Episode 112: Make Your Own Luck with Neal Taparia

Neal Taparia Jon Tota EasyBib Chegg


Neal Taparia might have saved you in high school or college when you needed to quickly format the citations on your term paper. While in high school in 2001, Neal Taparia and his friend created EasyBib to make citing their sources well… easier.
After gaining popularity, Taparia and his partner sold EasyBib to Chegg (another lifesaver) and stayed on to help Chegg scale their business operations and the company 10x.

Taparia then founded SOTA Partners where they incubate new businesses and invest in and advise startup teams.

In this episode, Taparia and Tota discuss the challenges of growing a business through high school and college; the marketing strategies that worked; and the benefits of a CEO mentor.

Check out his latest investment endeavor Solitaired at solitaired.com.

Check out this episode!

Jon Tota (00:00):

Hey everyone, Jon Tota here. I want to thank you for tuning into the show each week. We love our Learning Life community and are so grateful for your support. We’d appreciate it. If you would take a minute to rate us and write a review for Learning Life, wherever you’re listening right now. Your ratings and comments help new people find the show so we can keep growing our community and bringing great interviews on the topics you care most about. Thanks for being here. Now on to the show.

Neal Taparia (00:24):

It turned out that teachers were more or less influencers for us because once they know about the product and they like it, they’re able to tell their class of 20. They’re able to tell other teachers about it who will tell more students and teachers, et cetera,

Intro (00:40):

Welcome to Learning Life, where top experts share their business knowledge and personal journeys each week. “And The thing that I realized from the CEO to the NFL football player, to the janitor – we’re our toughest critics, and we’re hardest on ourselves.” – James Lawrence And wanted to bring education to the market. I wake up in the morning and I am constantly learning.” “The only way to grab somebody’s attention is with a story” – Cal Fussman. Happy learning. And now your host, Jon Tota.

Jon Tota (01:08):

Welcome back to Learning Life with Jon Tota. My guest today is Neal Taparia. Neal’s the co-founder of SOTA Partners, where they incubate new businesses and invest in and advise startup teams. But I met Neal a long time ago as the co-founder and co-CEO of Imagine Easy Solutions, a business he and his partner scaled really well and ultimately sold to Chegg- a public company that creates all types of products and services for high school and college students. Neal stayed on to help Chegg, grow their business unit and the company as a whole 10 X in just a few years, Neal is also a regular contributor to Forbes and all-around excellent person. So it’s an honor to have him on the show today. Neal, welcome to Learning Life.

Neal Taparia (01:45):

Hey Jon, thanks for having me. Excited to be on the podcast.

Jon Tota (01:49):

So it’s really fun to have you and I, you know, we haven’t connected in a while. You know, we just caught up a little bit before we started recording. So great to hear about all the success you had. So our audience has a ton of entrepreneurs listening. You’ve had that success story that everybody’s looking for. Tell us a little bit about kind of how you got started with Imagine Easy because you know, going all the way back, how you even thought of the idea and tell us a little bit about kind of what those early days were like getting started for you guys.

Neal Taparia (02:18):

Sure. So we have a bit of a unique story. We started our business when we were high school students. This was when I was 16 years old in the suburbs of Chicago. And as high school students, you know, we saw the world from the problems we had as high school students. And I don’t know if you remember doing this, but when you wrote papers, you had to create bibliographies and cite all those sources. Does that ring a bell at all?

Jon Tota (02:44):

Yes. No one liked doing that.

Neal Taparia (02:46):

It was a pain in the butt and my buddy and I, we were a bit nerdy at the time. This was 2001. So it was relatively speaking, early internet days. And we happened to be learning how to build websites. So we thought, what if we built a website where you take all this bibliographic data, find ways to grab this data in an automatic fashion and then find ways to automatically format it.

Neal Taparia (03:11):

Wouldn’t that just make our lives so much easier? So my buddy and I, through the course of two months, working at each other’s places after school whipped up this website called Easy Bib- easy bibliography- to really solve our own problem. And it turned out we were solving problems for all our classmates. And if you fast forward 15 years later, we were solving that same problem for over 30 million students. So that was really the origin of how we came up with the idea and it ended up leading to other opportunities when we focused on the business full-time with grammar, plagiarism, research, note-taking everything that students might need help with in the writing process.

