I’m Rohan Gupta, and I’m one of the three co-founders of QuillBot, as well as the CEO. We’re a software as a service company (SAAS) hosting edtech writing and research tools that utilize AI, specifically natural language processing (NLP). Our mission is to make writing painless for students, authors, researchers, lawyers, and anyone else whose work depends on them being able to efficiently do research and articulate their ideas.
Our flagship products are an instant text summary tool and a paraphrasing tool, both of which are used by millions of people each month. Students, especially English language learners (ELLs), are some of our most dedicated users, and we’re becoming a lifelong learning tool suite as students graduate, move into careers, and continue using our tools to make their written work and communication clear and compelling.
Our summarizer makes it easy to stay current on news, market data, and long-winded reports by condensing articles or papers down to only the most important points. This means you only read one paragraph but still get all the key facts. Educators, students, and ELLs use this tool to check reading comprehension, and another use case is for bloggers and writers to check that the themes they intend are being articulated clearly by summarizing their own work and seeing what the AI finds their key points to be.
Additionally, those researching any kind can use the summarizer to select, compare, and contrast sources to streamline the writing and research processes. Our free extensions for Chrome, Google Docs, and Word make it easy and fast to use, without the need for a new tab or another open program. Lastly, we love this tool for fighting procrastination and writer’s block because serious research headway can be made by just finding and summarizing sources. Usually, the cure to these problems is a little jumpstart to get going again, and reading one tiny paragraph packed with important info is often enough to help writers find their angle and ignite a spark to get going.
QuillBot’s cutting-edge paraphrasing tool is like having a second pair of eyes for instant feedback and suggested edits. Using the drop-down thesaurus, various writing Modes, and the Word Flipper settings, it’s easy to find the perfect word, phrase, or tone to articulate thoughts and ideas. For ELLs, a paraphraser is an invaluable tool for building both oral and written language skills because words and phrases can be seen in context, and the paraphraser also aids them in expressing and communicating their ideas effectively in English.
We are especially proud of how our paraphrasing tool helps writers, especially students, find their writing voice by giving them the tools to articulate themselves and create written work they are proud of. My favorite thing about these tools is how they empower students to take ownership of their writing assignments because they feel supported--and this goes doubly for English language learners. In this challenging time of remote learning, students need all the tools they can get to help them build confidence in their abilities and their work.
Our tools are game-changers for anyone needing to perfectly articulate ideas, find inspiration, bust writer’s block and procrastination, increase productivity, and find their ideal research and writing workflow. We have over 1.4 million WAU and have experienced 3.5x YOY growth, with no sign of slowing. Our viral growth has been due, in large part, to the word of mouth because our tools yielded an average time savings of 75% per writing project.
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
For as long as I can remember, I have been very entrepreneurial and ambitious. During my first foray into business, I sold rocks to my fellow preschool classmates, and later, I sold silk pillowcases to my neighbors when my grandfather would bring them back from India. I was always intrigued by technology, and I enjoyed the challenge of learning new things and translating that understanding into work, so in middle and high school, I began freelancing in graphic design, web design, and web development.
Don’t give up on an idea without testing and iterating on it. If you’re going to put in the upfront work, be willing to give it a solid try. Perseverance might seem obvious, but it’s essential.
In college, I became fascinated by AI, and I began working on a few startup ideas of my own. Like my eventual co-founders, I was an efficiency nut, always interested in boosting my productivity. I also was (and am still) very interested in democratizing education and improving survivability in our school systems. I don’t think it should matter where you were born--you should have access to quality education and resources. The internet is making this possible, and I’m happy that I get to be a part of it. Additionally, I don’t think the “one size fits all” approach to education and learning works very well, which makes school frustrating for many students. This was a major factor in my deciding to do a lot of learning independently, and I’m glad that I did because I could learn what interested and challenged me. Those skills then directly translated into me being able to freelance, where I could earn both money and experience. I’m interested in working towards leveling the educational playing field so that no matter how a student learns best, they can still get the support they need to excel.
While in college, my co-founders and I got the idea and opportunity to start building QuillBot. I first met Anil Jason, our CTO, and co-founder, at the iVenture Accelerator, hosted by the University of Illinois. Jason was working on a question generator but wanted to move into paraphrasing because there needed to be a higher volume of source material to pull from to form questions so that the wording would be different and more questions could be generated. Then the idea became that paraphrasing itself could also be a standalone product. I began advising him on going to market and started getting more involved with the project because I thought it had some real potential, leaving my own project soon after to work with Jason.
