How does a student who notices a parent’s pain bootstrap a profitable university guide?
When Sarah Schupp was a student at the University of Colorado her parents and other parents had a problem that she’ll tell you about.
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OK, let’s get started.
Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy, home of the ambitious upstarts like you. You guys come here because you want to hear successful entrepreneurs talk about how they built their businesses so you can learn from them, go out there, build your own successful company and hopefully afterwards you’ll come back here and do an interview. It’s the circle of Mixergy, I like to call.
And in this interview we’re going to find out how a student who noticed parent pain ended up booth strapping a profitable university guide. Sarah Schupp was a student at the University of Colorado when her parents and other parents had a problem that you’ll hear about in this interview. By solving that problem, she was able to build University Parent into the go- to site where the parents will find everything they need to help their students, including important dates, housing and campus resources.
Sarah, thanks for coming in and telling your story.
Sarah: Thanks for having me.
Andrew: Booth strap profitable. What size revenue are you guys doing?
Sarah: So this year we are projecting just over $3.2million. We did $2.2 last year so I’m trying to add a million in revenue.
Andrew: $2.2 million dollars and what kind of sales? Is it advertising, membership?
Sarah: It’s mostly advertising sales. 80% of our sales are from local advertisers, places like all campus housing, banks near campus, moving and storage facilities and then about 20% of our advertising is for national advertisers. So companies like Dell, Apple, Marriott, Wells Fargo, that want to reach parents no matter where they are.
Andrew: And I want to hear how you got those advertisers throughout this interview, starting from the very first one.
But to understand where the business idea came from, I think we have to go back to when you were working on campus and you were seeing the frustration that other parents had. Do you have an example of that frustration?
Sarah: Absolutely. So I worked in the office of student affairs and [??]. And in that office I learned that there was a director of parent relations, an actual staff positions and his whole job was to make sure that parents of students were happy and engaged and really constructively involved.
So they would put together events like parents weekend and parent orientation. But one of the biggest frustrations that I saw him express was that parents were calling him asking the same questions over and over. So they would say what should I do when I visit? How does my student get from the airport to the campus? And it was really frustrating for him not just because the questions were the same over and over but because at the institution, he really couldn’t answer and provide information about one business over another.
Andrew: He couldn’t even say “Hey, if you want to go from the airport to the university, call a cab?” or “Here’s the cab company that we recommend or bus service that we use.”
Sarah: [??] private business over another. So he can either tell you about all the hotels or the airport transportation options or none. So it was really frustrating for the parents, and I think too when a parent would call and ask a question about their students it was also frustrating for him because if the student’s over 18, the college really can’t release any information about the student because it’s private.
Andrew: So what kind of information couldn’t the parent get about a student that they’re calling up about, just to make it clear, that very often they are paying for?
Sarah: Exactly. So that’s what parents said. ‘But I’m paying the tuition bill. I need to know, you know, what are their grades, or have they had any issues’. And often the college only contacts the parent when it’s too late to say ‘Hey, your student will be back with you because they’ve been kicked out of the university’. Or a lot of times the first time a parent hears from the college is when they’re asking them for money, you know, because the fund raising is a huge part of those college’s program.
So it just sets up this really contentious relationship because the school can’t really reveal anything but they really the parent [??]…
Andrew: So, I’m sorry what? Can you give me an example of the kind of information that a parent should expect to be able to get from the University, but couldn’t get about their student?
Sarah: Well, grades is a huge thing. So most parents are used to getting their students grades from high school, and then once you turn eighteen they no longer have access to the grades or even the classes that the student is enrolled in.
Andrew: I see. Now this isn’t something that you can solve right? But you’re saying that this is a kind of problem that you’re seeing. A disconnect between the student, the parents and the university.
Sarah: Yes. Exactly[??]…but the way I help solving the problem is opening a communication channel between the parent and school, so that the parent understands which information they’re going to get and which information that they’re not going to get, and then really how to deal with that.
Andrew: I see. Okay. All right so I understand the problem. Is the first thing you did, was it to create a coupon book, or was that a previous business that you launched?
Sarah: They kind of morphed into being the same business. So, I was trying to figure out a way to basically [??] a summer job for myself, and I thought a coupon book would be a really easy way to get started. There are lots of coupon books available on campus, but there wasn’t one dedicated to parents they were all really student focused.
So, I kind of created this idea it’s called ” Movement Madness” and I went and I talked to a couple of advertisers around the area, and everyone turned me down, They were like ” Not interesting, you know, we want something that would really have more lifetime value, and more reference worthy content versus just a throw-a-way coupon book. So, after that feedback, I developed it into the idea of the magazine, where there would be articles from the campus so that parents would hold on to it and look at it throughout the year.
