2019 SVP Startup Profile: Arist
Arist is one of thirteen Babson startups presenting at Thursday, July 25th’s Summer Venture Showcase at the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston. Register to attend our showcase at bit.ly/2019svp!
Education is changing as 21st century learners look for learning solutions which meet their needs in an increasingly digital and global world. Borne from the struggle to provide education in Yemen, Summer Venture Program team Arist has developed a unique platform for text message learning. While continuing to pursue their mission of making education more accessible, the Arist team has found demand for their product from companies and institutions looking to improve their internal training programs. Arist has received significant recognition for their work, including a recent feature in Newsweek and being named one of Fast Company’s 2019 World Changing Ideas in Education. To learn more about Arist’s progress, I spoke with CEO Michael Ioffe ‘21, COO Ryan Laverty ‘20, and CTO Joe Passante. Here are the highlights from our interview:
How did you start Arist? What specific experiences led you to pursue this venture?
Michael: Arist got started about one year and nine months ago when I was working with a group of students in the conflict zone in Yemen. Running my organization TILE at the time, I was having monthly conversations with TILE’s Yemen chapter leader about improving educational access. We started realizing that text messages were becoming the single most effective method of reaching students abroad, and then I discovered some research from UPenn and Stanford confirming that text messages were super effective as digital learning tools.
I started working with Ryan and my friend Riley Wilson to create text message learning content, and first sent our text message content via Remind which was not suitable for our vision. We realized that there was the potential for a much more significant text message learning platform, and that’s when we brought on Joe as our CTO. For the past year, we have been building our platform and, this summer, we are working on pilot programs with Babson, Harvard, and about half a dozen Fortune 500 companies. Additionally, Maxine Anderson ‘22 is our Chief Impact Officer, helping us continue to pursue our philanthropic efforts of delivering content to students around the world, in particular those with limited internet access. For every course that we sell to a company or institution, we are donating a course to a student in need.
What activity or resource from SVP has helped you the most so far?
Ryan: I think the office space and opportunity to all work together for SVP has been incredibly helpful for Arist. Prior to SVP I was studying in San Francisco and Joe was at Quinnipiac, so this year we worked on Arist remotely. To finally be able to all work together, in person, everyday has been huge. The resources and structure provided by SVP allow us to prioritize our work on Arist. That level of commitment is what entrepreneurs need to turn their initial stages of outreach and ideation into building enterprises at scale.
In what ways have your SVP peers and mentors supported you and your venture?
Ryan: The mentors have been great with giving us big picture advice about scaling and negotiations, and the legal help has been extremely valuable. We’ve also had some of the mentors make key introductions for us. Debi Kleiman, executive director of the Blank Center, just introduced us yesterday to someone who runs corporate training for a large institution. We did outreach to high schools not that long ago, and a bunch of our SVP peers reached out and gave us contacts of college counselors from their high schools. They’ve been helpful with quick asks we have had throughout the program.
What major milestones or accomplishments do you hope to achieve during your time in SVP? Or have you reached any already?
Ryan: When we entered SVP, we were finishing up development of the first version of our corporate platform and we’ve since gone from that initial working version to a fully robust and sellable platform. We’ve integrated Facebook Messenger delivery and other features companies had been asking for. With the developments we’ve made and systems we’ve put into place, we believe our platform is in a good position to scale. Outside of Arist’s technology, our goal has been to bring clients on board and, over the course of SVP, we’ve done a ton of business development. We’ve spoken with a bunch of Fortune 500 companies who are interested or are running pilots, while also demonstrating our services to mid to large-sized companies. Our biggest goal for the end of the program is to have every aspect of our business in place so we can take the business and run with it even after we go back to school and start working remotely again.
We also had the incredible opportunity to be featured in Newsweek on July 3rd. It posted a story we wrote on its website (which you can read at this link!) and we were on its Instagram story for a day. We built some momentum and got trial sign-ups from that exposure, and we would like to thank Alexandra Dunk from the Blank Center for helping us capitalize on that opportunity.
What is a valuable challenge or learning experience you have faced as founders?
Joe: Speaking from the tech side, pivoting from a B2C platform towards a B2B platform had its challenges when I had to restructure the code towards the needs of corporate clients. For Arist to be implemented by corporations, there were many new data security measures I needed to integrate into the platform. This challenging work has been worthwhile as we improve the platform and build relationships with corporate partners.
Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs? Or for yourselves at an earlier stage?
Ryan: The most important thing for me as an entrepreneur is to just start, and then as the business grows to be open-minded to things changing all the time. Thinking back to when Michael and I received feedback on Arist’s first courses, you have to love your idea and where it’s going but not in such a detailed way that you get stuck to the exact idea you started with. Many entrepreneurs try to build a perfect product or service and then see where it fits and who will buy it. It can be better to build your idea to the extent you need to start getting feedback, and then continue to iterate the business based on the feedback until people find it valuable enough to pay for it.
My advice as a founder is to build founding teams made of people that give you energy rather than take energy away from you. Even though entrepreneurship can be stressful, it is so valuable to have a team I enjoy coming to the office to see everyday.
Michael: A piece of advice I would give is that everything takes much much longer than you first anticipated. Initially when I had the idea for Arist nearly two years ago, I thought, “Oh this will be a cool little six month project. We’ll build something, push it out, and then we’ll be done.” And here we are two years later, and we still have a long way to go before we realize our full vision for Arist but it has been an exciting journey!
Where can we find Arist online?
Joe: Visit our website arist.co to sign up for a free trial of our text message courses!
Ryan: Our handle on Twitter and Facebook is @learnarist. We’re on Instagram as @textarist, and you can follow us on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/company/aristu/.
If you enjoyed learning about Arist’s story and progress in SVP, be sure to stay tuned for more SVP team profile blogs! To meet the entire SVP cohort, join us for the Summer Venture Showcase on Thursday, July 25th. RSVP at this link. We can’t wait to see you there!