Gen-Y College Resource Startup Thrives Despite Recession
In the midst of the "Great Recession," Jordan Goldman, now 27, launched a startup that has risen to become one of the largest resources for college information on the Web.
Goldman said the weak economy has helped his year-old company - Unigo.com - thrive, because it provides helpful information to students and parents that they cannot afford to get on their own right now.
CNBC sat down with the young entrepreneur at his New York office and asked him where he got the idea for Unigo, how the recession impacted the startup, what advice he has for aspiring entrepreneurs and more.
CAN YOU EXPLAIN UNIGO.COM IN A NUTSHELL?
Unigo is one of the largest resources for college information, created by the students themselves. So we get hundreds of students on every single campus across America to send in reviews and photos and videos, just kind of honest encapsulations of what it's really like on their campus, and the value of having that much content is you can subsearch.
You can say only show me your reviews of Princeton written by African American students or by female students or by students from California, so you can see your school from the eyes of someone who's just like you.
US News & World Report says the school is ranked number five, but how helpful to you? It can be ranked number five, but you could be miserable there, so the idea here is see what students like you think of the school. Where do people that you would relate to learn the most and enjoy the most? If you're going to make a four-year, $250,000 decision, you want to make that with the best possible information.
HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE IDEA FOR UNIGO.COM?
When I was first applying to college, I thought the resources that were out there were not as good as they could be. They didn't give all the information, so I wrote a book proposal and sent it into Penguin Books and said I'd like to have a completely student written resource.
I'd like to have something that's more comprehensive, more honest and those came out in [four] editions from Penguin .. .When I was 23, I started saying how can I take this to the next level, how can we put it online and make it even easier, even more helpful, even more honest and kind of insider perspective and help more kids go to college by seeing the right information. So I wrote a business plan and took it around and was able to raise financing, and we launched Unigo when I was 26, so we've been live now just under a year.
WAS YOUR AGE A BARRIER IN STARTING YOUR OWN BUSINESS?
It both helps and hurts. It helps in the respect that people like to help out young entrepreneurs. So when I did my business plan I pretty much did a Google search for business plan and found all the components and then reached out to as many people as I could find that had done this before and were business professionals, and I'd say 'Can I take you out to lunch?' or 'Can I take you out to dinner? Can I tell you my idea?' and 'What am I doing right?' or 'What am I doing wrong? What am I not thinking about that I should be thinking about?' and wound up taking 50 to 100 people out to dinner, and if I wasn't so young they may not have been willing to sit down with me, but over the course of the year and taking lots and lots of people out to dinner, the idea got better and better and better and the business plan evolved and it got to a point where it was financeable and we were able to raise capital and get Unigo off the ground.
WHAT WAS YOUR JOURNEY FROM INCEPTION TO SITE LAUNCH?
I started when I was 23 when I came up with the idea and wrote the business plan, and then at that time I was living off my savings and pretty much doing it full time and trying to raise money...and you can't get an apartment in New York unless you have a job and can prove an income, and I couldn't do that for a year and a half, so I lived in sublets. And I lived in about 18 or 19 sublets all over Manhattan.
Every single month I had to move somewhere else because my sublet ran out, but I was committed to taking this business plan and raising capital. So it was about a year and a half before we fully raised capital, and then before we went live we were all a team for about six months, so what we did was we had a full-time editorial team, and we contacted students on campuses all over America, and we asked them if they wanted to be our interns and help us in our efforts, and we got more than 300 students that were kind of our troops on the ground.
We said will you spread the word and tell other students that we're putting this together, that this is going to be the world's largest college guide, it's going to be crowd sourced, it's going to be honest and it's all student based, so the schools had no idea we were doing it. At the end of the six months, before we went live, we had gotten more than 30,000 students to create 10s if not 100s of thousands of reviews and photos and videos and in a lot of cases five to 10 percent of the entire student body sent something in. So the day we launched, we launched September 2008, we were one of the world's largest resources for college information form day one.
HOW HAS THE RECESSION AFFECTED YOUR BUSINESS?
