Discover more from Consumer Startups
🎢#59 - Mos.com: Solving the $1.7T Crisis
+ story of how Amira went from a human rights activist to a sequoia-backed founder
Hey fam 👋
Thank you for all the support last week! I had so much fun writing about SnackMagic. This week’s startup story is about an incredible female founder, Amira Yahyaoui, who went from being the face of a human rights movement in Tunisia to solving the $1.7T trillion student loan crisis in the US, with venture backing from Sequoia Capital and many more. Her company, Mos, helps students get more of the government's $135B in annual college financial aid funding with a single application.
Check out this Notion board if you are curious about startups and investors I have featured in the past. If you have not yet subscribed, make sure to do so👇. You’ll be joining a community of passionate consumer founders and investors.
I first heard of Amira during a conversation with Steve Sloane(GP at Menlo Ventures) early this year. He mentioned that Amira was the most interesting founder he had met recently.
“She has a history of fighting for rights and has fled an oppressive regime. She is now tackling a massive problem of college affordability in the US. Her empathy for struggling young people, and her ability to build products with young consumers in mind are world-class.” -Steve
How did a civil rights activist in Tunisia become a tech entrepreneur in the US? I was instantly intrigued. I had an opportunity to chat with Amira last week and her story completely blew my mind 🤯.
Amira’s activist upbringing
To understand how Amira is uniquely positioned to solve the $1.7T student loan crisis, we have to understand more about Amira’s upbringing.
A Tunisian native, Amira came from a family of political rights activists. Her father, Mokhtar Yahyaoui, was a Tunisian judge, and an opponent to the government of former Tunisian President, Ben Ali. After writing about the injustice in the country, he was forced out of his job and put under years of house surveillance. Her cousin, Zouhair, founded a satirical website called TUNeZINE and died in 2005 after being tortured for his activism.
Similar to Zouhair, Amira started a blog criticizing Ben Ali’s regime at 16. Even though she was just a teenager, she was tailed by the state’s secret police and beaten for speaking out. She sought refuge in France and was banned from her home country for four years. Her willingness to continue the fight despite being banished from her home soil helped her become one of the “Arab Spring” movement’s most prominent figures, and with her help, Tunisia would emerge from the movement as one of the first countries to establish a democracy.
After Ben Ali fled Tunisia, Amira immediately returned to her home country and ran in the 2011 national election as an independent youth candidate. The experience would lead her to found Al Bawasala, an NGO built to promote government transparency and accountability through technology.
Needless to say, she has been a total badass her entire life. She co-chaired the World Economic Forum in 2016 and has received countless awards for her work promoting human rights and democracy. Her resilience and front-line experience fighting against injustice have prepared her to take on any challenge.
“I always knew that I wouldn’t allow myself to do anything else before solving the problem in my country and today, Tunisia is the only Arab democracy in the world.” - Amira told Techcrunch
Genesis of Mos.com
College in Tunisia is virtually free, but due to her being exiled, Amira did not have the opportunity to go to college in her home country. She was robbed of the opportunity to even finish high school when she was exiled from the country as a teenager, but after Arab Spring, Amira had the platform to solve this problem, not just for herself, but for students everywhere.
“I had to work probably 10 times harder to get to be the self-educated me I am today. I saw way too many people getting their education refused and therefore, their future ruined.”
And she didn’t stop there.
“I am obsessed with helping people who are just starting their lives. How do you break barriers? How do you create opportunities and access not only in dictatorships but also in democracies, even in rich and well-functioning ones.”
This time, she wanted to solve a social issue by leveraging both business and technology and do it in the US.
Idea validation through talking to Uber drivers
Amira landed on the idea of helping people get more financial aid after chatting with Uber drivers.
She started the ideation process by first creating a list of problems such as immigration and healthcare. She would test out different ideas by talking with Uber drivers to see which one they resonated with the most. According to Amira, lack of access to higher education was the one problem that came up in all the conversations.
