When I was a junior in high school I wondered how I was going to pay for college. My mom was unemployed at the time and the colleges I was looking at weren’t exactly being generous with financial aid. It quickly became apparent that scholarships were my only option.

My local library became my second home as I spent most of my junior year and summer there looking for scholarship opportunities. After going through database after database and sorting through hundreds of scholarships, I created a list of scholarships I would apply for. It was one the most tedious and frustrating experiences of my life. Despite that, my hard work paid off and I was awarded over a million dollars in scholarships.  

After my success with finding scholarships, many students began to reach out to me for tips and advice in paying for college. Eventually, however, I realized that I just didn't have the time to give advice to everyone who asked for it. I needed a way to scale my efforts. So, I decided to create Scholly, a scholarship-matching platform that gives students an easy way to find scholarships. I took the knowledge gained from my own experiences and turned them into a product. I understood my customer because I was the customer.

I’m not saying that founders have to solve their own problems to build a great startup.  What I am saying is that it makes it a lot easier to add value to your customers when you understand their pain.  You will have more inborn insight when developing your product, which will potentially cut a lot of time out of the early product-market-fit stage. This gives founders more time to focus on how to scale their product and less time wondering if people will find their solution valuable at all.

Furthermore by solving a problem you’ve faced, you will give your startup a story.  Your value proposition relates to your own experiences and your pitch will feel natural. This helps your audience – be it investors, customers or press – better understand you and the problem your product is trying to solve.   

Above all, when working on solving a problem you have, you are working on a startup that you are passionate about. Part of the drive to put time and energy into creating value for your customers will come from that fact that they are a reflection of yourself.  There is just something magical about having your customer’s happiness being tied to your own. To know that what you are building will help another “you” is a great thing.

When I used Scholly for the first time, I could do nothing but smile. At that moment, I was both Christopher Gray, Founder and Christopher Gray, customer. I was a student who worked hard to pay for college. Now I’m a Founder who has created an easy way for others to do the same.


Christopher Gray is Scholly's Founder and CEO, and was named Ernst and Young's Entrepreneur of the year for 2015 for Philadelphia and is one of Forbes' 30 under 30 for 2016. Scholly has been featured in just about every major media outlet, including Good Morning America, Forbes, BET, USA Today, Fortune Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, CNN, Fox News and many more. Chris speaks nationally as a Scholarship expert, and is a tireless advocate for student success through college affordability.