Interview with Neil Soni, CEO of CollegeZen
CollegeZen connects students with the best and most detailed college information from its own community and a variety of exclusive online sources. CEO Neil Soni (and Entrepreneur Magazine’s College Entrepreneur of the Year finalist) recently sat down to discuss his product, team, and the scary spreadsheets CollegeZen seeks to replace.
Was CollegeZen borne out of frustration with your own college search?
Actually the idea didn’t come to me until my younger brother was searching for schools. He had all these questions about schools I hadn’t even visited so I hooked him up with friends I knew at those schools. The candid and detailed responses he received from them ultimately led to his decision.
I immediately realized an opportunity for a network that would facilitate similar introductions from prospective students to current students. From there, the idea expanded beyond just connecting applicants with current students to connecting applicants with relevant and personalized college information period.
Can you walk us through how high school students use CollegeZen?
Overall, our goal is to “take the stress out of the college search” because the last thing we want is for high school students to get overwhelmed with this important decision.
We help you organize and plan your college search starting with who you are as an individual. We ask you questions related to your academic experience and interests, and then try to match you up with several schools that may be a good fit. Students can then do some research and explore the colleges on their own as well as engage with their peers to see what others have found through their search process.
We aggregate all the important content from colleges and universities so you don’t have to visit 10 Facebook pages, 10 Twitter feeds, and 20 pages of a website to get a good feel for the 100’s of universities that may fit your criteria.
Through a new partnership with LinkedIn, we are also bringing college-specific career data to students and parents. In the tough economy and job market today, its important to have career outcome in mind when choosing a college, and we want to make that data as accessible as possible.
In our beta testing we found that high school students using our product were more engaged—and actually found the college search process fun.
Who is currently using CollegeZen?
We’re working with 20 high schools around the country, including several in the Pittsburgh region as well as the Pittsburgh Promise, giving us an overall reach of 25,000 students.
I know you’ve had a lot of great mentors through Project Olympus, the i6 Agile Innovation System and AlphaLab. Have any of them helped you in unexpected ways?
Luckily for us, a lot of our mentors are also parents who have just been through the college search process with their children. So they’ve been especially helpful at giving us feedback on our product and sharing their frustrations with the current solutions out there.
One of our AlphaLab mentors, Darrin Grove [CEO of TrueFit], showed us the most intense spreadsheet we had ever seen. He made it for his son’s college search and it included 65 different schools that he and his son separately ranked and weighted along 15 dimensions. From there, only the schools that ranked highly by both of them would be transferred onto another spreadsheet that determined where they would visit. Darrin said that probably took up weeks of his life.
Seeing things like that really drive home the value proposition for high school students and their parents, and motivate us to keep going.
Who else is on your team?
Wahab Owolabi is our COO. Wahab’s background in college admissions helps us see things from a college’s recruiter’s perspective. We also have Jonathan Bender, our CTO as well as Hector Lo, Yihuan Zhou, Brett Byler, and Jason Ha. For a while we all lived together right off CMU’s campus to really ramp this things up. [pictured]
The great thing about our team is that we’re either in college or just out of college so we know first-hand how painful the admissions experience was.
Based on your own experience, what advice would you give to entrepreneurs?
Be willing to pivot. Don’t be too emotionally attached to a way of doing things or an idea. Listen to your users, customers, and the market. Oh, and drink a lot of coffee.
Where can people find out more about CollegeZen:
Also, I’d love to hear from you if you have any ideas or feedback about CollegeZen. You can email me directly at <firstname.lastname@example.org>
If you haven’t already, be sure to vote for Neil for College Entrepreneur of the Year!