GE 192: How Toot Founder Sophia Parsa (Forbes 30 Under 30) Built a Vibrant Community & Leveraged IG Gifs to Build Her Startup (podcast) With Sophia Parsa

Sophia Parsa

Hey everyone, in today’s episode, I share the mic with Sophia Parsa, co-founder of Toot, a marketplace that instantly connects students with tutors and academic assistance via mobile app, founder of Mountaingate, which connects leading entrepreneurs and artists, and is on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 List for 2017.

Listen as Sophia discusses how the idea for Toot came about because she had urgently needed a tutor one night in college, how a $25 GIF ad on Instagram skyrocketed their success, how investing in key relationships (including 100 student ambassadors) brought her where she is today, and why her next goal is to create access to education for everyone around the world.

Download podcast transcript [PDF] here: How Toot Founder Sophia Parsa (Forbes 30 Under 30) Built a Vibrant Community & Leveraged IG Gifs to Build Her Startup TRANSCRIPT

Time-Stamped Show Notes:

  • 00:50 – Review and subscribe to the Growth Everywhere Podcast
  • 01:00 – Eric introduces Sophia to the podcast
    • 01:02 – She is the founder of Toot, part of the Forbes 30 under 30 in the education spectrum, and also part of Mountaingate
  • 01:28 – Sophia has two passions: education and community building
  • 01:33 – Born and raised in Los Angeles, Sophia met a co-founder that helped her start her ed tech company
  • 01:48 – She also started a community that meets for supper
  • 02:21 – Sophia was raised in an entrepreneurial family and assumed that everyone should have a company
  • 02:30 – Never had the level of fear that people usually have with starting a company
  • 02:44 – The ah-ha moment for Toot was when Sophia was strapped for a tutor and her professor connected her to a student on campus to help her out; ended up passing her final
  • 03:13 – It took her meeting her next co-founder to help her get the ed tech startup going
  • 03:33 – Sophia shares her co-founder’s story and why he was essential in taking her to that next step
  • 03:53 – “Toot is a marketplace that connects students to tutors in their area via mobile app”
  • 04:04 – We’re also launching a text messaging service to connect people to academic assistance and tutor support
  • 04:22 – We’re giving schools direct feedback as to what students are struggling with
  • 04:52 – How Toot is being marketed:
    • 04:55 – Word of mouth is getting our message across
    • 05:00 – Had a team of 100 ambassadors
    • 05:09 – Instagram is also spreading our need
    • 05:18 – By students texting each other
  • 05:45 – How Instagram helped their marketing campaign
  • 06:45 – Facebooks is doing gifts as ads
  • 07:11 – How Sophia is so connected with Mountaingate:
    • 07:36 – She hosted a dinner for entrepreneurs and artists
    • 08:01 – Sophia had a theme/topic for the dinner regarding space and had entrepreneurs in that area join and share
    • 08:24 – It grew to 60 people/dinner
    • 08:32 – The results of this dinner: friendships, jobs, connections, investments, partnerships, roommates even
    • 08:49 – Sophia wants to join the L.A. community together
    • 09:06 – You need a hybrid of technical people and creative people to make great things happen
  • 09:50 – Search on Mastermind Dinners if you’d like to connect with one of these groups
  • 10:20 – When you bring a large group of people together, what are somethings to be mindful of or mistakes to avoid?
    • 10:33 – Have a cap
    • 11:00 – Make sure everyone feels welcome and included
    • 11:25 – Thing about how you can be helpful to these people
    • 11:37 – Connect the right people, but at the same time, keep it organic
  • 11:55 – What’s the typical price?
    • 12:08 – Sophia lists the expenses
    • 12:33 – We donate the remainder of the profit to a cause
    • 12:45 – It’s not to make money, but to connect people
  • 12:58 – It’s about the relationships and that’s more than worth it
  • 13:44 – What’s next for Toot?
    • 13:50 – Sophia is working on the B2B model
    • 13:58 – They want to focus on connecting with schools and raise funds
    • 14:41 – Create access to education
  • 14:59 – What’s one piece of advice you’d give to your 20-year old self?
    • 15:05 – “Not to believe everything you hear”
    • 15:10 – Sophia explains how she came about this conclusion
    • 15:32 – Before getting excited, find out if the the person you meet with is who you actually want to work with and whether or not they’ll actually deliver
  • 15:56 – What’s one new tool you’ve added in the last year that’s added a lot of value?
    • 16:17 – We’ve built our own tools
    • 16:33 – Facebook messenger: it’s where we communicate as a team and with our clients
  • 17:23 – What’s one big change you’ve made in the past year that has impacted you or your business in a big way? – “Learning how to say no”
  • 18:18 – Sophia explains her connection to Forbes’ 30 under 30
    • 18:52 – Before her father passed, she told him that she made the list because it was a joint goal
    • 19:16 – How Sophia ended up on the list
    • 19:42 – Sophia and her co-founder were BOTH finalists
    • 20:13 – This is the result of being connected and having persistence
    • 20:26 – How being on the list has affected her career
  • 21:10 – What’s one must-read book do you recommend? Hooked
  • 22:08 – Connect with Sophia on Instagram and email

