Being an entrepreneur is hard, but for a student entrepreneur, things can get immeasurably harder. With no money and armed only with an idea, where can a young entrepreneur find funding and support? For Jordan Goldman, founder of Unigo.com, his answer – and salvation – lay in his college alumni.
The recent graduate from Wesleyan University had an idea of a wholly student-contributed online college resource where other future students can get unbiased advice on the colleges they were thinking to apply in.
“Choosing what college you go to is an enormous decision. It’s stressful, it’s incredibly expensive, in many cases entire families save for years and (everyone has to) chip in,” says 26 year-old Goldman. “Up until very recently the best way to make this four-year, $50,000 to $250,000 decision was to buy a college guidebook.”
When Goldman was 18 years old, he came up with an idea to help make those guidebooks a little bit better – he created a series of 100 per cent student-written college guidebooks called the Students’ Guide to Colleges, published in a couple of editions by Penguin Books.
About a year after he stopped doing the guide, Goldman realized the limitations of print guidebooks – each college only got a small number of pages, with no photos, no videos, no interactivity. For a decision this important, that resource didn’t seem helpful enough.
“High school students and parents needed more accurate, authentic, honest information. And college students needed a place where they could really represent their college lives – if they loved their school, if they had issues with it, if they were someplace in-between.”
“The internet provided the opportunity to create an enormous, comprehensive and totally free resource that could help everyone.”
Goldman proceeded to hire an 18-person editorial team for Unigo, and spent about three months researching 250 colleges. “We hired interns on the ground, who really believed in what we were trying to accomplish and who helped corroborate our research.” For the next 5 months, Unigo evangelized to students one by one, asking them to be part of creating a ‘crowd-sourced’ student resource. “We put in extra effort to ensure we received reviews from students from every major, extracurricular, gender, race, religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation and more … students who love their school, who have issues with it, or have mixed feelings.”
In the end, more than 15,000 students from these 250 colleges had contributed more than 35,000 pieces of content. In some cases, a full 10 per cent of the student body took part. Goldman explains that such a volume of reviews Unigo allows them to tap on the wisdom of crowds. “If we have 150 reviews of a college, you can search by a variety of criteria. You can say, only show me reviews by English majors, or African-American students, or politically right-wing students at a left-wing institution … so you can see a school from the eyes of someone who’s just like you.”
Unigo – The collaborative students’ guide to colleges
Unigo launched on 17th September this year, and offers a slightly different site for high school students and college students. High school students get access to an enormous amount of free and honest information about each college such as editorial overviews, reviews, photos, videos, documents and more. For college students, Unigo gives them tools to create content about their college life – reviews, videos, photos, upload class notes, academic writing, creative writing, campus journalism.
“They can write blogs, interact in forums, create profiles and message their classmates and other prospective students. Anyone with the right .edu email address can create content about their school,” says Goldman, who was recently interviewed in the New York Times for his startup.
Goldman started working on the idea for Unigo when he was 23 and recently graduated from college. He decided to just go for it and lived on his meagre savings while he worked on developing his idea further.
Goldman recounts how he managed to stretch his savings – which he thought would last six months – into one and a half years. “At a certain point I starting growing more and more frugal – dividing Chinese food lunch specials into two or three meals, living in the cheapest sublets I could find and sleeping on people’s couches – to make the money last as long as it possibly could, so I could take the idea as far as I could.”
The English major one day realized that there were a lot of really amazing alumni living in New York City. What if he was able to tap on their expertise? “So I went into Wesleyan’s alumni database and emailed lots of knowledgeable people in NYC, asking them if I could buy them dinner while they listened to the idea and told me what they thought.”
And respond they did, even if some were complete strangers. The alumni were willing to be incredibly helpful, and over time, and after meeting with lots of alumni, their advice helped Goldman’s plan get better and better. “Literally two or three weeks before my last dollars were set to run out, some alumni came together and actually pitched in the initial funds to start building the website.”
Being open to good advice
Goldman thinks that the advice he received from the Wesleyan alumni was as important, if not more important, than their funding of Unigo. One challenge, he shares, was recognizing that the ideas had plenty of flaws in the beginning. “People would listen, and nod their heads, then go on to rip it apart.” They said things like “you didn’t think of this, what would you do in this scenario, this part doesn’t make sense”, Goldman remembers.
“Sometimes that can be hard to hear, especially if you’re living only on your savings, with everyone telling you to get a real job while you’re trying your best to keep at it to get your idea off the ground.”
“But in the end, it’s actually the best thing in the world, those people who pick your idea apart. You have to kind of put yourself aside, and listen to what they’re saying, then go home and take out your pen and go ‘okay, they identified a hole, how do I fill that hole now?’. Once you’ve done that, ask them to sit down with you a month later and test out your patch, see if it holds. If it doesn’t, try again.”
Goldman says he probably had 50 or 100 of those ‘hole-finding’ lunches before the idea evolved enough to raise funds to create Unigo – trying out ideas, testing them, getting shot down and building them up.
“You really do learn from that process. And your idea gets immeasurably stronger. Not being defensive and opening up was one of the hardest – and most worthwhile – things that got done.”
Jordan Goldman, founder of Unigo.com