Andrew: I see, and so, it seems like the coupon business was based on an idea that you had, but the guide was based on a problem that your potential audience, and customers had right? Is that the difference?
Andrew: OK. So when you switched to that guide what’s the first step that you took in order to…well, what’s the first step that you took?
Sarah: Yeah, so the first step was really going back to that conversation that I had with parent relations director at CU. I asked him to put together kind of a list of frequently asked questions that he was getting on the phone, and then I basically turned that into a mock-up magazine. So, I literally just made up what I thought the magazine would be based on his information, and I started taking that around advertisers saying, “OK. Not a coupon book, how about this? This content came directly from the school. These are the issues that parents are calling them about, and then I got people to participate that way.
Andrew: What are some of the questions that were in this frequently asked questions list?
Sarah: So, a lot of the visitor guide type information like, where should I stay when I visit for family weekend? Where should my students store their stuff if they’re going to study abroad? What do they do if they’re having a roommate problem? What do I do if they can’t pick a major, stuff like that?
Andrew: Was it going to start out as a printed magazine? Was that your original thought?
Sarah: Yes, that was the original idea. It was to hand out this handbook either parents orientation or parents weekend or on a campus tour.
Andrew: When I have an idea, I usually immediately think of the web. Why didn’t you think digital before you thought of paper?
Sarah: Really, it was just the timing. This was in 2004, and it was a lot harder to build a website in 2004 than it is today. The website was more of an afterthought. It was actually a lot easier to make something printed.
Andrew: I see. What about the ability to get attention when something’s printed and to get it in front of parents, and to make sure they notice it. Did it help?
Sarah: Yeah, I think it really did, and I used the university again as my distribution partner. The school wrote all the content, and they actually handed it out to parents, so I didn’t have to manage actually getting it in their hands.
Andrew: So, wait. They weren’t allowed to talk to parents about the car service that they recommend, but they were allowed to hand out this booklet, this magazine that you created?
Sarah: Exactly, because it was a third party publication.
Andrew: I see what you’re saying.
Sarah: We’d say in the publication that the college doesn’t endorse any of the information or any of the advertisers, but they’re our content and distribution conduit.
Andrew: And you got them to write it for you?
Sarah: I did, yeah.
Andrew: How did you get them to write it for you?
Sarah: Well, they know the content better than anyone else. I think colleges are always kind of fighting a war of information, they try to make sure the right information gets out there. So, they were eager to write it. I didn’t have to convince them to write it at all.
Andrew: Because, and this is based on my reading of Jeremy’s notes on his conversation with you in the pre-interview. It seems like for them, this was a huge problem too. They were tired of getting all these calls. They felt bad about saying no. I can’t give you what I believe you should have. And because this was a need that they also had that was so big, a frustration that they were upset about, they were eager to solve it, and that’s why they helped you?
Sarah: Exactly. You know, it was a big problem for them, and I actually, first suggested the idea of doing the magazine to the school, but the school should do it, right? That was my proposal. And they said, “Oh we’d love to but we just don’t have money to print something like that.” And so that’s where the advertising piece came into play. And I was like, “That’s great. I’ll just turn this into a business, and I’ll go get the advertising and then keep the revenue.” Because they weren’t interested in generating revenue, but they also didn’t want to figure out how to pay for it.”
Andrew: Right. So the idea was good and it came from a really good place, because you’re solving the people’s problems, but the execution always has some challenges associated with it, and for you, one of the challenges was that you don’t come from a print background. You didn’t even know about the kind of images that you needed. Well, what didn’t you know and what happened?
Sarah: I didn’t know anything. The biggest thing that happened was, and actually to back up a little bit, I had been on my high school newspaper staff …
Sarah: … so that was my first experience selling advertising, and it was also my first experience doing layout. We used Adobe and design back then, so I had some experience with it, but I was never a graphic designer. So I knew out to lay out the magazine and put the text in different place, but I didn’t even understand the difference between high resolution photos and low resolution photos. So for my very first issue, I had 32 pages worth of fuzzy photos, because I was at a tennis tournament for our club tennis team in Berkeley, when the guide was getting printed and there was just nothing I could do about it. The printer called me and he was like, “Hey, you need to send me 20 new pictures,” and I just couldn’t. It was just me. So I just printed it anyways.
Andrew: What printer did you use?
Sarah: I used a printer in Ohio called Freeport (??).
Andrew: OK. And how did you pay to print all these out?