3 Key Points:

  1. It’s all about making those connections—attend an event with both technical and creative people to move forward in your career.
  2. Do your due diligence with who you choose to work with and see what they actually bring to the table.
  3. You need a combination of persistence and connection to take that next step towards success.

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Disclaimer: As with any digital marketing campaign, your individual results may vary.

Full Transcript of The Episode

Show transcript
Sophia: I watched my dad go to work every day. My assumption in life was everyone had their own company, so I never had that level of fear to start. I just assumed this was the way of the world.

Speaker 1: Do you want to impact the world and still turn a profit? Then you're in the right place. Welcome to Growth Everywhere. This is the show where you'll find real conversations with real entrepreneurs. They'll share everything form their biggest struggle to the exact strategies they use on a daily basis. If you're ready for a value packed interview, listen on. Here's you're host, Eric Siu.

Eric: Before we jump into today's interview if you guys could leave a review and a rating and also subscribe as well, that would be a huge help to the podcast. If you actually enjoy the content and you'd like to hear more of it, please support us by leaving us a review and subscribe to the podcast as well. Thanks so much.

All right everyone, today we have a special friend of mine. Her name is Sophia Parsa and she's the founder of Toot. She recently became a part of the Forbes thirty under thirty under education. She's also the founder of Mountaingate, which I'll let her speak to as well. Sophia, how's it going?

Sophia: Hey Eric. Thanks for having me.

Eric: Thanks for being here. Why don't you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Sophia: That's a good question. I think that who I am, I have two sort of passions, things that I've really focused on right now. For me this year it's all about education and community building. Who I am is, younger founder, born and raised in Los Angeles. Met an awesome co-founder who really inspired me to give my [ed tech 00:01:40] start up full force and just go at it. At the same time accidentally, sort of started this beautiful community just by getting a couple people around for dinner once a month. I think what has happened for both of these things this year has just been super amazing and I'm excited to start off with the Forbes 30 Under 30. We're just off to a good start on both sides.

Eric: Awesome. I think a lot of people young entrepreneurs, especially young women entrepreneurs too are probably thinking, "I want to have an ed tech start up or a tech start up and I want to be on the

Forbes 30 Under 30 too." Talk to us first about what was the impetus for that, where you're at with that today, and then we can jump into the

Forbes 30 Under 30.

Sophia: Sure. I'm very lucky. I was raised in a very entrepreneurial family. I watched my dad go to work everyday. My assumption in life was everyone had their own company, so I never had that level of fear to start. I just assumed this was the way of the world, everyone starts.