Before the recession people could afford to travel to the schools and visit schools and try to make this decision in the best possible way. Now because people's budgets are tight, it's harder for them to spend thousands of dollars traveling all over the country to visit colleges, but there's still this real need to know before you get to a school what it's going to be like, because it's one of life's five most expensive decisions and one of life's five most stressful life decisions, so you want a certain level of information.
Unigo offers totally for free information that you previously couldn't get without taking a campus tour, so our traffic has kind of been booming, because people have needed what we offer, and we're free and you can get it in your home, so from that respect the recession has been helpful only in that we make available information that people can't afford to get on their own right now.
From a business perspective, it's always hard. The advertising market is more difficult, you want to cut costs. I think we've been far more conscious of our own spending. Things that were niceties, we said you know what we can't afford to do that right now. The economy collapsed about a month after we went live, so our belt has been a little bit tighter than we would have thought.
You just really have to assess what you're spending money on and is it going to give you maximum returns, but I think for a young business that's a good process anyway and to the extent the economy made us focus in on that to only spend what you absolutely need to spend and what's going to give us the best possible returns, that was almost good for us in that it really kept us focused and tight. Even though it's a difficult advertising market, we've still been able to attract advertisers like Wall Street Journal and Dell and Apple and Best Buy and other really amazing advertisers that have been growing with us and working with us. Maybe you have to have a bit of a stronger sale and a stronger proposition to them, but in the same respect that's tightened our pitch and it's tightened our focus, so it hasn't necessarily been a bad thing.
HOW DID YOU FIND YOUR STAFF?
We pretty much hired everyone as a class. Paul Dietze is our COO and CFO, and he was previously at Sony. He was part of the team that helped launch the Playstation, and he was the chief financial officer at LiveNation and was just a mentor and someone I had reached out to when I was in college.
I said (to Paul) here are some ideas I had, can I take you out to lunch? We kept in touch all throughout college, and when I came up with the idea for Unigo, he said he'd like to come on full-time and help do this...Barry Goldberg, who's our CTO, was previously the head of technical development at Princeton Review, so he has a lot of experience in the education space and helping students and helping them get the best information, and then we have this large editorial team, which all started on the same day and we all trained together and we all built this together.
All of our employees, except Paul and Barry, our CFO and CTO, were 26 and younger. I just turned 27, so I just broke that barrier, but everyone was 26 and younger. We were a room full of recent college grads, and we said in most companies we would be the people getting photocopies and fetching water for other people, and we reached out and got 10s of thousands of students without the grown ups knowing we were doing it to all take part in something really cool and to make all this really cool stuff, and the fact that six months out of the gate more than a million people have come and seen what this room full of 26 and unders put together was very cool. There are a lot of people that feel professionally you have to earn your dues and no one's going to listen to you until you're 30 or 35, and if you have an idea you can't go for it or you shouldn't bother making a startup ... it just doesn't seem to be the case.
WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR UNIGO GOING FORWARD?
We're adding new features all the time. Right now we have in-depth coverage of about 350 schools, where we've got 5-10 percent of the student body, where we have a robust level of content, but we want to have that for every school in the country. So we want to expand to every four year school in the country, every two-year school in the country, we want to expand to graduate schools, internationally. Our methodology is really scalable. We want to work with students at all sorts of schools so that Unigo is the world's largest largest resource no matter what level of education you're looking for, whether you're starting your process when you're 18 or whether you're going to grad school when you're in your mid 20s, we want to be the place you come to find out everything you need to know.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR YOUNG ASPIRING ENTREPRENEURS?
It doesn't matter what your background was, it doesn't matter what your experience was, it doesn't matter who your parents are - whether they're wealthy or not wealthy. Some people say "Oh you have to have all these connections and wealthy parents." It's not really the case. I grew up in Staten Island and my parents were schoolteachers.
I was an English major in college and had nothing to do with business, but if you have a really good idea that you're really passionate about, work through it. Reach out to people that you can learn from, figure it out step by step, like how am I going to practically implement this and just have faith in your own ideas that you're going to be able to find other people, and if your idea is really unique and original and you can execute it, people are going to back you and they're going to get behind you and add their knowledge and experience to your own and you can get what you have off the ground. You can't give up, you just have to work with your idea and take it where it needs to go.