Jon Tota (03:55):

You guys had some really unique strategies to scale your business and to grow the exposure. You were obviously in a very competitive space at the time. What are some of the things you guys learned, some of the practices that you guys developed to help scale the business back then?

Neal Taparia (04:09):

I would say there’s really two phases of growth. One was let’s call it the naive phase of growth. This was when I was that high school student and we didn’t know anything about marketing. We just knew what we knew, but it also gave us this element of being a bit cavalier. And we would just try everything. So early on, it’s easy to find teacher email addresses online. And I would just spend hours on hours finding these email addresses and emailing teachers about this website that we had built. It turned out that teachers were more or less influencers for us because once they know about the product and they like it, they’re able to tell their class of 20. They’re able to tell other teachers about it. We’ll tell more students and teachers, et cetera. So I would spend tons of time emailing teachers. And one time my principal called me into his office and said, Hey, a teacher notified us that you might be sending suspicious emails and viruses.

Neal Taparia (05:08):

It was absolutely not the case, but it told me that my strategy was working. People were actually opening up my emails and I ended up doubling down on the strategy so that, you know, just as hustle and really naivety played a big part in at the early stages of our growth. The other big success factor was when I just reached out to a bunch of the Chicago area newspapers. And I told this story that, Hey, we’re students helping other students. And a few days later, photographers from the Chicago Tribune showed up at our house and they featured us on the front page of the business section of the Chicago Tribune. And that’s a national newspaper and it ended up getting syndicated across the country. And we just saw those stats spike up as a result of that. So we were a bit lucky, but we were also trying to make our own luck.

Neal Taparia (05:55):

And then I’d say in our more mature stages of growth, you know, we were really focused on creating an awesome and intuitive product experience. Students were our end customers and we just wanted the best experience for them and really ourselves, you know, having understood what it was like to be a student. And we found that the easier product was, it would increase metrics like our net promoter score, and it just led to more word of mouth growth, which was great. But then we also started learning about search engine optimization. And it turns out that as you get more people talking about your site and linking to it, you’re able to capture more keywords and Google trusts you more. So we would work with educators to create comprehensive guides on the writing process. We would try to be thought leaders in the writing space and a space called information literacy and really positioning ourselves as an authority allowed us to create a lot of links and social chatter, which Google then interprets as a site that commands a lot of expertise and authority, which really helped us with our search engine results, which was another major factor in growing.

Neal Taparia (07:05):

And then the last part that we did to drive growth was really inorganic. And once we figured out how to monetize our audience, we ended up consolidating our space. Then through a series of four acquisitions, we brought all those learnings to those new properties and, and grew them. And all those combined allowed us to reach over 30 million students yearly.

Jon Tota (07:26):

That’s awesome. It’s interesting to hear you tell that all because you were using strategies back then, cause I think you started the company back. Was it like 2001 when you started Imagine Easy?

Neal Taparia (07:37):

Yep. 2001.

Jon Tota (07:39):

So, you know, like going almost 20 years back now and you were using some strategies of like content marketing and thought leaders and influencers and things like that, that people are endorsing today and that have become just the way of life on the internet, but you guys are doing that way back when it probably was pretty innovative when you guys were doing it back then, right?

Neal Taparia (08:04):

Yeah. Today there’s a lot of noise. A lot of people are replicating those same strategies, but back then it was a wide open space, which was a competitive advantage for us. And we’ve always tried to, you know, look at the market and ask ourselves, well, how do we not necessarily become better, but how can we be different? And, you know, as more people adopted those practices over time, that was still our guiding lens. So how can we continue to be authoritative, but be different in our approaches in doing that. And I think that played a large part into our success.

Jon Tota (08:37):

Well, yeah, I love that. I love it. So now I’ve had a number of college, I think maybe one or two high school entrepreneurs and a number of college entrepreneurs on the show as guests. I love talking to them and just hearing about how they’re starting their business and in school and balancing the business and school and social life. And so as a result, we have a lot of those listeners now as well. What would you tell some listeners now who are college age entrepreneurs trying to do this? Any best practices that you’d share with them?

