Arman Jaffer is the Founder & CEO of Brisk Teaching, an AI tool for teachers. Arman participated in the Spring 2023 SPC Founder Fellowship cohort. I talked with Arman about what initially attracted him to the SPC community, the types of founders SPC is looking for, and what advice he would give to someone applying to the SPC Founder Fellowship.
- The SPC Founder Fellowship has no set endpoint – it could be months or a few years, depending on how long it takes for a startup to raise outside money.
- The SPC Founder Fellowship indexes heavily on founder-market fit and domain expertise. Arman summed it up nicely, “They are less concerned about the specific iteration of the project that you’re working on right now … (and) more about whether you are the right person to fund in this problem space.”
- The SPC Founder Fellowship keeps batch sizes small. Each SPC Partner only works with 2 startups per batch.
KR: Thanks, Arman, for joining me today. First, can you briefly introduce yourself and what you’re working on?
AJ: Sure, my name is Arman. I studied at Berkeley, similar to you, Computer Science and Economics. My first job out of college was actually at the White House in the Office of the CTO. The administration changed, and I didn’t want to stick around. I was doing tech policy, one of my passions but it didn’t feel like the right time. So, I joined the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative pretty early as an early employee there. I had the chance to see what it’s like to build technology at scale from some of the founding engineers at Facebook, so I got to learn some of the best practices. Pretty early on, I had this opportunity to, along with another engineer, pitch this idea of building a document editor similar to Google Docs but much more tailored for the classroom. I was on an education team. That idea ended up getting funded, and through that process, I became a product manager and spent a couple of years there leading the notebooks team, which is an exploratory products team to build this document editor that tried to focus on improving the quality of feedback that teachers provide in documents and improve how students can reflect their work authentically—so, spent a couple of years working on that project. Last year, I did an Aspen Institute Fellowship and saw some of the emergent qualities of gpt3 in terms of instruction tuning. So, last year, I quit my job to explore startup jobs. I went through a whole slew of them and initially wasn’t going to go back to edtech, but then I found myself back really reimaging what classroom technology could be like in the era of AI. I felt I had a strong conviction of what that should look like. So, I founded Brisk Teaching earlier this year and brought on a couple of folks I worked with at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the rest is history. We are trying to build Brisk, which is an AI-native edtech stack. Our vision is to rewrite the edtech stack into one that’s teacher-forward and AI-native. We think that the existing edtech stack isn’t ready to support AI automation as we think it should, so we’re trying to redo that.
KR: Great overview. I mentioned this in my email; my parents were teachers, so I know teaching is a tough job. I always appreciate people building in the edtech space because I think they’re a little behind with the technology, and I really respect the work that you’re doing.
KR: You were in the Spring 2023 South Park Commons Founder Fellowship cohort. Is that correct?
AJ: That’s correct. Although, I was also an SPC member for a little before that. So, I joined SPC in the summer of 2022 to explore many different ideas to get (help with) the -1 to 0 (part of the founder journey). And, as I was closing in on that zero stage, South Park ended up including me as part of the Founder Fellowship.
KR: Can you talk more about why you were excited about the South Park Commons community in the first place, and then the second step of joining the Fellowship?
AJ: Yeah, so I knew someone who was part of South Park Commons about a year before I joined. He was one of the smartest guys I knew. It sounded weird. He was describing SPC to me, and I was a little bit like so what, you’re just not working, but you’re spending all of your time here – what are you doing? Honestly, I was pretty doubtful, but he was such a bright guy who balanced many of the things that I struggled to balance in terms of being thoughtful about their career. So, I was like, hey, maybe I should check this out. It seems like the startup path is one of the paths that I’m excited about, and let me learn more. The more I talked with folks who were a part of the SPC community, the more I realized that it was just this really cool space that is more than just a startup space, it’s a community that helps you figure out what’s your life passion whether that’s starting a non-profit, running for an election, or obviously, founding a startup. So, I really feel like I benefited from that. Then, I built conviction in Brisk and was talking with a couple of the Partners, and they suggested that I apply to the Founder Fellowship as the next stage of the startup journey. I think that was the right decision because it was able to accelerate me from having an idea and a hackathon-like project to having a full company at the end of it. So, I appreciate the SPC’s Founder Fellowship accelerating me along that path.
KR: Can you talk about that admission process? And what were some questions they asked you during the interview process?