Eventually, we posted the first link to the paraphraser MVP on Reddit and saw immediate traction, which was great validation for the idea. In that time, we also brought on David Silin, our third co-founder and CSO, who really helped to build out the idea with us. Even though the three of us were technically still full-time students, after we started working on QuillBot, that was our main focus, and school felt like the part-time gig.
We grew from QuillBot just being a paraphrasing tool to leveraging more AI and NLP technology to make a suite of user-friendly writing and research tools that make writing painless. We were computer science majors who, admittedly, were not gifted writers, so we thought, why not go bigger to solve our own problems? We could expand QuillBot to create an AI writing platform that can do some of the heavy lifting during the writing process, from helping to research language refinement and more. And that’s been our focus ever since.
Some use cases of our products were easy to predict--like ELLs who can learn faster by seeing words and phrases in context using our paraphrasing tool. It also helps them be able to more clearly articulate their ideas using the drop-down thesaurus, Word Flipper settings, and our different writing Modes. Similarly, we knew that researchers would love the text summary tool for finding, comparing, and contrasting sources--everything from scientific publications to law depositions. Along the same lines, digital marketers would use both of our tools to create compelling content and copy. However, we didn’t expect such use cases as screenwriters using the paraphrasing tool to craft character dialog--that was a fun one to discover.
Another interesting use case is for the writing of personal memoirs. One of our team members introduced our tools to his mom, and while she never considered herself a gifted writer, she has used the paraphraser to start writing about her life, feeling supported in expressing her thoughts using our tools. It’s really gratifying for us as co-founders to see all the ways that the QuillBot tools are used from ELLs to authors, to STEM professionals, attorneys, hobby writers, and everything in between. We are extremely proud to be able to support students, especially, in taking more pride of ownership in their writing work and being able to help them fully express their ideas and arguments, no matter what their first language happens to be.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?
Once we had our MVP out and started to get traction, especially via Reddit, we incubated the idea further through iVenture and then bootstrapped for another 2 years. We were profitable and could have kept QuillBot as a lifestyle business, but we decided we wanted to go bigger. Dave, Jason, and I were as scrappy as we could be, leveraging all of our different skill sets. Dave spearheaded teaching himself and us NLP, and we also self-taught our SEO skills so that we could reach our target audience and rank higher, faster. We learned how to growth hack our way to being able to build out a research lab and many other growth channels, too.
At the end of 2019, we made our first 3 full-time hires and also started to build out our development team to enhance our site and flagship product, an AI/NLP-based paraphrasing tool. Our focus was always on hiring the right people, so when we found our Director of Engineering, Saurabh Goel, we let him decide where that team would be located, and this was the beginning of our development team in India. When 2020 began, there were 6 full-time team members at QuillBot, but by the end of the year, we were at nearly 30!
Our hypergrowth in 2020 began with hiring several more important team members at the beginning of the year. These hires included a Director of Design to help with UX/UI, a Sr. Marketing Specialist, Operations Analysts, Applied Research positions, and more. I want to note that if we could have done one thing differently, it would have been to hire more people, faster this past year to aid our explosive growth. In April of 2020, we raised $4.25M in VC funding, and we started building and beta testing another product, our instant text summary tool. We’ve been constantly hiring from that point forward to support our different teams and take our business to the next level.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We’ve experienced 3.5x YOY growth and now have over 1.4M WAU. Our 2 flagship products, a cutting-edge paraphraser, and summarizer have completely changed how millions of students, ELLs, researchers, and writing professionals work by skyrocketing productivity and efficiency. Our customer acquisition cost is nearly $0, and 3.5M unique MAU spend an average of ~18 minutes on our site.
As of the beginning of 2021, we have over 30 full-time team members, several part-time members, and 2 offices--one in Chicago, our headquarters, and one in Jaipur, India. We are especially proud of our robust Research and Development team, which includes the absolute top talent, and our world-class Engineering team. Our new team members will support our growth into new regions, to new audiences, and enable us to continuously be building out new products that support writing, research, and productivity.
Our short-term company goal is to get 1M DAU. My personal goal is to keep broadening and developing my leadership skills so that when we are a 100-person team, I can be an even more effective leader. In the long term, we want QuillBot to be the world’s largest and most robust writing platform with a whole arsenal of helpful tools. My personal long-term goal is to be a more thoughtful leader overall, one who can help support and sustain the viral growth we are experiencing and keep the momentum going.
