Every once in a while we publish an interview with a start-up. We ask five questions, hoping the answers will give you inspiration and new views.
This time I’m interviewing Jordan Goldman, founder and CEO of Unigo.com – a student-generated guide to North-American colleges. When I read an article about him in the New York Times magazine a few weeks ago, I was struck by his inspiring story. Jonathan Dee wrote the stunning piece like only a reporter from Eight Avenue can. It’s starts like this:
Born and raised in Staten Island, he graduated from Wesleyan in 2004, spent two post-grad years in England and, upon his return to his native city, lived in 16 different sublets in the next two years. His own parents referred to him as the Wandering Jew. “I was ordering Chinese lunch specials and dividing them into three,” he remembered recently, “and that was my food for days. My mom thought I was nuts. She kept saying, ‘Get a job,’ and I’d say, ‘No, Ma, I have this idea.’ ”
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Let’s hear the rest of the story from the Wesleyan graduate himself. It’s kind of long, but I promise, you’ll be entertained.
How did you come up with the idea of Unigo?
“When I was 18, I created a series of 100% student-written college guidebooks, called Students’ Guide to Colleges’, that was published in a couple editions from Penguin Books. About a year after I stopped doing Students’ Guide, I started thinking about the limitations of print guidebooks – each college only got a small number of pages, with no photos, no videos, no interactivity …
For a four-year, $50,000 to $200,000 decision, one of the five most stressful decisions of people’s lives … I realized 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.
But it was really important that we create something that was actually representative. That we didn’t just sit back, open a review platform, and hope people came.
So what we did was, we hired an 18 person editorial team, and decided Unigo would initially cover 250 colleges. We spent about 3 months researching every one of those colleges. Then 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, we reached out to current students one by one, telling them we wanted to create this giant and honest resource and asking them to be a part of it. 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, at 250 colleges, more than 15,000 students contributed more than 35,000 pieces of content. In some cases, a full 10% of the student body took part. And the value of having that volume of reviews is, 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 launched on September 17th, and now that we’re live we’re a slightly different site for high school students and college students. If you’re a high school student, Unigo gives you access to an enormous amount of free and honest information about each college – editorial overviews, reviews, photos, videos, documents and more. Very soon, we’ll be adding blogs and forums to the mix.
And if you’re a college student, Unigo gives you all the tools you need to create content about your college life. Anyone with the right .edu email address can create content about their school. They can create reviews, videos, photos, upload class notes, academic writing, creative writing, campus journalism … write blogs, interact in forums, create profiles and message their classmates and other prospective students. It’s pretty exciting so far!
What was your biggest challenge during the development process?
“I think the biggest challenge was being able – and willing – to let the idea evolve as you go along. When the idea for Unigo first came about, I reached out to some of the smartest people I could find, and asked them if I could buy them lunch and run the idea past them. And, in the beginning, the idea had plenty of flaws. People would listen, and nod their head, then go on to rip it apart – “you didn’t think of this, what would you do in this scenario, this part doesn’t make sense.” Sometimes that can be hard to hear (especially if, like I was, you’re living only on your rapidly depleting savings, sleeping on couches and staying in strange sublets, with everyone telling you to get a real job – but you’re trying to keep at it, stick to it, doing whatever you can to get the idea off the ground.)
But in the end, it’s actually the best thing in the world, the 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 try to say 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.
I’d say I probably had 50 or 100 of those lunches with smart people before we raised any money to create Unigo – trying out ideas, testing them, getting shot down and building them up. But you really do learn from that process. And your idea gets immeasurably stronger. Not being defensive, and letting myself learn from them, was one of the hardest – and most worthwhile – things that got done.
Also, last thing, you shouldn’t be afraid to share your idea because you think someone might steal it, because then it will never get better. Find as many really smart people as you can, tell them about it, and really listen to their feedback.
And who knows, maybe those conversations will even lead to your idea being funded and taken off the ground.
Can you describe NYC’s start-up culture compared to Silicon Valley?
”I’ve actually never been to Silicon Valley, so can’t speak to what that experience is like. But New York City has a really great and amazingly supportive community. Right in proximity of the Flatiron building, where are office is located, there are hundreds of startups and online companies all within 20 blocks of one another. And in the center of the 20 blocks there’s this hamburger place called Shake Shack, that has amazing food, and all the different people from all the startups – this whole online ecosystem, everything from coders to designers to CEO’s to angel investors to VC’s – they all eat at Shake Shack all the time, and meet one another and hang out. I’ve just found it really helpful and welcoming. There’s also some great NYC startup blogs like Center Networks, and online communities like nextNY (founded by Charlie O’ Donnell, who’s the greatest), and angel networks like Angelsoft with David Rose and Nate Westheimer …
I’m babbling a bit, but I’ve really found the proximity and community and general good-naturedness, the real mentality of “how can we share knowledge and help one another out to create stuff that’s new and exciting and cool” … I think it’s pretty great.
What will be the influence of your start-up on the next web?
“I think Unigo is a site that helps college students really represent themselves, create stuff about their college lives and share it …
And lets high school students and parents take this huge, expensive, terrifying decision … and turn it into something that’s fun and real and honest, and catered to who they … so they can make the best possible choice. It takes an old media product, these guidebooks that have been around for the past 50 years, and turns it into an expansive and evolving free resource that’s exponentially better than any book could be.
We also – there are a lot of review sites where anyone and everyone throws their two cents in. They’re not necessarily experts on the product, but there’s wisdom in the collective intelligence of all these people contributing.
Unigo’s in an interesting position, though. Because all the people creating our reviews really are experts – there’s no-one better suited to speak to what it’s like to live and learn at these institutions than current students. So it’s this enormous bank of true expert opinions and perspectives. We also have our editors, who have done months of research on every college and have that corroborated by our interns, read every review and create an overview of all our review content for each college (using quotes from student reviews, which hyperlink back to the full student review so words are never taken out of context.)
I think, as far as “user generated content” goes, there are a couple things we do at Unigo that hopefully add to that conversation.
You can make up this question yourself!
What’s the best part of having an office full of twenty-somethings?
Watching everyone face off against one another in Rock Band.