By Megan Schaefer
While working on his homework one night during his freshman year, Michael Koetting, a business honors major, encountered an issue with one of his calculus problems. Like many college students, curious to see who might be encountering similar problems from his class, he turned to Facebook. After finding no one to help him, Koetting, wondered how many other students were seeking help on Facebook and began to think about how helpful it would be to have a domain where you could post queries about academic issues. That was three years ago.
The result: Hoot.Me is a Facebook application that allows you to connect with your classmates and professors by adding your specific class to the program, “turning your social network into a knowledge network.” The app also allows you to connect with professional tutors by clicking the ‘request a tutor’ button. Some of the most popular functions of Hoot are: being able to video conference with up to eight people at once through Facebook, using the ‘Doodle’ tool, which allows you to draw something out on the screen to share with other viewers, and the ‘Math it up’ tool that lets you type equations for math, logic, chemistry, etc. The app is free, but there is a charge for help from a tutor, which varies by individual. Currently, Hoot.Me is used regularly by over 15,000 students worldwide, according to Koetting.
Koetting, who is now a senior, has taken his idea and created a full-time business, along with co-founders Gaurav Sanghavi, a computing science honors major, and Sid Upadhyay, a math major. “I first heard the idea from Michael after our MIS professor encouraged the two of us to meet,” Upadhyay says. “I wasn’t as confident when he initially told me about the idea, however I called Michael back a few weeks later because at the heart of the idea was something much bigger.”
During their sophomore year, the three entrepreneurs say they decided to test their idea at the Startup Camp in Miami, a convention held each year to help validate entrepreneur pitches in real time — and create a larger network for all. “We were still in the early stages of our project, but we wanted to see if we were on the right track,” Koetting explains. “We were the only ones in suits and we were the youngest people there. Our project consisted of mostly photoshopped slides, but we really believed in it and kept saying that this could work.”
The pitch by the three youngest contestants’ won the competition, according to Koetting. Soon after, they received help and funding from DreamIt Ventures, whose mission is to look for the best ideas and give mentoring, access capital and accounting and legal services to startup companies.
Hoot.Me’s home-base is within the Longhorn Startup Camp in the School of Information, founded by Bob Metcalfe, UT professor of Innovation and creator of the Ethernet, “Hoot.Me is more than an idea,” Metcalfe says. “They have a balanced team, a rapidly evolving product (turning Facebook into study mode), and they have thousands of users.” According to Metcalfe, the camp currently houses about 40 innovative startups such as reQwip, an online and mobile marketplace for new and used sporting goods, and clay.io, a platform for HTML5 games. “Being given a space to create and having a mentor like Dr. Metcalfe has been really helpful,” says Koetting. “We are also surrounded by like-minded people, entrepreneurs like ourselves, which keeps us motivated.”
Next, Koetting and his partners say they want to help “scale teaching” by reaching out to professors and teaching assistants directly. They are working on an administrative tool for educators in the hopes of giving teachers a better way to communicate more effectively and efficiently with students, and giving them a little more control when it comes to cheating and assignments. “I want Hoot to be the first website students open up as soon as they start their homework,” Sanghani says. “I want it to be the de facto collaboration tool for students and teachers.”
After graduation in May, Hoot.Me’s creators say they intend to make the business their full-time priority, according to Koetting: “Knowing that our program helped at least one person figure out a problem or a professor connect with their students better is very rewarding. We want to continue to make the app more user friendly and make the program feel more tailored and personal for the individual using it.”