In the May edition of our London founder interview series, we spoke to Hrishi Mittal about building and growing Learnetto to 13,000 users.
Hey Hrishi! Great to chat to you. To get started, how would you describe Learnetto?
Learnetto is an educational marketplace for indie creators. We make it easy for anyone to publish and sell books, courses and content subscriptions.
Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got into building products?
In a former life, I used to work as a research scientist modelling air pollution for London. I enjoyed research for a few years but then got bored of it. I realised I liked the idea of doing research more than actually doing it. In reality, it was too slow for my liking. I always thought that one day I would start my own business.
The thing I liked most in my job was actually building software. So I quit my research job (one fine day, out of the blue!) and started my first startup. It was a web app for data visualisation, called Pretty Graph. I actually got the idea from my research work. The existing tools were clunky and old school. Academics would end up wasting hours tweaking graph labels and axes. So I decided to make a web-based tool to make it a lot easier and quicker for them.
I am not a software developer by training and I knew nothing about running a software business. The startup was moderately successful but I made every mistake in the book, got burnt out and eventually shut it down.
Where did the idea for Learnetto come from, and how did you validate it?
I started Learnetto a few years ago as a marketplace for courses, with the aim of offering better terms to teachers than Udemy. But I struggled to get any traction and quickly realised that trying to go head-on against a massive funded startup wasn’t the best idea.
So I started producing my own original courses on topics that were not well-covered by anyone else at the time (for example, teaching React to Ruby on Rails developers). This gave me something unique to sell and I was surprised by the success of my new products.
After building a user base around these courses and some free content, I switched my focus again to opening up the platform so that anyone can use it to publish their own content.
The market has changed a lot in the last couple of years. The pandemic has certainly accelerated things and encouraged many more people to start creating content and selling their own products. Now, I get a much better response when I reach out to creators to teach on my site. They are hungry and eager for new channels to grow their audience and earn extra cash.
Learnetto works on a simple revenue sharing model. Teachers on Learnetto keep 90% of their earnings. We take a 10% share of revenue, but notably that includes payment processing fees. Our competitors charge payment processing fees separately and only mention them in fine print.
We like to be straight with our customers and don’t charge them any hidden fees. In the future, we may introduce subscription plans for teachers so that they can pay us a flat monthly fee and keep all of their product revenue.
What’s the vision for Learnetto?
My vision for Learnetto is to be a fantastic place for people to share their knowledge and learn from each other. I want everyone to realise that they don’t have to be an expert to help others learn new and useful things.
What’s your tech stack?
It’s a pretty standard Ruby on Rails app, hosted on Heroku with PostgreSQL as the database. On the frontend, I use Tailwind UI - which I cannot recommend enough for anyone design-challenged like me - and a bit of Alpine.js. I’m planning to introduce React for some complex UI features. I use Stripe for handling payment processing.
What growth tactics did and didn’t work for you?
It’s a content business and fundamentally, that’s what has worked - creating high quality content and telling people about it.
Some specific things that have worked well for me - guest blogging on relevant sites with a large audience (freeCodeCamp, for example), consistently publishing good new tutorials on our own site (for search engine traffic) and getting featured in newsletters.
Partnerships with other indie educators have also worked well.
Advertising in relevant newsletters has had mixed results. When it works well, the problem there is that the inventory is limited so it gets bought up quickly.
Twitter advertising was a complete flop. But, I now know the way to make Twitter work is by posting high quality free stuff.
What was your lowest point in building Learnetto so far, and how did you get out?
As I mentioned above, when the first version of the site didn’t get any traction, I was quite disappointed.
Every single piece of advice I had read about building marketplaces was saying that you have to get the suppliers first. I managed to do that relatively easily. It turns out that, in fact, it was much much harder to get the buyers!
So, with my back against the wall, I decided to start creating content myself.
I really resisted it for a long time because, like most software developers, I only wanted to build a scalable product, not create content. But I had no choice.
I would have had to shut shop and I was not going to do that. If the failure of my first startup taught me anything, it was to never give up.
How do you stay focused and avoid distractions?
I’ve tried so many different things - lots of different to-do list apps, productivity hacks and time management practices. But I’ve come to realise that I only struggle to focus when I am overwhelmed or don’t have clear goals. When I am not clear what I need to work on, then doom-scrolling on Twitter seems attractive.
When I’m actually making progress on well-defined tasks and projects, I can completely forget about Twitter and other distractions. One thing that has made a huge difference this year is doing weekly accountability calls with a close mentor. It forces me to step back from the coal face at least once a week, and think about how far I’ve come and where I’m going.
How would you have done things differently if you started again?
I would move a lot faster - both with building and selling the product. Momentum is everything in a startup. Every time I have wasted time over-analysing options, it would have been faster and more educational to have just tried all the options and then made an informed choice.
Not launching quickly enough and not charging enough. We are our own worst critics. But we must take pride in our work and be confident that we are offering something of value to people. Nobody is doing you a favour by buying your product or service - it’s a two-way exchange of value.
What else have you built before Learnetto, and what were the biggest lessons from those experiences?
After Pretty Graph, I tried a whole bunch of random ideas over the years. I built a few things in eCommerce, including a shopping search engine using the Amazon API and a concierge service for finding the best price for any given product.
I built a web app for creating and sharing lists. I got started building a SaaS metrics dashboard (got the idea from Dan Shipper). But my heart was not really into it, so I didn’t really do much with it. And shortly afterwards, Baremetrics launched and took off!
One time, I even tried building a Linux laptops business. The biggest lesson for me is that you have to work on stuff you care about in some fundamental way. You can get excited by any number of ideas. Everything seems exciting in the early days, but that wears off quickly. You need something to keep you going when the going gets tough.