Social media for students and educators | an interview with Demonstranda

Corey Katouli
Corey Katouli is the founder of Demonstranda

Here is our third interview with interesting people within the MathJax community. This time we had the pleasure to talk to Corey Katouli from Demonstranda.

Demonstranda describes itself as a social media site for students and educators. Can you tell us a little bit about Demonstranda and how you came up with the idea?

The idea came to us while in grad school. Many of our colleagues wanted to discuss derivations of various finance equations and how to properly (hand) calculate different things. We were all using MS Word and emailing documents back and forth. It was completely inefficient and outdated. So my partner (Timon Safaie, co-founder and CTO) and I started to think about how to leverage the power of social networking in order to engage our friends in a productive way.

But that wasn’t enough when it came to communicating mathematics online. We needed to build an editor that makes typing math online more accessible and simple so that anyone could communicate their ideas online seamlessly. And so we set out to build our technology, MathMatix, and the social platform, Demonstranda, which holds it all together.

Can you tell us a little bit about your team and the history of the project?

I am somewhat of a serial entrepreneur. My first real startup was an online music marketing and distribution platform called ArtistDriven. We were trying to help artists distribute their music on their own and give them tools they need to market themselves. We had some innovative products and nice features and were starting to do pretty well until Myspace decided to sell music through their platform. They were a tough competitor with endless resources, which forced us to fold the company.

After a few years of hiatus, I decided to go to business school with the intention to meet some likeminded people and start a new venture. That is where I met Timon. We didn’t know what it we wanted to do, but we knew that what ever it was, it needed to matter and have a positive impact on society.

Prior to co-founding Demonstranda, Timon (a software engineer from UC Berkeley) worked in the aerospace industry for over seven years, building simulations software for classified projects. He did quite a bit of freelance web development work during his down time. His skills and talent proved to be perfect for our team’s chemistry: I do the fun stuff (design) and he does the hard stuff (programming).

To date, we have bootstrapped the entire project investing all of our own funds and time into it. This makes every accomplishment that much sweeter.

Demonstranda is operating in a rapidly changing market, competing with everything from MOOCs to Facebook to Wikis. What makes Demonstranda unique in this field?

The EdTech sector is plasma hot. There are a lot of cool innovative startups that are popping up everywhere. As with most multi-sided markets, many companies fall into ecosystems and, therefore, are not necessarily competitors. We all have a specific thing we focus on so that we can be the best at doing that one thing.

What makes Demonstranda unique is how we are going about addressing market needs. We are focused on making communication of knowledge simple, fun and social. MathMatix is a good representative of this mission.

Learning is made possible only through the effective communication of ideas. MathMatix makes communicating math online simple so that students and educators can communicate in a more effective and efficient manner.

There are lots of tools out there that we use in our daily lives to help us be more productive. Our opinion is that many of these tools need a massive overhaul. Most users don’t think this because they are use to dealing with the present inefficiencies. However, once they are presented with a better technology that allows them to do the same thing, in a fraction of the time, they realize the limitation of the old technology.

You are about to release a major upgrade to MathMatix, your math input technology. What are the driving concepts behind it?

User experience is the primary motivator. Typing math online (or offline) should be simple and intuitive. You should only think about the math not how to type the math. This will make authoring mathematical content a pleasurable experience.

With our recent upgrade, we have introduced a copy/paste functionality as well as some more tweaks to the user experience, making the tool feel more natural. There is also some less sexy backend stuff we did to make things a bit more elegant from the code viewpoint. As a result, MathMatix will be more intelligent in typesetting what you intended in subtle ways. This should allow the user to maintain focus on working on the math at hand.

You are serving both students and educators. What has been your most important experience with this diverse crowd?

Students want more freedom and educators want more control (in general). This makes creating a platform that makes both sides happy challenging. We believe we have crafted a nice design that addresses this problem with the roll out of our beta platform. However, this will be a battle that will go on for some time to come.

We tend to favor a more open platform since the size of the knowledge base will be much larger, which will lead to higher content quality over time. However, open systems are subject to abuse and that seems to be the primary source of concern with educators. And it is a valid one too. However, the long-term benefits of an open system exceedingly outweigh the short-term costs. We can always innovate on an open system in order to reduce abuse, but if we commit to a closed system, then it will be hard to open it up down the line.

Collaboration often leads to publication. How are your users able to reuse their content in and outside of Demonstranda?

Without saying too much about our future product lines, we are working diligently on features that allow users to do exactly this. The main challenge usually comes down to design, not technology. Design requires a lot of testing and iteration in order to get things right (just ask Apple). In the meantime, think of Demonstranda as a social platform where you can ask school related questions from your academic network and meet people who share similar academic interests.

What are your near and long term plans for the future of Demonstranda?

In the short-run we are focused on making our platform as cool and useful as possible and grow our installed base. In the long-run we want to make the communication of math simple across all platforms and interfaces. Leveraging voice and eyewear technology for instance, we can build new ways of communicating math more efficiently than ever before. Ultimately, our hope is that learning and communicating math will become more accessible with the onset of these new media.