AJ: Yeah, you apply through the application. It’s pretty straightforward. I don’t think it’s very long – I don’t remember spending a crazy amount of time on it – maybe an hour at most. The process is basically they reach out to you to schedule an interview. I think I interviewed with Nick and Mitra for my first interview, and I think the things they focused on during the interview were the team, the problem you’re trying to solve, if you’ve thought about the series of questions that most investors would ask you about the addressable market, the go-to-market, all that stuff. So, you definitely need to have answers. You don’t need a pitch deck to apply to SPC, but I would definitely (spend time) thinking about whatever kind of problem you’re trying to solve – at least have a general sense of how you would go about doing this thing. I think SPC is more focused on whether you are passionate about a problem – you might not have the exact solution, but do you have the domain expertise or skillset to solve that problem? Unlike other incubators, I think they are less concerned about the specific iteration of the project that you’re working on right now. But it is more about whether you are the right person to fund in this problem space. I really appreciate SPC’s approach because there’s no end to the founder fellowship – it could be a few months or a year – actually, one of our batch mates raised pretty early in the cohort, and they graduated really early. In contrast, I know members of previous fellowship batches who are still at South Park Commons. It’s definitely customized to the needs of the teams, which I really appreciated.
KR: Can you talk more about the actual programming? I saw on their website they have ten weeks of curriculum, luminary chats, and milestone-based workshops. You mentioned there are no endpoints – they tailor it for each company. Can you discuss what happens in practice or how you utilized the program?
AJ: Yeah, some of the programming is really cool. Like, I got to interview Mike Krieger, the former CTO of Instagram. It was a very intimate setting – 15 of us talking with the CTO of Instagram -- talking to one of the co-founders of Airbnb. They were able to bring in luminaries, and I think compared to other incubators, it feels really intimate. Everyone is just around the conference room, which I think is cool. I think that’s really helpful to understand what that zero-to-one stage is like, because I think often you’re doing things for the first time when you found a startup, and you want that reassurance that everyone, even the best entrepreneurs, were figuring it out live. I think that it was really cool to hear about all of the founding stories there. We do weekly demos. I think SPC is really focused on building, and they are looking for technical teams, so there is this expectation every two weeks, you have to come with something that, you know, how have you moved the ball forward for your company. I think that’s the right type of drumbeat for a technical team, so I appreciated that. Then, just generally like mentorship. I feel like I really benefited from the Partner that I partnered with, but I also got to be in conversation with all the Partners in terms of, like I’m thinking about this, when is the right time to raise, how should I be thinking about bringing on a contractor versus a full-time person. As a startup CEO, you’re faced with 20 different decisions every day, and it’s nice to be able to go to someone and be like hey, what do you think of these options. So, definitely really could not have done it – I could not have raised a Pre-Seed after the Founder Fellowship without the support of South Park Commons.
KR: Who was the Partner you were working with, and how was that structured? Weekly meetings, or they were there, and you could engage with them as you saw fit?
AJ: Weekly meetings with Mitra. She is one of the Partners there. She has been super helpful. It’s also crazy that she only has two teams. So myself and another startup are the only two people she focused on. With that type of personalized support, it was just really, really helpful.
KR: How many teams were in the cohort?
KR: Were most of the teams already a part of the community before they joined the Founder Fellowship, or were there a lot of net new teams?
AJ: Mainly new teams – 7/9 were not a part of the community beforehand.
KR: What was the most valuable piece of advice that you received during the program?
AJ: There’s a lot of advice around fundraising. I think I probably came in with – having not done this – investors talk with hundreds of companies in a given year, and I think there is this intimidation factor around what is standard and what is not. I think South Park, particularly around driving the tempo of a fundraise and providing timelines to VCs to work within the startup’s timelines, rather than wait and see what the VC says, I think was really helpful and not something that I would’ve done myself. An investor knows much more about what a good fundraise should look like. SPC was really helpful in terms of setting timelines and being able to execute on a fundraise.
KR: What advice would you give someone applying to the SPC Founder Fellowship?
AJ: I think the unique thing about South Park Commons is it’s really a place for people passionate about the problem they are solving. I think a lot of other incubators might start with, hey, here’s a technical team -- they’re going to iterate a bunch, find a problem that has a big enough TAM, and having a funded startup is the end in itself. I think one of the things that is great about SPC is they look for people passionate about a specific domain space. I wanted to work in edtech, and I had this specific problem (in mind). I wanted to solve teacher burnout. Edtech might not always have big outcomes; the addressable market might be smaller than fintech, but I was super passionate about it. I think they’re looking for people who are fiercely excited and passionate about a specific space. I think that might be something to show during the application process and to have that domain expertise of like I’ve seen this problem before, and here’s my take on it, and this is why I have a strong perspective on it.