I caught up with Nelson Thomas on a balmy New England evening. Nelson, originally from New Jersey, is the founder of ecoText, a student engagement and collaboration platform based in Boston.
ecoText came into being while Nelson and his classmates were in college and stemmed from their frustration with $300 textbooks. Today, Nelson chuckles at his memories of walking into the University of New Hampshire bookstore and walking right out. He believes that the textbooks’ price tags prevent students like him from being engaged in the learning process, and reaching their full academic potential.
Today, ecoText solves that problem through their library of over 100,000 resources and a platform that makes the reading process more engaging and collaborative than the lonely experience of traditional textbooks. The desire to create a more equitable and innovative academic future for scholars is what drives the team now four years into building the company. ecoText raised their pre-seed round led by Valor Ventures in the midst of the pandemic in 2020. Below are Nelson’s bits of wisdom and advice for aspiring and fellow founders.
What would you do differently if you were to start a company today?
That’s a good question! We started as college students, and we really didn’t know what we didn’t know. This journey has tested us so much, and I wouldn’t change anything that’s happened, but here’s my recommendation: always be recruiting talented people to join your team.
Don’t assume that you have to figure out everything on your own, and don’t expect yourself to have all the answers. There are people who have done the work and have the experience, leverage that! Find them, connect with them. Sometimes your biggest strength as a founder is your ability to aggregate talent and get the right people in the room.
What are some of the things you thought would be hard, but they ended up being easy?
One thing I had thought would be challenging was the hybrid work environment. If we are not all in person all the time, how will we be productive and do the work? As we matured past a college-based startup to a VC-backed company, we asked ourselves, “Does our team need to be in the same place, or can we operate hybrid?” and we found great success doing just that as it allows our team to work more sustainably together.
And vice versa, what had seemed easy that ended up being surprisingly hard?
I think this goes back to "not knowing what you don’t know," and for us that meant challenging what we believed to be true about our market and iterating our solution based on our new knowledge.
In today’s academic environment, there is an extreme risk to having students who are disengaged from what they are learning. If they are not engaged in what they are learning, they are not learning at all; and the value of our platform is providing the students with capability to engage in the reading assignments similar to how they would engage and interact on social media platforms. It increases the probability that students will persist through their courses and become stakeholders in their learning experience, which is what students want out of their courses today. This can really turn some light bulbs on, and makes students enthusiastic to develop the habit of learning.
Lately, the war in the Ukraine, inflation, Wade vs. Roe decision and other profound events have been shaking the headlines: what are some developments the founders should keep on their radars in the next 12 months?
I don’t know if I have a perfect answer since truly so much has been going on, but you do want to put your company in a position to weather storms.
You have to provide yourself with enough cash irrespective of what black swans may appear; as a founder, you have to be in a risk-averse, even defensive mode, but not to the extent that prevents you from growing your business. You should intelligently think of the cash you have, and ask yourself whether you have 2 - 2.5 years of runway and, if you don’t, start thinking about putting your financial toolbox together, mitigate spend, adjust projections and, if you can, up the frequency of payments to improve the cash flow.
These are the things I would suggest but at the end of the day I think a big part of being a founder is finding ways to stay in a fight. If you stay in a fight, you can’t lose.
You come from the New York City area, now based in Boston. What do you think makes the New England startup scene special and sets it apart for entrepreneurs and founders?
What I will say about the New England startup scene is that it’s very grounded and has been this way for a long time. It’s focused on quality over flash, to a degree.
You look at some of the other startup ecosystems, and you see a lot of ‘grow at any cost’ mentality, and we’ve seen it backfire. I think this attitude never really took hold of New England. It has always been focused on profitability, sustainability, on whether a company is going to be able to withstand storms. Are you a company that is going to be around for the next decade, or is it a flash in the pan that ends up crashing after getting funded at huge valuations?
New England has always been really good at building sustainable, profitable companies that are going to stand the test of time, with great fundamentals, discipline around their balance sheets and grip on what is going on with their bank accounts.
I think there is also patience for entrepreneurs here. Patience for the founders to build, and to build at a pace that does not compromise the ability to maintain that growth. There is an understanding that these things take time, but it allows strong companies to evolve at a pace that fits them.
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