3 Day Startup Alumni Spotlight: Michael Koetting of Hoot.me

Lauren Johson interned at 3 Day Startup during the ridiculously hot Austin summer of 2011. She spent 8 weeks tracking down 3DS alumni and interviewing them about their experience during and after 3DS.

“I got asked the other day, ‘What’s your biggest…obstacle?’ And that was truly the fact that we have to stop for food and sleep right now. I mean, we’re just so in love with what we’re doing.”

– Michael Koetting

Michael Koetting just might be a ladykiller. The cofounder and CEO of Hoot.me seems to have love on the brain. Sorry ladies, but I’m not talking about you right now; Michael’s love interest is definitely his company. Want proof? In our twenty six minute interview, Michael used the words “love” and “passion” no less than eight times.

Hoot effectively uses the Facebook platform for those needing study help. Video and voice conferencing are available, as well as other collaborative tools. “Smart chat” is a unique feature that allows you to type in math or chemistry equations in plain English and have them automatically reformatted to look the way they should.

So, one year into the startup world, is he still in the honeymoon phase, or are there times when he wants to break up with Hoot?

“Uh, yeah!” he laughs. “It’s like a roller coaster, I mean, we go through those moments. I think we’ve all hit those walls where, we would never say that we want to quit or anything like that, I mean, that’s a whole other extreme. I mean, the days where I wake up and think, ‘Man, why am I not just a farmer on some pasture watching the sun set?’ Yeah, we have those days. But that feeling quickly goes away because we really, really do love this.”

What brings him back after all those ups and downs? “It’s that passion. We’re doing something that can have real, tangible effects and outcomes and it’s like dating too, you know what I mean? If the game gets a little bit harder, sometimes you want to be a little bit more engaged with it, too. You get more addicted and more involved by the challenges because it becomes a test of character and drive and we don’t like failure! We only like failure when it helps us learn how to succeed at the next level.”

How did this technological romance start? A friend from Harvard asked Michael to join him in a business plan competition. They tossed around a few ideas and then, “All of a sudden, I was literally up one night stuck on Calculus, and I thought ‘Man, I wish I could click on something and see all my Facebook friends who are doing this right now. ‘Cause I know there’s at least a hundred people working on this and probably stuck on this problem. But I just don’t know who they are and I can’t access them through Facebook the way I want to.”

Michael and his friend pitched the concept to Sid, who Michael had met through the UT Business Honors Program. Sid laughed. But a week later, he was on board. “He said, ‘Ok, let’s do this. Let’s basically switch Facebook into study mode. Let’s build Facebook out.’”

From there, Michael and Sid built out a prototype for Hoot and entered 3 Day Startup in October of 2010. “It was at 3 Day Startup where we realized we could actually build a company out of this, as opposed to just being a business plan. And, of course, after 3 Day Startup, we formed the legal entity which disqualified us from any business plan competition.”

According to Michael, 3 Day Startup is all about “building a community of relationships… it’s an awesome gang…It’s awesome because you’re able to associate an experience with the knowledge intake…the market validation and the questions that were fired at us that weekend, those are all associated to that experience, so it’s very, very memorable. So, it’s…different than just a classroom setting where you’ve got a teacher up at the board telling you, ‘Here are the four bullet points to success…’ 3 Day Startup, since you’re actually going through the experience in such a memorable way, it adds that whole extra component to it…It’s an academic experience coupled with real world experience.”

Michael asked if I’d ever seen a 3 Day Startup.

“No, I haven’t been able to attend one,” I replied.

“Aw man, you’re missing out!…The first night is crazy because it’s all about pitching and elevator pitches and I think the most important thing is, to make sure if you go in, you have an idea that you’re passionate about to make sure it’s extremely well thought out and that you’ve looked at all sides of the equation and that you’ve validated it as much as possible. And then, the other thing is, make sure that you know how to communicate it. I’ve seen a ton of good ideas. Both at the level where they’re actually up on stage at conferences and then also at the pitch level for weekend events like 3 Day Startup where you’ve got a great idea, but the person behind it just can’t communicate it effectively. So, they know exactly what they want to do, but they can’t tell the people around them, and it’s sad to see good ideas get lost in translation.”

Michael, who refers to himself as the “Chief Shenanigans Officer,” and Sid, who Michael describes as “a technology entrepreneur/doer,” partner on product decisions. They hired Gaurav–Sid’s main competition in hackathons–to handle more of the technical end of the business. Michael works on  storyboarding and wireframing and hands it over to Sid and Guarav who “code like crazy.” According to Michael, “That’s just part of having a good team. You know your place when an issue pops up.”

“Sid and I have a passion for this stuff and I think it all starts at the passion level…Gaurav for that matter too. We wake up every day truly excited about getting to run a company and, it sounds silly, but I think if you really peel back the layers, we probably really do believe that we can make a difference here on a big level. We really want to change the way people think about education and get technology in the classrooms because we feel that’s important. So, there’s a big cause component to this too that we’re passionate about. We’ve got a drive like no other.”

Has Hoot changed at all since its original incarnation as a place to find other students who were struggling with the homework problems?

“You know, ‘pivot’ has been the buzz word of every startup I hear in the accelerator or incubation stage, but we certainly ‘adapted’ along the way. But I wouldn’t say that there’s been any point where we’ve woken up and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we need to go sell barbecue pits through an online marketplace instead of study help!’…Really the idea has just been fine-tuned and grown to be more specific for the problem. That’s just from talking to students and getting hammered in the market validation stage which is something that 3 Day Startup does pretty well.”

Michael, himself, has “pivoted” throughout the years. He started off as a techie kid and has  morphed into a businessman.

“I always wanted to do something along these lines. I always wanted to run a company at some point. In…middle school, I started my own little DJ business and it grew to a pretty good level where I had a contract with one of the big public schools in my community…I had always had that little buzz…I originally started out writing HTML when I was in 5th grade. So, I had a passion for the technology stuff and I just kinda hit a phase in there where my interests got away from the hard coding and got over to the business side…this has always kinda been a part of me.”

Michael and his cofounders, Sid and Gaurav, launched Hoot.me at StartupCamp 3: Comms Edition 3 in February of this year, where they won the event. Market research convinced them to rebuild and release a new version that was recently featured on Mashable.com.

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