WF: What aspect of academics is Kibin trying to change?
We’re modernizing the college writing center. That means improving the antiquated model—where a student has to go in and see someone face-to-face to get help on an essay—and bringing that experience online. Students can get help for everything ranging from the brainstorming and idea stage of an essay to the final product where they’re looking for someone to proofread spelling, punctuation, grammar, and to give feedback. We provide 24/7, online writing help.
WF: Why is there a need for an online writing center?
Writing has become increasingly important. Having good writing skills is critical. Any job you go into, the need for clear written communication is a necessity, whether you’re doing a writing-focused job like content marketing or not. Blogging is also huge. In this day and age, you just need to know how to write well.
The problem is that writing education is really failing. Students aren’t given enough attention or help. Class sizes are too big. Getting the one-on-one help that they need is just a pain, and they’re too busy. Because writing skills are developed in school and at a younger age , if students don’t get the help then, and they don’t refine their skills then, it becomes very hard to figure out how to write well later in life.
Making that process of getting help more efficient and making more resources available online that are actually good, valuable, and interesting is the challenge we’re trying to overcome.
WF: What sparked this business idea?
I was applying to law school back in 2011, and my personal statement was kind of a mess. I needed to be very specific in what I was trying to communicate. I was having a hard time getting the feedback that I needed from family and friends. When I turned online for help, I just wasn’t finding anything with the feedback aspect that I was looking for. Kibin was born of that frustration with the inability to find the quick help that I was looking for.
We started as a free peer-to-peer model that focused mostly on the feedback portion. We had to eventually pivot out of that to a paid editing service. We’re now realizing that we need to be focusing more on the end-to-end help of essay writing rather than just the final phase of that process. That’s kind of the high level overview of how we’ve gotten to where we are today.
WF: What are the components to Kibin?
Our main revenue driver is our essay editing service, followed by our essay examples database. Our database is our main focus now, though, since it has an extremely scalable growth path. Other hugely important components are our free services, such as our essay help blog and our free thesis statement builder.
WF: How does your target market - students - find out about your services?
Usually, they learn about our services through web searches. There’s two main ways that a student would find us.
The first is when they’re looking for help on a specific essay that they’ve already been given an assignment for. When they search online for essay examples, we’ll pop up as one of the options and they’ll find an essay example that we’ve curated.
The second is when a student is searching for general essay writing help. Maybe they’re struggling with their thesis statement and they Google, “How to write a good thesis statement” and they find our blog which has tons of examples. We get a lot of eyeballs there; a lot of students are looking for help.
WF: How do you acquire users and convert them into customers?
The blog is great in terms of getting views; we’ve had more than 1 million unique views in April. One of our strategies is first passing people to the free thesis statement builder. In the thesis statement builder, you plug in the topic you’re working on. At the end of the builder, we have a call-to-action that says, for instance, “See essay examples on Shakespeare’s Othello.” They click through there and some percentage of those users become customers for the database. We also try to attach them to the essay editing service later down the line.
The other acquisition channel, which is really the biggest driver right now, is just the database content itself. Some portion of that content is indexed by Google. It goes back to the example where the student is typing in, “Essay example on Shakespeare’s Othello.” We pop up specifically with that essay content, and, in order to get access to the full content and the rest of the database, the student would need to pay for the service.
WF: How much revenue is each service generating?
Last year we were heavily weighted on the side of the editing service. We generated about $525,000 out of our total $595,000 in revenue from the editing service. The other $70,000 came from the database. This year we’re really focusing on the database for two reasons: 1) It has a much clearer, scalable growth path, and 2) The recurring revenue nature of this service. We’re on pace to expect about $300,000 from the database and about $650,000 on the essay editing side. Again, there’s room for big growth in the database, and that’s where 100% of our focus is right now.
WF: How often do people use your services?
In terms of people that use the editing service, we see, on average, 1 1/2 usages a month per person. Looking at it from a different angle, 90% of our users are using it twice in a semester.
WF: How many people use your services?
We have about 1,200 paying customers using the essay database on the recurring monthly plan right now. In terms of the essay editing service, in the first quarter of 2016, we had 2,700 customers that used the service.
WF: How do you ensure quality editing service?
We’re actually quite picky with the editors that we hire. We have about a 9-hour editing test that we use to vet potential editors. Then it’s reviewed by somebody internally, and once they’ve gone through and passed all the training material and the tests, we start giving them access to jobs.
We also have regular quality checks to ensure consistency. In between those quality checks we depend on the customers to leave feedback and be the early warning sign when there might be a problem. We do a really good job upfront of vetting people and making sure the quality is high on that side. As a result, we don’t run into a ton of problems in terms of customer complaints.
WF: How do you hire enough editors to meet the 24/7 editing demand?
This is a big barrier to entry when attempting to start an editing service from scratch, and something we really struggled with for the first couple years.
We used to have to run paid campaigns to find editing talent, especially to help our overnight coverage. But we now have the benefit of a diverse, global team, and we’ve been around long enough where we’ve been linked to on popular work-from-home blogs and forums. So all of our editor applicants are inbound now.
WF: What percentage cut do you take from the editing service?
