I Need a Pencil
I first encountered Jason Shah in an e-mail describing his web site, I Need a Pencil. I get lots of PR pitches about web products and I almost always ignore them. But something here caught me eye. First, Jason is a student; an undergraduate at Harvard, to be precise. Second, the service is free. And third, and most important, I Need a Pencil works in close conjunction with college access organizations around the world.
Put simply: Jason thinks that everyone should have access to SAT prep tools, especially those for whom access to college is neither expected nor guaranteed.
I concluded that Jason is someone that we had to meet. He agreed to sit through an interview to talk about his vision, life at Harvard, and what’s it’s like trying to run a company while a student.
Tell me the I Need a Pencil story.
I started INeedAPencil.com in March 2006 out of my frustration with limited options for students seeking quality test and college preparation tools without paying an arm and a leg. I was a junior in high school, and I was tutoring fellow students for the SAT when I realized how limited my reach was and how repetitive my job became.
Inspired by my family, especially my sister who had taught in charter schools, I decided to launch INeedAPencil.com as my attempt to extend college access to more people.
What specific events led you from Jason the high school student to Jason student with a company?
A pair of visits to my sister’s school where she taught in West Philadelphia. I still remember a sixth grader who asked me while he was working on his Thanksgiving essay how to spell the word ‘ball’ three separate times. It really struck me that there was such a gap in educational opportunities.
On a personal level, I changed high schools after my freshman year because my parents moved for my dad’s job. It made me rethink priorities when I had this ‘fresh start.’ I wanted something different out of Florida.
Funding was an issue. But I just got scrappy. I found web developers to do the initial work on the cheap while saving some features for after launch. I have used viral marketing techniques, rather than expensive mailing campaigns, such as friend referrals on my site and Facebook. Ultimately the initial costs were brought to less than $10,000 and I was fortunate enough to have the support of family and friends to raise that funding
What was your life like running the company as a high school student?
In three words: stressful but cool. When starting out, I wouldn’t go to bed until 3 or 4 and would be up by 6. Junior and senior year of high school are already stressful enough with college apps, clubs, community service, shows, exams…and classes [ed: unless you take a Zen approach and avoid the laundry-list trap].
I often did my homework during class whenever possible and would constantly be using my teacher’s in-class computers as my personal work stations during passing time when everyone was lingering in the halls.
A typical schedule: I would wake up and work for a couple hours on things that needed to be done by the web developers in India, so that it would get done before their workday was over. Then I’d go to school, come back, make calls, write reports and send emails until bed.
What’s life like now at Harvard?
I spend about 20 hours a week working on INeedAPencil.com.
The site fits in well with the other two stuff I do on campus. My main two activities are the Harvard College Entrepreneurship Forum and the Harvard South Asian Men’s Collective. The former focuses on empowering student entrepreneurs while the latter is a charitable and social organization dedicated to raising funds for charities improving the life of South Asians, in South Asia and the US.
Although these activities certainly put a greater strain on time than if I just did my classes and INAP, I find the experiences to be invaluable parts of college and way to learn lessons that entrepreneurship may not otherwise teach me.
On Study Hacks, we talk about The Law of Complementary Accomplishments, which says when you do one thing really well lots of other impressive accomplishments come along for free. Has this happened for you?
For starters, I think college admissions and scholarships were a lot easier with my experience and ability to talk about INeedAPencil.com. The McKelvey Foundation awarded me its prestigious Entrepreneurial Scholar award for $40,000 towards my college education; that with a couple other scholarships definitely were attributable to my work with INAP. Also, through the site I’ve come to meet some phenomenal people working in education; most recently this has included a series of professors at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. I have also been offered a couple trips from Malaysia to North Carolina for a social entrepreneurship award and presentations. I have had phone calls with a lot of second degree connections to solicit advice and speaking with big CEOs and VPs has been really cool.
What advice would you have for a young student looking to make his or her mark.
For someone with the right idea, I’d strongly recommend to start looking at what frustrates you. Clearly it needs a solution. I get at least two or three business ideas a day just from seeing what annoys me or seems like it can be done better. Keep an eye for these things and train yourself because it’s all about the way you think, not what you think of.
As far as time and talent, that’s purely psychological. I have a million reasons to not ‘have the time’ but you can make time if an idea is worth pursuing. That either comes through sacrificing your time on Facebook or putting this new initiative as a higher priority than other things.