you need to think about your solution make it like 10 x better. So you really have to think about solving a problem in ah in a significantly better way than anyone else has done. It.
Mohsen Shahini: Just like I think that the principle is that you just need to be really solving a real problem. Not just like ah a problem that is is good to solve but is not really is not great to solve so to speak. It’s it’s ah it has to be significant enough. So for us. Um, what I would do then. So then when you do that solving a problem then you’ve got to test it. So I think the biggest part of the but ah, biggest mistake that a lot of entrepreneur entrepreneur makes and this is just classic. Everyone says that but I see I see it happening over and over again when I’m advising other startups everywhere is that like. Engineers especially and and product people in this you know. Also they they tend to want to perfect make the perfect solutions before they go and and talk to customers and that’s ah, that’s a classic mistake so you’re going to get out and you got to basically talk to as many customers as as you can as early as possible. You would be racing resources and you would be just basically you know get a running out of cash if you don’t really get that feedback fast so you don’t really have to make this you know cycle of building shipping getting feedback and redoing it and iterating like it has to be the shortest fast as possible in order for you to. To have a very de decent chance of succeeding your yourselfup and I think that’s what we did very well at top at you know we didn’t just build that like we literally just built over a night over one night like we built a markup.
Mohsen Shahini: Some things that you can press some things and they just do some things and then that was enough for us to demonstrate it so and then we start going door to door and talk to teachers hey look at this example, this is the idea and here’s the extension of it this we are thinking about how to build on top of it and we started like you know getting their feedback and then we we started ierating on on what they said. So. Um, that’s definitely one side which is just that getting the customers and obviously on the money money Side. You do need to be mindful of okay who is going to pay for It. You know you need to validate the the business model of it as well because you know you might just go and talk to a lot of pifa and professors who say like they told us Yeah, this is great idea. Awesome! Yeah, if you build it I’m going to use it. But then. Are you actually doing have do you have a budget for for paying for this and then they like no I have to get approval from my chairs and then how long that that cycle takes is your chairs is has a budget and a lot often the times you realize that oh like they they don’t even know or if they know it’s going to take Forever. So and then you have to think of Okay, well we we have to change that business model because you know selling it to these guys is not going to work even though you build um, build something that they really needed. So um, yeah, all of this. It just comes from like iterations and and testing.
Alejandro Cremades: So then talk to us also about fundraising how much capital did the ah a company raise. So.
Mohsen Shahini: Well I mean in total top ad I think we raised you know hundreds of million dollars in you know, various kind of series through you know series ea f I guess and but um, but yeah, but obviously the most important part was the early days of fundraising to just like approve the concept. So. Um, you know for us like and that’s a typical we we still like you know, using our own money. You know our credit card sort of things you know max out our credit card. Um I have $5000 of saving I remember and I thought I had a lot of money by the day I like oh wow I have $5000 in in the bank. So and i. You know I I was probably stupid if I’m going back I’m thinking about it like that’s one of the things when you’re young and entrepreneur. You don’t realize that how optimistic you are and how blindly optimistic sometimes you are so but this is probably good. You know if you’re smart because then you don’t have the fear of failure or anything so I literally just like I had $5000 and I talked to my co-under was like hey we know you know if you don’t if you don’t have money to hire these students because you have to still pay them like you know you know a half thousand dollars or so I’m I’m willing to loan our own company this $3000 and then once we are able to raise you know good charge. Our. Customers then I’m going to get that $3000 back which obviously happened only you know after so you know series a when we have a lot of money which we are lucky to get to that stage because would be really, you know you know most likely but with a 99% chance I should have been like prepared to lose that 3000 but it wasn’t prepared mentally to lose that 3000 at the time. So.