Coming from a country where education is close to free, Amira was surprised to learn that many people in the US are worried about access to higher education not because of their grades, but because of the exorbitant cost involved in pursuing higher education.
For many Americans, going to college means taking on tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. As of the first quarter of 2021, total student loan debt amounted to almost 1.7 trillion dollars. College debt is often a dark cloud looming over Americans - in fact, 1 in 8 Americans has student loan debt.
“The US has some of the best colleges in the world, and privatized education in the West is one of the reasons why they are so successful and competitive. The problem is how you pay for it. Some colleges cost you 250K for undergrad - it is nearly impossible for an 18-year-old to make that much money.”
Building a 10x better financial aid product
After identifying the idea, Amira and her team dove into a two-phased process - learning and building.
First Phase - Learning
They started the process in 2018 by first trying to learn more about the ins and outs of the financial aid system in the US. They would go through tens of Google Search pages, trying to understand different policies and programs. It was a lot of lonely and painful nights digging through the data and trying to make sense of all the complicated rules.
Amira learned that many of the applications were so painful to fill out that she considered them setting students up for failure. Many of the application links for state financial aid didn’t even work.
“We were on this state’s website where students apply for financial aid and all the links to the application were directed to a porn website. That’s crazy! No wonder students couldn’t get financial aid.”
The second part of the learning phase came from interactions with students. Amira and her team conducted 100 one-on-one whiteboard sessions with students, during which students were asked to ideate and prototype what the product should look like. Towards the end of the 100 sessions, it was clear that 80% of the prototypes looked the same.
Second Phase - Building
After learning the intricacies of different financial aid programs and finalizing the prototype, which took nearly a year, the team redirected 100% of their energy towards building.
The product was simple - help students get more of the government's $135B in annual college financial aid with a single application. The idea was to use technology to “check over 30,000 eligibility criteria for students who fill out the application, and match them with a personal financial aid advisor to ensure they've gotten as much aid as possible.”
It was not a typical iterative startup process. They decided to build the first product with financial aid offerings from both federal and all fifty states as opposed to rolling out the platform state-by-state. It was an incredibly difficult undertaking due to the amount of effort it took to make sense of all the financial aid programs in the US. However, the challenge also provided the team with an incredible moat once they finished.
“I don’t think someone from a pure tech background would have done it. You are solving something that is not gratifying until you see the end of it. However, I am so used to horrible governments that I was able to make it to the end.”
They shipped the first product in September of 2019. It was like Turbo Tax married Typeform and had a baby, according to Amira. Students only had to fill out one form, which took only minutes. From there, Mos helped with the rest.
Growth to 400K users
A great product without distribution is hard to scale. Amira and her team had a bumpy start when they shipped the product since they spent 100% of their energy on the product for the first two years. They didn’t have the bandwidth to market the product or create a giant waitlist like most consumer startups do nowadays.
To get some initial traction, they launched the product with the 100 students from the previous whiteboarding sessions. Subsequently, they experimented with Facebook ads which turned out to be a total fiasco. They were not familiar with the platform and did not target users correctly. They ended up attracting many people from outside the US.
Another challenge they faced was getting press. Most media platforms were not interested in the story of a product for financial aid. This challenge persisted even after raising a big Series A round led by Sequoia.
Nevertheless, with further growth experiments, Amira and her team started to figure out a growth flywheel for the company which centered around three factors:
The name Mos - it is easy to remember and share with other people
Word of mouth - students share with their friends after getting more money from financial aid
TikTok - educational content that helps to grow the top of the funnel and fuels more word-of-mouth growth
One of their viral videos on TikTok
Since its inception, Mos has helped almost 400,000 students receive an average of $15,000 in financial aid.
They are just getting started and I can’t wait to see them continue to grow. Check out Mos!
Mos actually refers to Mos Eisley from Star Wars. Part of the movie was filmed in Tunisia.
See you next week 🔥