Knack currently works out of the Tampa Bay WaVE. We went to see Samyr a couple weeks ago and had a great interview, deep-diving into the state of education, hiring tech talent, and maybe a little bit about Mario Kart.
Roxanne Williams: For our readers who don’t know what Knack is, can you give us the 30,000 foot overview?
Samyr Qureshi: Knack helps universities boost retention and graduation rates by having their high-achieving students sign up as a network of peer tutors and mentors. Essentially, if you’ve done well in a course or on a topic, you can sign up as a tutor, make yourself available, and students that need help can book you for in-person or online services. Those high-achieving students are able to build skills and showcase those to employers that care about that experience, as well as make money. The students that need help are able to get the help they need and hopefully graduate.
Roxanne: I would assume, when you say high-achieving students, they have to retain a certain GPA?
Samyr: Yeah. You have to have at least an A- in the course that you want to tutor. Every institution that we work with is a little different. Some of them require professor endorsements, some of them say A- and you’re good, some do background checks. It’ll really vary depending on the campuses that we work with. Typically, though, you have to have done well on that course.
Roxanne: What led you to start Knack?
Samyr: I’ve always felt there’s a lot of power in one-on-one individualized learning, and even in more intimate settings where you’re not necessarily in a class of 900 people. For me, it started at a young age when my parents had me tested for gifted. They told me I was the opposite of gifted, that I was going to be on a poor academic track, and I needed to be on medication. [Laughter]
In reality, I think my mom identified that I had a different learning style. She took it upon herself to become my first tutor, and carried me up through high school. In fact, I ended up becoming a tutor, and I excelled. I attribute a lot of that to that individualized attention. In K12, you get that type of learning because there’s a public system around you. Once you get into college, your parents aren’t there, and you’re not necessarily thinking about being successful in school as your first thought. You’re more on your own. We thought it was an interesting time to bring in a solution that previously didn’t exist.
Roxanne: Do you think that’s a failure in the educational system?
Samyr: I think it’s a constraint that public universities have to deal with because, by nature of them being public, they’re usually having to solicit the legislature for money and folks always think about, “Let’s staff up teachers. Let’s staff up to get more students through the door.” But how do we make sure those students succeed?
I think a lot of institutions are starting to wake up to that because they have to. There have been a lot of grants, there has been a lot of movement towards retention and student success, so it’s not necessarily that they’ve overlooked it. I just think the incentives have been really difficult to align to ensure students have succeeded until now.
Roxanne: You guys seem to be acquiring investors left and right. So far you’ve raised $1.5 million and I think you guys just got an extra $125,000 through Village Capital. What has all this funding meant for the company? What have you been able to accomplish with the extra funds?
Samyr: Definitely extending our runway a lot, allowing us to operate for a longer period of time, and also being able to staff up. We’ve hired two engineers since, and ultimately, basically grow our sales and marketing efforts. Spend more money to go visit clients, spend more money to get in front of clients through content, trade shows, those sorts of things. Ultimately, getting us some more breathing room and also giving us more manpower to staff up.
Roxanne: Is this considered seed funding?
Samyr: Yeah. Companies have multiple rounds of seed funding, so this is kind of our actual seed round. Prior to this, we called it pre-seed angel money. We still have about 18 to 24 months before Series A, so a long time, but hopefully enough to get our numbers up to where they need to be.
Roxanne: There were four of you at the start, right?
Roxanne: How does that work? Is everybody part-owner?
Samyr: Four co-founders, two are focused on product and technology, and the other two are focused on operations and marketing / sales. It’s been really nice because for a long time, we didn’t have to grow our team very much. We had what we needed. It’s really been in the last year and a half that we’ve staffed up. We’ve pretty much doubled our team in the last eight months. So, it allowed to us to keep folks intrinsically motivated, because everyone has a piece of what they’re doing equity-wise, and everyone has their own area that they own. We’ve been able to divide and conquer.
Roxanne: What tech stack do you guys use?
Roxanne: Speaking to my heart right there. I love AWS. How many employers and colleges have you been able to rally to your cause so far?