Sarah: So I sold the advertising and collected the money before I had to pay the printer.
Andrew: Really? Oh.
Andrew: So, for most people that is a great idea but a nerve-racking experience. So much so that they try and they just can’t bring themselves to keep even making the calls, let alone closing the sales. Did you have that problem? Was it challenging for you to even pick up the phone, dial the number, and bring yourself to talk?
Sarah: It wasn’t really that hard because a lot of it was really in person, for the first issue. So I would go to the place and I would tell them the same story I just told you. Right? Of, here’s the problem we’re trying to solve. Here’s the way we’re going to solve it. Here’s how you can be involved. And really, the advertisers have many of the same frustrations that the school had, where the advertisers rely on the parent a lot as a customer, even if it’s not the parent coming in and buying something.
Oftentimes the parent is influencing the student’s buying decision. So, for example, if they’re going to buy a new laptop and it’s 1,000 bucks, most students don’t have 1,000 bucks. They ask their parents to help out. And so the parent is going to have some influence in which model, which brand, the student buys. And especially for local advertisers it’s really hard, because since parents are all over the country, they can’t just advertise in the local newspaper and reach them. It’s so hard because they’re all over and you just don’t have any idea to (??) and inexpensively reach them.
Andrew: All right. So you’re already doing what most sales people don’t do, which is thinking of the problem that your customer has, and thinking, “I have the solution so I need to give it to them. It’s not like I’m bothering them. It’s, I have something that’s going to solve their problem. I’m helping them.”
Andrew: But it’s a big leap, Sarah, from that mental understanding to the physical action involved in making a sales call in person. I think it’s even harder when it’s in person.
Andrew: Did you have any of that? Did you do anything to get over it?
Sarah: I think I was so naive at the time that it just wasn’t that scary, and I think the other piece too, is total do or die situation. Either I got the advertisers and the product would work, or I didn’t. So I didn’t have the option of not getting enough advertisers to pay for it. It just wasn’t even a viable option.
Man: I see. And so that’s another part of this business that I like. You didn’t spend money until you made money. Until you locked in those sales.
Andrew: And by locking in those sales, did it help you understand what product to create?
Sarah: Yeah, it did. You know, every person I talked to, it made that next sale a lot easier. Because you kept uncovering what their issue was. One of the biggest things that makes a sale really simple is that you can help someone do something that they really can’t do on their own, and for less money even if they could do it on their own.
My example when I went in to talk to the advertiser was if they wanted to go to parents’ weekend and hand out flyers to 5,000 parents, which was the number attending orientation, I was like first of all it’s going to cost you a day of labor. You’ve got to hire someone to hang out on campus. Then you’ve got to go to Kinko’s and make 5,000 color copies. Then you’ve got to have something compelling enough that the parents are either going to save it or come see you to redeem it.
So, we’re already talking 6,000 dollars, and I was just looking for 1,000 dollars. I’m like, see, this is a much better deal, and because of the quality of the content parents are going to keep it and refer back to it time after time throughout the year.
Andrew: As opposed to a flyer which they might look at and then toss…
Sarah: …Yeah, and throw it on the ground. Right, yeah. And I think, too, really showing them that the university was behind it and that they were going to provide the distribution. A parent is definitely going to take something from the school much more often than a college student passing out flyers. It’s just a much more…
Andrew: …How’d you know what to charge?
Sarah: I looked at other media locally, like we have a magazine for visitors called “Boulder Magazine.” And I looked at the local newspaper. So, I just got a sense for what they were used to paying for advertising.
Andrew: Okay. You go in. You make the sale. Actually, going back to the coupon business, when you called on customers and said, I’m going to create this coupon book, I need you to buy from me. What did they say back then?
Sarah: They just said that there were too many coupon books already and that they were already doing that. And they were wondering what was going to be different about my coupon book. And I just didn’t really have a compelling answer.
Andrew: The reason I ask that is to make a point, frankly, that one of the things I’m learning from these interviews is, yes, it’s helpful to go and ask and talk to your customers before you launch your business. Because it’ll really help you understand what they want not what you imagine they’re going to want. But, it’s even more helpful to say, did I understand you right, and if I did, pay up.
Andrew: To validate your idea by asking for money.
Sarah: Absolutely, absolutely.
Andrew: And one of the risks there, or the perceived risk, is that people are going to say, well you didn’t even create anything and now you’re asking me for money. Did you have that?
Sarah: A little bit, but I also just explained. I was really transparent. I was like, I am just starting this up. It doesn’t exist yet. We are printing 5,000 copies which is really expensive. And we have a limited amount of spaces. So, I just tried to use the exclusivity and the newness of it to get people to pay me up front.
