High school students do not usually have the necessary background for work, be it in a lab, an office or a 9-5 in the field. It’s almost like throwing a non-swimmer into the sea, and asking them to swim to the shore. It is how most high school students feel, being told to get college credit. They try to score internships, discover their passions, and taste the real world on their own, and are rewarded with cold emails and indifference. Seeing deserving students being left out and less than competent students getting internships due to contacts, a few students decided to level the playing ground.
Enter WorkTeen. The initial founding team consisted of 3 members. 3 IB students in Mumbai, hardened by their experience, looking to complete IB extra-curricular requirements and wanting to ride on the start-up roller coaster. Knowing a thing or two about responsive web programming, Kunal Mishra and Aayush Chadha spent three months starting July last year to put up the first version of the website, which launched in October 2015. While the two of them spent time selecting fonts and dealing with device scaling issues, the third co-founder, Abhijoy Nandi travelled the length and breadth of Mumbai. For a while, the founders’ CSS inspired motto “Whatever works” made things run smoothly for a while, but in the week the website was supposed to go live, the team ran into a wall.
The Hunt for the Domain Name
WorkTeen’s current domain is www.workteen.org, however, that was never the founder’s first choice. Initially, the founders eyed workteen.com, but someone out of America already owned it and was asking 750$ for it. With no cash-flow or investors, making such an investment so early was a one-way ticket back to the dirt. Without a choice, workteen.org was leased, and the website went live in Mumbai on 15th October, 2015 with a database boasting ten opportunities, mostly with small non-governmental organisations who sought volunteers.
The Three Degrees of Separation
Within 7 months of operation, WorkTeen partnered with the likes of Make-A-Wish Foundation, Indian Institute of Technology, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Saibaba Telefilms amongst others, allowing high school students to work at some of the foremost institutes and organisations in the nation. When asked about how they went about doing this, Kunal jokes, “We were pretty shameless about it. We asked pretty much everyone we saw in school. Soon, people avoided us. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. We learnt that going through unofficial channels was faster and easier for us”. Aayush added that “At times it was far easier, just head to a company website, look for the Contact Us page and send some emails. Some gracious folks replied to our emails with encouraging words and willingness to take on high school students”. Banking on 3 degrees of separation and the power of connectors, the team made contact with people who could really help them find opportunities that would have otherwise been hard to come by.
Any startup story is incomplete without struggles that shape its characters. In its nascent stages, it had a few hiccoughs here and there. There were the obvious technical issues of launching a minimum viable product, though those were sorted early.
Biggest trouble, however, was the initial cohort of data collectors.
Aayush reminisces, “When we had started, we generated some excitement in our peer group. There were people from our school who were eager to work with us. At that time, it made sense; the junior batch didn’t have many commitments. With a team of 4 data collectors, we thought we could get stuff done quickly. But 2 of them didn’t have the same drive as us and the opportunities they brought in were far and few in between. It was really a time and productivity sink for us since they sent out emails weeks after they were instructed. They ended up leaving any which way, knowing they weren’t doing justice to their positions.”
“Nonetheless, 2 of them, Eshan and Prajna did stick it out.” Aayush continues. “Prajna was actually a very good data collector, she formed really personal connections with various NGO heads who still give us opportunities much after she left due to academic commitments. Eshan, on the other hand, is still with us, utilising the reliable Mumbai local to get to meetings. For his continued loyalty, we have decided to let him oversee data collectors in other cities.” the founders note about their close friends.
By December 2015, the team that consisted of 3 founders and 4 data collectors was reduced to 3 founders and 1 data collector. Needless to say, it left a sour taste in the mouths of those involved. This though was a turning point, and come the new year; there were new opportunities in store for WorkTeen.
During November 2015, word got around that a website run by high school students in Delhi was doing the same thing as WorkTeen. They were corporate funded, had a more nurturing environment at their school and wanted to expand to Mumbai. Abhijoy remembers, “We all were a bit spooked at that point. In fact, Aayush happened to meet their founders in Delhi when he was on a vacation and was quite agitated about the data collectors not doing enough. He didn’t want to lose out to a bunch of people who did this for college applications and put in half the effort as us”. It wasn’t until January that things levelled out.
4th January 2016, 1:14 AM, the team received news that they had been selected as a Top-100 Startup at Amrita TBI PitchFest, an annual start up competition organised by Amrita TBI, which is amongst the top-5 most prolific incubators in the country as per Economic Times. Only a few days back, the website had reached 1000 users and had expanded to Bangalore. With some serious street credibility, emails got more replies and people started taking them more seriously.
The new year also earmarked the entry of Yathansh Kulshrestha, who went on to become the 4th co-founder. Being a winner of the Google Code In, Yathansh’s technical competence helped the website not only expand to Jaipur but also move towards a more stable codebase. “His skill set really helped us learn a lot more things like the use of Git, FileZilla and gain exposure to some really neat frameworks out there,” Kunal remarked approvingly when asked about his colleague. With four founders, 2 data collectors in each city and three cities, the team was excited to generate more buzz.
They now seek to expand to other Indian metropolises with their new friends. With the combined technical skill of 3 co-founders, there are plans for a reinvented user experience. The team maintains high expectations of themselves and has a ten point checklist for future developments. They try to keep the ball rolling by posting and uploading listings every week. Their efforts so far point to the fact that they are in this for the long term and aren’t going to abandon those who come after them by ceasing operations due to their own college admissions. What remains to be seen is if they can sustain the same enthusiasm as they have so far displayed.