(IAP ’13) Danny Castonguay, G
Danny is spending IAP in Manila, Philippines, helping Kalibrr, a promising startup company with a social mission to bridge the skills gap between young people and the rapidly growing business process outsourcing (BPO) industry in the country. During the fall semester of 2012, Danny recruited over a dozen other MIT students to help Kalibrr raise money, development marketing research, and build beta version of the platform. Danny is taking on the role of Chief Technology Officer for the company, focusing particularly on putting in the software engineering processes to maximize product quality and minimize release cycle times. The goal by the end of IAP is to have a version released of Kalibrr’s first Facebook assessment app, a prototype for a Mobile job preference app, and the foundation for a content management system for all the teaching material.
Fourth Blog Post – Feb 20, 2013: From Palo Alto, CA
We heard some really exciting news last week but weren’t allowed to make it public until now. Kalibrr was named one of the semi-finalist for Echoing Green! We’re pleasantly surprised to have be selected to be part of this exclusive group of emerging social entrepreneurs. We truly believe in Echoing Green mission for social change and hope that more entrepreneurs will join in trying to optimize for it. Kalibrr is solving the global skills gap that results in millions of educated but unemployed workers around the world. This is a specifically acute problem for the 75M unemployed young people, aged 15 to 24 years old (The Economist, Dec. 8, 2012). 17.1% of the American youth were unemployed as of July 2012 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, Aug. 21, 2012), and this percentage is higher in emerging countries like the Philippines and India. In the Philippines, only 11% of college graduates (550K per year) have skills to get employment and only 5.5% of applicants to BPO companies get hired. Check out Echoing Green’s blog…
Last friday, we released project 49ers, which is now live at kalibrr.com. Please check it out and send me feedback (danny at kalibrr.com). We’ve started project Giants (see the pattern? All successful sports team) which will be used internally by Kalibrr to score audio recordings and to manage the our endorsement pipeline.
Kalibrr is a by-product of the problems that CEO/Founder Paul Rivera faced in recruiting and retaining enough talent for his first company, a Philippine BPO doing work for Mint.com, TripAdvisor, and StumbleUpon. The existing solutions did not provide the adequate volume of qualified candidates with specific skills that Paul required. We saw Khan Academy as a pioneer in the field of online education but we did not see someone using online learning to level up their skills and give them a clear path to an interview and eventual employment. And last night, Paul got one of his many dreams come true: he got to pitch Kalibrr to Sal Khan himself :-).
Third Blog Post – Jan 28, 2013: From Palo Alto, CA
A lot has happened since my first blog post more than a month ago. It is unreal how fast time flies and how much progress we have made since then. Fall 2012 for me was all about raising money for Kalibrr (while I was completing my MBA at MIT) – investor meetings, pitches and preparation. December 2012, on the other hand, was the start of a journey to make the best out of the money we raised by growing the organization and making a product people want.
Building the team
The best immediate way to spend that money, we thought, would be to hire the best engineers (to bolster our existing team on the ground) and give them the best equipment possible (fast Internet, MacBook, etc.). We needed to focus on product first and bring the minimum viable product to a revenue-generating mouse trap that would allow us to reinvest in our future growth.
I set my objective to finding 2 or 3 young engineers who would have demonstrated extraordinary coding abilities (e.g. by winning national programming contests, or showcasing their skills in professional settings, but still in school or recent grads). Diamonds in the rough is the expression, I think. But I only had a three weeks in Manila until I would have to fly back to North America and also build the team there. My plan all along, even while I was teaching for MIT AITI last summer in Manila, was to find experienced engineers (not managers but engineers that actually code for a living) that graduated in the last 5 years from the best schools in the US/Canada and have them teach young, super smart Filipino engineers good coding practices (git, Asana, chat, continuous integration, etc.) – an explosive combination I thought.
But the Christmas season in the Philippines is a time typically reserved for family and celebration rather than for starting a company! So I knew that it would be hard to find so much talent in such a short period. To everyone’s surprise, we didn’t hire 1, 2, nor 3 people. We hired over 10 engineers (!) and almost completely changed the face of the company. We lived first hand the saying, that good engineers attract other good engineers. In barely a week, we changed the company culture from using emails and attachments to using Asana, GitHub wiki, and several other design productivity tools like Balsamiq and Marqueed. As a result, the email volume and meetings went down significantly and I think everyone would agree that productivity went up drastically.
