The Curious Case of Curious, a Startup with Learning in Mind
In order to help a seed grow into a plant, you must provide good, fertile soil and water for nourishment.
In order to help a person grow intellectually, you should supply them with plenty of opportunity and the ability to explore their curiosity.
It is this exploration of curiosity that inspired the creation of Curious.com. CEO Justin Kitch was kind enough to speak to me about his life, his love of learning, and the companies he has built, including Curious.
Stanford state of mind
Kitch's story begins with his choice of college. He was not persuaded by his high school counselor like other students may have been. As fate would have it, Kitch stumbled onto his alma mater by chance.
"In my high school there was not a lot of talk about east coast or west coast four-year colleges, but I got ahold of a brochure somehow that Stanford had sent me and I saw a picture of the quad and the oval with the people playing volleyball and they had a sundeck on their library. So that became my ideal college institution and I just applied there and got in."
Stanford was not his only choice. Kitch also applied to Harvard and got in through the early application process. Stanford was his backup, but he chose to go there instead of Harvard. This may have been a very inspired choice as it led Kitch to quite a unique major: Science, Technology, and Society.
"It actually used to be called Values, Technology, Science and Society and they changed it when I was a senior to Science, Technology and Society. It's very Stanford in its creation in the sense that you take eight or nine classes that look at the interplay between technology and society from both perspectives, both from social aspects, you know, so you're studying things like Marxism and Marx's opinion about technology, and you're also looking at it from the technology perspective of something like the introduction of the atomic bomb, or, the, you know, transistor, or the printing press and how that impacted society. And then you get to pick a focus and you can take classes that you want from that area, so I focused on computer science and basically got a CS-style degree but only taking stuff that I was interested in in CS and then I started a master's degree in computer science after that."
The field was in its infancy when Kitch arrived at Stanford, having only seven students in the major. Now it has around 250. He accidentally made his way to the major thanks to a course that was co-sponsored by two different departments. Kitch was able, through attending Stanford, to explore his curiosity, which lead him to become an entrepreneur and start a number of companies.
Start it up
Even before starting Curious, Kitch had his hands in the start-up world, creating his first company at an early age.
"I started my first company when I was still in school. That's why I dropped out of my master's program, because I started it when I was 21, maybe I had just turned 22, and I had no idea what I was doing, I didn't even know that I wanted to start a company but I had fallen in love with writing software and designing products that were software-based."
His second company, Homestead, was an enormous success and was sold to Intuit. Kitch stayed with Intuit for a while then decided to take a bit of time off. This was not a period of rest, however.
"I've never had any time off because I started my company, you know, when I was in school. So my wife and I both took off a year and we had our third child, and that was really wonderful, and we were building a house and I decided I wanted to join the crew of the house and build the house with the crew."
Building his house was not the only endeavor that Kitch undertook.
"I wanted to get better at playing the guitar. So I'm a musician, but I was not really at performance level and I wanted to get good enough to perform. And so I had these things that I was trying to learn and I said, you know, if I have a year off, that's what I would do with it, I would learn things. So my wife had the same philosophy, and we were trying to learn things and do it in our spare time or at night when the kids were asleep and the sun wasn't shining."
Once again Kitch's curiosity ruled his life. Unfortunately for him and his wife, the Internet was not very conducive to learning.
"We realized that online resources for learning things are pretty spotty. You know, you can find stuff in pockets on places like YouTube, but it's just not designed for learning and teaching things, and, more importantly, the teachers don't have any incentive to actually become better at teaching online, because it's really, really hard to make money and it's hard to engage with your students. Even if they don't make money, they want to engage with the students and get feedback from students."
It was during this time that Kitch came up with the idea for Curious.
With the entirety of information at our fingertips thanks to the Internet, it may strain credulity to claim that the Web might not be the best tool for learning new skills. When I asked Kitch why he founded Curious, his answer was simple.
"Because we believe that the world needs a better way for the learners of the world to reach the teachers of the world. So if you live in a small town, even in a big town like Wichita, and you want to learn the jazz piccolo, there's no one in Wichita who can make a living teaching you the jazz piccolo because there's just not enough people interested in it and there may or may not be somebody talented in it. But there's definitely somebody who knows how to teach kids the jazz piccolo somewhere in the world, and there's definitely enough people in the world who want to learn the jazz piccolo. So by breaking down those geographic boundaries that are usually required for teaching things it creates a marketplace that didn't exist before."
Whether you want to learn how to speak a new language or play the guitar, study technology and programming languages, or develop your business management skills, Curious has a large number of courses that you can take. Many of them are free, but some do charge a small fee. Kitch puts the teachers who post these lessons on his site through a strenuous trial process.
"We hand-screen every one of them. We interview them on the phone, then they have to go through a process of actually building the lessons, and then once they build the lessons we actually review every lesson before goes on to the site."
You or I could post a video lesson on YouTube and as long as there was nothing truly objectionable, it would go up. Kitch wants to make sure the teachers on his site can actually teach someone something. It's also different from YouTube and other competitors in several other ways.
"At Curious, every lesson's broken down into 60- or 90-second chunks that teach different concepts, every one of those chunks can have an exercise at the end of it so you can test yourself and make sure you've learned what you're supposed to learn, and they can have attachments, whether it's documents or links to places on the Web or products that you need to buy can be attached to each section of the video, and there's also homework assignments that you can submit to the teacher to get feedback on, and you can even get a passing mark if you submit and the teacher approves your homework assignment. So it's just a much richer environment for learning things."
More video, less game
Whenever I visit my nephews, it is difficult to get them to put down the iPad or video game controller for more than a few minutes. Kitch had this in mind when building Curious.
"Trying to design a product and a company and an experience that is appropriate for your kids, even at a young age, and does something that you would be happy to have them use, and in fact would want them to use, adds a whole new layer of interesting development to the process. And we all have children, all three of the founders, and many of the people that work here, so that was very, very important to us was to make sure that we were offering something that was a better alternative than Angry Birds."
As much as some video games try to merge education with entertainment, I would enjoy being ignored by my nephews much more if I knew they were truly learning something. With websites like Curious on the Internet, I can do my best to steer my nephews toward something a little more brain enhancing.
Interview with Justin Kitch, CEO of Curious.com, conducted by Jamar Ramos, May 20, 2014