Editor’s Note: This is a new Q&A series from StartUp Beat that features entrepreneurs who have successfully guided their startups (or multiple startups) to maturity. It is meant to complement StartUp Beat’s coverage of early-stage startups and an effort to provide further insight into the experiences of tech entrepreneurs.
Bio: Suren Ramasubbu is a co-founder of Mobicip.com, a leading online child safety service for the iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, PCs, laptops and netbooks. Mobicip’s mission is to provide a safe, secure and educational Internet experience for school-age children. Mobicip’s dynamic content filtering technology helps parents protect their children in the new era of Internet hazards stemming from anytime anywhere access on personal devices. Suren is a passionate advocate of mobile learning and Internet safety, and speaks or hosts panels at conferences and seminars on these topics for parents and educators. He has also served as a consultant for educational technology projects in K-12 schools and school districts. As an active member of the community, Suren has led successful United Way volunteering and fundraising campaigns. Before launching Mobicip.com, Suren was an Operating Manager at Agilent Technologies, responsible for a division’s enterprise web strategy. At Agilent, Suren has led the quality strategy, evangelized software engineering methods, and developed software used to design IC chips for mobile devices. He holds a master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Virginia Tech and an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management.
SUB: What was your first entrepreneurial venture?
Ramasubbu: Growing up, I had always had an inclination towards standing on my own feet. My first entrepreneurial venture was in college when I decided to take on a reseller opportunity, selling kitchen knives, of all things. I had a successful run for a while and made some pocket money at the end of it, and I learned the highs and lows of making a sale.
SUB: What prompted you to start Mobicip in the first place?
Ramasubbu: I still remember that moment vividly. I was watching some kids walk across the street at a traffic light. These middle schoolers were carrying huge backpacks. It was 2005. I felt the backpacks were an anachronism, a throwback to an older era in education and how children learn. I remember feeling strongly that this was going to change. And I wanted to be a part of that change in education, if and when it happens. It was a gut feeling, an intuition, and it was validated at the Mobile 2011 Conference. There is significant change happening today in K-12 education, and it has been labeled “mobile learning”.
SUB: Was there a point at which you knew Mobicip would hit it big?
Ramasubbu: Mobicip’s first large-scale deployment in a school district came about due to a serendipitous meeting at the ISTE 2010 conference. I was part of the audience at a session on using iPod Touch devices in the classroom. There were many questions from the audience, and the presenters had a hard time answering them. I put my hand up and almost took over the rest of the session answering questions about the intricacies of mobile learning projects. After the meeting, a school administrator walked up to me and informed me right then and there that he was going to purchase Mobicip to protect the Internet access on thousands of devices at his school district. That was the best validation of Mobicip’s product-market fit that I ever got.
SUB: Was there a “tipping point” (for lack of a better term) when Mobicip really picked up steam and where it started growing exponentially?
Ramasubbu: The first sign that we were on to something came from Mobicip’s customers, or prospective customers if you will. No sooner than the website went live, we started seeing tons of traffic and engaging conversations on the forum. We had no product at the time, no features, no testimonials. And we had thousands of people talking about Mobicip and what the product should look like and do. Since then, Mobicip has been experiencing exponential growth year-over-year despite being a lean and bootstrapped startup.
SUB: What were the first steps you took to establishing Mobicip?
Ramasubbu: Mobicip was a product of our passion to participate in the mobile learning movement. However, my first step was to establish the need in the market by running a survey across parents of young children and school administrators. The survey results emphatically validated the need for online safety, parental controls, and content filtering on mobile Internet devices.
SUB: If you had it to do over again, what would the first concrete step to establishing Mobicip have been?
Ramasubbu: I wish I had met Jason Fried (founder of 37Signals) and followed his advice on bootstrapping and not spent time trying to raise funding for the startup.
SUB: What were the most significant obstacles to growing Mobicip to maturity?
Ramasubbu: Cash. I think this is true for any startup, especially bootstrapped ones. Building a product is one thing, and we engineers like to believe we are good at that. It costs money to acquire customers, and it takes time for it to happen.
SUB: What kinds of outside funding did you raise?
Ramasubbu: Mobicip was started with a small round of seed funding from friends and family. We have not had a funding round since.
SUB: What was the metric/milestone that indicated to you that Mobicip had moved past startup stage?
Ramasubbu: I’m not sure if we have moved past the startup stage yet. But the steady triple-digit growth rate gives us confidence that we are on the right track. We are approached by VCs once in a while, and their interest and term sheets tell me that we have built something valuable for our customers and ourselves.
SUB: What were the most important lessons you learned about entrepreneurship while building Mobicip?
Ramasubbu: It is a long, windy, and sometimes lonely road with unexpected ups and downs. The trick is to enjoy the process, stay the course, and not give up, rain or shine.