Samyr: Our former business model is direct to consumer, so we didn’t necessarily need any blessing of universities, we just kind of launched. We got the business up to about 60 campuses that way, and now what we’re focusing on is converting them as direct partners. As of now, we have two that are signed partners: Arizona State University and Lynn University down in Boca. By the start of the fall, we’re hoping for about 10 more. After that, we hope to be doubling every year.
Savannah Starnes: You guys went to UF, right?
Samyr: Most of us, yeah. Three out of the four of us co-founders went there and then Shawn, our marketing co-founder, went to UCF and played soccer there.
Roxanne: How did you meet him?
Samyr: We worked together previously.
Savannah: I’m surprised they’re not really more behind you guys.
Samyr: They are a school that we’re hoping to work with very soon. We’ve had a lot of conversations with them. It is our best campus in terms of usage, because we were born there. We’ve basically cut off all marketing on consumer side, and it’s still continuing to grow because we were housed on campus. I mean, the company was founded on their campus. We had our own office in one of the buildings. But at the end of the day, I would hope that every institution could do that for their students, because most of us were former students and when we did start the company, Dennis was actually a current student. So, we got free space, we won their business planning competitions, we got 25k cash, and free legal advice. They supported us a good amount and now we’re hoping they’ll support us by becoming a customer.
Roxanne: I’m curious now – Florida Poly, are you guys involved with them?
Samyr: No, I just haven’t had a chance to meet some of the administration there. I always think of it as the peripheral of Tampa because it’s in Lakeland. I know it’s a newer school, so I’m hoping that they prioritize student success – which I think they do. It’s a matter of us getting in front of them.
Roxanne: You have some awesome people on your board of advisors: Jeff Vinik, Alex Sink. How did you score these partnerships?
Samyr: They’re both actually investors as well. Alex Sink was through the WaVE, she’s a mentor here. We kept meeting and one day, she just said, “I’ve been helping you so much and it’s been working out, I should just invest.” And I said, “Yeah, you should.” I held her to her word and kept giving her updates, and eventually she said, “Alright, I’m in.” By nature of her getting involved, and ASU (the university took a direct equity stake in the business), I think enough of Jeff’s friends and colleagues had talked to him about us. We sent out one newsletter through the WaVE, and Jeff’s family office reached out to us and said they’d be interested in meeting.
We definitely did a lot to try to get on his radar and I think it worked, but at the same time, I think he’s excited about our business. He’s on our board as an observer, and Alex Sink is on the advisory board. There’s a really interesting group of people behind us.
I think what’s interesting is we’ve got the largest testing company in the world now backing us, one of the largest universities in the world backing us, one of the best hedge fund managers in the world, really amazing former politician, and someone who’s a huge champion of Tampa, Alex Sink. We’ve went by the mantra of: surround yourself with people that want to see you win and eventually you will win. It’s building out that support of peers and cheerleaders, if you will.
Roxanne: Since we’re on the topic of Alex Sink, what’s the single best piece of advice she’s given you, from an advisory standpoint?
Samyr: Do what’s best for your business. There was a point where we were really struggling to find capital – I’m talking maybe a few short weeks away from shutting the company down. Alex Sink was someone who I basically told, “Look, we’re probably going to leave Tampa just because I can’t find capital. I’ve literally tried everything I can.” The first thing I was expecting her to say was, “You can’t leave Tampa, you shouldn’t leave Tampa,” which I would agree with both of those. My family’s here and I’d love to stay here. But she ultimately said, “You have to do what’s best for your business, and if that means leaving, just know that I’ll continue to support you.”
Coming from someone who is CFO of the state, I think it would be really difficult for her to say that. But she said it because she understood that at the end of the day, companies have to do what’s best for them. If we’ve exhausted everything here, then that’s the right thing for us to do. It wasn’t what I was expecting to hear from her, but she’s always been an incredible supporter. She emailed me this morning. She’s always thinking of us, and it means a lot to us.
Savannah: People continuously say that finding capital in Tampa is really hard. What advice would you give to companies that are in Tampa on finding that capital?
