Stanford creator of Pulse app tells student entrepreneurs to ‘focus on the product’

Akshay Kothari was a Stanford student when he co-created the Pulse reader for tablets and smartphones last spring. (Photo: Solly Mirell)

For Akshay Kothari, the last 10 months have been nothing short of a “roller coaster ride.”

This time last year, Kothari and his classmate Ankit Gupta, were a few months shy of graduating from Stanford University.  The two computer science students had jobs lined up at Facebook and Microsoft. They also were enrolled in Stanford’s Launchpad class where students to prototype and launch a new venture inside 10 weeks.

Apple’s iPad had just come out and the two had an idea for a newsreader app they called the Pulse.

Speaking recently to students in Stanford’s Digital Media Entrepreneurship class — which also challenges students to get a prototype up and running in 10 weeks — Kothari discussed the idea behind their new news product. He said he and Gupta desired one single source of news that they could use every day on a regular basis. The two found similar existing platforms to be frustrating.

They’d caught the entrepreneurial bug and – big jobs aside — wanted to start something on their own.

“Google Reader turned out to be a sort of second inbox, and it just stressed people out,” Kothari said. “If you haven’t checked it for two days there might be thousands of stories you haven’t read. The whole experience should not be that stressful.”

With that in mind, Kothari and Gupta set out to create a simple yet comprehensive application. Within six weeks, Pulse, initially an iPad app, was born. Users could scroll vertically to see various news sources. Scrolling horizontally, they could browse stories within that source.

That was when Kothari’s “rollercoaster ride” began. Pulse hit the App Store in May 2010, and it almost immediately became one of the most popular products in the store, receiving heavy media coverage.

“The New York Times and Tech Crunch, all the publications we wished to feature, we were featured in them,” Kothari said.

Soon after, in June 2010,  Apple CEO Steve Jobs mentioned their product as one to keep an eye on at the company’s World Wide Developer’s Conference.

“If Steve Jobs had to write a list of products he likes, it probably fits on one sheet of paper,” Kothari recalled. Jobs liking their product meant “I could die in peace,” he laughed.

Pulse’s meteoric rise wasn’t without bumps: Soon after Jobs’ praised the product, The New York Times issued a cease-and-desist order, igniting a controversy. The newspaper company initially objected to the way Pulse was aggregating content from its site.  Kothari and Gupta appealed to the Times’ competitors to take their side. As the issue got more coverage, it became a bigger story in the tech world — outpacing the launch of the iPhone 4, which happened at the same time.

Although the hubbub around Pulse has subsided, it remains a very popular app. Kothari and Gupta now are expanding to mobile. Alfonso Labs, the company that grew out of Pulse, has released new versions of Pulse for the iPhone and phones that run on the Android operating system.

Kothari said the company keeps close track of how users consume the news. He said he is fascinated by the difference between the reading habits of people who use Pulse on the iPad compared to people who get their news from a smartphone. He described smartphone users as “snacking” on news and said that the average time a user spends on Pulse is much higher on a tablet than on a mobile device.

Kothari said Alphonso Labs will continue to be highly product-oriented and focused on improving their original product.

“We have been passionate about the product, and that’s what drives us,” Kothari said. Offering advice on how to build a company to would-be digital media entrepreneurs, he said, “It turns out if you have a focus on the product, the company happens around it.”

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