Andrew: How many customers did you get for the first issue?
Sarah: I got 12 advertisers.
Andrew: Wow. What are some of the products that they were selling?
Sarah: We had a couple of hotels. We had a car rental company. We had a couple of restaurants, and one bank.
Andrew: Wow. That must’ve been exciting. Did you celebrate somehow? Were you feeling like, or did you feel like I’ve got it made, I know exactly where the rest of my life is going to be. I’m going to get rich off of this. I’m going to be successful and be able to help all these students.
Sarah: Yeah, it was really invigorating. When I got that first box back from the printer for parents’ weekend, and I saw parents have them on campus, I was just so thrilled at the idea. I think, too, having that physical product just feels great. It’s like I made this. And to be able to go back and show the advertisers, it was such a win-win across from the feedback I got from the campus. The school was really happy about it. The advertisers were really happy. And, the parents I talked to were really happy about it.
Andrew: Even though you had fuzzy images?
Sarah: Even though I had fuzzy images, yeah. They forgave me.
Andrew: What was it like to hand out your first issue?
Sarah: You know, I just felt so proud of it. This was something that I’d pulled together in a few months. I did everything from selling the ads, to assembling the content, to figuring out how to get it distributed. It was just so cool to have done all the different pieces of it.
Andrew: You know, Sarah, one of my challenges at Mixergy is that I’m so disconnected from my audience. Because I’m not watching them as they watch this. I’m not listening to their reaction as they…
Andrew: …consume the content I create. So, I do things like invite them over to the office to talk to them. I talk to them on the phone and so on. But, I have all these workarounds for a problem that, it seems to me, you didn’t have with the first issue. So when you saw parents look at this magazine, when you watched them flip through it, did you notice anything that helped influence the product?
Sarah: I think, if anything, it just validated the product. I can’t think of anything specific, but really going back and making sure that the content was the right content, not just the content that the school thought would be the best.
Sarah: That’s been really a constant theme since we started long, long ago. Really making sure that we’re helping the school understand what parents are really looking for. Because sometimes they might be out of touch with what that information is.
Andrew: Can you give me an example of what you might have noticed? Did you see them stop at something?
Andrew: Uh-huh. You know why I was pausing there before I asked that question because I realized I was looking for a specific kind of answer, and I was just constantly waiting for that instead of just letting your answer happen.
Sarah: Okay. Sorry.
Andrew: What did you notice specifically?
Sarah: One thing I’ve noticed specifically is that, a lot of times, and this isn’t really with the first issue, but colleges will provide us with content like, announcing that a professor won a Nobel Peace Prize.
Sarah: It’s really good news for the university. For parents, it’s like kind of interesting, but it’s not really the thing they’re worried about. They’re really worried about if their student’s going to graduate. They’re really worried about how they’re going to pay for college. They’re really worried about if their student’s going to get a job. They’re really worried about if their student’s happy and healthy. It’s a lot softer and fuzzier . . .
Sarah: . . .than new stories or press releases that a campus might put out.
Andrew: I see. Alright. So then what happened next? Did you look for more universities or did you go online?
Sarah: I didn’t go online yet. That really didn’t happen for another year.
Sarah: What I did next was I did the CU issue for a full year without adding other schools.
Sarah: And then I added Fort Collins, was the next one just because it was driving distance away. And they’re also CU’s big rival. And so I said CU is doing this, so you guys need to do it too. And I got them signed up and they were really excited, and then from there just kept on trying to sign up more schools.
Andrew: And what about making sales at all these different schools? Was it hard for you to get out there to talk all of the local businesses.
Sarah: Yeah. So that’s really what I started selling over the phone and over email.
Sarah: And it was definitely a lot harder than when I had done it in Boulder. The biggest thing that was hard was really even identifying who to call in the first place because I didn’t really even know the dynamics of the college town.
Sarah: Versus in Boulder, I knew if I could get a certain hotel, then three other hotels would want to be in it too, just competitively.
Sarah: But that’s a lot harder to figure out from afar.
Sarah: So that part was definitely challenging.
Andrew: So how did you figure that out?
Sarah: I don’t know that I’ve even figured it out yet.
Sarah: But the thing that I started doing was really just asking the school for help, even on the advertiser side. So since I wasn’t there locally, I would ask them, who should we call, who are the best places, where do parents often stay?
Andrew: And it was a faculty member at the school who would give you those answers?
Sarah: Usually either the Admissions Office, like the campus tour program . . .
Sarah: Or if they had a parent relations person, or the Orientation Office.
