Addressing “The F Word” With Shabnam Aggarwal (SocialStory)

My first piece in SocialStory’s Celebrating Failure series

If failures are stepping stones to success, the need to sometimes move on is equally important. As we launch SocialStory’s failure series, our first interview is with Shabnam Aggarwal, a social entrepreneur currently living in Delhi, India, where she works as the Head of Strategic Partnerships for Pearson India. She advises Pearson on ed-tech products and develops partnerships with entrepreneurs and start-ups to build ed-tech solutions for Indian students and parents.

Shabnam was the founder of HobNob, a mobile ed-tech solution she developed to solicit feedback from students on their engagement levels through text messages. Shabnam spoke to SocialStory about what she learned after experiencing failure with HobNob.

Tell us about HobNob.

The idea behind HobNob was that it’s important to understand engagement levels of students throughout the day, and we could use text messaging to collect qualitative and quantitative data overtime. Say I messaged high school student Johnny and asked him how engaged he was in math class that day. His engagement level was only three because his teacher used a power point presentation which he didn’t find interesting and therefore fell asleep. Now imagine gathering this depth of data for Johnny over six different classes each day for four months. You can learn which classes he learned more in, which teachers work better for him and which don’t, and which subjects are most engaging.  While other organizations look at student engagement levels—an initiative by Bill Gates looked at engagement levels through videotaping the eyes of students—the difference was that HobNob was self-reported by students.

Why did HobNob fail?

I don’t believe there is ever a specific instance of failure that will shut a company down. It was really a string of failures at HobNob, on the product side, the team side, and the funding side.The first failure was not listening to a major stakeholder. We ran three pilots in the US and were excited to learn that the students loved it. When we showed them average engagement levels for their class, they would notice that the class average was nine while they were at a level three, and they realized that maybe they need to change the way they are learning or engaging. The teachers, on the other hand, were not excited. The feedback we got from the majority of teachers was “I don’t know who you think you are. We already know this information for our students. I’m a teacher—my purpose is to engage with the students in real time. This tool will get me fired.” Yet, we didn’t pivot towards what the teachers wanted.

The only ed-tech solutions that will be adopted are those that teachers feel comfortable using. If they don’t feel comfortable using it or fear they will lose their job, then it will fail. Students would respond, but there would be no change in the classroom because teachers wouldn’t use it or change the way they were teaching, so then students stopped using it as well. This is a common domino effect in ed-tech, where if the teacher stops using a product, the students will also stop. We failed on the side of pedagogy and product creation because we didn’t take into account a major stakeholder. Parents, administrators, and students loved it but teachers didn’t. And that was a big failure on my part, to not realize they are so important.

The second failure was that I didn’t have a co-founder. I was on my own in Colorado, and I knew what the product should be. But I didn’t have support — someone to bounce ideas off of and someone to provide a different point of view on direction and priorities. That was really depressing after a while and demoralizing. There is so much value to having a co-founder complement your skills, but also offer a different skill set.

The third failure was that there was no foresight about funding. I waited too long before I started looking for funding, and it’s a long process for investment in a new start-up. By the time I started looking for investors, I was broke. I was a college graduate and an engineer, but it got to the point that I was looking for babysitting and receptionist jobs. In the beginning, I was blindsided by the students—all I cared about was that the kids need this product. I should have sown the seeds with investors early on.

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How would you have handled the same situation differently now?

I would listen to stakeholders. You shouldn’t ignore a key stakeholder; I can’t iterate it enough. If you have negative feedback from a primary stakeholder or a specific demographic, it’s important to think that through .I would not embark upon a new company without the right co-founder. That was a big learning for me—not to start a venture until you’ve found someone who sees things in a different light but with the same end goal.

Funding-wise, I would’ve started asking about investment options earlier. Ed-tech investing wasn’t trending as much as it is now. The appetite and riskiness was not there, and I don’t know if I was investable.

When did you realize HobNob was failing?

A year before HobNob, I started a movement called the Hindsight Conference, which promoted openness about failure. So one would think that someone who was so attune to failure and who talked about failure all the time would recognize failure early on. But it wasn’t until spring 2011, that it just hit me that I was broke.

The first failure occurred during piloting. The second failure of not having a co-founder was an underlying issue that didn’t strike me as a failure until later. But the last failure of not having investments and being broke was the most tangible, and something I couldn’t ignore any longer. I left Colorado, moved home to the Bay Area, and finally landed a job with an NGO in Delhi.

Tell us about the Hindsight Conference.

Hindsight came out of my own failures with a previous ed-tech venture, which I started in Hyderabad, India. But the idea behind Hindsight was also specifically linked to education failures more broadly—One Laptop Per Child and IBM’s KidSmart, which both failed in the education space—and speaking with others at Unreasonable Institute, where I was a Fellow. There are so many failures that nobody talks about, and we all wondered why it’s such a taboo topic. We don’t talk about drugs, alcohol, sex, or failure. But it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Failure is a difficult experience, but it seemed to me that it was also imperative for success. I was meeting all these amazing entrepreneurs who had an element of failure in their experience. Hindsight grew and mushroomed from those conversations. We never held a formal conference, but I’ve met so many people who are excited about the idea, and we have a large Facebook group of interested individuals. So for those of you reading, if you are interested in getting involved with Hindsight and talking about failure, get in touch by joining the Facebook group.

We want to thank Shabnam for sharing her story and lessons with us! Many social entrepreneurs can probably relate to her story, and now better understand the importance of listening to stakeholders, having a co-founder, thinking about investments from an early stage, and talking about failure.

We would like to learn from your story too. Email us at failures@yourstory.in.

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