Interviews

Chase Koch on OxPath, OxMatch and being a student entrepreneur

These are strange and disconcerting times. Many of us are experiencing upheaval in our home, education or work lives. Not so many of us are concerned by the obstacles the current predicament is posing to our portfolio of start-ups and initiatives. Yet this is the position in which Chase Koch finds himself; co-founder of OxMatch and OxPath, he took a year out of his degree to avoid a Covid-stricken university experience, and is now using his time to focus on those two projects, among a variety of others. He took time out of his schedule to talk to The Oxford Blue about his work in access and matchmaking, and his experiences of running businesses and initiatives as a student.

What many find remarkable is just how prolific Chase is with his projects; for most people, running one start-up would be more than enough, but as far as Chase is concerned, the more the better. “It’s kind of fun to start something new, and to have to do all the groundwork,” he tells me, “it is really annoying, to be honest, because you have to create a culture, create a team out of nothing, but it’s really rewarding [to start] a project and see it take shape. And what’s really rewarding is when you put in all this work for something, and then you can step back and work on something else. But then you see that project doing stuff on its own, because you have a team that’s running autonomously.” However, personal fulfilment is not Chase’s only motivation for having such a diverse portfolio; as is to be expected from someone with such a keen interest in business, he is pragmatic and realistic. “You always have to assume that things are going to fail, so doing a lot of different things is minimising risk,” he explains, “you never know if people actually like the idea, if people will actually use it in a certain way, so why would I want to just double down on one thing, and then it could be going well, but then a month from now, it gets to a dead end? So you have all these different things, and then if something’s not working, you can just cut it off, and then still have these other things.”

Besides his enjoyment and risk-evasion, Chase also believes that the nature of his projects is what spurred him to pursue such a broad range of projects. “A lot of them have natural synergies,” he maintains, “it may sound kind of silly, but you start one, and then you think, well, life would have been a whole lot easier if we had x. With Oxpath, it was like, life would be a whole lot easier if we had a natural way to communicate with people or had a bigger base of people to reach out to. So then you think, we need a mailing list, or a platform to connect people. So we needed to come up with other ideas. So it sounds like a lot of these things are separate, but they all interlock together.” OxPath, unsurprisingly, crops up several times over the course of this interview, and it’s not difficult to see why. Chase describes it as “the one that I’m most proud of” and proceeds to explain in detail how the platform works, his enthusiasm evident. “We have very big aims [for OxPath],” he says, “we had the idea back in June, but we really launched in September. And from then to now we’ve signed up over 400 mentors from every subject, every college. We’re doing about five to ten sessions a day. We originally thought about just keeping it as an Oxford access thing, but because of how well it’s doing we’re thinking of expanding it to other universities and giving A-level help. So that has the potential to scale beyond Oxford, and that’s the thing that I’m really interested in. So that’s definitely a thing that, were it to get going, I’d want to keep on working on.” 

A testament to the truth of Chase’s earlier claims about the synergy of his projects is the fact that his proudest creation, OxPath, has its origins in his other most notable venture. “It actually came out after we were doing our OxMatch survey; we looked at it and we were like, wouldn’t it be cool if we applied this, but for something that actually is a problem, like access. And so we had this idea of pairing up students with mentors,” he says, “obviously, that’s already been done. But we thought, wouldn’t it be cool if you could get paired up whenever you need it, on demand. And we’re actually the first to do that. That makes it very flexible for students, because with all the other access programs, you sign up, you apply, and then they close, and then they match you up with a mentor. And then you do one session a week or one session a month; naturally, that has a limited supply. So we wanted to solve the supply problem.” Time will tell whether OxPath’s new approach will catch on among the crowded field that is Oxford access, but one thing is for certain: if it doesn’t work out, it won’t be for lack of trying on Chase’s part.

If the revelation that Chase’s access programme came out of his matchmaking service comes as a surprise, then his explanation for how OxMatch itself came about should be even more so. “My co-founder and I had this idea for a dating app focused on in-person dates in places you both like. So you sign up, select places and events that you want to go to, and you get shown people that also like those same things,”  And we were in talks with local businesses, where they could provide discounts and vouchers. And that OxMatch survey sprung out of that, because we needed a way to do some initial marketing, and we needed a way to do some market research. So we built this whole matchmaking survey, basically, just for market research purposes. We put all the market research questions at the end, because we figured that if someone just opened it up and saw these questions they’d click away. And people really enjoyed it; we got thousands of people sign up for it. So that became its own thing because we thought, hey, we should do this again. And it’s great. It’s like initial marketing, we get market research. And we know these are people that are interested in using our product, when we eventually launch it.”

Indeed, despite his best attempts to avoid the negative impact of the ongoing pandemic, Chase’s business plans have been foiled by the virus. “That was very much dependent on businesses signing up and integrating their service with ours, because we made it for both the consumer end and the business end,” he explains, “the consumer end being that people like dating apps, and they want to meet in person with their matches, so why not base it on places you both like? But on the business end, people have to have first dates somewhere, so why not have that first date at your business? So to be blunt, it’s a pipeline to send people to your business; that’s really attractive to them, obviously. But if they’re all struggling, they’re not going to be interested in giving out discounts or vouchers. And now with lockdown it’s basically moot. So we’ve just had to put that on the shelf. But even with the sponsorship and investment, that’s dried up because at this point, all the businesses are really struggling. And when I talk about investment, I’m not talking about a lot of money, I’m talking about hundreds of pounds or in the low thousands, nothing huge, but even that is very hard to get now.” These are frustrating times for Chase, unable to pursue his primary business focus, but fortunately he has plenty of other projects to divert his attention towards.

The issue of funding, however, is one that will be of interest to many students who are interested in starting their own businesses and initiatives, but it is something that Chase is keen to downplay; while he acknowledges that “cost can be a barrier for these things,” but remarks that “if you know the right people, have the right team that has all the right skills, you can really cut down on costs. A lot of our projects are very cost effective and not expensive at all, so we don’t really bump into that issue, just because we can do a lot of things ourselves. It obviously takes a lot more time, but it means that we don’t have to spend on a tonne of different things. So our costs pretty much are just hosting websites, which is very cheap, if you know the right providers.” For other budding entrepreneurs who are worried about capital, however, Chase recommends applying for money from colleges and JCRs (provided that the project performs some kind of social good, he insists), as well as the Oxford Foundry. For him, though, freedom from financial concerns is very important, and affects the way he and his partners conduct their business. Although he admits that OxMatch is something “that we do envision as a profit making thing”, and “just a business”, he is proud to state that “with OxMatch we actually get approached sometimes about selling our souls, basically, about, ‘hey, you guys have a mailing list, we’ll pay you to do this’. But because we do things very cheaply and cost-effectively, that’s not very convincing to us. We don’t need to sell out, because we just don’t have that need in the first place.” A bright future in business for Chase may well beckon, but for now, he is focused squarely on access for Oxford applicants and romantic fulfillment for Oxford students.

Chase Koch’s full interview with The Oxford Blue can be found on our YouTube channel here.

Fancy a discount? Love to shop independent? As Covid restrictions leave small businesses struggling, The Oxford Blue has partnered with local shops in Oxford to help them survive the pandemic and to offer our readers some great promotions. Check out where you can get yours here.

Elliot Sturge

Elliot Sturge is Senior Interviews Editor at The Oxford Blue. He is reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics at St. John's College, and is entering his second year. Outside of term-time, he lives in Bristol, where he plays American football and argues about politics on the internet.