Andrew: And again, they would tell you but they couldn’t tell the parents.
Sarah: Right. Because they weren’t technically recommending it to me. They were more just giving me just kind of general feedback.
Andrew: I see. Do you remember the . . .
Sarah: They were giving lots of examples, not just like go to this one hotel.
Andrew: I see. I also find as an interviewer, that if you’re doing research on something, people will help you out.
Sarah: Mm-hmm. Yeah, yeah, definitely. Yeah.
Andrew: In your publishing. Do you remember your first virtual sale?
Sarah: Mm-hmm. I don’t actually.
Andrew: What about email marketing? Did you switch to that?
Sarah: I did. Yeah. So because it was just me, by the time I had a couple of schools, I really had to get savvier about how I was reaching out to people. The phone has always been the most effective thing because you can figure out what the other person is, not as much as in person, but you can at least hear their voice and figure out when they’re interested and when they’re not. But it just took way too much time to call everyone. So I started using Constant Contact very early on, and would send out messages about what we were producing, when we were producing it, and trying to create some urgency around the deadlines.
Andrew: And you would add their email addresses on, but how would you get their email address?
Sarah: I would typically call first.
Sarah: And a lot of times, even if I didn’t get to talk the decision maker, the gatekeeper would give me the email address.
Andrew: I see. Alright.
Sarah: So . . .
Andrew: And that got you to 300 campuses?
Sarah: Yes. [laughs] Yeah.
Andrew: Do you have a sales team, or was it all you with Constant Contact?
Sarah: So in terms of getting advertisers, we do have a sales team now. I didn’t hire my first salesperson for two years. I went really slowly hiring people just because I was bootstrapping it.
Sarah: But the first person I hired was in sales, and then I hired two more salespeople. And a couple of years down the road, I hired someone else to help me go sell colleges. But most of our colleges have been inbound.
Andrew: How did you set up your system so that a new salesperson can hit the ground running, and know who to talk to, know how you like to follow up with them, etc.?
Sarah: Mm-hmm. We just try to provide a training process and a set of tools that make it pretty easy. We use sales force and we have a really strong built-out internal site . . .
Sarah: . . . so that people can see phone and email scripts. They can also see who our common advertisers are. And so that really helps just kind of narrow down by category.
Sarah: And also Google is a huge tool for us because we use Google maps to look for businesses that are near the campus.
Andrew: You mean that street view option to see what businesses are around, and then you call them?
Sarah: Not the street view, but we just go into the Google maps or Google local search and then we’ll look for things like hotels near University of Colorado.
Andrew: I see.
Sarah: And then it’ll rank the hotels based on proximity.
Andrew: I see. And so how did you know what to add to this internal documentation so that other people can start making sales for you?
Sarah: I tried to add in everything that I would have wanted, or everything that I needed. And we still add things all the time. It’s totally a growing, living document. But just try to really process out what I had done myself.
Andrew: Does everyone in the company get to add and edit it?
Sarah: No. It goes through the sales manager.
Andrew: I see. Okay.
Sarah: And they can kind of add and edit.
Andrew: . . . [SS] . . .
Sarah: And everyone can make suggestions.
Sarah: I said everyone can make suggestions.
Andrew: But there’s only one person who really controls the documents?
Sarah: Right. Right.
Andrew: I see. I’m asking because this is a challenge for us a Mixergy. We’re redoing our internal systems and documentation and I’m trying to figure out how other people do it. When I started Mixergy, I thought everything had to be done by me, including the pre-interview. And then I was going to go nuts because I can’t . . .
Andrew: . . . do the interview and then do the research. And also find the guest and also edit. And also post and write the post and so on. And so I had to find a way to . . .
Andrew: . . . pass on the work to other people. And so we started documenting, and in documenting, we uncovered problems that I didn’t recognize we had.
Andrew: Like I would always ask, how’d you get your first customer. But that’s not the full story. What’s helpful is to hear how you got your first customers, and then your next milestone set of customers . . .
Andrew: . . . which is why we asked you about how you made calls after your university, and so on and so forth. But that didn’t evolve until Jeremy came on to do pre-interviews, and he and I keep looking at the interviews that work, and saying how do we improve our pre-interview process. How do we improve the documents that we use. Anyway . . .
Sarah: Yeah. . . . [SS] . . .
Andrew: That’s how we got to this then. And one of the things that we uncovered through this is, you got the 300 campuses one at a time.
Andrew: But you’re going to get the next thousands of universities because of something that you did recently. What’d you do?
