In the 1990s the prospect of quick money from E-commerce fueled a gold-rush-like frenzy. Now the chance to make millions on the Web 2.0 concept tempts both young and old, and the young entrepreneurs claim, perhaps rightly so, that they have their fingers on the pulse of their target audience – other young people.
Every week, it seems, we hear of another entrepreneur with a company based on the Web 2.0 concept. In this issue we profile two of them, Admish and Rethos, each founded or co-founded by Princeton University students.
Will they succeed? Odds are that these cyberspace businesses will face the same challenges that firdt round of Internet ventures did. An example: The popular Web 2.0 community myYearbook.com, started by a 17-year-old Montgomery High School student and her siblings (U.S. 1, February 28). The site recently got another round of national publicity, referring to its revenues of $1.6 million. Profits? None yet.
Social Ties For College Applicants
For high schoolers and their parents, finding the right college can be compared to a trial-by-fire initiation ritual. Savvy teens — or those who get savvy advice — emerge unscorched on a campus that is right for them. Others don’t.
Internet websites can make this ordeal a little easier. The “matchmaker” feature at www.CollegeBoard.com can instantly match preferences to an array of colleges. Peterson’s, the 40-year-old Princeton firm that has 220 employees on Lenox Drive, has a student-friendly website where teens can get advice, search for colleges, and sign up to let colleges search for them (www.petersons.com). A much smaller and younger site, (www.cappex.com), also offers searchable student resumes.
But many students now want more of the experience sometimes called Web 2.0. According to a Noel-Levitz study. “They want social networks, through applications and communication streams that pull them into a virtual community. Many students desire this online socialization as they conduct their college searches.”
A handful of Princeton University students started a company, Admish, and a website that aims to leverage the Web 2.0 experience by connecting students, parents, guidance counselors, and admissions officers. Calling the current admissions ritual “convoluted and inefficient,” the founders say that using “peer to peer” or “matchmaker” architecture could make interaction between admissions officers and students easier and more transparent, reduce direct-mail recruitment expenses, yet help colleges contact hard-to-reach students.
Perhaps because its founders are young, Admish suffered more-than-the-usual growing pains. Three of the founders, including the CEO, have left the firm, the name has changed three times, and the programmers missed crucial deadlines. Beta testing in Princeton-area schools was initially scheduled for late April but is still under way. In fact, the site was still not ready for public viewing at press time.
Yet the concept for Admish (formerly called Zandigo) won prestigious cash awards, and an angel funder has stuck with the project. The company raised $350,000 last year and is in the middle of its second round of investment. One paid employee and a handful of others are working feverishly to use technology to help all students — not just the privileged ones — understand the opportunities available to them in the college admissions process. They hope to launch the site in September.
The Admish service will be free to students and guidance counselors. The site will post free college profiles, but colleges will have to pay to reach out and contact students. Advertising will also be solicited.
Can it succeed? Says Tom Szaky, another Princeton University student who successfully founded his own firm, Terracycle: “The moment they have it up and running, that’s when everything starts. As soon as they launch, they will know whether it is going to be successful within a year. Until then it is just holding your breath.”
Szaky suggested that what Admish needed was to bring on some older advisors. Early on Szaky hired an experienced entrepreneur to his board and then he hired a seasoned general counsel. Szaky’s company, which manufactures plant food from worm droppings, has grown exponentially.
Admish did have an angel investor who served on its staff for a time. Now Kyla Kupferstein, an educational consultant, is the lone employee over the age of 22 — and the only salaried employee. She was initially unimpressed by the youthful founders’ plan. She called the site “a terrible idea” because it fostered spending more time on the Internet but later concluded it was a “compelling new idea for reaching students.”
She describes Admish as “not a recruitment tool, not a beat-the-game-to-get-in-your-dream-school site.” Instead, she calls it “an educational tool to help students go through the process with integrity.”
That’s what the founding CEO, Jeremy Johnson, hoped it could be. “College applications can be “a slap in the face,” said Johnson in an interview earlier this year. “Unless a parent has gone through it with another sibling, students are stranded in their senior year.”
The son of the founder of Isles (a nonprofit in Trenton), Johnson attended Trenton’s public schools before switching to private schools. “Growing up in Trenton, I got to see both sides, what it’s like for students who didn’t have the resources of dedicated guidance counselors,” said Johnson. “My friends in Trenton did not receive information in their freshman, sophomore, and junior years to prepare them for admissions process. For those who never had to represent themselves on paper before, it is almost traumatic.”
Johnson cites the case of his friend who was smart but — halfway through his junior year at Trenton High — had not met his guidance counselor and had no idea what courses he needed to take to go to college. Four years of science and math are not required in most schools, and un-guided students often end up taking only two or three years. This friend is now working as a security guard. “The differences between his college application experience and mine are pretty stark,” said Johnson.
Encouraged by the cash prize he won from a contest sponsored by the Princeton Entrepreneurs Network, Johnson left Princeton University after his junior year to start Admish. He described himself and the other founders as “restless, entrepreneurial students more interested in innovative business development than theory or history.”
Though Johnson still has an equity stake, he left the CEO’s job this summer, saying his day-to-day job was done, but that he would remain as stakeholder and advisor. He says he does plan to return to Princeton for his senior year as a politics major (he would have graduated in June). He and the former angel investor are looking at ideas for different kinds of firm in the college admissions space. Says Brad Milne, Admish’s director of operations: “Jeremy is a born entrepreneur, a great idea guy, an evangelist.”
Fewer than 25 people are involved with the firm, says Milne, and just a handful are in Princeton. Milne and another team member, Breanden Beneschott, live in the company’s incubation space on Bank Street. Milne grew up in Toronto and graduated from McGill University in 2006. His parents are in the advertising business. He has Sicilian roots, and a summer he spent in Sicily fueled his desire to have his own firm. Says Milne: “I am trying to build a business that I love to come to every single day.”