Mohsen Shahini: I think you know you you’ve got to have that sort of a you know gut that you you you you don’t you’re not fearful. 1 thing that helped me personally by the way was that I was an engineer and both of me and my family were engineer we we were in this position that look. Worstcase scenario. Even if we die like even if our customer like we don’t get it off like we lose our money is it easy for us to find a job like we will. We’re not going to be like a homeless out and you know just being starting to desk like we really would be able to just find a job easily. So it’s like is’s 1 time. Opportunity life that we are going to build something and if it works it works if it doesn’t we have nothing to lose that kind of mentality we had which may be not for everyone but we had it both of us. So yeah, we use our own money. That’s first the second things was that we. So looking for grants you know, ah look you know I went to the dean of engineering at my school I say hey I have these ideas and and I was able to you know they were entrepreneur minded. Um, you know the deanno engineering give me $10000 like okay, go and you know ask experiment for this so we got you know $10000 from there $10000 from like something from government grants here and there until then we get. The first customers as soon as we got our first paying customers which was those 3 classrooms that they were paying us then the investors were interested in talking to us and then we were able to raise our angel the first round of angels from local engine investors with $200000 of check which I thought at at the time was like oh 200000 like we are good for life.
Mohsen Shahini: Um, so yeah I don’t know if that helps but there is no really formula for fundraising I would say early days I think it. It’s a lot of this is about your network your own personal fund and your friends and families around you and people that they their ability to support you.
Alejandro Cremades: And obviously the um, the company I mean incredible because it has raised the over 200000000 nowadays I think know the public numbers are 234000000 So I mean really remarkable now as you guys were growing this. You know mean you you you took it all the way to let’s say about 40000000 a R r. And at that point you know you decide. It’s time to leave why what? what happened there I mean obviously you you build this Rocket Ship. You know, incredible company on a really great trijector I mean why turning page.
Mohsen Shahini: Here.
Mohsen Shahini: So I think um I mean ah you know I wish that I had lived a second life and maybe my second company is my second life I would say look you know we make tons of mistakes in in my first business I would say even though. You know, even though it ended up being a success story but you know ah it could have been better. You can always say that it could have been better and you know why we why didn’t we become like ah the the next big Google of the war type thing so you always feel like we we were onto some things and um. And I felt that we got to the point where that momentum that we had early days was not there and that was for various kind of reasons that we had I think for me I was a product person and I always wanted to innovate and I always wanted to build things on top of what you know what we had offering at at top at top and I always just try to like increase a tam like okay now we have this now. What else we can do now we validate this. We’re making money now what else we can do type things but we get to the point where I think at the 40000000 a or are that the you know the the companies had a lot more stakeholders so we have raised a lot of capital. You know we’ve got a lot of like boards and and investors and new execs and so everyone has a different opinions around how the which directions a business needs to take which is probably you know for the good of the shareholders because you know shareholders at at some point they want to you know, get return on their investment.
Mohsen Shahini: So ah, so you know it it then unless you’re becoming like the influential you know founder that you could just control all the board and convince them of your vision and and mission then you lose that sort of your you know your your powers or of controlling your destiny so to Speak. So. I felt that I was not controlling the destiny of Toppad I felt that that the thing that I wanted to do. There wasn’t necessarily you know, being done the direction I Want to take it was not the direction that the company was going and ultimately you know my passion was to you know to build things in education which I’m doing this my second company critic. And I was wanting to build a top hat originally because that that made sense like as the organic evolution of top hatd to add this but then it wasn’t necessarily the priority for a business they said I have to wait for.. Maybe you know another year or another year another year and to give me the funding and I was like okay well the market opportunity. The opportunity might be lost I decided to to take it off and let’s start it over again.
Alejandro Cremades: So then tell us you know what did that transition look like.