Sarah: Yeah. Well, first it started with just a website kind of upgrade project. I really wanted to improve the look and feel of our site because after starting with the print business, last year the revenue started to flip where we’re seeing major growth in the online revenue.
Sarah: And one of the reasons for that is because, with almost all of our partners, they link back to us. So we have hundreds of EDU referral links which makes our organic search traffic results really strong.
Andrew: Oh, wow.
Sarah: So now that we have that, we really need to leverage this and continue to grow it. And also, just in terms of scaling, adding one school at a time is a pretty slow process. So what we’re doing now is we’re going to have kind of a base guide for every single school in the U.S. that’s accredited by the federal government. And so we’re using the federal government database of colleges and their information to populate our site with just the information that parents would want to know. So it has things like, a link to pay tuition. It has a link to the campus map. But the information hasn’t necessarily been provided by the school. So that’s the big shift for us. So now we’re going to have all of the information ready to go. And then we will invite the schools to participate if they want to or not.
Andrew: I see. But that gives you things like, where do you go to pay tuition. It doesn’t give you the name of the local hotel that parents prefer to stay in, right?
Sarah: Right. We are still going to build that with our sales team.
Andrew: I see. And then, are you still going to create physical magazines for all these other universities?
Sarah: No. We’ll only have physical magazines for our current partner set.
Andrew: I see. So this is kind of an SEO play, and a way of figuring out which universities maybe you want to go into it with the magazine.
Sarah: Yes. Definitely.
Andrew: But the majority of the revenue comes from the magazine, the publication.
Andrew: Okay. Wow. Are you worried being in a paper company when people are going more and more digital?
Sarah: You know, we’re really the opposite of a traditional publishing company. So, while the majority of our revenue is from print, our operating model isn’t saddled by the other things that traditional publishing companies are saddled by. So, you know, a lot of times they’re dealing with major distribution costs, which are one of the things that kill them. And also, major editorial costs. Because we have partnerships with major universities, we don’t have either of those line items.
Andrew: The universities distribute for you.
Sarah: Exactly. Yeah, the universities are distributing. And the universities are helping to provide content. So, we have this huge advantage in what we’re doing. And then also just economies at scale. You know, printing a half million copies a year, the more copies we do, the less expensive it gets. And I see it really as an excellent customer acquisition tool for our site. So I really see them working in partnership because we get, about 20% of our site traffic is direct traffic from print guide.
Andrew: I was on your site and I saw the Drupal logo in your favicon. You guys built on Drupal.
Sarah: We did. Yes.
Sarah: We had a, the person that was running our technology platform was a big Drupal fan. And so, that was the platform he wanted to go with. We’re actually moving to WordPress in this next version.
Andrew: Why do you prefer WordPress?
Sarah: I don’t know yet. Right, I mean, because we’re not there. But the development team that we’re working with thinks that that’s the best move for us. And you know, we’ve been on Drupal for a long time now. So there’s a lot of functionality that WordPress has that Drupal doesn’t have.
Andrew: For example?
Sarah: I think a lot of the, actually, SCO tools that are built into WordPress. One of the big things too is that we want to have an ability for a school to be able to log in and update their own content. And right now with Drupal that’s really difficult, the way that the structure’s built.
Andrew: You had a challenge where you got a cease and desist letter. From who?
Sarah: Yes. [laughs] So, that was one of the worse lows I would say. So, when I first got started, actually I published that very first magazine for [RCU???]. I got a cease and desist letter from a company that’s fairly similar to ours, except that they produce visitor guides about college towns. The angle that they were taking wasn’t to provide parent information. It was just to provide information to any visitor. So, they said that we had not paid attention to the contract that they had with the university. When really, we also had a contract with the university, but it was with a different department. So we partnered with the parent office. And they had partnered with the communications office. So, it was a huge mess.
Andrew: So, being right though, isn’t enough, is it? You still need to pay lawyers. You still have to. . .
Sarah: Yes. And I mean. . .
Andrew: So what happened?
Sarah: You know, it was just really stressful because it was my first experience with having another company come after us. And I certainly wasn’t trying to copy their publication. Their publication had not even come out when my first publication came out. And I never even heard of the other company before. So it was very frustrating. And we had, you know, we had thousands of dollars of legal bills just in responding to the letters. And I think, you know, if I had gotten it today I just wouldn’t have even responded because we hadn’t done anything wrong. And I wouldn’t have worried about it as much as I worried about it.
Andrew: Is the [???] team built with a lot of part-time moms on staff?
Sarah: Yes, we have, It’s almost half and half.
