Founders File: Maven is Building Universities of the Future

Bessie LiuProfiles

Maven Founders (L-R) Gagan Biyani, Wes Kao, Shreyans Bhansali. Image courtesy of Maven.

From an early age, Wes Kao found the classroom rigid. She wasn’t the best exam sitter, and she often struggled with focusing in class.

When she was a college student at UC Berkeley, it became apparent to Kao that she learned better by working with a small group of classmates on hands-on projects rather than listening to long lectures.

“That’s really why I am in ed-tech today, I have always felt like the status quo wasn't serving a huge portion of students and learners,” Kao told The Org.

Building an ed-tech startup

Kao is the co-founder of Maven, a cohort-based online learning platform building universities of the future. But Maven was not Kao’s first ed-tech startup. In 2014, she teamed up with Seth Goldin to build AltMBA, an intensive online workshop that saw a 95% completion rate.

After helping scale the company to reach 500 cities, 45 countries and thousands of students, Kao decided to leave and become an independent creator and consultant where she worked with recognizable professors and educators to help them launch their online schools.

“I realized that all of my clients were instructors who already had established brands and teams behind the scenes,” Kao said. “There were a ton of smaller creators who were reaching out to me expressing interest in working together, but didn't have the budget to hire consultants, and that felt like a shame.”

Kao later reconnected with her highschool classmate, Gagan Biyani, who founded ed-tech company, Udemy. The two began to bounce business ideas off each other.

“We eventually landed on the idea of bringing cohort based courses to the masses and that's really what inspired us to start Maven, which was founded in October 2020.”

Since then, the company has raised a $25 million Series A from Andreessen Horowitz, and gained the support of multiple angel investors.

Hiring a founding team

The first person Kao and Biyani brought onto their team was their technical founder, Shreyans Bhansali. Bhansali was an ed-tech veteran himself, he was previously the founder and CTO of Socratic, an AI powered tutor for high school students that was acquired by Google. After serving as an engineering manager for more than two years at the tech giant, Bhansali wanted to return to the startup space.

“Bhansali has been super integral in building an incredible engineering team and engineering culture that really punches above its weight. He and his team have been rolling new features out every other week since they started building around seven months ago,” Kao said.

Some of Maven’s first hires were on the business side. Kao and her business partners were aware that it would take time to build a high quality, feature rich product and wanted to get started working with creators earlier on.

Maven1

The team at Maven. Image courtesy of Maven.

“I built our first few courses for instructors by hand, which allowed us to start gathering data points from real customers and real instructors,” Kao said. “This in turn created a really virtuous feedback loop that we were able to use to inform the product and gave our engineers more real data to work with as they built out the product.”

As Maven continues to grow, Kao is looking to scale its technical team to bring the company’s vision to life.

“We're definitely wanting to ramp up hiring some more engineers. We have a bold vision and we are looking for amazing technical talent to help bring it to life.”

Founders File Q&A:

Could you tell me about your experiences around growing and scaling a remote team?

We started the company during COVID, so it wasn’t until several months after starting the company that I even met with Gagan and Shreyans. Starting the company during COVID was great because it meant we were remote from day one and we never had to make the transition from being in the office to being remote. So from the very beginning, the talent we had access to and the team members that we were able to hire were from all around the place. Being remote gave us the ability to find people who, had we limited ourselves to one city, would never have found.

If you were in any other role at your company, what role would you be in and why?

I’m a marketer by training. One of my first roles out of school was a Marketing Associate role with L’Oreal. I have also spent time on the marketing side of Flite, an ad-tech company that was acquired by Snap. So marketing is pretty built into the way I operate. I really believe that you have to build marketing into your product from day one.

A lot of companies think that you can work in marketing at the end and hope for the best, but given how competitive most industries are, I’ve always advocated for thinking early on about why your customer would pick you and why you’re different from other options.

What is a memory around building Maven that has really stuck out to you?

A memory that comes to mind is graduation day for the Maven course accelerator. We sent all the instructors a package with different goodies, including a microphone, and a ring light, we also included inspirational letters from previous instructors. We labeled each of the boxes ‘do not open until graduation day’ and when we were all on a call together we told them to go find their packages so that everyone was opening their boxes at the same time on screen. Seeing the surprise people had on their faces and how proud they were of what they had built in only a few short weeks was just an incredible moment. I was so proud of the 150 instructors.

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