Q&A with Kidaptive CEO Dylan Arena
Stanford startup and StartX alum Dylan Arena talks c-level executive life
In a new series, The Dish Daily is talking to startup entrepreneurs who have already made an impact in their industry. Whether they’ve just finished an accelerator program or garnered their first round of seed funding, we want to ask them about being their own boss, running a company, and facing unexpected challenges along the way.
Our first chat was with Dylan Arena, Kidaptive co-founder and Chief Learning Scientist, who is a Stanford alumnus (BS in Symbolic Systems, ’01, MA in Philosophy, ’01, MS in Statistics, ’12, and PhD in LSTD, ’12) and launched Kidaptive with co-founder P.J. Gunsagar through the StartX program. Kidaptive’s team has been working for two years on their first product, Leo’s Pad, an episode series made for the iPad and aimed at three- to five-year olds. The startup hopes to leverage the iPad’s technology for interactive storytelling with a curriculum that engages early learners.
The Dish Daily: Tell me about your StartX experience.
Arena: When the StartX application came to our inbox, [co-founder Gunsagar] thought it might do me some good to apply, but as it turned out we both learned a lot from the StartX experience. (Gunsager, who is the son of an entrepreneur, already had started two companies before Kidaptive). Our first few months at Kidaptive had been dedicated to building our app prototype. We were able to bring that first prototype into StartX, but that was all we had. We didn’t have a clear marketing strategy or business model—we were a bit naïve, thinking that we were going to build something awesome and everything else would sort of fall into place.
StartX really helped us think through all the other aspects of how to run a business. We were given access to a tremendous group of advisors who were simply interested in helping new companies because they’d done well themselves. By giving talks and holding office hours, and even joining a few advisory boards without the incentive of pay or equity, these people made for an awesome community.
StartX also introduced us to a number of companies that were doing great things. It had a great peer-to-peer collaboration system. The community knowledge in certain areas speeds up the process of building a real community, and speed is really the only thing a startup has going for it, so anything that can reduce friction is a huge asset.
The Dish Daily: What did you learn specifically at StartX?
Arena: We learned how important distribution is, especially in an ecosystem like Apple’s App Store. You can make the best app around, but if nobody sees it, quality doesn’t matter. Apple’s App Store isn’t great for discovery, so you need a coherent plan for user acquisition.
Also, when I first started Kidaptive, I didn’t know the difference between a VC and an angel, or what the term “valuation” meant. StartX taught me about the financing process and what that ecosystem is like.
The Dish Daily: How has your participation in StartX enabled you to grow?
Arena: I’m not sure we would even be a company without StartX. I think they are responsible for our existence. They introduced us to our lead investor in our seed round, and one of the StartX mentors gave us an introduction to a senior person at Apple that opened several doors there (the advisor decided to use a one-time “silver bullet,” an introductory email that he was willing to use on behalf of Kidaptive because he believes in the startup’s potential).
Apple controls distribution on their App Store, so we’ve met with Apple several times and gotten great feedback about how to improve our products. It’s huge to have them understand and appreciate what you’re doing.
The Dish Daily: How is your day-to-day different than what it used to be?
Arena: As a grad student, you’re focused on coming up with interesting things to test, and then testing them. That’s true as an entrepreneur, too. (Lean Startup movement creator) Steve Blank says the difference between a startup and an established company is that a startup is still trying to find a business model, so there’s a ton of research and investigation that needs to happen. So in that sense, being a grad student isn’t that different from being an entrepreneur.
What is different is that I spend most of my time in meetings, either with internal people (helping to solve problems, plan things, and make decisions) or with external people and partners, as well as recruiting or speaking at conferences. It’s a lot less hands-on, and there’s lot more decision-making by talking with other people who are the ones actually doing things. It’s kind of frustrating to feel removed from the actual work.
I also thought that as Chief Learning Scientist my role would be narrowly constrained to curriculum and assessment, but I’ve got my hand in everything, from HR to fundraising. I was naïve in not realizing that founders are in it all, but it’s eye-opening to see all aspects of a company. Just as (Stanford’s computer science course) 106A allows you to get behind the curtain of computers, being an entrepreneur gets you behind the curtain of businesses. It’s illuminating and powerful.
The Dish Daily: What are some of the daily struggles?
Arena: A startup will never have the resources it needs to operate; imagine trying to bake in a kitchen where you only have half the ingredients necessary to finish the cake. Essentially, you just have to be creative to achieve the results you want. As a startup, you always have the speed, but you’re lacking in everything else.
Also, as a founder, you have a strong vision that touches all aspects of the company. Much of founders’ work is to externalize your vision, to communicate all those nuances that are in your head, ideas that you aren’t really aware you know until somebody asks and you have a clear answer. When a question gets asked that seems obvious to me, I have to remind myself that that’s only because I’ve been living and breathing this concept for two years, and my job is to continually bring everyone closer to a fuller understanding of what is being built and why.