The story of Pipe and Quill, a new software LLC started by David Michael ’13, Kevin O’Connell ’13 and Professor of Economics Michael Rolleigh, starts with two frustrated students in an economics classroom. “We noticed that everyone was drawing out their graphs by hand, which was really tedious,” Michael explained. This spurred a hunt for economics graphing software that was accessible and easy to use, which proved fruitless. “The best technology available … involved taking out a pencil, graph paper and ruler to draw the graph out by hand. Particularly enterprising students could attempt to use a spreadsheet program, like Microsoft Excel, to create this graph, but in my experience the technology did not lend itself well to economic modeling,” O’Connell said.
“Find a need and fill it” goes the age-old adage for business success. “While working my way through the antiquated method [of putting pencil to paper],” O’Connell recalled, “I reflected how easily one could comprehend these models … using a touch screen interface, as on the iPod and iPad. The thought stuck in my mind.” And so began the long development process of Pipe and Quill’s first baby: EconGrapher, an iPhone application that allows you to use a touch screen interface to customize pre-loaded economics graphs.
The application’s success comes both from the fact that it addresses a specific need and from its extraordinarily easy-to-use interface. The development of this deceivingly simple application, however, did not come without trials. The first step was to approach Rolleigh and ask if he could provide the economics content of the application. He agreed and joined the venture as a partner. The first two companies that they approached with their product did not deliver what they promised. They were forced to pull out from these companies and seek alternative options, but a lot of resources were lost in the process. “Although the first developer proved honest in the end by returning our payment, the second developer never granted us a refund, despite having refused to complete the application,” O’Connell said. “We were devastated,” Michael said of the speed bumps. Despite this, they persevered. They filed an arbitration suit against the company and won. They hired contractors and, over the summer, worked with three different employees to get something close to what they have now. They added another person to their team: Josh Geller ’14, now Tech Lead. In December 2012, they submitted their application to Apple, and on Jan. 2, the application became available on the iTunes App Store. Today, they are at 2000 downloads and rising. The application is now sweeping the economics departments of colleges all over the world.
EconGrapher’s success has widespread implications, as Rolleigh makes clear. “Our startup has the potential to transform education,” he says, “especially the textbook portion. The current model of professors lecturing physically to students is unsustainable … The overwhelming success of recent online classes at Stanford show that alternatives to the traditional educational model are becoming increasingly important.” EconGrapher, as well as Pipe and Quill’s exciting new plans for the future, seek to provide those alternatives.
Michael and O’Connell hope that EconGrapher’s success can serve as both an inspiration and a motivation for budding entrepreneurs on campus. “I want people to see that there’s an alternative to the conventional track of going into consulting, investment banking or teaching after graduation,” he says. “Instead, you can build something great and monetize it.” He also emphasizes the point that a good product is more than just a good idea: “You have to think,” he urged, “not just about cool ideas but, more importantly, ideas that can be executed well.” Michael and O’Connell both agree, however, that the best thing that budding Williams entrepreneurs could do would be to utilize the abundant resources that the College has to offer. “Take advantage of the fact that we have so many smart people here,” Michael said. “They should think of what assets they have, what assets their friends have, and use these to make good products.” They also both agree that our small-college nature may actually provide advantages to the entrepreneurial sprit that a big research university might not. “At few others schools will you find students who major in the humanities and also take courses in economics and computer science, as David and I have,” O’Connell said. “At few other schools will you find the professor’s door so frequently open and his mind so willing to entertain the prospect of undertaking an academic and business venture with students.”
What’s next for the team behind Pipe and Quill? They are entering EconGrapher into the Business Plan Competition, with hopes of increasing their capital. Regardless of the results of this competition, however, they plan to spendthe summer improving the product, having gotten a lot of feedback form studentsand professors throughout the semester. Eventually, they hope to make their product “a standard for everyone taking Economics in the United States,” says Michael. Even though they “don’t want to say that we’re the next Zuckerbergs or anything,” as Michael joked, EconGrapher’s success makes it clear that we can expect big things from these bright, young, entrepreneurs.