A positive side effect to this is that almost every non-developer started adopting both Asana and the GitHub wiki as crucial communication channels. Efficiency is contagious.
Building the mockup
Once we had an engineering team, the next challenge was to define more specifically what our product would look like. It is fair to say that hours, days, and even months of discussions did not actually lead to very clear requirements – it is extremely hard for people to agree on the product when they try to explain it in words and in writing. What ties it all together, in my opinion, is to have the visionaries of the product start to engage in the building process. In this case, few of the visionaries had actually picked up a pen drawn anything down. The minimum viable product had grown without really having any comprehensive set of mockups and drawings.
It took awhile to get this point across to everyone involved, because the company already had a number of established processes about how to define a product, which consisted of long Word documents shared over email. But once the ball started rolling and once everyone saw the benefits of drawing mockups (with real time collaboration), the vision for the product became much more concrete and this enabled the engineering team to rally and start pushing in one direction.
Continuing marketing efforts
All the while, in parallel to building the product, we created our first engaging video which will be released on Youtube/Facebook and we expect a lot of virality. Since we moved into our new office and started the learning suite, we’ve grown from having nobody in our lab to having all 30 seats occupied.
One of the learners, an Overseas Foreign Worker (OFW) who recently returned home and no longer had a salary because she couldn’t find a job (in part because of her age), said that she was going to have to put her son out of school because she didn’t have the money to pay the 7000-peso tuition or roughly $200. Paul (CEO of Kalibrr) decided to offer to pay for the tuition and in exchange she would complete the Kalibrr tutorial, find a job, and pay back the loan when she can. She ended up completing the tutorial and finding a job through Kalibrr and now works on the eBay Account for one of the largest BPOs in the Philippines. She will be paying Kalibrr back. 🙂
From mockup to product
Project 49ers got under way and in 7 days we rewrote our code base almost entirely to create a single application in Angular.js. Quite a feat given that our programmers are all around the world (thank you Asana, what a great project management tool). You can check a preview at 49ers.kalibrr.com (though it still needs much polishing).
Main things I’ve learned so far
Everyone can and should wear all the hats in a startup company. Specialization creates silos and reduces accountability. Wearing all the hats means that every employee is responsible for everything that goes wrong, but also for everything that goes right. For example, after only a few tutorial, Paul started creating beautiful front end pages for us (not just the content, he actually wrote the HTML and added the right Twitter bootstrap classes to make it beautiful). Product, product, product. Pixel perfect.
What it takes to change the world
In my own biased view of the world, I don’t see governments or large companies having much interest in changing the status quo. Development in emerging countries will come because of startup companies who find opportunities to make something people want to pay for.
This week at our weekly dinner, we had the chance of having Tom Preston-Werner, CEO of GitHub, speak to us. Tom’s words resonated with me when he spoke of the core values of GitHub, and I believe that those values will enable startup companies to change the world.
- Maximize happiness (of your employees, customers, and investors)
- Derive from first principle
- Best argument wins
- Make super fans
- Be awesome (best of your abilities) and change the world
Tom Preston-Werner at Startup School 2010: Optimizing for happiness
Second Blog Post – Jan 10, 2013: From Palo Alto, CA
We just arrived to Palo and got settled in. Things are a little out of hands so putting a few pictures since they are fun to watch and tell the story of a lot that happened while in the Philippines.
- Photo with celebrity Jake Cuenca (with jean shirt) who we hope will endorse Kalibrr
First Blog Post – Dec 17, 2012: On my way to Manila!
I’m starting to write this text from the airplane, on my way to Manila from Boston. My expected time of arrival in Manila is Friday December 14th, shortly past midnight. Just two weeks ago, I was expecting to be in Montreal to celebrate the holidays with my family, but the urgency to help Kalibrr and the need to spend some time with the team (especially the developers) in person prompted me to shuffle my schedule. I plan to be in Manila for about three weeks, and I will then head over to California with Paul (CEO of Kalibrr) to be part of an incubator program in Silicon Valley: for 3 months, Kalibrr will focus on improving its existing product and on growing its user base.