In college I actually started my first ed tech company. It was a digital signage company. I ran into an issue. The night before my finance final my tutor's wife went into labor and I

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was stuck, needed to meet with someone. Finally, my professor connected me with a student on campus and that was the a-ha moment of Toot, where I was just like, "Interesting that we're all here on this campus together. We have no way to connect. We have no idea who's around us, who can help us." This guy was on campus all along and he ended up coming over and helping me. I passed the final. I was still working on my last company and it really took meeting my co-founder that next step.

I'm very honest with myself. I know what I'm good at. I know what I'm bad at. I'm not technical, yet I'm co-founder and CEO of a company. I do have a CTO of Toot and he really inspired me to start, just given his background. He was someone who based on his religion, well actually even his parent's religion, not even his own beliefs, he was denied access to higher education, so he couldn't go to college. He couldn't start a business. He fled the country and came over to the U.S. and did exactly that. Wanted to started an education company, self-taught developer. I just knew this was my chance if I were to want to start this company with anyone it needed to be with him. That's the evolution of Toot.

Toot is a marketplace that connects students to tutors in the area, via mobile app. Most recently we're actually launching a text messaging service that connects students to tutors for academic assistance and homework support. It's on a monthly subscription. Students can just text us at any moment when they have a question they don't understand and they'll be connected to a tutor that can help them understand that process. The most exciting thing about this platform is we are now giving schools access to real life data on their students, to understand where can curriculum be optimized. One of the biggest issues right now in education is tutoring is a big issue, but the bigger issue to solve here is the education system. The fact is that tutors know what happens with the students outside of the classroom, the schools don't. I'm just excited about being able to provide that information.

Eric: How are you growing Toot right now? How are you getting more customers? How are people finding out about it?

Sophia: Word of mouth is really powerful. I have to say it's been ... We started off with an incredible ambassador team. We had a hundred ambassadors. These were students in Los Angeles, who were marketing us. Instagram has been really powerful for us actually. A lot of students are of course on Instagram, our demographic is heavily on there. Most importantly is, this new product is text messaging. This isn't a behavior that students aren't aware of. They're so connected and so tapped in. It's just been a really easy thing for easy people to explain. Just text this number and you'll get connected. I'd say a mix of word of mouth and Instagram has been really the key for us.

Eric: Awesome. You talked about Instagram, so a lot of the marketers that listen to this are probably licking their chops. What's going on exactly in Instagram?

Sophia: We did a quick ... Before we decided to build the texting service, we built a really small beta. We put up a twenty-five dollar Instagram ad. It was very general. It was just like students between the age of thirteen and twenty-one, in the U.S. We got about a

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thousand questions due to it. I think what was interesting was we used a GIF right. The ad was a GIF. It was just messages back and forth between student and tutor, very obvious how to use it. There's nothing that you ... You just looked at it and you knew what this product was. It was a really successful campaign. I have to say that we didn't think much of it. I'm not a marketer. I'm sort of an idea person and I said, "Let's try this." And it worked out.

Eric: Awesome. This GIF, I know with Instagram you're not able to post GIFs natively right? You're probably using like video?

Sophia: It's a video.

Eric: Got it got it. Just for everyone as of this recording, I think Facebook just came out with the ability to actually do GIFs as ads nowadays. Actually Sophia you can probably take advantage of that later, but just wanted to make everyone aware of that.

The other thing I wanted to talk about, you mentioned word of mouth and I think this is something that you're really, really good at. You're really good at throwing events. You're good at staying connected with everyone. Talk to us about Mountaingate and how you're still connected first of all.

Sophia: For starters, I just love my city. I love L.A. I think that there's so much opportunity here, so many different industries. I think most people don't realize that there is something really fascinating happening with tech here. We have space [inaudible 00:07:23] we have Snapchat. These are the hubs for those companies. You can't deny that there some of the most leading tech companies today. I want to be first to really discover that hub.

Accidentally I hosted one dinner for just a couple friends who are founders. I wanted to meet more people who were sort of heads down and working on their own business, forward thinking creative, doesn't have to be a tech entrepreneur, could be also just a very creative artist. I wanted to bring these people to dinner and not just to network, there needs to be a purpose for every meeting I believe. We decided to put a topic of discussion for each event. For example, last month we did one on space and we had some of the most incredible people from all the big space companies in California come and join us and speak on this panel.

