Student startups: a well-versed business

Hannah Langworth chats to Dhrupad Karwa, UCL graduate and co-creator of brand new collaborative poetry-writing app HaikuJAM

What are haikus? They're three-line imagistic poems written according to rules based on Japanese poetic conventions and they've long enjoyed cult status among students with a literary bent.

Dhrupad Karwa, who graduated from UCL with a degree in economics this summer, thinks that not only are haikus fun to read and write, but that their popularity is a basis for a great enterprise for the social media era.

HaikuJAM, the brand new app that he and two collaborators have created, harnesses the power of the internet to allow two or more poets anywhere in the world to create a haiku together. Just before HaikuJAM's successful launch on the iOS App Store, we sat down with Dhrupad to find out more.

Where did HaikuJAM come from?

I'd always thought I'd love to be an entrepreneur. Last summer, I'd just come out of working on another startup idea that turned out not to be feasible, so I decided to go for tea at Fortnum & Masons with my best friend to cheer myself up.

I'd had this idea in the back of my mind that I'd love to write some poetry and let another creative individual continue the poem. So while we were there, I wrote the first line of a haiku, asked him to write the second line, and then I wrote the third. This continued for about two hours and it was really fun! So that was where the idea was born.

What were the steps between coming up with the idea and submitting HaikuJAM to the App Store?

I started by mulling over the idea, working on the concept and fleshing out the structure. I also decided I was going to teach myself to code - I'm not a big fan of entrepreneurs outsourcing all their responsibilities and not getting truly involved in the intricacies of their product.

But before getting into the technology, the focus was always on the user experience. First of all, I had to think: who am I doing this for? The first step was looking at the marketplace - what's already out there, understanding how people wrote haikus, talking to poets, and just thinking about whether this was an opportunity that excited me. I also started thinking about the brand. "HaikuJAM" was actually the very first name that came into my head - it just felt natural.

At the end of the Christmas holidays, I got two friends from my course on board as there comes a point when it's inefficient to try to do everything by yourself because you can only move at a certain pace. And one of the reasons I now feel confident about the project is because of the quality and dedication of the team.

Together we started a business plan and put together a prototype through Google Docs and Excel. We ran about 60 sessions where we invited three people to write haikus together for an hour or so, and we got some fascinating feedback. Most people enjoyed it, which reassured us.

But before we started converting our idea into an actual app, we designed the app's user interface, which took most of this summer. We were thinking about every button and every screen flow. How would someone use this feature? How does it feel?

Next, we were lucky enough to win £25,000 of funding from UCL, who are amazing when it comes to supporting student entrepreneurs. Then we decided: let's start building. We did some research and ended up choosing a team of developers in Russia. They then built the app, and we've just submitted it to the App Store.

How will the business make money?

The app will be free, but we have some ideas on monetisation. All I can say is that it won't be revenue generation through standard forms like adverts. It'll be incorporated into the creative process. But we don't have a set-in-stone monetisation strategy as we don't know what our user base will look like yet.

What challenges are you facing?

Working with our developers in Russia can be frustrating at times. Everything happens through Skype and emails and so much can be lost in communication when you can't just look over someone's shoulder.

One enormous concern is around censorship. We don't want to censor users because that wouldn't be right, but we've made it as easy as we can for users to report offensive content and for us to then remove that haiku from the database.

Getting new funding for HaikuJAM is definitely going to be a challenge for the future. I've recently been meeting with potential new investors to spread the word about HaikuJAM among the venture capital community.

Where next for HaikuJAM?

We want to evolve HaikuJAM into something that truly delivers our vision of collaborative creation. To some extent, an app in itself is not a sustainable business. So ultimately we want to keep the concept, but move it beyond being an app. We're not primarily a technology company - it just happens that technology enables us to do what we want to do at the moment. In five years, HaikuJAM won't be the offering it is now. We want to explore and collaborate with other brands and with artists, and move into lots of different areas.