Neal Taparia (09:11):

Sure. Well, first of all, I would say college is a great time to start a business because you don’t really have those same real world responsibilities that you might have after college. So you don’t necessarily have a job or you don’t have to keep the lights on for your family. You’re solo in college, which makes it a little bit more easy to take risks. You know, for us in college, we would try to fit in every waking minute working on our business. So for me, it was like my number one extracurricular activity. So I wanted to make sure I did a good job in school, but in my spare time, I would be working on Easybib and exploring ideas on how to grow the site. So it was, it was really like me treating it as if it was another course. And it was another course that I was trying to get a good grade on. And it’s so turned out that I was just more passionate about this self-taught entrepreneurship course. And I think that that made a huge difference at the end of the day. It’s tough because you’re balancing college life, even social priorities that come in the way, but if you’re able to be serious about your business and, and treat it like a priority, like everything else, I think that’s when you’ll see some differences,

Jon Tota (10:27):

It just taking advantage of that time. It’s a learning process that you can fail during those years. And you’re not gonna, you’re not going to cause as much damage as you might do in your thirties or forties. So it’s a good time to try new things. So now after you guys had a lot of success and I, and I think it’s really interesting to see that you, even, as you had more resources at your disposal, you acquired competitors and inorganically, you know, got more growth and then got on the radar of a major player like Chegg, who ultimately acquired Imagine Easy. What was that experience? All, all like for you guys,

Neal Taparia (11:03):

That was a rollercoaster too, to put it in a succinct way. You know, we knew the team at Chegg for a while and we really liked them and what they were doing. We ended up pursuing a formal investment banking selling process just because we wanted to maximize the value of our company. So, you know, during the process, Chegg came out to be the company most interested in us. And we also liked them culturally and what they were doing with their company. So when we joined them, it was, it was pretty tough. You know, at first we found a lot of attrition on our team. A lot of people were nervous about their job. They didn’t understand what the acquisition would mean for them. Some didn’t necessarily want to work for Chegg while they were very content working for a smaller business. To each their own, they just had different preferences. And we also experience all sorts of other challenges around how do you properly level employees. Chegg is this public company in the Bay Area. They have their own criteria on how to level employees by seniority. We were a small startup. We didn’t really know how to do that. So there were all sorts of struggles early on. And that was a big challenge emotionally for us, because we had always tried to create a really awesome culture on our team and to see people leave after the acquisition was very disheartening. And everyone had their own reason. So within the first six to nine months, it felt like we had to really rebuild the team. It required a lot of heart-to-heart conversations with everybody to help them understand what Chegg is, what their role is going to be, why this mission is even bigger and greater.

Neal Taparia (12:53):

So we had to constantly reinforce messages like that, you know, for those who didn’t buy in, we have to find ways to move in separate directions, but do so in the most amicable way possible. But eventually after six to nine months we landed on our feet and our culture turned around and we found that the team was engaged and excited to be at Chegg. And we were thinking Chegg first. So from a cultural perspective, that was huge. And then I would say operationally, it was a huge shift to, you know, we were used to being scrappy entrepreneurs, but suddenly we were thrown into a public company. We had P& L responsibility. They offer guidance to the street and the revenue we generate plays a meaningful part of that.

Jon Tota (13:37):

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Neal Taparia (14:39):

So early on, we started developing daily forecasts on our business, which was something I was totally new to. And at first I thought it was insane to have daily forecast for all our different revenue, but there were some really amazing silver linings from it. You know, the forecast tied in all our KPIs and whenever we were above or below plan, it would really force us to understand what the heck is going on with our business, which led to a lot of good ideas and good decisions. So that was definitely an improvement. And it also forced me to learn how to delegate really well. So I would really depend on my team to learn how to execute on plans and ideas while I would really be that ambassador to say, okay, this is the right thing to do, but also find appropriate and elegant ways to communicate that to the rest of the team at Chegg. So my role really changed going from scrappy entrepreneur, where I was doing a bunch of things to really being a leader depending on his team to execute and working with the rest of the management team at Chegg.