Samyr: Put yourself out there. At one point, we had between $300,000-$500,000 raised in capital, and I was still going to pitch events. People were like, “You guys have the capital you need.” And I said, “We’re trying to raise a million and a half, I need to keep putting myself out there.” I didn’t really care if I looked like I just raised and I still needed to go pitch, I was doing it because I knew what we needed.
You have to keep going out there and travel. Our first two rounds of funding were actually from San Francisco. We took that momentum and brought it back here and said to the investors that ignored us the first three times, “We have a VC on the west coast backing us.” And that opened their eyes a little bit to say, “Alright, let’s look at this again.”
Eventually, some of them ended up writing checks. It’s driving momentum very quickly, and creating urgency without coming across as pushy. We were able to do that by grabbing capital from San Francisco, New York, Boston, and then coming back to Tampa and saying, “Look, this is where we want to build the company, but we need backing.” If other folks from other geographies are backing us, we’re more likely to go there. Honestly, in the last year, and even nine months, the way this geography has changed with fundraising is incredible.
Half the funds or groups that are here now weren’t there a year and a half ago when we were pitching. Where they’ve made a lot of progress, that enables them to fund more companies by raising larger funds, by changing the dynamics. I think Florida Funders has come a long way with their crowdfunding-esque network. When I met them, it definitely wasn’t set up that way, which made it very difficult to get money. It’s just part of a growing ecosystem – it’s going to be a problem, hopefully a temporary problem.
Roxanne: Knack must be incredible to get capital from outside. The thing we’ve always heard from our interviews is, if you get funding from outside the area, they’re going to want you to move there because they want you close so they can help you. The fact that you’ve been able to get investments from outside is awesome. And yeah, capital has improved dramatically. Are you familiar with A-LIGN?
Samyr: The cybersecurity company?
Roxanne: Yeah. 54 million from FTV Capital. It’s improving, it’s just traditionally been hospitality, real estate, typical Florida things. As people catch up that Tampa is in fact amazing for tech, the funding will come.
Samyr: I just had a great meeting with Florida Funders about the way they’re doing capital raises for founders now, and they’re really the army that’s going out and converting the mindsets of people locally. Two years ago, it was entrepreneurs, and it still is to some extent.
We’re the first investment of a few funds. For example, DCS Capital, Derek C. Sierra – I think we’re still the only logo on the site [confirmed!]. And, TiE Tampa Bay – we were the first investment out of their fund.
The hard part was getting people warmed up to investing. I don’t necessarily think that should be the role of an entrepreneur. That should be the role of the community. So, it’s nice to see Florida Funders go out there, be the boots on the ground, and say, “Here’s a platform. You can invest $5,000, you can invest $25,000.” And it’s a passive way of browsing companies. We’ve needed that for a while and I’m really excited to see that that’s here. I think that’ll help a lot.
Roxanne: Yeah. We just interviewed Aharon Chernin from Perch and he called it a chicken and the egg problem. Entrepreneurs or capital, which comes first?
Samyr: Exactly, and it gets dangerous if it’s tipped in the wrong way on both sides. If you have too many investors, there’s just capital flowing to potentially the wrong companies, or at the wrong amounts at the wrong valuations. If you have too little investors in too many startups, investors start to, at times, dictate terms that may be potentially dangerous for founders. We’re reaching an equilibrium where it’s becoming healthier, but it’s going to take a lot of time to get it completely baked out on both sides.
Roxanne: Absolutely. Between starting your own company, getting seed capital, and an amazing board of advisors, what’s been your proudest accomplishment?
Samyr: I think partnering with universities directly. From day one, pretty much every investor said, “You guys are crazy for going direct to college students. Why are they going to pay for tutoring when the first thing they think about is pizza and beer and having a good time with their friends? And why aren’t you going to the institutions?” We stuck to our guns for a long time. I was 22, we’re first time founders, we had raised $50,000, we had one mobile app product. We had everything against us.