After this one dinner I decided to stay very committed to continuing to throw these dinners around discussion, because what was supposed to be a twenty person dinner ended up being a sixty person dinner. The most incredible thing about the community is what happens afterwards. People are connecting through a private group. They are sharing advice, support, connections. I've seen investment come out of it. I've seen partnerships. I've seen even roommates and incredible friendships come from this. Definitely people are finding jobs through it. The purpose of it to me is to help bring L.A.'s community forward.

As I said earlier, I am from L.A. I really believe in the ecosystem here. I want to be one of the first to really gather us together and move us forward together. Because to me

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typically events are either full tech or full creative and we don't really see that in-between, where it's a hybrid of the both. I think that's where the magic happens, when you're bringing this technical people together with such artists and creative people.

Eric: Awesome, awesome. It's super powerful when you're able to just connect people. Sometimes I go to conferences and I have dinners with like-minded people and it doesn't have to be just entrepreneurs. It doesn't have to be creative people, it can just be anyone that's really like-minded. I look at things, your boyfriend has thrown those dinners too. Everyone has these different ways of throwing them. Some cases they'll host it at their place and then boom they'll cook. In some other cases a bunch of people will just meet up, but just bringing people together and then you doing it on a larger scale is super powerful.

There's this one PDF actually that's out there that you guys can all go out there and download. Just search Google and type in mastermind dinners and there's literally a checklist out there that you can pick off of if you want to do something like this. Even if you're just starting out. Let's say you're an entrepreneur, but you're looking to get a business started, you can get like-minded people together and you guys can have these little mastermind meetings and you can make them into bigger events or you can keep it small and intimate. It doesn't really matter, but I guess a question for you would be, in terms of during an event with sixty plus people, if people want to start doing that, what are some things to look out for? What are some mistakes to avoid?

Sophia: I think the biggest mistake is not ordering enough food for me. Same problem, it's just kind of like know how many people ... I think it's important to have a cap. Because I'm running two and Mountaingate sort of happened accidentally, I don't pay attention to the details of Mountaingate all the time. Sometimes I wake up day of event and I thought like forty people had purchased a ticket. I'm like, "Oh, yesterday we were preparing for this many people and today we have this many people." That's the first thing.

The second thing is to make sure everyone feels included. Often times people coming to these types of events are trying it for the first time. They're being sort of brave. They're putting themselves out there. They've probably never heard of the event, especially if you're starting out new. It's important for people to feel like they're really a part of something meaningful and that their contribution to it is impactful. I would say a sense of inclusion.

Keeping in mind the types of people that are in the room. Figuring out how you can be helpful to those people. As someone who hosts these dinners, I've become this sort of connector and I'm expected to do so. It's something that I have to remind myself all the time. "Oh you just met this person. Make sure you introduce them to that person." Seating them in the proper place and making sure that it's organic of course always, but at the same time everyone is there with some sort of purpose. To figure out how you can be helpful with everyone and run a smooth even at the same time.

Eric: Cool. For these events, what's the typical ticket price and what do expenses typically

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look like for you?

Sophia: Right now the expenses are high because I'm paying myself back for a lot of things that I purchased. I host these in my backyard, so venue is zero. I'm lucky I have an amazing backyard. I host this at my family home. Check that off. Food is expensive, only because my mom actually cooks for these dinners. For our sixty to ninety people dinners and she's very particular about her produce and where she purchases things. Right now I wouldn't say that there is much of a profit and we actually donate the remainder of the money to a non-profit each night, but I'm looking at different ways outside of just the ticket to sort of monetize this. Right now the focus is really build an organic and great community, not so much make this a business.

Eric: That's the ultimate thing. I think with these events you hear from people mostly, most of them lose money. If you're breaking even that's great, because like you said you're ultimately looking to build a community of people and these relationships last a long time and that pays for itself many times over right?

