PHOTO AND STORY BY ESTELITA HASS CARAZZAI
No more than a thousand people live in the small ski city of Dillon, Colorado, at the base of snowcapped mountains mirrored in a lake. In the winter of 2014, Joe Troyen was one of them. Recently back in the United States after a nine-month trip to Africa, the 28-year-old was focused on getting a startup off the ground. Skiing every morning helped him to do so.
“It enabled me to collect myself, clear my head and focus until late night,” says Troyen, a 6-foot-6 former basketball player and founder of PenPal Schools – which took off that winter.
PenPal is an online platform that offers free six-week courses to students from all over the world, who exchange thoughts about global issues and get to know different cultures. More than 70,000 people from 168 countries have already taken the classes.
Last year, the startup received $25,000 from an angel investor. A few months later, the team received $200,000 from another source, in what Troyen calls their first “big break”. Since then, they have partnered with Dell, participated in global conferences on education and gained the support of Techstars, an accelerator in Austin where the company is currently based.
And it all started with a Google Docs-based system in 2012.
Back then, Troyen still had a day-job, working as a project developer in New York. He and a friend, former journalist Michael Bernstein, wanted to engage students from different states in a discussion about the elections held that year. Using their free time, they built a simple platform on Google Docs. Troyen himself was responsible for manually matching classrooms, so that they could talk about political issues.
“Until this day, I sometimes call myself the Chief E-mail Officer,” he jokes.
They got the attention of a few hundred students and a grant from Mozilla Foundation. Months later, Troyen quit his job and flew to Asia, in search of insights and connections with international teachers who could bolster the project.
This was when he realized the potential of PenPal to become an international learning platform – and a business.
“In many countries, kids often times would run up to me in the streets to practice English,” he recalls. “They would want to learn about life in America, but also share about their cultures and experiences.”
At the end of the trip, after he had gathered hundreds of contacts from teachers and students interested in the idea, his business partner Bernstein decided to drop the project to pursue a law career. Troyen was visiting a small village in India when he got the news.
“I spent the night thinking about all the teachers I had met and how disappointed they would be,” he says.
By the time he woke up the next morning, he had decided to continue with the project. “It wasn’t just an epiphany, like me realizing something on my own. I saw a real need there.”
During his skiing season in 2014, while the PenPal idea was being rebuilt, Troyen faced what he considers was his biggest challenge as an entrepreneur: focus.
“As an entrepreneur, you believe that you can do everything. I wanted to have partnerships with public and private companies, build courses also for cooking, music, religion … but I learned to say no.”
Looking back, he says it all happened “forced by the circumstances” – and that is how it needed to be. “Many people want to become entrepreneurs by sitting around on their couch and thinking of an idea. If you do this, you’re going to come up with a basic thing that anyone could think of.”
The next challenge, besides improving the product, is working in a revenue model that could bring sustainability to the startup. Right now, five people work for the company. Troyen, the founder, is known as “Mr. PenPal,” his nickname on Twitter. “That’s who I am now.”