Jon Tota (15:44):

Yeah. It’s kind of a, a whole new learning process. You probably feel like you’ve gone through schooling over and over again with all the, all the changes, right?

Neal Taparia (15:54):

Absolutely, man. And I really enjoyed it because it really taught me about operational discipline. Whereas when we were running our own business, we were doing things ad hoc often times, but it taught us a lot about good planning, a good roadmapping and what it means to stick to that plan and executing. So I think it made us a much better operators looking back.

Jon Tota (16:18):

Yeah. Yeah. And obviously it was really successful there. You guys scaled your business unit quite a bit and Chegg overall, I think it scaled a huge amount in that period of time. What was the, that whole experience of that? And then you guys eventually exited Chegg, I guess at some point, right?

Neal Taparia (16:39):

Yeah. So when we were at Chegg, there were some really interesting insights while we were there that pushed us to scale the business. The first one was that they really pushed us to think big. The CEO, Dan Rosensweig, when he acquired us, he said, I don’t, I did not acquire you so you guys can continue to grow at the rate you’re growing. I acquired you to figure out how we can accelerate this thing. And to us, we thought it was crazy because we’d been running the business for 15 plus years. How much can you accelerate a business at that point? So we thought about that pretty skeptically, but he said, tell us what 50% growth looks like. And it forced us to put together a plan of ideas on what that could potentially look like, what are the initiatives, how we prioritize it, what are the resources that are required to make it happen?

Neal Taparia (17:30):

And then he said, listen, I’m going to support you guys in that plan, go for it. And let’s see if you can make it happen. And it turned out by having laser focus on it, we were able to really execute on that plan and exceed our expectations. And I think underlying that underlying that theme of dreaming big is just having laser focus on how to do that. And by failing and learning as fast as possible to execute on that plan. So having them hold us accountable for growing and hitting those numbers, I think played a huge difference in our ability to execute and really exceed our own expectations.

Jon Tota (18:09):

Yeah. And I, I guess a big piece of that too, is having great leadership when you join a company like that you know, after you’re required to have great leadership above you, that believes in the product and gives you the resources and the opportunity to grow it to another level, it’s gotta be a pretty cool feeling.

Neal Taparia (18:27):

Yeah, yeah, it absolutely was. And before, when we were running our own business, it was just my friend and I, we never raised outside capital, but suddenly we were in this corporate environment where there were high expectations. And I think it taught us a lot about accountability and what we learned in terms of accountability and how Chegg pushed us, we also tried to take those lessons and even push our team in the same way. So that culture really infused not us, but the rest of our team.

Jon Tota (18:56):

Yeah, I think that’s great. That’s great. And so now fast forward to today and, and you and your partner now have started SOTA partners where you are incubating new businesses, advising businesses or startup teams as they’re scaling and growing. What’s that been like? Are you guys taking all those lessons you’ve learned along the years and, and you’re starting to be able to use that, to help some of these younger companies now?

Neal Taparia (19:19):

Yeah, exactly. You know, we are fortunate to have a good network where we come across a lot of earlier stage companies with younger entrepreneurs who don’t necessarily have the same battle wounds as us. And it’s really interesting to see these brilliant ideas, but they don’t really understand how to execute and focus on them and to really pay attention to I like to call what’s big enough to matter. So they might have all sorts of different fringe ideas around a main idea, and they just need a lot of guidance to really focus on what will really move the needle forward. Entrepreneurs are so optimistic that it’s a double-edged word. It also means they could be scatterbrained. To be methodical and focused and to learn to fail fast is so important because you’re racing against time and resources. So we found that we oftentimes bring a perspective that can offer a lot of guidance to these young entrepreneurs. And it’s been a lot of fun to share some of those insights. And at the same time we get to learn from them too.

Jon Tota (20:21):

Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s an interesting point too, is that every idea when you’re an entrepreneur and you’re coming up with new ideas, every idea sounds great. You think they’re all going to work. And then the next thing you know, you look back and you’re like, how did we get eight different products here?

Neal Taparia (20:37):

Yes.