Sophia: One hundred percent. I can't even think of a favor right now that I would need or a connection that I need to make that I couldn't reach out to one of the six hundred people who have attended our dinners before. That's just amazing on its own.

Eric: People think these things, it's like, "Events cost so much money, such a headache to put together," but at the end of the day, you are the connector. You are basically the center. You made this all happen. I think that pays for itself, we're talking many years over. Not even just a few years, we're talking ten, twenty plus years. That's the level of impact that I'm seeing from these things. That's the research that I've done from it.

Tell me what's next. What's the goal in the next year or two?

Sophia: We're working on our B2B model right now. Currently as it stands, it's very consumer basing and we really want to tap into partnering up with schools. Working on that a lot, hopefully raising another round in the next couple of months for expansion reasons. Ultimately, my goal is to create access to education and we will pivot and we will continue to reiterate so that eventually people like my co-founder who are on the other side of the world, who were denied access to things like education, don't ever have to fear going into their classroom because they might get arrested. To me, that's still astonishing. It's a crazy fact about what's happening around the world. I think most people don't know about it. As long as the right tech is being built, people like my co-founder won't have to be afraid to get an education and that's my goal. Whether I'm touching one life or thousands of lives, I'm happy.

Eric: Love it. This question's typically tailored to twenty-five year olds and I don't even think you're twenty-five yet are you?

Sophia: I am. I'm turning twenty-six next month.

Eric: Okay. I'm going to re-tailor the question, what's one piece of advice you'd give to your

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twenty year old self?

Sophia: My twenty year old self? Probably not to believe everything you hear.

Eric: What's the story behind that?

Sophia: I have had plenty of co-founders and I think I got ... People that I've worked with over time and I think at face value I got so excited about the meeting, about what they said they would bring to the table, and later realizing that nothing has really been brought except for wasted time or energy. That could've been placed elsewhere, so before getting too excited, really figuring out is this the right person you want to work with? Do a little bit of due diligence. Things that I just didn't think about. As a naive twenty year old starting their second company, but this is the first company that I felt truly passionate about and excited about. I forgot that these are human beings and not everyone can do the things they say.

Eric: What's one new tool that you've added in the last year that's added a lot of value? It could be like a Evernote, it could be a Google Analytics or whatever.

Sophia: Can it be Mountaingate?

Eric: It could be Mountaingate. Actually you know what, I'm going to challenge you on that one, because we've talked about Mountaingate so much give me another one.

Sophia: Okay. I really think that's it though. Outside of that, we actually build all our own. All the tools I use are things that we've built internally. The thing that I'm glued to is our admin panel. It's the thing that makes our business move everyday. That's a tool that's really important to me. Outside of that, funny enough is Facebook messenger.

Eric: Really? Explain.

Sophia: A lot of the times when we're looking for things like tutors, we're trying to fill some supply, we're looking for ambassadors, often it's coming from Facebook. It's from posting on Facebook and communicating there. Also, my co-founder and my team we use Facebook to communicate. We don't even use [inaudible 00:16:59]. It's this thing that we're sort of glued to and it works for us.

Eric: Facebook is coming out with the slack competitor. I don't know if it's out yet. I don't think it's out yet, but that's interesting. The thing I've noticed in the last year or so, last 365 days, is there's a lot more people pushing Facebook messenger. I find myself being forced to it. I guess that's just what's happening and that's behavior of people. Super interesting. One other question, what's one big change you made in the last year that's impacted you or your business in a big way besides Mountaingate?

Sophia: How did you know I was going to go there? A big change was learning how to say no. I'm someone who so much opportunity comes my way, more recently than ever, because of Mountaingate, because of Toot, because of Forbes. It's really difficult for me to not want

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to do all these things. At the same time, I'm only one person and so managing my time has become more and more important to me everyday. Having the courage to say no in a way that isn't a flat out no, but "Hey, no I can't do this, but here's someone who can." Trying to delegate the things that I want to do to those who will probably enjoy them just as much as I would.