Beneschott, 19, is taking a leave of absence from Princeton University but intends to return as a chemical engineering major. Raised in Reno, Nevada, where his parents are psychologists, he was doing nanotechnology research with post-doctoral students at Stanford at age 14 and has founded two other companies, including WhyDoIt, which aims to enable voter registration by cell phone and text messaging, and a web development firm.
Sandy Gibson (Princeton University, Class of 2006) is an Admish employee who is working from Canada because his student visa expired. The founders also included Mick Hagen, who moved away last year to start his own competing firm, Zinch, and Joseph Perla, who resumed his studies at Princeton University. Peter Miceli and Jaime Campbell of Bartolomei Puccarelli are the accountants.
Kupferstein has an office in Manhattan, where she works with both low-income and privileged students, and she also trains guidance and admissions counselors. She is the daughter of physicians. One side of her family descended from Holocaust survivors and the other branch came from Jamaica. She went to a prestigious New York public school, the Hunter School, graduated in 1996 from Vassar College, and has a master’s degree from Harvard. “One of the main reasons I am in this field is that I wasn’t a rich girl, but a privileged one,” she says. “I had a superior education at all points in my life, and I created a career so that I could encourage kids to dream big and be responsible at the same time.”
She writes for the website. What she calls the “Admishionary” is supposed to get across such messages as “there is no such thing as you can’t go to college, that you can’t get money for school, that you can’t transfer to a better school.”
She aims to foster independence with this message: “Know who you will want to be. Your journey is your journey.”
She compares the site to “a well-supervised prom,” with the adults standing around inconspicuously so the teenagers get the feeling they are independent, but nobody goes home pregnant.
As the site gains traction, the Admish founders plan to create communities using a networking function, like the mini-communities found on MySpace and FaceBook. For instance, a high-powered, bright student at a substandard high school might discover equally smart compatriots in a neighboring town. “Or we can have a chat with 10th graders all over the country. We don’t want kids to get caught in the tidepools of just their schools,” says Kupferstein.
She notes that, when admissions decisions are released, all-night chats break out: “My hope is that our chats will have kids interacting with knowledgeable adults who are hanging out, outside the door with a reality check, able to intervene in some of these conversations.”
Won’t students competing for the same spot at a prestigious school try to psych each other out? Milne does not think so. “Fit and match” is the message he wants to preach, not competition. “Our proprietary content will encourage speaking to each other about the correct information, versus getting misinformation,” says Milne.
The online fact sheet, written by professional admissions counselors, explains, for instance, why community service and extra curricular activities are considered important. Unlike the College Board site, which seems to assume the student is familiar with terms like matriculation and PSATs, every term on the Admish website has its pop-up definition.
That counselors and parents can check on students as they build their on-line resumes is a major advantage for Admish. Peterson’s will allow guidance counselors to keep track of general statistics for the students they supervise. They can learn, for instance, how many have signed up for the SAT test. But they can’t learn what an individual student has done. On the Admish site, students can make their personal information visible to counselors and parents. Says Milne: “Guidance counselors can use this as a tool to watch students build their college application over four years, giving them feedback. It’s a valuable tool for counselors to communicate with their students.”
Like another competitor, www.Cappex.com, Admish will let students open up their records to colleges and invite colleges to find them. Cappex has jaunty graphics, complete with caricatures of its founders, in contrast to the less well illustrated Admish site. But Admish will invite colleges to put up blogs and reach out to students searching for particular characteristics. Though this web tool will be more helpful to the less selective colleges, top tier schools will be able to use it to “craft” a class with particular specialties, such as dancers, discus throwers, or harp players.
Though Milne is currently campaigning for additional monies, a generous angel funded Admish until now. Last year it had raised $350,000 and that number has increased. The bigger obstacle to the success of Admish has been getting the programming done. “We had difficulty outsourcing,” says Milne. “The promise of outsourcing is greater than the results.”
Beneschott is in charge of the technical staff and is finishing up work done by teams in Rumania, India, and New Zealand. “If I had it to do over,” says Beneschott, “I would absolutely not outsource.” He cites the language barrier for Rumania and the cultural differences in India. “When underlings are not encouraged to speak up when they have problems, as can happen in India, a lot of things fall through the cracks and you don’t discover them until too late. That held us up at least four months.” Remote locations also took their toll on him. “With the time differences, there were weeks when I was sleeping an hour or two a day.”
Beneschott does not, however, regret signing on to this project. “We are very passionate about what we are doing. If I had $100 million I would definitely be doing something like this — because I am enjoying it.”
It may seem preposterous to imagine that a handful of college kids could seriously challenge the website of their older and much larger competitors. But then, what over 40-adult could have predicted the blockbuster success of FaceBook or even the success of myYearbook.com, the site started by the high schooler in Montgomery?
New York Times columnist David Pogue argues that just one website will succeed in each category in the Web 2.0 environment. For instance, eBay and YouTube captured the audiences for auctions and video sharing. “A Web 2.0 site doesn’t really take off until the public anoints a de facto ‘main’ one in a category, at which it becomes self-fulfilling. And how that anointing happens is a mysterious thing, having to do with buzz, timing, and software design,” writes Pogue.
But Milne, who isn’t much older than his target market, is not worried about whether Admish will be the best and the biggest: “We see the future of social networking. There won’t be just one network. People my age will join as many social networks as we need to, to get sufficient information.”
Admish/Zandigo LLC, 13 Bank Street, Princeton 08542; 609-651-8293; fax, 866-314-2470. Home page: www.admish.com