An institution is going to look at us and laugh and basically say, “What do you know about education? What do you know about the way college students learn?” And, “We’re not going to pay for this. We have our own tutoring center.” So, every investor said, “You need to go directly to the institution and you need to sell to them.” And I think we knew that if we tried right off the bat without any groundswell activity of students saying they loved this product, we weren’t going to succeed. I still believe that to be true, and we rode it pretty much to the point where we almost had no capital left.
But we realized we were going to have to keep raising a ton of money to market to students. Our ability to achieve that mission of working with the institution directly was realized a lot sooner. That came from talking to ASU and meeting with them, them investing directly, and now putting us on a pedestal and saying, “This is a company you need to look at as a way to invest in student success.”
We basically now have the best of both worlds. Yes, we sell to the institution, but the end user is always a student. It’s cool to have someone else paying for it, it’s like university being big mom and big dad saying, “We’ll fund this for you,” but still getting to design and build a product for students. I think getting to that point as early as we did was something to be proud of. The team that we have behind us is one-of-a-kind.
Roxanne: Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs who may be struggling?
Samyr: In the nicest way possible, get used to it. But at the same time, don’t lose hope.
I think it’s balance, in a sense: it’s never really going to get easier, that’s just the reality of it. You’ll have easier moments where people trust you, people fund you because they see potential, but that doesn’t mean the metrics are going to get any easier to attain. The bar is always going to be pushed higher, competition’s always going to come up.
So, don’t lose hope. Find people that want to see you win, build that network around you. If they can’t fund you or they can’t be a customer, by word of mouth, and by their support, they may open doors. That’s exactly what happened with us with getting money from Jeff Vinik. Folks like Alex Sink said, “We should pay attention to this company.” And folks like the WaVE said, “We’re going to spotlight this company.” Obviously, I made some efforts to reach them too, but that together means more than just the entrepreneur alone. So, it’s really about building that network.
Roxanne: What are your thoughts on the pool of tech talent in Tampa? Having done all these interviews, I get some very mixed reviews. There are still some things that are hard to find like Python, advanced PHP, Golang, and RoR. What are your thoughts?
Samyr: What’s really difficult is, startups all have their talent needs. But then you add constraints like location, stack, and years of experience. With each one of those constraints, you start to have various levels of your ability to recruit.
One thing I will say about our company is that diversity’s really important to us. As a first generation college student, first generation immigrant, and having a veteran on our team, we really want to build a team that’s diverse. Finding tech talent in Tampa is hard, and then if you want to keep a special eye for diverse and underrepresented talent, it’s just a whole other layer of difficulty. At the end of the day, you just have to be diligent, and work with recruiters if that helps. I think it definitely can. It just depends on your appetite for how much of a need it is, what you’re willing and able to spend on it.
In the beginning, I would argue the founder knows most about the sort of individual they need. But if you can hand it to a recruiter and say, “This is what we need,” it helps.
Could the talent ecosystem be better? 100%. But it’s that same supply and demand sort of thing. We just need more supply. That comes from a developed ecosystem, and it comes from attractive companies that bring talent here. Almost every single hire we’ve had, we’ve imported – Colorado, Gainesville, North Carolina.
There’s a cost to that, but it’s still cheaper than moving your company to those locations. And again, we want to stay in Tampa, so if that means we have to relocate someone, it’s not out of the question. So, it’s really hard. I don’t think it’s a great talent ecosystem. But I don’t think it’s the worst. And it’s progressively getting better.
Savannah: How does the app work if I’m a tutor? What’s the pay structure?
Samyr: You set your rate. If we’re not partnered with your campus, you keep 80% of your earnings, which from what we can tell, is the highest tutor earnings out of all the other marketplaces. If we are partnered with your campus, you keep everything. So, ASU, those tutors will keep all of their earnings.
Savannah: 80% is great too.
Samyr: Right, yeah, and you set your rates. If you feel like you’re worth $30/hr, at the end of the day, you’re taking home over $20/hr. That’s triple minimum wage in Florida.
Roxanne: What do you think Tampa as a whole can do to increase talent retention? We do import people, but we see so many leaving for other, bigger tech hubs where they can get paid higher salaries.