The future is coming at us very quickly, and we’re excited for all that’s in store for us in the coming year (and beyond!). However, as the fields of AI, specifically NLP, advance, we have to move fast just to keep up with the cutting edge to make our products the best on the market. Recent advances in NLP have enabled us to deliver higher-value features because bigger and better models can be made and run cheaper and faster than ever before. We want to leverage this to the maximum extent possible to deliver the best value and most helpful products to our customers. We are always revamping and fine-tuning our products to make them better than ever--after all, we use these tools ourselves. Our goal is to be the world’s preeminent, one-stop-shop writing platform where our users create written work they are proud of, in a fraction of the time via our productivity- and efficiency-enhancing tools. We are well on our way.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
There are countless lessons I’ve learned from being an entrepreneur, but one of the most important is that most mistakes are correctable. As I mentioned before, one thing I think my co-founders and I would agree on is that we wish we would have built out our teams earlier when we were still bootstrapping. It feels like a missed opportunity in retrospect since if we’d done that, we could be farther into product iterations, would have had an improved venture round, and overall, our product quality would be higher due to more support. Another example comes from when my co-founders and I were first starting: we really wanted to get into Y Combinator, but we were rejected three times. We were so focused on building partnerships and getting into that one program that our focus was shifted away from working on our own products. We see now that these things were distractions, but it was certainly nothing we couldn’t come back from simply by readjusting our focus and priorities.
Some early wins/good decisions we made as a company were to focus on learning SEO, building our company culture, hiring only the right people, broadening our products and company vision, and experimenting with demographics and use cases. Organic search is our largest acquisition channel by far, and once we learned the basics of SEO, it wasn’t too hard to begin ranking and reap the benefits of more traffic and users. Our people and culture are incredibly important to us, and while it’s sometimes been hard to find the right fit, it’s always been well worth the wait. Lastly, setting bigger goals and learning the sometimes surprising ways our customers use our tools has been both interesting and invigorating for us.
Another really important lesson I’ve learned is that you need to be growing personally as your company grows. It always pays to invest time and energy into becoming a better leader and into becoming the best version of yourself. Building these skills and habits protect you from burnout and foster great team environments. I’ve also learned that you need to be failure tolerant and have perseverance in spades because there are so many moments in which you could choose the easier path and quit. Trusting my gut has been important in knowing which opportunities are right for me and my team, and which to say ‘no’ to, but I’ve also found that recognizing opportunities for what they are is much harder than it sounds--that’s where grit and gut come in so handy.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Slack, Amplitude, Figma, Klaviyo, and Ahrefs are the main tools we use.
Slack: Every team member stays connected using Slack.
Amplitude, an analytics software, is used by many different teams to look at how, when, where, and why users are interacting with our tools. It connects with Google Analytics and other programs, so it is extremely useful in seeing all of our data together in one place so that we can make data-driven decisions.
Figma: Our marketing and design team members use Figma as their main platform to make and share designs for so many uses across our business, from social media to email.
Klaviyo: For email tracking and user flows, Klaviyo has been a great tool used by our Sr. Marketing Specialist and our Business Development Specialist.
Ahrefs: We use Ahrefs to track our backlink profile and aid in SEO.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
More than anything, the mentors and advisers from our VC investors have been the most helpful and instrumental in overcoming obstacles in our business. Apart from that, I really enjoy watching YouTube talks from serial entrepreneurs and founders, and the Stanford Graduate School of Business has a channel that has some great content as well. I don’t usually listen to specific podcasts, but I do follow specific people like Elon Musk and certain VC’s to hear their perspectives and experiences.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Here’s my advice for new entrepreneurs:
- If you’re looking for partners in your endeavor, find co-founders of your own caliber. Don’t just partner with anyone. Co-founders should have complementary skill sets to yours to help make the MVP, bring it to market, build and manage the team to scale it, etc.
- Don’t cling too tightly to the core rules of startups. They might be good rules of thumb, but everything is context-dependent.
- When you’re building out an MVP, literally build the minimum viable product. You could be wasting a lot of time by building too high fidelity of a prototype. It’s better to get traction and test out the product because otherwise, you could find you learned something critical about how customers are using the product too late.
- Keep your sense of curiosity and appetite for risk sharp, so that you can learn and move on from being wrong or failing quickly.
- Don’t give up on an idea without testing and iterating on it. If you’re going to put in the upfront work, be willing to give it a solid try. Perseverance might seem obvious, but it’s essential.
Where can we go to learn more?
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