By ANDREW MOORE
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
Is it better to make a product that a huge market might need or that a small market must have? Entrepreneur and Yale junior Ian Panchèvre has had experience with both. His first company, Social Commerce, required a huge infusion of capital, office space, and an outside developer. It appealed to a large market – offering to leverage social media for increased revenues — but wasn’t a must-have for that market and was ultimately unsuccessful.
Last week, Panchèvre officially went public with his new startup, Prepd, which is a polar opposite in many ways.
Prepd is a Google Chrome app designed for high school debate competitions and specifically for extemporaneous speaking – a competition where speakers must be prepared to give a speech on any current national issue, from memory, after only 30 minutes of preparation. Competitors prepare the speech from their team’s collection of news articles on every national issue. To prepare for the competition, teams collect hundreds of articles per month on everything from healthcare to the economy to social issues. Efficient article gathering, sorting, and recovery are crucial for the success of any team, and that is exactly what Prepd does.
Previously there was no specific high-tech solution for extemporaneous events. Most competing teams used Google Drive, Evernote, or Dropbox to organize news articles by manually creating folders. They saved news articles either by converting them to PDF form or by saving article text in Word documents. Compatibility and formatting issues were rampant, as students often used different operating systems or organized files in different ways.
As a Chrome app, Prepd offers a solution compatible with all operating systems. It uses a Chrome widget that will save any article in a standard form with the click of a mouse. The software also has an easily customizable filing system that will organize all of a team’s articles in the same place. Team coaches can have special permissions for those folders, which will keep students from accidentally deleting important articles. Prepd even has a “Cleantext” option that will remove the ads, photos, links, and formatting from a saved article, leaving only a single image and the article text – making browsing articles an easier task in the 30 minutes allowed for speech preparation.
“They can do more efficient researching with less time. They can save more articles and save those articles in a way that is easier to access and study from,” said Panchèvre. “It is much friendlier to use in a competitive setting.”
In contrast to previous startup Social Commerce, which had a long and expensive development cycle, Prepd has 12 high schools paying for its alpha version product after only five months in development. Most of the high schools are located in San Antonio, Texas – Panchèvre’s hometown. A highly targeted product, Panchèvre believes Prepd is a must-have for high school debate programs.
“This is something that I am trying to convince them to use, not something that I am trying to sell them on,” said Panchèvre. “It sells itself. All they need to do is watch the video and they are ready to commit to it.”
As his team developed the product, Panchèvre was in constant contact with his participating alpha users. San Antonio NEISD Coordinator for Speech and Debate Joseph Johnson has been working with the software since his debate camp earlier in July. He keeps the Prepd team updated on any problems or suggestions his students have.
“Ian and his development team have been doing a really, really good job of listening to practical criticism with what works and doesn’t work,” said Johnson. “There is always going to be something in the development process that they don’t catch until someone actually uses it.”
According to Johnson, the software allows coaches to improve their overall programs by saving them time on file management and storage.
“The potential of it is amazing,” said Johnson. “It allows the coaches to focus more on the students’ speaking than on the file collecting.. ..The kids can focus more on just giving speeches as well, which is what the event is supposed to be about.”
The products organizational efficiency translates to competitions as well. As a former competitive extemporaneous debater at both the high school and college levels, Panchèvre is by no means modest about the competitive edge Prepd is meant to give students in extemporaneous speaking competitions.
“If you have two kids of equal ability and one is using my software and the other is using technology that isn’t efficient for this particular use, where they have to spend time doing redundant tasks.. ..I would say that the student using Prepd has a big advantage,” said Panchèvre.
Prepd will be primarily marketed to high school programs that participate in extemporaneous competitions. The price will range from $20 to $40 dollars depending on the number of users and stored articles needed. Individuals can purchase the software for $5 or can try a free striped down trial version.
In further contrast to his earlier startup, where the development was outsourced to another company, Panchèvre developed Prepd with a small, close-knit team of three Romanian developers he had met in San Antonio. Mihai Bura, Madalin Barbulescu, and Emanuel Butacu met Panchèvre when they came to San Antonio for a work study program in computer science. Fellow extemporaneous debater and high school friend Jeremiah Anderson handles the startup’s business operations.
Prepd is funded by a local Angel Investor in San Antonio. Panchèvre won’t disclose the details but said it was “a small amount of initial capital” — a far cry from the huge initial investment he raised for Social Commerce.
While Panchèvre is the first to admit that Prepd might not evolve into a billion dollar company, he sees many advantages in creating a niche product and looks forward to providing more solutions for the extemporaneous community.
“There are a lot of advantages to going after niche market opportunities,” said Panchèvre. “For one, you have a really focused user base. So, it’s a lot easier to design and build the product for them. Secondly, because your user base is so concentrated it’s much easier to market towards them and you can spend your marketing dollars very efficiently.”
“For me,” said Panchèvre, “It’s all about getting to a point where we make more money than we spend. And at that point we can reassess additional ways of providing value to this community.”
Full disclosure: Ian Panchèvre has been a contributor to Silicon Hills News.