Samyr: I lived in San Francisco for a little while to raise money. One thing that I have never seen in any other ecosystem is how easy it is to meet people and have a social life. I enjoy going out to bars, but I don’t want to look at drinking as the only way to meet people. Things like Sparkman are great, but they’re consumed by restaurants and drinking culture. And it’s fine, but I would love to see more events, gatherings, clubs, and groups, things to do that you can get to know people and it doesn’t necessarily require everyone to be taking shots. I think it’d be great if there were more events that were more about getting to know people.
That’s what I love about certain businesses around here like Peerfit. I think they’re attacking it in a really interesting way of workplace culture. But outside of work, if I wanted to go meet people in Tampa today, I don’t know where I’d go. I could go to a meetup, but I’m going to meet the same people. What I want is to meet people that I wouldn’t typically meet otherwise, and people that want to be leaders of this town, people that have common goals, and I just find it really difficult to find those folks. If you’re not in that culture, how do you meet people? It’s hard.
Roxanne: Have you hit up High Tech Connect yet?
Roxanne: Oh, man. Go to the next one. It’s a pretty awesome meetup as far as tech goes. The last one had around 200 people. I would definitely point you in the direction of Jeff Fudge. He runs High Tech Connect and then he also runs the AWS meetup and the Azure meetup. He’s a huge community pillar. I think he could put you in touch with some good people on that.
Samyr: That’s awesome.
Roxanne: What do you hope to see in the next few years for Tampa Bay when it comes to tech, barring capital, since we talked about that?
Samyr: Just more people. Hopefully, by that nature, we see more diversity. I think it will come. But I think just more supply. The stuff Toni Warren is doing, the stuff LaunchCode is doing, it’s bolstering and developing an ecosystem. But it takes time, and I think what I’d like to see is for me to get some more patience. At the end of the day just an influx of younger talent. But I’m hoping that with the Scripts, the Peerfits, the Knacks, we’re able to attract that.
Roxanne: Who is someone outside of Knack, but in Tampa, that you think is doing something cool and innovative?
Samyr: Reef House Media. I don’t know if you guys know Ronny Herrera. He runs a video marketing production company and his model, with video, is really interesting. It’s basically a recurring model. One of his big clients is Peerfit, and he’ll do case studies, he’ll do motion graphics, he’ll do explainer videos, all-purpose sorts of videos but on a model where you’re getting a lot of content every month. If you’re a company that wants to engage an audience at all times but instead of doing it in blog form or long form of 20 minutes, he can do them in bite-size chunks, and he does it in a way that’s super cost effective. It’s cheaper than hiring your own marketing person.
I went to school with him and I’ve watched him progress his model. It’s one that makes a lot of sense for Series A, Series B, where they want testimonials, explainers, or HR videos. He’s got a drone that he does drone shots with, so it’s super sexy. Really cool to see the dynamic content he can provide and produce. He does it at scale with his team, so I’m really excited to see what he does.
Roxanne: My last one for you is, are there any further thoughts you’d like to share? Anything exciting coming down the pipeline for the company or for yourself?
Samyr: In the fall, we’ll be launching with more customers as official partners, which is really cool. We’re changing up the way we do distribution, which would really only be visible to our users but yeah, I just think that kind of evolution and the way we’re reaching students is much more organic.
You all do the Mario Kart tournaments, right?
Roxanne: Yeah, that’s us. We’re doing it in April. If you can come to this one, get a team, compete.
Samyr: Yeah, we will. That’s awesome.
Savannah: There’s a lot of smack talk that goes on, so bring your A game. [Laughter]
Knack is the fastest growing peer learning platform active on 50+ campuses. They activate high-achieving students to act as a network of peer educators (tutors, mentors, advisors, coaches, etc.) through a student-to-student skill-sharing platform.
By transforming peer learning interactions into high-impact, co-curricular activities, they’re helping students build, validate, and showcase their 21st century skills known to be vital for success in the classroom and modern-day workplace.
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