Eric: Super important. The Forbes thing, talk to us about that.

Sophia: Yeah. Honestly it's been a dream for me. It was a goal. I actually started to, because I came across a Forbes 30 Under 30 four years ago and I was like, "Oh wow. I see all my friends on here. Here's some family friends. Here's someone I was dating." Thought about, "What am I doing? I want to be on this." I was telling my dad all about it and it became a little bit of a goal. I wanted to build something amazing, but I also wanted to be recognized for it as well. Actually like a year ago, my dad got really sick and before he passed I told him that I made the list, because it was kind of our goal together. That happening made me realize that I probably need to make this happen. I just fully lied to my dad that I made Forbes 30 Under 30 last year, fabricated ...

Eric: But it happened.

Sophia: Yeah it did. You know fabricated an article. The way it happened was I reached out to a friend, Aza Steel, who started a company called GoGuardian. He made the education list last year and I said, "Hey, I'd love to do this. What are my next steps?" He said, "Actually today one of the editors just reached out and asked if I had anyone in mind. Can I send your name?" I said, "Sure." He sent my name in. He nominated us. A couple other friends who made the list last year had nominated us. Both my co-founder and I actually ended up making finalists. The thing about Forbes is if you make finalists then your co-founders also make finalists, so we kind of had a little bit of an advantage, since we both made finalists. We had no idea what was going to happen. I asked Forbes every day almost, you know the editor. "Did we make it? Did we not?" They kept sending background checks, reference checks, all these things they just wanted to make sure of. Ultimately you just don't find out until the day of, so I woke up to and it was just the best news ever.

Eric: Awesome. So that my friends is the power of A) being connected B) the power of persistence as well. What has that done for you so far?

Sophia: I think it's a little soon too tell. I can tell you thus far, I can't be introduced to someone without them mentioning, "Oh [inaudible 00:20:31] Forbes 30 Under 30." But I've gone to some dinners where that's the way I've been introduced and next thing I knew I was being connected with an important VC or someone in the education space who's really high up and doing amazing things. As of right now, it's just been meetings and connections, but you can't ignore that you're part of this little crew now, which is the

Forbes 30 Under 30 people. They do have this private app for people who have made the list and that in itself is super active. I'm just excited how I can collaborate with other young people who have also made this list and have similar interests and thoughts about education.

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Eric: What's one must read book you'd recommend to everyone?

Sophia: Must read book? I really the book Hooked.

Eric: That's by Nir?

Sophia: Yeah and I really like it. I have to say, I do more audio than anything, because I just can't sit down and read.

Eric: Perfectly fine. That counts.

Sophia: I started doing that and I really like Nir. I think he's really smart, very talented, and knows what he's talking about. I feel the book is actually becoming a little outdated. We're just finding new things, but it's still interesting to watch the evolution and look at things that happen today and point back to Hooked and say, "Oh that's how it all began. Those are the types of things that you need to watch out for. These are the types of things that you need to do in order to get here."

Eric: Cool. We'll drop that in the show notes. Everyone, that book is about how you can get hooked into products or how products hook you in. Final question, last but not least. This has been great. What's the best way for people to find you online?

Sophia: Anywhere really. Instagram is great. I'm @sophiaparsa. I can give you email even. I'm happy to do that.

Eric: Good. Give it out.

Sophia: It's [email protected] I really enjoy getting email and connecting people where I can or being helpful where I can, so I'm happy to do that to any of your audience.

Eric: Awesome. Sophia, this is great. Thanks so much for doing this.

Sophia: Thank you.

Speaker 1: Thanks for listening to this episode of Growth Everywhere. If you loved what you heard, be sure to head back to for today's show notes and a ton of additional resources. Before you go, hit the subscribe button to avoid missing out on next weeks value packed interview. Enjoy the rest of your week and remember to take action and continue growing.