I spent the summer of 2012 teaching for MIT AITI mobile development and entrepreneurship course at one of the top universities in the Philippines. In parallel, I was helping my startup company (Antportal based in Montreal) develop our first major product and was trying to launch a second product named SMART Coops. Unfortunately, by the end of the summer, it was clear that it would take some time before SMART Coops becomes profitable but it is during a VC mixer meeting in Manila that I Paul Rivera of Kalibrr. Joining Kalibrr was for me, an opportunity to leverage my skills and build on the network I had developed over the summer.
Kalibrr is online learning that gets you a job. Students, or “learners”, get trained and assessed (through Kalibrr’s online platform) on the core skills required for the Business Process Outsourcing industry. Examples of such skills include typing speed, English reading comprehension, and English accent. Kalibrr then connects the best learners (those who have demonstrated mastery) with reputable, often global companies seeking to employ these pre-qualified candidates. The business model is simple: if the interview results into a hire, Kalibrr gets paid a referral fee. The business is starting in Manila because the Philippines is an outlier in the world, with an educated population, speaking fluently in English, and very young. The low cost of living and the increasingly improving telecommunication infrastructures will help propel the country into many years, or even decades, of growth from its current GDP per capita.
At its core, Kalibrr has a social mission to bridge the skills gap between what is taught in school and what businesses require. As we move into the 21st century, knowledge is becoming increasingly important, and companies will seek to source its talent globally; it is no longer only outsourcing, it is Global Sourcing.
A lot has happened in the last month in my life. First, I went to Mountain View with Paul to pitch to venture capitalists. This trip was very successful as it culminated in several investments. Next, we received the very exciting news that we were accepted into a highly selective incubator program (fewer than 2% of startups get in). These events concretized my plans for the first quarter of 2013 and implied that I would have to find a way to be in California while still maintaining my academic standings. Fortunately, it is my last semester for my MBA at MIT and so I have the option to complete independent studies and to write a thesis. The topic for both of these works will be Kalibrr.
But the most important contributor to Kalibrr’s success, without a doubt, is its people (current and past students, staff, etc.) who have helped Kalibrr in so many ways (in chronological order):
- Peter Winarsky, Taylor Mathews (investor presentation)
- Bill Aulet (introductions and advices)
- Yazan Daimiri (system dynamics for user acquisition)
- Bernardo (financial metrics, development ventures)
- Madeline (introduction)
- Adrian Martin, Micheal Guido, Gabriela, Tyler (questionnaire and marketing)
- Anand Dass, Kamcord, Leaky (prep work for YC interview)
- Tauhid Zaman (leader follower algorithm)
Over the next 3 weeks, I plan to learn and develop relationships with the team members at Kalibrr but also with customers and learners. I will be acting as the Chief Technology Officer, and in this topic I will attempt to inject a number of best practices into the way things are at Kalibrr.
Promote and adopt the following general practices:
- Record and assign responsibilities through Asana issue tracker
- Use Google docs for collaborative document editing during meetings, so that everyone ends up with clearly written meeting notes
- Document mockups, use cases, long term plans, and more through Github Wiki
- Use Google calendar to record activities, export those hours so we can review where time is spent (specifically for developers, record the issue being worked on into the calendar)
- Tag coding activities (solving bugs, urgent feature requests, normal feature requests, refactoring, training)
- Prioritize tasks (Sprints 1, 2, 3 and 4 and backlog) on a weekly basis
- Continuous integration (Jenkins)
Promote and adopt the following product development practices:
- Focus on the user: what do they care about?
- Present mockups to users and iterate quickly
- Develop a long term roadmap, but focus on rapid development cycles (new product version has to come out at least every week)
- Do not spend more than 4 hours being stuck in dead end: ask question to the rest of team and put the question on Quora
Every developer has to be a deep expert at something, but every developer needs to be able to do a little of everything (frontend, backend, user experience)
- Be more direct
- Voice opinion and encourage dissent
- Work with passion, this is a startup and we cannot win if we don’t work hard and smart