Andrew: Actually, I shouldn’t say they’re part-time moms. They’re part-time employees who are moms. Their work is part-time. They’re moms full-time.
Sarah: Yes. Part-time employees who are moms.
Andrew: You work part time [??] full time. Yes.
Sarah: Yes. In Boulder it is a pretty tight talent pool. There’s a lot of really important, impressive startup companies, and when you’re recruiting you’ve got to have some kind of secret sauce to really capture excellent people. And one of the angles we figured out was that there were a lot of incredibly talented, smart women who were interested in part time positions, and also very passionate about the product we’re building because they’re parents, themselves.
So we have a lot of parents of high school students, parents of recent college students, and even parents of some young children, because they just get the angle of really trying to connect with those parents and build a product that they would want their own family to have.
Andrew: How do you keep all these people who are part-timers in touch with each other? What software, or what process do you use to make sure that they’re all working like a team?
Sarah: We use Sales Force to really manage everything. We also have a physical office, and they come into the office. We have a really great kind of in house community.
Andrew: In universities across the country, you still have one office where everyone and everything still works from?
Andrew: I see. For some reason, I just assumed that everyone was dispersed, and there was a main office, but hardly anyone was in there.
Sarah: No, no, we’re all here.
Andrew: And you actually love Sales Force. I hear most people say that Sales Force is tough to figure out; there are too many features, there’s too much work that it takes to set up. Why do you like it?
Sarah: You know, I think I have kind of a love-hate relationship with it, but for us, we’ve really built our business on it. We have so much reporting functionality between the different dashboards, and we have different levels between them. We have university accounts, and then we have all the advertisers associated with those university accounts. So I feel like, for us, while it takes a long time to set up, it’s well worth it because you have this very stable foundation of data that, when you bring a new person into the company, there isn’t this huge loss of content.
Andrew: Who set up Sales Force for you?
Sarah: Our technical guide that I mentioned earlier who set up, Drupal his name is John. He set up Sales Force for us. And we actually work with a local company here in Boulder called Vertiba, that’s been helping us do just some kind of customization.
Andrew: I see. And you still own 100% of the business?
Sarah: I own about 90 percent of the business. I have 3 angel investors who came on board a few years ago.
Andrew: I see. How much funding did you raise from them?
Sarah: About 325,000.
Andrew: [??] Okay. Let me do a quick plug, and then I want to ask you for a few resources. I like the way you’re thinking about software. Sorry?
Sarah: I said Okay. [laughs]
Andrew: I want to hear about other software that you use to run your company, and if there are a couple of books that you recommend for other entrepreneurs who want to do what you’ve done. I’d love to hear that, too.
But the plug is just, you guys know Mixergy Premium. I’ve been talking about it a lot. It’s where entrepreneurs teach how they built their businesses. If you’re a member of Mixergy Premium, there’s a course that I think you might want to take as a follow-up to this session. It’s run by Geordie Wardman [sp?].
What Geordie did was, essentially what we talked about here today. He had a business that failed, and he said, ‘No more of that. From now on, I’m going to validate my business ideas by asking customers what they want, and charging them to make sure that they really want it.’ And that’s what he did. He had this idea that hotels only get negative reviews because only the angry people will go home and complain on the review sites, and he said, ‘Maybe if I talk to hotels, we can find a solution for them.’
He did. He talked to them, and he found a solution that became Guest Retain. Before building it out, he said, ‘Look, I will build this for you. I will help you get positive reviews from people while they are here, or complaints that you can handle while customers are here. You don’t have to wait until they go home and complain. But if I build it, will you pay?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Okay, then pay me.’
It’s not as easy as that. He had to figure out what to say to them, how to make it all work, and all of that is in the course that he teaches at Mixergy Premium. It’s available for you if you’re a Mixergy Premium member, you can just go and take it, it’s right there on MixergyPremium.com.
If you’re not a Premium member, I hope you’ll sign up. It’s great for you, because you’ll get to see how entrepreneurs build their businesses. Frankly, it’s also great for us, because that’s what builds up Mixergy. So go check out MixergyPremium.com, I guarantee it.
So, what about software that you recommend, Sarah?
Sarah: There’s a couple things that we use. Right now, to do our email campaigns. We didn’t really talk about that, but we email about 100 thousand parents every month. We use MailChimp for that, and it’s been a great, great program for us. We used to use Constant Contact, but we’ve found that MailChimp’s a lot simpler for our team, and I also like the reporting that it provides a lot better.
Andrew: Can you break up the mailing so that parents get different emails based on where they are?
Sarah: Based on the school where their student is enrolled. And we do that just like the print guide, where it’s a partnership with a college, so the email actually comes from a .edu address.
