It was their last quarter at the prestigious Stanford University and a career at Google or Microsoft was theirs, at the least. But they decided to take one more course.
Ankit Gupta and Akshay Kothari — from Mumbai and Ahmedabad respectively — enrolled at the school of design, simply called d.school.
Within a few months, they were heading a start-up cited by Apple boss Steve Jobs and courted by media industry giants such as Rupert Murdoch.
The two Stanford grads created a visual news reader for phones and tablets that allowed users to aggregate their favourite blogs, websites and newspapers in one place for easy browsing.
Called Pulse, the app shot to the top within days of debuting on Apple’s app store in 2010, helped on possibly by Jobs’s endorsement, which came as a pleasant surprise.
They hadn’t met Jobs until then. And no one at Apple thought of alerting the Pulse boys to the endorsement. They met the great man at a conference hosted by Murdoch to prepare his vast media empire for the digital onslaught. Gupta and Kothari were invited there as speakers. Living the Indo-American dream
“Rupert really gets the digital story,” says Kothari. The Wall Street Journal, which he owns, became an early believer, Pulse’s first media partner.
There is a lengthening line of content partners now: Discover Magazine, Gawker, The Huffington Post, The New Yorker, Salon.com, TIME and Vanity Fair.
And here is why: Pulse has 20 million subscribers, and adds a million and half new users every month — that’s one new user every two seconds. All of that in just two years.
It was created as a class project at d.school, for a course called Launchpad, which requires students to launch a product — a real product — within 10 weeks.
They are not required to do a market analysis or find a financial model or a business model; simply launch a product publicly. Gupta and Kothari did that in just five weeks.
“Ankit and I were both news junkies,” says Kothari, adding, “We both grew up reading the morning newspaper every day in India (and watching TV news channels such as CNBC).”
But the entire news experience was changing. They had noticed two interesting trends at Stanford. One, people rarely read news on computers. Most of them got it from their mobile phones and tablets.
Two, newspapers or news websites were no longer the only source of news. People got news from blogs, social networks.
“We also observed that the whole experience of reading news on mobile devices was completely broken. You either flip flop between different websites with different layouts or go through 10 different apps.”
Stanford’s Caffe del Doge became their lab. They worked on the app there and took it around for immediate feedback, which then were written into the programme right away.
“Ankit (who had studied computer science) would build new versions of Pulse, while I (Kothari studied electrical engineering) went around the cafe showing it to people and getting feedback from them,” Kothari said.
Within five weeks, they had a product. They sent it to Apple, which approved and put it up on its store — also gave it a design award, which, if you know Apple, counts for a lot.
Priced at $4, Pulse took off. Within six months Pulse had been downloaded by 250,000 users. That’s a cool $1 million — their first million. And then one day they made it free.
Kothari remembers that day well. It was November 15, 2010.
The traffic doubled that day. They added in one day as many new users as they had picked up over six months. “The number just doubled.”
The two boys from India had come a long way. Kothari came to the US for college — first Purdue and then Stanford.
Gupta is from IIT Bombay.
They are still in their twenties — Kothari is 25 and Gupta is 24.
Are they millionaires already?
They don’t want’t to talk about money or their worth or of the company. “Ankit and I both have had a pretty humble upbringing,” said Kothari.
“Money allows you to live comfortably, but if we take a step back, we’re driven less by money and more by the potential to improve the way people read news.”
But here is a bit of perspective. Instagram, the photo app pikced up by Mark Zuckergberg for $1 billion was born around the same time as Pulse, and has just 10 million more users. Pulse picked up its first round of investments in 2011, $9 million, from some leading media industry investors.
“The combination of technology and talent that the team at Pulse brings together has enabled them to jump to the head of the pack in providing customised news and related sources to readers of all iPad, iPhone, and Android devices,” Greycroft managing director Alan Patricof, an investor who also founded and served as chairman of New York Magazine and Details Magazine, had said at the time of the announcement of the investments.
For the Pulse boys, it’s about leaving a mark on the world.