MyStudyPal helps students maintain a work-life balance

17 Dec 2018

MyStudyPal founder Mark Nealon. Image: City Headshots Dublin

Our Start-up of the Week is MyStudyPal, founded by a 19-year-old that helps secondary school students create personalised timetables to ensure work-life balance in the lead-up to exams.

“MyStudyPal is an edtech start-up providing second-level students with a personalised study timetable by topic in seconds, which can be easily updated, and sends notifications of study sessions to your mobile phone. MyStudyPal helps Leaving and Junior Cert students study smarter for every exam,” explained MyStudyPal founder Mark Nealon.

Nealon decided to create the company after completing his own Leaving Cert and realising that there had to be a better way to plan and manage your study. He has spent the best part of the past year, alongside going to college, getting MyStudyPal built and up and running.

‘I had a very clear goal: to develop a simple, fast and effective way for students to create an accurate and fully changeable study timetable in order to negate the need for stressful late-night cramming’

A rugby injury also meant he couldn’t play any more and this became the catalyst for him to refocus his drive elsewhere.

“Anyone who has ever sat an exam understands how stressful the whole process can be – study time invading your personal life, the stresses of late-night cramming or being forced to choose what topics to study when you don’t have enough time. After sitting my Leaving Cert, I realised the stress that students faced could be lessened if they had one thing: an accurate study timetable that was easy to make changes to.

“MyStudyPal now allows students to create their study timetables in seconds instead of hours. Study sessions can be rescheduled at the click of a button, and social plans and extracurricular activities can be added to your timetable to ensure they never clash with your revision. Students can also sync MyStudyPal with their mobile phone calendar to view their timetable offline and receive notifications when a study session is about to start.”

The start-up has completed the build of its iOS and Android mobile apps a few months ahead of schedule, and they have been launched in time for the Christmas break.

The market

“Our initial target market is the more than 100,000 students who will sit the Junior or Leaving Cert this year,” Nealon explained. “We are also targeting the other 100,000 who will sit the exams in 2020. Obviously, we would expect more traction with those who are immediately facing the State exams. However, we are finding strong demand for MyStudyPal among 2020 exam candidates. We are targeting students directly, as well as through their schools, teachers and also parents.

“The opportunity is to provide a unique and much-needed study management tool to this market. The revenue model is subscription-based, with a retail price of €29.99 for 12 months, following a one-month free trial period. In the case of school subscriptions, the price per person is lower and depends on student numbers.”

The founder

After his Leaving Cert in 2017, Nealon decided to defer going to college to develop MyStudyPal.

“I had a very clear goal: to develop a simple, fast and effective way for students to create an accurate and fully changeable study timetable in order to negate the need for stressful late-night cramming, bring balance to student’s busy lives by ensuring they make time for fun, and save them precious time.

“Prior to MyStudyPal, my first experience of leading a team came in transition year of secondary school where I had the opportunity to lead a team of more than 100 students for my school’s main annual charity fundraising campaign. We managed to raise tens of thousands of euro for two Irish charities working in the developing world, Goal and Aidlink.”

Nealon also benefited greatly from being selected for McKinsey & Company’s Leadership Academy. “Here, I was part of a cohort of students from the UK and Ireland, and was coached by McKinsey consultants on areas such as leadership and problem-solving skills. I would credit this experience with giving me the self-belief to develop MyStudyPal from an idea in my head to a business.

“During my gap year, as well as developing MyStudyPal, I worked as an intern in an early-stage pharmaceutical company. Given I was the only intern in a rapidly growing company, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to participate in projects which stretched me and allowed me to develop a range of skills years earlier than I otherwise would have.”

The technology

MyStudyPal is built with Ruby on Rails, which Nealon said allowed him to build the app in a well-structured, cost-effective and time-efficient manner.

“Our mobile apps are written in React Native. React Native allows us to provide users with a full native experience while using the same code for deployment on iOS as well as Android. There are obviously significant cost savings associated with only maintaining one codebase, so this is a very attractive option for a start-up.”

He said the main technology behind the app includes the scheduling algorithms, which were designed in conjunction with students, parents and some of Ireland’s leading educators.

“A study timetable is highly personal so, at the end of the day, if a student doesn’t like their timetable they aren’t going to follow it. As user experience and usability are paramount, we spent a lot of time fully understanding what students wanted from their timetables and how they use them.”

Nealon said the immediate goal is to make MyStudyPal successful in its target market in Ireland.

“However, MyStudyPal could be easily adapted to other markets outside Ireland. Given the larger market size of such countries, the ultimate longer-term goal is to make MyStudyPal available to second-level students outside of Ireland. For example, nearly 1.5m students will sit their A levels or GCSEs in England, Wales and Northern Ireland over the coming two years.

“The potential growth of MyStudyPal is not just vertical, there is also scope to horizontally expand our offering. Since MyStudyPal’s launch, we have heard from various third-level lecturers and students that it’s not just second-level students who need study timetabling tools. This may be another market for us to target in the future.”

Nealon said that with the recent Christmas and upcoming mock examinations, he anticipates customer numbers to increase exponentially.

“Although we are not looking for investment right at the moment, there are so many opportunities to further develop this application and bring it to new markets in Ireland and elsewhere.”

Be more than just a number

Nealon believes the biggest challenge to date has been his age. “I have never run a company before, never mind launch an innovative tech start-up, so the learning curve has been very steep. There are many challenges associated with being a young entrepreneur. When I started the business, I had just turned 19 and found it difficult at times for some people to take me seriously. Many people saw me as a kid with an idea that was never going to have the ability to actually make anything of it.

“It is also quite challenging to start and build a business while balancing college at the same time. I am currently studying in UCD and get the majority of my MyStudyPal work done during the early mornings, evenings and weekends, which can sometimes be challenging when the rest of your team is typically working more normal hours – flexibility is the key! However, I do have some time between lectures when I can have meetings and attend to urgent items.”

His advice to fellow founders? “Believe in yourself! I had never been the smartest kid in school, but I don’t think you need to be the smartest kid to set up a business – you just need a continuous dose of tenacity and the network of support from like-minded people.

“I would also say that listening is also one of the most important things you can do. MyStudyPal started as an Excel sheet that illustrated the workflow of the app. I sat my friends down and did a product walk-through with them in order to gain valuable feedback, and slowly began to develop a product spec for the initial user interface development. I then spent a lot of time with many other students and teachers to understand what they wanted from a study timetable.

“Going through this painstaking stage of speaking to people individually gave me the confidence to make the first substantial investment from my own pocket to build the initial user interface. As you can imagine, being a 19-year-old, self-funding a whole app UI design left me with only a few cents in my bank account.”

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years