How I Started A $500K/Month Digital Education Company

Published: June 8th, 2019
Stuart Draper
Founder, Stukent, Inc.
Stukent, Inc.
from Idaho Falls, Idaho, USA
started August 2013
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hi, I'm Stuart Draper and I'm the founder and CEO of Stukent. I am the co-author of Digital Marketing Essentials, the bestselling text in higher education of its kind. I gained valuable experience doing internet marketing for companies that range from mom and pop shops to Fortune 500 companies.

Before being acquired in December 2015, I bootstrapped and now work on, a digital courseware company that provides the world’s #1 digital marketing simulation, the world’s first social media marketing simulation, and a variety of other texts, videos, and projects. This simulation gives users hands-on experience in creating, scheduling, promoting, and monitoring social posts for a virtual business. This training allows students to get comfortable and familiar with making marketing decisions before they graduate. In 2018, Stukent became the #268 fastest growing company in the US and was featured in Inc. Magazine on the Inc. 500 list.

My work in education has taken me all over the globe. I have been to Romania, Mexico, China, Puerto Rico, Germany, and India to speak to audiences ranging from ten to north of 1,500 people about entrepreneurship and digital marketing that will be used by over 100,000 students this year.


What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

Just 7 months after graduating from college in 2008, I started to gain valuable experience doing internet marketing for companies that range from mom and pop shops to Fortune 500 companies. Before being acquired in December 2015, I bootstrapped, a digital marketing agency.

As an adjunct faculty member teaching digital marketing, I saw a gap between instructional resources and what students would be expected to do on the job. The class I was teaching was using the same textbook that I had used when I was a student! I knew the current courseware wasn't doing enough to prepare students for the industry. It was then that I realized there was an opportunity and decided to do what no one else was doing, and built a company specializing in digital, up-to-date courseware.

Stukent has taken an innovative approach to digital marketing instruction that has led to an increasing number of products entering the educational courseware market. This approach combines regularly updated text with guest lectures from industry experts, real-world projects, and a simulation where students can get hands-on experience. It's the marriage between industry and academia. These products include Digital Marketing Essentials + Mimic Pro and Essentials of Social Media Marketing + Mimic Social.

In the beginning, I struggled with raising three rounds of funding compared to the one round we had anticipated. That stunk. There was a time when the money nearly ran out; Stukent faced less than thirty days left in business. However, with a concrete vision of the future, we made it out without a single layoff.


Take us through the process of building the product.

I took the risk and founded a company based around this idea of courseware that stayed current with the industry and provided hands-on learning via simulation.

When I did market research to start the business I was planning on just doing a textbook, but one of the professors I spoke with told me that if I brought him a simulation he would for sure use that. We dreamt up what that simulation could be, and brought to market the world’s first digital marketing simulation less than a year later. The first version was weak, but we took feedback from industry friends, subject matter experts and the early adopters.

The product continues to grow and improve, and is nothing like the first version.

Since then, our customers have asked us to build a social media marketing simulation and a marketing analytics simulation, which we have now done. It is awesome when your market research is nothing more than hearing customer after customer tell you they wish they could buy another product from you!

Describe the process of launching the business.

I would say I naturally go for the Ready-Fire-Aim approach with life in general, and that is how I started my two other businesses, but with Stukent, it was different.

I knew the idea of e-textbooks that are updated twice per year and a digital marketing simulation was a good idea, but I also knew that the education space has a long sales cycle and that I would need to raise funding to pay my team while we waited for deals to come through. When you decide to take money from investors they want market research and a detailed business plan with financial projections.

One of the greatest challenges in growing your team from 5 to 20 is convincing talented people to join your small company instead of the large corporation.

So for Stukent we took over a year and talked to over 100 professors about their approach to teaching digital marketing. We found that lots of schools didn't even teach it, and the ones that did, were unhappy with the way they were teaching it. One of the professors brought up the idea of the simulation. It wasn't even my initial idea.

We really built the company around what the market said they wanted.

