By GREGORY ZELLER // When founder and CEO Varun Mehta incorporated app-maker Disqovery Inc. in 2013, even he wasn’t sure what, exactly, it would be.
Then a student at Harvard Business School – he has his MBA now, complementing his computing science bachelor’s degree from Columbia – Mehta at first envisioned a direct-to-consumer product “that could help everybody everywhere in the world,” and “we’d figure out how to make money later.”
Lesson No. 1 for the aspiring entrepreneur since then? “The business model is actually really important” – and in the case Disqovery, “not quite as obvious as we’d hoped.”
The basic idea was there: an app that could help users discover things about themselves even they didn’t even know, allowing them to fine-tune their careers. But the tool designed to help users grow first had to evolve itself.
Ideas, programmers and target audiences have all come and gone. Mehta’s crew first tried that direct-to-consumer thing, but quickly learned that creating – and monetizing – a self-assessment app for the individual user wasn’t easy.
Next they tried to develop an app that would help university employees and students along the career-development path, but “that wasn’t a great option either,” Mehta noted, since universities, more than most end users, are set in their ways and “not keen to change fast.”
Disqovery was next reimagined as an app designed specifically for career coaches, something “that would make it easier to have constructive career-building conversations,” Mehta said. But that was a fairly small market, he added, and it turns out many career coaches have an aversion to new technologies – specifically, anything that prevents them from “scheduling more one-on-on time and billing more hours.”
Working directly with companies seemed the way to go. An app that could help employers encourage staff development was valuable all around – employers could update their ineffective career-development protocols and employees could learn exactly what makes them tick, professionally.
That, essentially, is the gist of the Disqovery app now concluding its beta run. Promising a “bite-sized and fun way” of helping professionals better understand themselves, the app – available for all mobile devices – eschews the traditional, often-dry career-development path for an irreverent, slightly silly and much deeper modern spin.
Mehta struck on the original idea after being accepted to the Harvard Business School. Many people requested his advice for getting in also, so he started an admissions-consulting business – what to put in résumés, how to structure essays and more.
That led to “deeper conversations” with his clients, according to Mehta, covering fundamental issues like why the client wanted to go to business school, what he or she hoped to eventually do, etc.
“I basically became a career coach,” he said.
Recognizing “an actual affinity for coaching and career development,” Mehta – who considers himself “very much a technical person” – had his lightbulb moment. The market, he knew immediately, was there.
“My generation in particular, but everybody, really, is pretty bad at self-reflection,” Mehta said. “People don’t understand what they really want, so they can’t recognize the opportunities that are best for them.”
Adding to his a-ha moment: At most companies, career development is a bona fide pain in the neck.
“It usually comes around once a year and it’s generally a chore,” Mehta said. “Managers don’t want to do it. You don’t want to do it. There are conversations that go nowhere. People are left feeling confused.”
The earliest version of Disqovery launched in February 2013, almost 10 full months before Mehta incorporated Disqovery Inc. in Delaware (the company is actually based in his Ronkonkoma home). Just as the app’s focus has changed multiple times, so has Mehta’s team. Today Disqovery targets corporate clients first and programming is done by freelancers working in Brooklyn and India.
Instead of a once-annual career-development marathon, the app takes its time, asking users simple, sometimes jovial questions once or twice per week. How was your day? What was the best part of your week?
“Over time, we can build a more complete picture of who you really are, what excites you and what you could do without,” Mehta noted. “We start to learn things after a few weeks, and after a couple of months we get some really interesting personal analytics.”
Those analytics lead to “concrete, useful recommendations” about an individual’s career choices. Disqovery programmers sprinkle in relevant skill-development opportunities – continuing education classes, for instance – pulled in real-time from the Internet, and also work directly with employers to include in-house development platforms that might not always get to the right employees at the right time.
“As we learn more about the individuals, we can say, ‘Hey, turns out your employer offers this great course, here’s a link,’” Mehta said.
For Mehta and his team, the voyage of self-discovery continues. They’re still answering some basic questions – “What’s the value proposition?” Mehta asked. “What are people paying for?” – and user feedback will go a long way.
But a next-generation Disqovery app is booking its first revenue, and focusing primarily on businesses in the consulting, financial and professional-services fields, the company has “a few more potential customers in the pipeline,” according to Mehta.
“I think 2016 is going to be a good year,” he said. “Right now, we’re focused on excelling with our current customers, so we’ll get good referrals. But we’re at a point now where we can say with confidence that we have a business model that works, that the product has had these benefits for these customers.
“Soon we can look at scaling up,” Mehta added. “And we’ll set a significant funding round that will really solidify the company.”
What’s It? A mobile app that makes professional self-discovery fun
Brought To You By: Varun Mehta, technologist, career coach and Harvard Business School grad
All In: $5,000 self-invested by Mehta, mostly to cover travel related to developing customer channels
Status: Beta run complete, ready to improve corporate America one employee at a time