Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?
Hi! I'm Stephen, the founder and CEO of Exponent, an online course and coaching platform that helps people land their dream tech job. I'm also a former Google Product Manager and Princeton Computer Science graduate.
I co-founded the company with Jacob Simon, a fellow Princeton CS graduate and software engineer. Within just one year of launching, Exponent has already generated over $250,000 in gross revenue! Jacob and I are incredibly excited to see this growth as a testament to our high-quality product and dedicated community.
What motivated you to get started with Exponent?
After taking an extended time off from my job at Google, I wanted to try out starting sustainable business ideas. I remember when I was interviewing for product management jobs, and how hard it was to find high-quality resources to help me prepare for my interview. I knew there was an opportunity to help educate people on their own PM interviews, which was in-line with my personal passion for coaching and mentorship.
I began coaching PMs I found in online forums for $10/hour, to see if people would even pay for a service like this. Over time, I increased the prices and quality of my coaching sessions. I blogged a lot on Medium about product management, and used that to build a listserv and a brand around my PM coaching. The first iteration of the site was a poorly constructed Wix website just to collect inbound requests.
After a few months, I asked my friend and college classmate, Jacob Simon, to help with the website design. Jacob suggested the idea of making an online course to more scalably help aspiring product managers, and we created the first iteration of Exponent (then named “PMLesson”).
What went into building the initial product?
Caffeine, and a lot of it.
We bootstrapped the company ourselves, putting in our own time and money to get things going and build our MVP. I spent hours writing and revising detailed PM interview questions and answers, while Jacob spent nights and weekends designing and building the course platform. Ultimately, it took us about three months to ship the initial product.
After writing several pieces of content, we decided to validate the idea by emailing a few people on our listserv and asking if they'd buy a PDF version for $8. The early validation we saw from this was a helpful motivation for us to finish building the product.
My overall lesson from this experience: test hypotheses early and often. By doing so, we were able to validate which lessons were valuable and that people would even pay for these lessons, but most importantly, feel excited and motivated to keep up the hard work.
We found apps like Fullstory to be really helpful identify where users were looking on our site and what parts of the flow might have been broken.
How have you attracted users and grown Exponent?
We put a lot of time into our initial Product Hunt launch. However, despite the effort we went though, we weren't able to hit the top page and we saw only a few of our sales coming from it. To be perfectly honest, we're not entirely sure what went wrong with our launch. Perhaps it wasn't a good fit for the community, or we didn't position the product well enough. Our lesson here is that putting all our eggs in one basket wasn't the right move.
Since then, we've developed a variety of strategies to drive adoption for our product across a bunch of different channels. I've ranked them below from most promising to least promising:
YouTube: Some of our earliest feedback was to add video content to the course, so I began recording myself giving key tips and lessons. Eventually we realized what people really wanted were mock interview videos; essentially, examples of a perfect PM interview answer from real product managers at companies like Facebook and Google. Now one year later, our YouTube Channel has 5,000 subscribers and has become one of our largest traffic sources.
Affiliates: Usually, I simply cold email the founder of a potential affiliate site and ask to grab a 30-minute call to chat. From there, we both assess if there's a good fit and, if so, solidify the details of the partnerships.
Newsletter: Our mailing list has been an important growth channel for us. Embedding signup forms in our blog posts helped us grow our audience and test new ideas and features down the road, like the initial PDF packet I sold to a few customers.
SEO and guest-posting: We created a company blog with Ghost to start writing content that matches what users were searching in Google. We also used our blog to interview well-known founders like Sachin Rekhi and SC Moatti, which has helped with our brand recognition. While SEO efforts like these weren't an overnight success, they do help in the long run and we've already begun to see the investment pay off.
Social media: We put a lot of effort into our social media posts at first, but we've struggled to find mass adoption on these platforms.
The overall conclusion here for us has been to listen to our users and understand what content they'd like. Then, find the platform that best aligns with this and increase quality and effort over time.
What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
We make money in two ways: online courses and coaching. We've intentionally created our course with a freemium business model; we want potential customers to take a look at our course and ensure it's a good fit before purchasing.
One huge success this year has been our partnerships with top-tier MBA schools. We sold student licenses for our PM interview course to schools like Stanford Graduate School of Business and Yale School of Management. While they haven't generated a large quantity in terms of raw revenue, these have been excellent ways to position our course as a high-quality product and expand our user base.
What are your goals for the future?
We're planning to launch our new interview prep courses for software engineering, data science, product marketing management, and more. We've developed a lot of content in-house, but we're also experimenting with bringing on a few content contributors to help us in areas where Jacob and I need more advice. Recently, we've hired coaches to meet the demands of these new career tracks.
Alongside our new course launches, we're also expanding our school customers by connecting with other top-tier MBA and undergraduate institutions. We're excited about these partnerships because students will get access to our course for free, and we dream of helping prepare everyone for the tech interview process.
We've had some newer products in development and recent launch, which you can check out here:
Lastly, we're getting ready to launch a brand new product alongside our course that will really help folks prepare for interviews. This product is currently in stealth mode, but if you're an aspiring PM and willing to spend an hour or so with our team testing it out, reach out to us!
What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome?
Our team is mostly remote, and that's introduced a lot of challenges and extra work when it comes to organization and communication. Most importantly, sometimes with remote work it can be hard to identify dormant interpersonal issues without explicitly checking in.
We've run into this a few times with our team, and thus we now schedule quarterly syncs across our whole team (this includes our 20+ coaches, 5+ contractors, and sometimes our affiliate partnerships). In each quarterly meeting, we actively solicit both positive and constructive feedback. We've found that these regular virtual check-ins help us prevent more serious team conflict down the road.
Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Exponent is a team effort, and we've been so fortunate to have connected with so many brilliant and kind people along this journey. I'm forever impressed with the incredible quality of coaches on our team who have offered valuable product suggestions and been essential members of our growing community. We've also brought on some contracting help with SEO and content creation that have drastically freed up time for Jacob and myself to focus on product strategy.
Get help early and often. I can't tell you how many times I've had a 30 minute phone call with an advisor or mentor that has saved literally weeks of our time by ensuring we're not making the same mistakes that other founders have made before us.
What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?
I'd say the number one habit that's been helpful for me is a “bias to action.” Most people sit around a dinner table chatting about some business idea they'll start some year in the future. But rarely do those people ask: “What's the next step to making this a reality?” The world is more pliable than we think it is. What can you do today to take a step toward that dream?
Where can we go to learn more?
We'd love to hear from you all! You can ask us questions in the comments below 👇.
—, Co-founder of Exponent
Want to build your own business like Exponent?
You should join the Indie Hackers community! 🤗
We're a few thousand founders helping each other build profitable businesses and side projects. Come share what you're working on and get feedback from your peers.
Not ready to get started on your product yet? No problem. The community is a great place to meet people, learn, and get your feet wet. Feel free to just browse!
—, Indie Hackers founder