Mohsen Shahini: Well so it was my tenth anniversary a top hat and at that time then it was just perfect timing because the team that I was managing kind of got merged to the you know to to another team at the product so I had to think about the next things that I wanted. Do a top ho um, usually but my my role at Toppad was doing you know, initiate new ideas and test it out and and experiment with it and and prove it and then give it to the you know sales and and and and the product team to build it or to to take it from you know one 200 I guess I would take from from 0 to one so that was my. Suppose to my next 0 to one projects that I would do a toppad but the problem this time was that like you know the ideas that I had wasn’t getting enough of the attention. So then you know then then I decided to take what they called it like a sabbatical so it take a three months of sabbatical to just figuring out exactly what I want to do. Um, then I went to something called the vpasana my co-founder who is also my wife you met her earlier today. We actually built a second business together so she she had gone to this sort of the Passana which is like you know ten days of silent retreat there you go and don’t you don’t talk to anyone you just? ah you know, sort of. Thinking deeply inside for 10 for 16 hours a day so that was sort of ah, an opportunity for me to take a break after 10 years and thinking about okay, what? what? I’m gonna do in my life and at that time I realized that yes you know.
Mohsen Shahini: I am not ready to go back to Toppad after the sabbatical I think that I want to give it a try to build my own company again. But this time making less mistakes you know, do things that I want to do I didn’t do and they want to do it better. So basically I decided to to do my life again from from the beginning.
Alejandro Cremades: So then so then let’s talk about critic and now you know talk to us about critic you know, like what ended up being being the business model of critic. How are you guys making money today with critic.
Mohsen Shahini: That time he’s my co-founder My newman.
Mohsen Shahini: Yeah, so it’s very similar in terms of I guess the the business model and how it works the the I guess at least at the way that it starts so you’re sitting in the same space. So I guess if toppad was you know selling Apple you know to to a market. We’re selling orange to the same market. So it’s sort of a. Same business model same go- to market at the beginning at least but then different product. Um, so and that’s what I think that made it easier second time around because I knew the market very well and I knew like how I need to go about building a sales team. So but what critic is is um. And peer assessment software. So we are started noticing that you know the the way that the students are assessed and and multiple choice question objective assessments start becoming sort of ah you know obsolete and not not effective and there is needs to be new ways for professors to to grade the students to assess them. And so we started building this platform which is sort of a you know, fair assessment with Ais and um the way that I did this summer around was very classic and and and what I did was that again I I hired an engineer over a Weekend. It was one of top hotd hires in engineers actually. Um, he is you know one of the best engineers he actually ended up having his own company but he he came over a weekend and then I talked to him about me like here’s the idea that I have as I was talking. He was actually coding it like he literally started coding what I was talking about how we do so we order ah over two days which is Saturday and Sunday we build and Mvp.
Mohsen Shahini: Together. Um, and that was that was I was still in you know in a toppa at the time I was my sabbatical so I wasn’t really thinking about it now but I was just building thinking about this product so we with literally zero investment I built an Mvp which was good enough for me to show it to professor so I took that after that. I went and set a goal for myself I was like okay I’m going to take it to talk to 10 people I’m going to talk to 10 professors if out of these 10 professors. My my goal was 5 I said if five five of these professors said. Okay, if you build this I’m going to adopt it in my upcoming semester. I’m going to resign from my role a toppad and I’m going to work on this if it’s only 1 or 2 maybe not so that’s how I did it and the way that I approached the customer was that because I was already founder of toppad I felt that people would be bias because if they know that I’m found of by a toppad they’re like okay yeah I would do it so I was like okay I’m going to just basically go on anonymously. So I literally just again like I went the same thing completely anonymous. Talk to people that they didn’t know me from different universities. Um a few of them. They knew me because I had connection with them but I it is very important but I made sure that more majority of them. They had no idea that I build a company or anything I just approach them as if as ah as an entrepreneur. And again like I I collected their feedback 1 mistake that a lot of founders again make and I I made it a toppad. It’s good to mention it here. Never never take the feedback from someone who knows you or is your family member or is your close friends or your supervisor whatever serious because they’re completely biased.
