Throughout my chat with Bader Al-Essa, the founder of student social network app myU, he was at ease, sitting back in the café’s homely armchair, reaching out only when he coveted a sip from his Earl Grey. But when I asked him why his startup really mattered to the world, he suddenly leaned in, one hand motioning through the air in tandem with his words, the other in a clench, planted on the table.
“On the surface, myU is a social app for students and teachers. But our mission is to play a role in elevating the standard of education by making it easier for students and teachers to communicate so that students can get the most out of their learning experience. myU means better education, and better education means development and growth for the country,” Bader explained.
Since his days at high school, Bader was interested in understanding what made an educational institute excel in providing an exceptional student experience. That interest grew as Bader himself moved through high school and into college. And despite having already graduated, the University of Miami alumnus still reads up regularly on university rankings and evaluations, new initiatives in collegiate teaching, and how technology is being integrated into the learning environment. It was very apparent that Bader wasn’t merely interested in education, he was obsessed with it.
It is often the case that founders of successful startups are inherently fascinated to the point of obsession with a certain subject, sector, or industry, in the narrowest or broadest sense. People, when obsessed, scrutinize the details, and it’s in the details where problems and opportunities are identified. It’s the reason why obsessive personalities often make for successful entrepreneurs.
On the other hand, the common pattern for unsuccessful startup founders when trying to identify new opportunities is to follow a sector that is “in trend”. When following a trending topic or sector, an entrepreneur finds something interesting because others find it interesting. That sort of “acquired interest” is unlikely to be strong enough to prompt the level of scrutiny required to identify real pain points and inefficiencies. Ultimately, such entrepreneurs build a solution in search of a problem that isn’t really there.
Bader’s obsession with the education sector led him to recognize a fundamental flaw in the university experience for students in Kuwait.
“It is really frustrating seeing what university students in Kuwait have to go through,” he remarked. “It’s frustrating because many of these students have incredible potential, but most of the issues that hinder their learning have nothing to do with their actual education. Their focus and energy are wasted on overcoming institutional shortcomings; issues that universities have failed to resolve or improve.”
One such issue is communication. According to Bader, university students find it difficult to communicate with professors or classmates outside of the classroom. Professors have resorted to inadequate communication methods such as Twitter to make announcements or answer questions. But Twitter, like other social networks, was not intended for that use, which often makes it exasperatingly ineffective for both students and professors.
That pain point wasn’t always apparent to Bader. He experimented with a few ideas before finally identifying a problem worth solving. “Initially, I didn’t know what problem I wanted to solve,” Bader clarified. “But when I started listening to students and professors talk about the issue they faced finding an appropriate platform for communication, it became very apparent that this was a crucial and widely felt pain point. I had to find a solution, so I started what eventually became myU.”
The story of myU’s birth follows a familiar pattern into which most successful startups fall. There is plenty of conjectured advice for startup success, but at the core of any successful startup is an uncomplicated truth: meaningful startups are built because the founders wanted to effectively solve an important problem in an area they genuinely care about. They pursue “meaning” in their effort to make people’s lives better by resolving a real problem.
It’s that pursuit of meaning that fuels true passion.
The myU team has certainly translated their passion into progress. The app is already in use by thousands of students in Kuwait, as well as by a few test groups in three other countries. MyU’s next step is to enter high schools and other education levels.
When I think back to my conversation with Bader, there was one sentence he used to talk about his startup that resonated with me beyond all else, and it perfectly summarized the powerful effect the pursuit of meaning can have on an entrepreneur:
“I’m in love with my startup… crazy in love with it.”
Words Hashim Bahbahani
Photography Mustafa Khumanpur
This article first appeared in the Jan-Feb 2016 issue Beginnings