[quote style=”boxed”]Focus. Startups have limited resources, and it’s really important to focus on the right things. [/quote]
Ariel Diaz is an experienced entrepreneur with an incredible passion for improving the educational landscape for generations to come. Before Boundless, Ariel co-founded YouCastr, an online video platform that enabled hundreds of high schools to broadcast and sell live sports and other events to parents and the community. In addition, Diaz founded a consumer web consulting company and worked in management consulting in Boston, Massachusetts.
Diaz holds an A.B., B.E. and Masters of Engineering Management from Dartmouth College, speaks three languages, loves all things orange and serves as President of the Dartmouth Boston Entrepreneur Network.
What are you working on right now?
At Boundless, we’re working to put students back into the heart of learning. We’re using Open Educational Resources (OER) to build the ultimate study and learning platform for students, which includes free online textbook replacements and unbeatable study tools.
We are building on OER to create a product that replaces textbooks and creates a great learning experience for students. I started working on this about two years ago, and after speaking with hundreds of students, building a prototype and testing out the vision, started building the team and bringing on investors. Now we’re off the to the races and excited about changing how students learn.
The new product we launched in early August puts this great content at students’ fingertips. Students can use Boundless from any device, whether they’re on the go and studying with their smartphone or in the library hunkered down with their laptop. The platform also allows students to take notes, highlight specific sentences or paragraphs, easily view keywords and search for concepts instantly.
Where did the idea for Boundless come from?
The textbook market is incredibly broken. Students are forced to spend over $1,000 per year on textbooks that are heavy and obsolete. The textbook industry is one of the few areas in information and content that hasn’t innovated in decades and is still raking in billions of dollars a year.
This frustration motivated the founding of Boundless. We didn’t see a reason students should pay hundreds of dollars a semester on textbooks when the information they need is already freely available. We wanted to build products that students were actually excited to use. We wanted to put students first, not take advantage of them.
What does your typical day look like?
Wake up at 7:00 a.m., take my puppy Pepe for a walk, feed him. Go for a run. (Depending on what I’m training for; I ran a marathon in the spring and am currently training for a half-marathon in October.) Get to the office around 8:30 a.m. I try and keep my mornings free for productive uninterrupted work and have meetings (if necessary) in the afternoon.
Each day is slightly different because I try and group days into a theme. Mondays are for Management, where I focus on our weekly management meeting, finances, Board preparation, weekly marketing meeting and other administrative things. Tuesdays I focus on Customer Development, often spending time on campuses talking with students. Wednesdays are for Marketing, including Social Media and PR efforts. Thursdays I focus on Product, including coming features, prioritizing the next changes and thinking through and implementing feedback. Fridays are to catch up on anything else I might have missed. At night, I try and make it home in time for dinner with my fiancee or set up networking dinners/drinks.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I love white boarding and brainstorming with others. Our office has IdeaPaint in all of our conference rooms, so we can really spread out all the ideas we’re working on and see the big picture. I’m also a big believer in combining feedback from users with a clear product vision. Without the vision, it’s easy to simply do everything customers say without cohesion. Without feedback, you may be building the wrong product.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
The trends we’re seeing in technology and open content will open up a new world of opportunities that will significantly disrupt the status quo. In the next 20 years, we’ll see more change in education than in the previous 200 years.
What was the worst job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?
I spent a summer during grad school in Nantucket. I was really interested in studying architecture at the time and wanted to work in construction. I got a job with a general contracting company and spent a few weeks paving roads. Literally. I would work 12 hours a day shoveling and raking tar and rolling over it to create new roads or fix potholes. It was a nice change of pace, though I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I left that and did freelance carpentry and tutoring in math, German and Spanish. I’ve always been very entrepreneurial, and that was a natural fit. I went to making twice as much and working half as long—at things I really enjoyed. For instance, I rebuilt a kitchen and bathroom in a hotel that partially burned down, all on my own.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
This is really a second start, and I’ve done a lot differently. I spent 3-4 years at my first startup, YouCastr, and eventually shut it down because the market we were pursuing wasn’t big enough. I learned a ton from that experience: the importance of setting big goals, building a great team and iterating quickly. At Boundless, we started very quickly, with a clear vision, and have been continually moving quickly.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Focus. Startups have limited resources, and it’s really important to focus on the right things. That means you can keep the bar higher and move faster than competitors.
I also believe in doing things right. There are many uncertainties in the marketplace, so things that a company CAN control, they should do really really well. To get there, we believe in lots of ongoing iteration. Products are never done;they’re always evolving and improving.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Someone needs to develop a product similar to the Nest for water sprinklers that can sense the weather. I hate seeing sprinklers on when it’s raining.
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?
I would change how people learn. Make education more effective and accessible. And to do that I’d start a company, raise money from great investors, build a world-class team and make it happen.
Tell us a secret.
Then it wouldn’t be a secret!
What are your three favorite online tools or resources, and what do you love about them?
1. Dropbox is a fantastic way to keep a busy startup like ours organized and interconnected.
2. Trello – Terrific management tool for teams.
3. Followup.cc – Great email management.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston.
Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?
@cdixon – Smart and witty commentary about tech and startups.
@timoreilly – One of our advisors; great thoughts on openness and some on politics.
When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?
I laugh all the time. No specific relevant stories, but I laugh out loud a lot, and loudly. 🙂
Who is your hero?
How did your educational experience influence your professional life?
I was lucky enough to be in a good public school system growing up, including completing the International Baccalaureate program in high school. Growing up, I was always very good at math, and because of our school system, I was never stifled. I was able to take Pre-Calculus in eighth grade at the nearby high school and amass enough credits (mainly through math) to skip nineth grade. After high school, I went to Dartmouth College and was afforded a tremendous opportunity to study in a world-class institution.
These experiences reinforced in my mind the importance of education and the importance of giving everyone the opportunities I had. I believe with technology and open content, we’ll be able to let any student reach their potential, and society will be better off for it.
What keeps your team at Boundless motivated?
We have an office puppy, a toy poodle named Pepe. He warms everyone’s heart and puts a smile on everyone’s face, which is great when we’re in stressful times.
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Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.