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How She Got There: Alison Johnston, CEO and Co-founder of InstaEDU.com

Name: Alison Johnston
Age: 25
Job Title and Description: CEO and Co-founder of InstaEDU.com. InstaEDU makes it easy for high school and college students to get live study help at a moment’s notice.
College/Major: Stanford University/ BA in Communication
Website: http://instaedu.com
Twitter Handle: @ajalison

What does your current job entail? Is there such a thing as a typical day?
Alison Johnston:
As a cofounder of an early-stage startup, my job is changing constantly. It can be anything from spec’ing out new features with my co-founders, to working with potential partners and investors to covering support at odd hours.

What is the best part of your job?
AJ:
Hearing positive feedback from our students and tutors. Running a startup definitely has its ups and downs, but getting a message from someone that says we saved them in a pinch or that they now understand their math class makes such a difference.

What was your first entry-level job in your field and how did you get it?
AJ:
My first job was as the community manager for Aardvark, a social Q&A product that was later acquired by Google. I was an early user and met the CEO at a career fair at Stanford. I’d spent the previous 3 years interning at Box, which was a small startup at the time, so I think already having that startup experience gave me a big leg up in terms of getting the job.

Why did you decide to start your own company?
AJ:
The decision to start InstaEDU was a combination of several factors. On the one hand, I really liked the challenge of building a viable business out of nothing. On the other, I saw a real need for high quality online tutoring that hadn’t been addressed, and we knew we had a way to help.

What’s your favorite thing about the tech industry?
AJ:
Being surrounded by so many smart people who are motivated to make a difference. That sounds a little corny when I say it, but it’s true.

What is one thing you wish you knew about your industry when you first started out that you know now?
AJ: I wish I’d known how helpful fundamental programming skills can be for non-programmers. I’d recommend squeezing in a few lower-level computer science classes. Even if you never program for your job, it will help you work more effectively with engineering teams and get some tasks done quickly.

Who is one person who changed your professional life for the better?
AJ:
My aunt –she’s the person who inspired me to get into startups in the first place. She started two companies while I was growing up, so having her as a role model was fantastic. When I got to college, my first internship was for her third startup — that had me hooked.

What words of wisdom do you find most valuable?
AJ:
A boss once taught me that innovating doesn’t mean you need to reinvent the wheel at every step. A lot can be gained from paying attention to how the people and companies you respect do things and adapting that to fit what you’re working on.

What is one mistake you made along the way and what did you learn from it?
AJ:
  I shyed away from working full-time on our company for too long. About six months in, I left my job at Google. But instead of jumping in all the way, I went to work at another startup. As a result, I didn’t feel like I was doing a great job at either and I was always trying to juggle things. When I left that job, we were able to really pick up our momentum, partly because I didn’t have a fallback plan anymore. If you want to start a company, you need to be ready to give it your all.

InstaEDU is already such a success! Where do you see the company in 10 years?
AJ:
Everything that has happened has been exciting, but we still have lots to do. Our goal is to make it easy for every student to get personal academic support the moment they need it. That means going international. That probably means have a non-profit arm. And it means continuing to improve the product to better serve any study need that arises, especially as online courses become more popular.

What do you look for when considering hiring someone?
AJ:
We look for people who are smart, eager to learn new skills, self-motivated and passionate about what we’re doing. Experience obviously comes into play, too. Given how quickly everything changes, knowing that we have team members who are ready to adapt and roll with things is incredibly important.

What’s your advice for college girls who are interested in creating their own company?
AJ:
Learn by doing! Get an internship at a startup in the field that you’re interested in. Tell the founder(s) that you’d like to start a company of your own at some point. In most cases, he or she will be happy to answer questions and give you insight into parts of the company.

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