Jon Tota (20:37):

You know, with all the work that you’re doing now, I know one of them is Solitaired and you were telling me a little bit about it before, and I’m an education person. I’m always in the and development space. You’re kind of more on the higher education side. I’ve always been on the corporate side, but I love what you’re doing with this because you’re really thinking of the role that traditional games can have in learning and development. Tell us a little bit about Solitaired and why you guys are so excited about that.

Neal Taparia (21:03):

Yeah. So we had this initial idea of how can games be used outside the traditional medium of entertainment. And as we did research, we found that there’s all sorts of benefits to games, you know, in the education context, of course it makes learning more fun and engaging, which really caught our eye. But we even found that it could be used for brain training and even mental health. Games are often used as a way to reduce anxiety or to allow people to escape from a lot of the stresses that they have. It could also be used for team building. So there are all these interesting facets around gaming that we thought were interesting that often went under-recognized. So we knew we wanted to do something in the gaming space and tie gaming to education. So as we did more research, we found that classic games continue to be really popular.

Neal Taparia (21:57):

You know, we oftentimes think of the more popular games like Fortnite, but your Rummy’s, Yahtzee’s of the worlds, those classic board games and online versions of them are also just as popular today as they were 20 years ago. So we thought that could be an interesting category to start in because it’s an already established space and it’s already really popular. So our goal with Solitaired, which right now is just a solitaire site, is to get some scale and then eventually layer on features and tools that enable brain training and ideally support mental health efforts as well. So we’re still a long way there, but we think there’s a lot of interesting things to learn from it.

Jon Tota (22:36):

I think it’s great. And, and how are you thinking of this in traditional, like corporate learning or more for education or I think you mentioned also like mental health, where do you see it fitting the best?

Neal Taparia (22:50):

Right now, we’re really thinking about it from a direct to consumer perspective. That’s where we have a lot of our experience. So we want to reach a lot of people at scale and then offer features where we can prove that it can help with memory or attention training. And then our larger vision is to see how we can really create a platform of gaming and wellness that could be tied to corporations, but that is more of the three to five-year roadmap. We still have to accomplish some plans for the next year or two years.

Jon Tota (23:21):

Yeah, I think it’s super cool. So if our audience is listening and they want to find out more about Solitaired, what’s the website that they can go to.

Neal Taparia (23:28):

Yeah. It’s just solitaired.com that solitaire with a D at the end. And right now it’s, it’s just a fun solitaire site, but in the background, we’re running studies to understand how we could put on some of those learning components. So they can have some fun with the site right now, but hopefully six months down the road, it’ll be a unique experience when it comes to classic. Yeah.

Jon Tota (23:50):

I think it’s awesome. And I know in my work now, we’re, we’re really adamant about really building gaming into the e-learning process so much. There’s so there’s so much as you’ve found, there’s so much research that those traditional games and all the different forms make such a difference in retention and and just development overall. So I, I think it’s super cool what you’re doing. And I know you’re contributing to Forbes, I think. You still do that on a regular basis. Right?

Neal Taparia (24:17):

Well, I do. I really enjoy writing. I find that it’s a good way to learn myself when you articulate the thousands of thoughts you have in your mind and put it on paper, it’s a fun way of synthesizing and learning yourself. So I try to write weekly as much as I can.

Jon Tota (24:34):

So if our audience wants to find out more about you and your writing with Forbes, where should they checking you out?

Neal Taparia (24:42):

If you just Google my name, Neal Taparia Forbes, it’ll Google will show you the Forbes column I have, and there I’m posting some learnings and insights weekly.

Jon Tota (24:53):

Awesome. Awesome. And we’ll put those links in the show notes as well. So all of our listeners can check you out and find Neal everywhere you are online. And Neal, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your experience. You just, you learned a ton along the way, and you shared a bunch of it with us. So thank you so much.

Neal Taparia (25:09):

Likewise. Thanks for having me, Jon. I appreciate it, man.

Jon Tota (25:13):

And to all of our listeners, thank you for being here every week. As you know, we have a new episode coming out every Tuesday, so wherever you’re listening, make sure you subscribe, leave us comments. We’d love to hear from you. And until next time, happy learning.