I spoke with Jordan Goldman, CEO of Unigo.com. Unigo.com is the first and only college review site that is reviewed only by students. Colleges are businesses, they do marketing and PR like any other businesses, Unigo.com doesn’t bend to the college publicity machines. This is the first and only place you can go to find out what each school is really like. So before you choose where to spend the next four years of your life, take five in minutes and check out Unigo.com.
YOUNG MONEY: TELL ME ABOUT YOURSELF, AGE, EDUCATION, BACKGROUND, ETC
JG: I grew up in Staten Island, New York, went to Wesleyan University, and just turned 26.
YM: TELL ME ALL ABOUT UNIGO. WHAT MAKES IT UNIQUE? HOW DID YOU GET THE IDEA? HOW DID YOU START THIS COMPANY?
JG: I think … 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 all chip in …
Up until very recently the best way to make this four-year, $50,000 to $250,000 decision was to buy a college guidebook. And when I was 18, I came up with an idea to help make those guidebooks a little bit better—I created a series of 100% student-written college guidebooks, called Students’ Guide to Colleges’, that were published in a couple of 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, and 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.
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 five 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!
YM: HOW DID YOU GET FUNDING?
JG: I started working on the idea for Unigo when I was 23, and a recent college graduate.
I had a little bit of savings—enough to live on for a few months—and I decided to just go for it and spend those months fleshing out the idea and developing it further. 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.
I wound up living for a year and a half on savings I thought would run out after 6 months. But all that while, I worked really hard.
I had been an English major at Wesleyan University, and I knew there were a lot of really amazing alumni living in New York City who knew more than me, and who might be able to lend their expertise whenever the idea and I got stuck. 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 they did, they were complete strangers but they were willing to be incredibly helpful. Over time, and after meeting with lots of alumni, they helped the plan get better and better. Eventually, 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.
YM: CAN YOU GIVE MY READERS A PIECE OF CONCRETE ADVICE ABOUT STARTING A BUSINESS?
JG: Going back to that last story… when I met with all those alumni, one challenge was being able—and willing—to let the idea evolve as we went along. I mean, in the beginning, the idea had plenty of flaws. People would listen, and nod their heads, and 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 you’re living only on your savings, with everyone telling you to get a real job – but you’re trying your best to keep at it to get your idea off the ground.)
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.
I’d say I 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. But 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.
YM: IS UNIGO IMPACTED BY THE CURRENT ECONOMY?
JG: I think, if anything, there’s even more of a need for a service like Unigo in the current economy. When you’re a high school student, it’s incredibly expensive to buy college guidebooks, to go on college tours all over the country to help you make this important decision. But up until now, it’s what you needed to do because there was no other way to get the facts you needed.
With Unigo, which is 100% free, you now have a way to find an amazing range of authentic information about every college right from your living room. Prospective students also have a way to interact with one another and ask each other questions about these schools. And, perhaps most importantly, prospective students now have the ability to see each college from the perspective of someone just like them. Sure, Columbia is a great school. But is it a great school for African American students? What about students from California? Is it the same experience for a wealthy student as it is for someone a bit less well-off? How about a conservative student or a gay student? Those are questions Unigo can instantly help you find the answer to. We want to move the focus away from overly broad rankings that don’t tell you much of anything, and over to “What’s the college that’s actually best for YOU?"
Finally, for current students, it gives them a platform to represent their experiences. Previously, if they loved their school, there was no real way to share that with the world. And if they had an issue with their college, they could protest in front of the library, but that’s about it. Unigo lets them create content about their college lives, and see what their classmates are saying. It really allows a conversation to start, and that’s beneficial to other current students, but also for the institution – to be open to legitimate peer review, to assess what students are actually experiencing and perhaps change for the better as a result.
Check out www.unigo.com.