Our first customer was a top 20 business school (BYU's Marriott school) and they used it for free. It was worth it because they became a great testimonial for us, and signing up the first 10 schools was easier than we thought it would be.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

The best way to attract and retain customers is to show them how you're solving their problems. Our courseware is completely built out, meaning it comes with lesson plans, projects and assignments, quizzes, and expert session videos where industry professionals teach on specific topics. On top of that, our text is updated twice a year to stay relevant.

We share this message through all mediums including personal calls, email outreach, social media marketing, conference attendance and sponsorships, and other promotions. Our raving fans, who have been with us since the beginning, are amazing advocates for our products and the work we do. Our dedication to our customers with personalized outreach and an AWESOME customer support team has gone a long way to forge strong relationships with our educators.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Stukent was founded on four innovative ideas for the edtech market: first, continuously update digital textbooks to keep them current; second, create instructor resources such as syllabus, exams, and quizzes to help instructors get the most from their classes; third, provide expert sessions from professionals in the industry for real-world experience; and fourth, provide applicable, real-world experience through simulations and projects for students. And Stukent is unique in its approach to edtech because textbooks, ebooks, webinars, and simulations have been in the market for some time, but they haven’t been paired together for an optimized student learning experience until now.

The company has several big goals planned out for the next 5 years. The current employee roster includes around 50 employees, and the intent is to double that number of employees. In 2018, Stukent ranked #268 out of the top 500 fastest-growing privately owned companies, and the goal is to stay on the Inc. 500 list for the following years. And while Stukent is used in many classes in the US and internationally, the company goal is focused on getting Stukent courseware utilized in a majority of college and high school classrooms around the world. But the biggest goal by far is Stukent becoming recognized as a global edtech courseware provider, on par with companies like Pearson and McGraw-Hill.

Since our start, our team has grown and is dedicated to our mission, Helping educators, Help Students, Help The World. With each new product launch, we conduct extensive market research before building anything out. We want to make sure it's a product that will really move the needle.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

When you have just five team members, everyone wears a lot of hats. Giving away hats is easier said than done. As your team grows, be sure that you have meetings where you are passing off the hats, and everyone knows their role and responsibilities.

Smart, talented people can go work for a large corporation with great pay and amazing benefits. Oh, and they can trust that as one of a few thousand employees their job isn't going to go away tomorrow. One of the greatest challenges in growing your team from 5 to 20 is convincing talented people to join your small company instead of the large corporation. You can't sacrifice brains and talent just because you don't have the same budget, so offering prestigious titles, stock options, high pay-for-performance compensation, flexibility in vacation and work hours, lifestyle, and future opportunities are the ways to get them on board.

Having a plan where you get return on your investment in people via competitive salaries and benefits may be enough of a reason to justify raising seed funding for your startup, BUT you have to be sure they are the right people.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Inbox Zero. I use my email like a to-do list. I try to only open an email once and either respond or archive. I have also set up my email so that I can choose to send and auto-archive. It is an awesome optional feature in Gmail. Outside of email, we also use Slack to communicate within the company.

Each team utilizes a lot of different platforms specific to their needs including HubSpot, Trello, Roadmap, Meltwater to name a few. Our departments all require different tools to get the job done so we're always open to adopting new ones.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I’m religious, so for me, the book that has had the greatest impact on me is The Book of Mormon. It has helped me in every aspect of my life, both personal and professional.

But, I’m guessing you want a business book.

Zero to One by Peter Thiel because it helps you see the bigger picture of what is possible.

Second would be Shoe Dog. It is the story of Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. Stories of entrepreneurs inspire, and we can learn a lot from them.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Share the vision! Every new employee has two meetings with me.

One is the Under Armour speech. Basically, I share the story of their humble beginnings followed by their success, and then I tell them how they are going to help Stukent become to Pearson and McGraw-Hill what Under Armour is to Nike and Adidas.

The other speech is the one where we burn the handbook. I take time to review the handbook so they know what my expectations are for them as a team member, and then I tell them that I understand there are exceptions to rules and I want them to use their judgment and do what is best for the business.

Then we literally burn the little handbook to symbolize that we aren’t a company so rigid we have to follow the letter of the law.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

As a growing start-up company, we always have our eyes open for potential talent that could really make a difference on our team.

Currently, we’re looking to fill positions in engineering, sales, marketing, and product management. If you’re interested, send your resume to [email protected]

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!