Luke Skurman: College Prowler
It’s back-to-school time. Meet Luke Skurman, founder and CEO of College Prowler, the largest provider of online college content. College Prowler has helped hundreds of thousands of college-bound students pick the right institution for them. Today, CollegeProwler.com has published than 275,000 student reviews and provides coverage on more than 7,000 schools. Each month, more than 1.5 million high school and college students visit CollegeProwler.com to find and research schools and scholarships. The numbers are impressive but I have witnessed first-hand the struggles of this engaging entrepreneur, now 31, who started his venture while still at Carnegie Mellon University.
There has been a lot written about Luke Skurman and College Prowler. What can I say that is different, unique, that has not been told before? I was there at the beginning because I was Luke’s entrepreneurship professor when he was a senior at CMU. That was a critical year because he was making a decision: “to found or not to found, that is the question.” Luke was evaluating internships, jobs, a masters degree, or doing a startup, College Prowler. They were mostly decisions that were mutually exclusive. As Yoda said “Do or do not; there is no try.”
So young Luke, fresh out of college, set himself and his co-founders, plus a few interns, up in my startup incubator space, LaunchCyte. College Prowler started life out publishing books about colleges to help students (and parents) choose the right college. “It’s a super important decision,” Luke explains. “College represents usually the largest single investment for a family outside of a home, and covers 20% of a student’s lifespan to date,” he continues.
Luke’s background. Luke comes from a highly entrepreneurial family: his mom has her own design licensing firm; his dad his own architecture firm, specializing in high-end French-style homes and interiors; and even his grandparents had their own business. So you might say that Luke had the entrepreneurial gene, or at least the idea that doing your own thing was normal. When Luke was growing up he was the kind of kid who had his mom buy candy from Costco and then sold it for huge margins on the school bus. As a teenager, Luke had his own hot dog stand on the streets of San Francisco. Maybe this is why, to this day, Luke can calculate math in his head faster than anyone I have ever encountered?
The beginning. The first time that starting his own company became a real possibility was after his sophomore year at CMU. He had just done a corporate high-tech internship at a firm where he had to drive 45 miles each way, sit at a cubicle with 2000 other employees, and, no matter he did or didn’t do, he had no impact on the organization. Luke wanted more than that. This ambition led him on the path of thinking about what he could start. He had multiple ideas “but College Prowler was the best,” Luke remembers.
Luke had seen the dot.com rise. He came of age as the tech industry was booming. His buddies and he saw the news and the fortunes that people made on ideas that seemed within reach. This inspired a lot of “if they can do it, I can too” attitude among Luke’s generation, and Luke was no exception.
But Luke knew that he had to start a business around something that he knew. “What did I know, a business major with no significant engineering or technology skills,” he asked himself? “Colleges, college life, students, that’s what I knew,” he answered. “I knew how important it was to pick the right college, and I saw a lot of my friends choose wrong.”
Luke surprised himself that Carnegie Mellon was the right school for him because “I had actually picked several others first based on my initial research.” Luke knew what students (and parents) needed to make the big decision. And he knew from personal experience that the options out there for getting that information were limited. That’s why he came up with the tagline, “By students for students” a phrase which he came up with while he was in my LaunchCyte space. He wanted students to tell other students the real truth about colleges and college life.
Luke never saw himself as a true leader or CEO, but as he told me, “No one else was better.” Luke can be unfairly hard on himself and he also felt that he didn’t have the risk profile that he needed to take a huge plunge into running his own business. Which is why he hedged his bets by simultaneously doing a masters at CMU while starting College Prowler. Really, he had nothing to lose since his dad would pay for school but would not pay if all he did was start a new venture. That kind of multi-tasking is hard and certainly has its challenges, but it also makes someone mature quickly and learn fast – because they have to. Juggling a startup, a masters degree, and life in general molded Luke into the super-sharp, generous-of-spirit leader that I know him to be today.
College Prowler today. College Prowler is a success in many ways. First of all it’s almost 10 years old and still alive. And that says something! Its publications and content contain more than 275,000 student reviews and coverage on more than 7,000 schools. College Prowler is considered to be the most comprehensive college resource on the Web, with stats, rankings, student reviews, insider tips, photos, and videos on nearly every school in the country. It is the largest producer of college-related content in the world. This August, more than 1.6M visitors came to the site. Monthly ad impressions are over 15M. The company is on a run rate north of $2M for 2011.
College Prowler has formed multiple strategic partnerships including with: AOL, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Business Week, Chipotle, Costco, Wachovia, and many others.
College Prowler is profitable. In the past it received funding from several well-known angels that have also provided business mentoring and support to Luke as a young CEO.
Luke Skurman today. Luke himself has become well known, complete with speaking engagements and awards, including having just finished up his term as CMU’s first young alumni trustee, the youngest trustee ever elected to the board.
Luke is an entrepreneurial resource in Pittsburgh, advising organizations like Project Olympus, an initiative within Carnegie Mellon to foster and encourage entrepreneurship among faculty and students. I send students and budding entrepreneurs to Luke regularly. He also hosts Business Bout, a contest to help other aspiring entrepreneurs in the region with a cash prize of $5000 that Luke and his friends raised at a summer barbeque.
Luke is also a major give-back kind of guy. Not only did he TA my entrepreneurship classes for years after graduating, but he has volunteered as a “big” for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh, has mentored several teenage boys, and is a past Director for the organization.
The hardships. Like many startups, College Prowler has had its share of challenges, including several near-death financial experiences where it came very close to running out of money. Some of the unforeseen hurdles include:
- The founding team, except for Luke, all departed, and it left bad feelings all around. Only Omid Gohari, COO, stems from those early days and has weathered the personnel storms along with Luke.
- In 2008, Luke faced a significant legal challenge relating to 125 Facebook pages that were ostensibly promoting College Prowler. That wasn’t fun, obviously, and it was a huge distraction for Luke.
- College Prowler started life as selling books, which involved inventory, shipping and just-in-time printing. Today, the “books” are free and the venture makes its money by selling leads, advertising, and monetizing the data that the company accumulates as a result of being the go-to place online for information about colleges and universities. And there were several pivots to the business model along the way. It was an exceptionally hard and long process to find the true business model where College Prowler could grow and build value.
But, College Prowler has survived and today has a solid management team in place, a great revenue run rate, and a bright looking future.
Moving forward. Luke has four goals with College Prowler:
- The first goal is to be the largest college site (in terms of traffic) – larger than US News and College Board – and the company is on track to be that in the next 18 months.
- The second is to keep College Prowler’s service the best possible service it can be: “We have a lot of ways we can continue to grow the user experience,” Luke tells me.
- The second is the human goal of wanting to build something that people use. “I think that’s working,” Luke tells me. “College Prowler really helps people,” he concludes.
- The third goal is financial: “I want to provide a great return to shareholders.” Which means an exit sometime in the not-so-distant future.
Yep, College Prowler has made over 1,269,634 school connections and 3,600,761scholarship matches for 510,379people. Pretty impressive touch point numbers! I’m placing my bets on Luke!