Mohsen Shahini: You know I’ve seen people that say oh yeah, like I’m building this I’ve got feedback from my you know friends they’re like no, they really, you need to discount them heavily. They just love you. They want. They don’t want to disappoint you they say yes, this is good so you always want to talk to someone who has no interest in saying no to you or saying yes to you? um. So you has to be completely unbiased. So that’s what I did exactly here completely anonymous. You know, but for each people and then out of those 10 people I came out with 7 of them. They said? Yes, if you build this? Um I’m gonna build it actually I talked to 12 people out of those 12.9 people said yes and 7 of them ended up actually using it. So. Yeah that’s that’s how um, that’s how I approach the market this time around.
Alejandro Cremades: And what was the approach to of capitalizing the business as well.
Mohsen Shahini: Well look this time around. Obviously I had more than 5000 in my bank so was very good and then it and this is fortunate for being I guess you know a successful interpreter because once you’re a successful entrepreneurer I think you have this advantage of at least not relying on you know. Proving yourself to people because you already have done it. First of all, you’ve already done it second you have enough money in the bank that you don’t need to get investment. So yeah, so I would say that I use my personal funding I didn’t have a ton of money but I I had um hadn’t cash enough like in at the time of of my share at Toppad but I had one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in the bank so and I was willing to put all the $150000 actually on this new venture which is a so crazy so twist speak but I was but I was but but but but I was you know I was making calculated risk I was like okay I’m going to put this one hundred fifty off two hundred and fifty but I have my top hatures and I need the toppad maybe secondary and then I can sell my secondary in the next round. So. It’s just trying to do this sort of timing so that if I use this 150 I can cash out more from toppad. So yeah I would say I I the first hundred fifty Thousand I put from my own money. Maybe you know 15200000? then then after that we we’ve already got traction so we got to the position where we already had you know 100000 revenue when we get to one hundred hundred thousand dollars revenue
Mohsen Shahini: Then I started like do fundraising so and then I but I had a good network so it was fairly easy for me to do the this summer around the fundraising. So I raised the capital much faster this time Rob.
Alejandro Cremades: So then so then in this case, you know imagine obviously vision. You know is always important you know with investors. So imagine if you were to go to sleep tonight and you wake up in a world where the vision of criti is fully realized what does that world look like.
Mohsen Shahini: The the vision of the critic fully realized what the word would look like oh man. Um, um I think um the the you know, but maybe I should make a comment before I say that? so.
Alejandro Cremades: That’s right.
Mohsen Shahini: I am actually when I use top hatd I was more of a like a you know much more visionary type entrepreneur just like I was thinking about Steve Jobs and I was thinking about you know Elle Mosque type visionary kind of like you have these big visions and then you want to materialize it no matter what the word says no. I can tell you that now I have modified that that approach to the to the business especially education especially with all the changes that happened in the last two years like you cannot like it was just very difficult to predict like all the the vision that I had four years ago for critic when I started. I now with the chat gpt and all other things coming here that just sort of makes no sense. So I don’t I um I don’t want to you know bore you and the team to tell tell you about the vision I had but ultimately the idea was to try to you know, ah build educational content. You know, crowdsourcing it so in instead of educational content to be built by publishers which is expensive and it takes a lot of effort and and resources and money you crowdsourcecing and using a students and max population that they would create the educational content themselves as a. As a way to prove that they actually they learn the material so that was the idea of of of the vision of the credit because but because that’s that’s what the problem that try this solve a toppad we were trying to. You know we tried to make interactive content for education to to you know to get rid of this textbook which are expensive and the very boring.