Andrew: Wow! Really?
Sarah: Yeah, so it’s great for open rates.
Andrew: But you have to pay for that, right?
Sarah: We don’t pay for it, no.
Andrew: Because you’re serving the college so well that they want to get your newsletter out to their students.
Andrew: Unreal. Okay. What other software do you use?
Sarah: We use Google Apps, we use, you know, kind of every piece of that, and then Dropbox and SalesForce. Those are really the main tools that we live off of.
Andrew: Wasn’t it great when Dropbox offered that business account?
Andrew: A lot more space, you don’t have to use up your people space, more control.
Sarah: Yeah, Dropbox is amazing. I don’t know how we lived before it existed.
Andrew: How about a couple of books?
Sarah: So, one of my favorite and most influential books is Seth Godin’s book about tribes, and it really helped me think about the college parent tribe, and one of the things it encouraged me to do is, I set up a Facebook group for college parents, and it’s really been one of the most transformative things I’ve seen for our company. Not because it’s created this amazing brand awareness, which has been one thing that it’s done, but every person on our team is a member of the Facebook group, so they are seeing on a daily, hourly, basis, the concerns, and things parents are asking, and I think it helps people constantly reconnect with the product and the audience, just like when you were saying earlier, it’s so hard because your Mixergy fans are all over, you know, this really gets them front and center, and that’s been huge for us.
Andrew: And do you drive the conversation in there at all, or is it just, you allow them to talk to each other and ask and answer each other’s questions?
Sarah: We occasionally drive the conversation. We may ask a question, or post a recent article, or share a download, something like that, but typically they’re driving the conversation themselves.
Andrew: Okay. One other book.
Sarah: I’m also a huge Tim Ferriss fan, so, love the 4-Hour Workweek. I got to meet him when he was launching the 4-Hour Chef at a Creative Live workshop in Seattle. It was just so cool because he truly is who he says he is in the books. Last thing, I got to the Tony Shea book on delivering happiness. I also had an opportunity to meet Tony and visit Zappos, and it was absolutely the same thing, where it’s like, what he says he does, it’s real.
Andrew: What do you mean? What did you see when you saw him?
Sarah: So, I think, when I first read the book, I was like, no way their culture’s really like this. No way they allow this, or no way they would go to this length for customer service, but it’s absolutely true. I mean, their office is pure chaos, and it’s this totally invented culture that’s very zany and would not work for me, but something that is totally authentic and real for them. I really appreciated that.
Andrew: I interviewed him before people knew who he was or even how to pronounce his last name, and I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t trust that what he was saying was right, so in the interview, when he said, when our customer sales rep gets a call from someone about a shoe that we don’t have, we recommend other websites where they can go and buy it. I said, I’ve got to try it. And so, back then, I was only doing phone call-based interviews, I conferenced in his sales department, or his customer service, and I said “Do you have,” and I forget what it was, it was some color Croc, and the woman really did say, “Here’s how you can find it.” I couldn’t believe it.
Sarah: That’s awesome. Yeah, he’s the real deal. I’m really drawn to the authentic entrepreneurs, and the books that are by people who are really doing it the way that they say they are, versus just, like, some professors.
Andrew: Yeah, I am too, and those are the kinds of guests that I love having on here. One more thing about that book. I used to think that was a how-to business book, that was just breaking down his process, which I like, but I didn’t think of it as a fun read. It’s totally written in an autobiographical form, from the point of view of someone who doesn’t just tell you all the things he wants you to hear, but he also will tell you that there were times, not “there were times,” a large part of his life was aspiring for business success and financial success, and he talks about how he went to play poker. It’s a fun read that also happens to have a big cultural message in it, and has a how-to based on his life. Great recommendation.
Andrew: I didn’t mean to step all over your suggestion, but I love those books.
Sarah: No, no, not at all.
Andrew: All right. The website is universityparent.com, and Sarah, if people want to thank you for doing this interview, what’s the best way for them to do it?
Sarah: I’m on Twitter, @sarah_schupp, or on Facebook, facebook.com/schupp.
Andrew: Cool. Thank you for doing this interview. Thank you all for being a part of it. Find the pain, people! Bye.
Sarah: Thanks for having me.
Andrew: Thanks. Alright, I’ll send this to the editor, and as soon as it’s up, we’ll send you a link. We don’t edit your content, so your words and your flow and everything will be yours. We’ll just piece it together and post it.
Sarah: Awesome. Thanks so much for the opportunity.
Andrew: Thank you! Bye.
Sarah: Take care.