Kibin takes 65%. Editors are able to earn raises and move up pay tiers, but the approximate share for the most committed editor would be about 35%. In terms of hourly rates, new editors tend to earn about $20/hour while our top editors earn $30 or more per hour.
WF: How does pricing for the editing services work?
It depends on two variables: the length of the essay in terms of the word count, and then how fast the customer needs it delivered. All pricing is done on a per-word basis rather than an hourly rate. We’ve found this is the easiest way to help customers understand exactly what the cost will be. The highest cost per word is 5 or 6 cents for the fastest delivery time. Then it goes down to 2 1/2 cents per word if you have the luxury of waiting a little bit longer.
WF: What’s the size of the market?
Every student writes essays. Every single student. Even if you’re a chemistry or physics student, you’re writing lab reports, you’re writing some kind of essay or you’re required to take English 101 at some point in your college career. To me the market is every student.
Today there are about 750 million students worldwide. If you shrink that down to the US, there are about 35 million. I’m talking high school and college level students. Then, I just look at what our annual spend per student is right now. That’s about $110. If you multiply that across the US market alone, that’s about a $3.9 billion market there.
Besides students, we’re also taking a look at businesses, authors, academics, job seekers, etc.
WF: What other markets will Kibin be expanding into?
In the past we’ve done editing for several customer segments including students, businesses, job seekers, academics, and authors. But we’ve found that focusing our efforts on students right now is the most logical thing to do.
Editing has always been the core of our business, and when people think of the core they mistake it for the largest piece. But the core is generally a smaller piece of a much larger whole. Our database business will soon overtake our editing business in terms of revenue. So when I think about expanding outside of students, I think about what segment we could provide editing services to that would also be complemented by a larger, recurring revenue business.
We have some ideas on where to take that, but I think it’s important to note that the student segment itself has the potential to be a billion dollar business on its own.
WF: What does Kibin do that its competitors don’t?
Right now, the biggest person in the essay database space is a company called Study Mode. It’s been around quite a while, but they don’t do the greatest job of really putting together a high quality database. We, on the other hand, are all about quality. Everything we do, from our editing to the content that’s in our database, is about quality. We actually manually review any potential essay submissions for the essay database before publishing anything.
That doesn’t mean that every essay in the database is an A quality essay, or even a B, because I think that there’s definitely value in looking at what makes a bad essay. But every essay has to be something we believe is useful. It’s not just gibberish. It’s not a copy-and-pasted Wikipedia article. It’s something of value. None of our competitors do a great job of really vetting the content of the database to make sure it’s useful.
WF: What’s something that Kibin is trying to implement to make its services better?
One other thing that we focus on, that nobody else does, is improving the ease of discoverability. We want to ensure that customers will be able to find what they need quickly and easily within a database of hundreds of thousands, or even millions of essays. Finding what you’re looking for can be daunting if the database is not organized in a very logical or easy to search manner. That’s a process we’re prioritizing in developing.
WF: What does the growth rate look like?
Our essay database revenue has been growing at an average of 15% month to month for the last 12 months (see slide 8 in deck).
WF: How exactly do you accelerate growth?
Adding essays to the database is one of the easiest ways to accelerate growth. The more essays we have, the more traffic we generate, and the more customers we acquire.
Beyond that, we’ve done very little in terms of optimization. We’re just now testing our first price hike for the essay database, but we’re still priced at literally half of what competitors charge, and we offer a better product. We also haven’t done anything in terms of conversion rate optimization. We have a lot we could do in terms of driving down the cost of our content acquisition, link building, and SEO efforts. So there are a lot of growth levers we can play with to really move the needle. We just haven’t had the bandwidth to do these things yet, which is another thing we’ll be solving with this fundraising round.
Finally, as we start to really optimize the essay database engine, we’ll start looking at our attachment rate to the editing service. Essentially the editing service will be complimentary to the database where we leverage the database customers as our acquisition strategy by cross-selling the editing service.
WF: Are there any risks for Kibin?
There are two main risks: Scaling quickly and our reliance on Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
Right now, we’re adding about 10,000 essays per month to the database. That means we’re manually evaluating those essays for quality, fixing issues, and creating SEO-rich pages for each one. It’s quite the process. And we want to take this up to 100,000 essays per month or more with this fundraising round. Obviously this comes with challenges, but we’ve worked the last six months to put the infrastructure and processes in place to be able to scale.
In terms of our reliance on SEO, it’s something we’re aware of. A Google penalty would really hurt us. That being said, we do not use, and never have used, any black hat SEO or shady link building strategies. We also create long form, educational content on our student essay writing blog that really helps communicate that we’re an authoritative voice in this space.
So while these are both risks, we recognized them early on and have taken adequate steps to mitigate them as best as possible.
WF: What are the main challenges that you’re facing right now?
Our main challenge right now is getting capital to grow the business. This may not seem like a huge challenge, and it isn’t. But you need to understand that we’ve been at this awhile. We’ve shifted the focus of the business twice now in an attempt to find a scalable growth path. We’ve now done that and we simply need to add fuel to the fire.
We’re not looking for product market fit, we’ve found it. We’re not in danger of going out of business, we’re profitable. We’re not trying to figure out our unit economics, we’ve put processes in place to scale profitably over the last 18 months. So our biggest challenge is simply getting more capital to grow at an accelerated rate.
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