Mohsen Shahini: But the challenge was that it was very expensive to build this interactive content. You have to you know hire a lot of engineers and and and these contents get ah you know outdated and then you have to you know, keep keep changing them so and that I then know thinking about how we can build an engine which where we can create these content. You know on an ongoing basis using the mass. Just almost like a Wikipedia type content that is constantly takes care of itself but much more interactive and much more accurate which is the use for educational settings in the courses in the university and the in the in in the classroom so that was sort of my initial idea that I was planning to do it with this creating this sort of a marketplace so of of students to. To teachers kind of ideas but I would say that with chat Gpt and everything is happening that that that sort of direction is is sort of check that you could ah you could utilize a lot of the ai capabilities right now that you can envisioning things that Ais can do that is very different. But if I want to tell you what the word looks like you know if a vision of critic is happening is that. It would be a word where I would say you know, um, you go to learn some things. We don’t have to you don’t have to read you know hundreds of pages of content. You would be able to learn things very fast. You know, using highly interactive content and you would be able to do it. By you know through a community of not only 1 teacher who teaches you but like a lot of other people that there are there to to learn the same things you kind of engage with them. There’s a lot of peer interactions there and then you you can quickly learn things faster and get feedback and move on and that imagine that could be the settings for any.
Mohsen Shahini: Sort of ah environment and learning Environment. So What is in a university now because sometimes universities might you know change also might evolved to something different might be micro credentials might be um, you know I Guess the the adult learning distance learning things like that so that directions that can go anywhere. But at the end of the data idea here is that. We can really make learning Faster. You don’t really have to spend a lot of time. A lot of energy to be able to to learn something. It should be much more efficient and faster and that’s sort of the the vision that you’re pursuing here at critic.
Alejandro Cremades: So then let me now ask you about the past but doing so with a lens of reflection. Let’s say I was to put you into a time machine and I bring you back in time I bring you back to the moment where you are now looking into maybe like doing something to finance yourself and your your expenses.
Mohsen Shahini: See.
Alejandro Cremades: You know at that time of the Ph D And let’s say you were able to give a conversation to have a conversation with that younger Moson your younger self and being able to give your younger self one piece of advice for launching a business knowing what you know Now what would that be.
Mohsen Shahini: Yeah, that’s yeah, there would be a lot probably I would say if I want to pick one to younger self about an advice that I could have would be um, you know, um.
Mohsen Shahini: You know, sort of less um being be be less. You know for me like be more open to feedback I guess like be less be less. Arrogant in a sense to think that you know everything you figure everything out I think I mean look like arrogance. Sometimes it seems like for a lot of Founders. You know, just having that sort of feeling that you know everything and you kind of figure this out and go it seems to be a good things. But I think in ah in a sense that. It’s It’s good to be ambitious. It’s good to be drivenn but we definitely I like there was ah opportunity for me to be able to learn things by you know from someone who was telling me and then I kind of ignored them because I felt that they didn’t know what they’re talking about I felt I didn’t understand me I felt that I was not being heard I felt that I was you know I get emotional sort of it can say like. Um, you know again, just set aside the emotion and stay you know as open as you can to what people are telling you and and seek out their you know the the mentors that are they’re older than you and and and listen to them. I don’t I you know like it’s hard to say because I did I was not actually a person who was not listening I would go and always talk to people and then ask their opinion. But I think there was some part of me that when I was younger I felt that you know I I felt that I was right about a lot of things that I was not so um and I don’t know really.
Mohsen Shahini: You know there is any piece of advice that I can give someone as they you know to believe me because if I give that piece of that to myself at the time I probably would dismiss myself I would say Okay, you don’t understand you’re oldermo and you’re not young anymore. So I might just be critics sexing myself I don’t know it’s hard Really, it’s hard. Nothing.
Alejandro Cremades: I Hear you so motion for the people that are listening that will love to reach out and say hi. What is the best way for them to do so.
Mohsen Shahini: Um, yeah, they they can reach out to me but on Linkedin I usually check my Linkedin so I go and find my profile on Linkedin and happy to to help them in any capacity.
Alejandro Cremades: Amazing way most and thank you so much for being on the deal maker show. It has been an honor to have you with us today.
Mohsen Shahini: Thank you very much. Okay.
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