9 Aug Inside
The story behind Supernotes
by Tobias Whetton
On a warm Wednesday evening at the start of my first year at King’s College London, I went with my flatmates to the campus watering hole, Guy’s Bar, for a drink or two. A few hours in, the bar was bustling with students and I was standing hot and sweaty in the queue for drinks. In front of me was a friendly American man, and seeing that I was eager for a Snakebite (the student drink of choice - half beer, half cider with a dash of blackcurrant), he bought two and handed me a glass. Through his generosity I learned that his name was Connor, a first year Biomedical Engineering student. Neither of us would have imagined that three years on, we would be working full-time on our own startup.
Both of us encountered the same problem within university: the digital learning experience is far from ideal. We, along with our classmates, shared a common dislike for the Learning Management System (LMS) we were forced to use, Moodle. One of the main issues we had can be gleaned from the name itself: a Learning Management System manages students rather than truly helping them achieve their goal of learning. It took King’s College London over 5 years to integrate Moodle across all departments, with huge expense to train staff and students. And now that they’ve finished, Moodle is already stagnant, needing to retrain all 40,000 using the platform if they change too many features. As a result, students are left with a one-sided system where lecturers dish out content for students to pick up and learn independently. This has a knock on effect, as learning is notoriously difficult for millennial students, who are straight out of being spoon-fed information at school and conditioned by social media to pursue instant gratification. Universities cramming more and more students into classrooms doesn’t help the situation, increasing cohort sizes to unmanageable sizes. Consequently leading to drastic rise in drop out rates and student depression trebling in recent years. (Source: HESA)
This a growing problem, and unknown to each other at the time, Connor and I both tried to come up with our own solutions, though each of us went down a different route. I went for the more visual and aesthetic approach by rewriting all of the lecture slides/materials, adding supplementary information, and coding it into a single unified format for the web. Connor went for the no-nonsense approach: he created a script that would automatically download every file he could access on Moodle and automatically organise everything into corresponding folders on his personal Dropbox, to avoid interacting with Moodle as much as possible. We were a perfect match from the outset, thinking about the same problems, but tackling them in a different ways.
However, neither of us thought anything of it until over a year later. By 2017, I had improved my notes website so much that it was starting to gain traction within different universities, with some using it solely instead of Moodle. Truth be told, I had never thought of it becoming a widespread solution for students, let alone a fully fledged startup.
One day during the 2017 summer exam period, my flatmate, Daniel, mentioned there was a free lunch at the KCL Entrepreneurship Institute. Being the penny-pinching student, I couldn’t resist. There I met Ed who is in charge the King’s20 Accelerator program. I started to ask lots of questions about the Accelerator (‘Do you take equity/IP?’) - and after 10 minutes Ed asked if I have anything I want to show him. So I gave him a tour of my website and impressed, he suggested I apply for the Accelerator next year (spoiler: I got in). It was at that point that a switch went off in my head and I realised that this is what I want to do.
Problem was, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I had exams to worry about. So I got in touch with Connor. We knew for a while that we wanted to build something together but it just hadn’t clicked yet what it would be. I remember the day well. We had Pho in Covent Garden and after I proposed the idea of working together on this, we couldn’t contain our excitement. We started drawing on napkins with ideas and thoughts on how we could combine our projects to create a better learning experience for students. Planning out an all-in-one interface where students can take notes, store files and collaborate without any distractions. I left the restaurant buzzing with a mental high, not sure whether it was from our discussion or if the chef had added something extra to my Pho. Connor saw the potential and was so excited himself that he was unable to sleep, spending all night coming up with a demo to show me the following day. And that is how Supernotes was born.
Now, one year on, with hundreds of hours invested in developing and testing Supernotes, we are finally happy to release our first open beta. We are initially releasing our powerful notetaking format, with file management and anti-procrastination features in the works. This unfortunately coincides with us reaching the end of our time at the King’s 20 Accelerator. And what a journey it has been. Our knowledge about startups began as jokes from HBO’s Silicon Valley (a great watch!) and has progressed to a much more in-depth understanding, from cap tables to growth hacking. We have had an ad go viral, won thousands of pounds in grant funding, and even have two of our very own interns, Ria and Aaliyah! I am truly proud of what we have achieved and am working full time, fresh from graduation, to make Supernotes the best learning experience possible. So the next time you meet someone at the bar, buy them a drink – you never know where your generosity will take you.