Startup Spotlight: CollegeAI
Startup Spotlight: CollegeAI
Meet Severin Ibarluzea – CEO and Co-Founder of CollegeAI, a web service that connects prospective students withtheir ideal colleges!
GH: What is CollegeAI?
CollegeAI simplifies the college discovery process for high school students by analyzing a student’s profile and recommending colleges with personalized reasons why a student may like or dislike that college.
GH: What was your Eureka moment: how did CollegeAI get started?
CollegeAI began as a research project at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute almost two years ago. My co-founders and I were trying to predict where high school students would attend college based on extensive profiling.
That’s when we realized that the college discovery process could be so much better. Students, particularly those who would be the first generation to go to college, had no idea as to what schools they could get into and would fit their interests, personality and maximize their future success.
GH: How did you build your team?
All three co-founders were researchers on the original project. Malik was one of the advising professors and the original visionary for the project. Immediately after graduating, Joseph, Malik and I began working to turn the project into a student-facing web platform. Since then, we’ve collected team members from Rensselaer Center from Open Source (rcos.io) and people we’ve met through the Boston EdTech Meetup, as well as a ton of other EdTech events in Boston. We’re looking to build a small team of college counselors and college admissions experts by the end of 2018.
GH: What is your company philosophy driving your company culture?
We operate under some fundamental principles: Be open and helpful whenever possible, always experiment, always measure, and always work to maximize student success. We’re pretty small right now, so I think the next 10 people to join the team will have a huge impact in how we shape our culture.
GH: Startup life is full of failures and ‘make it work’ moments – can you identify how you bounced back from one of yours?
We worked for a month straight to build a derivative of our platform made specifically for counselors just in time for a national college counseling conference. At the time, we had basically no money, so we had to sneak all of our gear, including tables, tvs and banners into the conference center without using the loading dock (security was not happy about it). When the conference finally started counselors were not impressed, we hadn’t spoken to a single counselor before building the product so it didn’t fit in with their workflows and it was full of bugs. We got a ton of valuable feedback (and some advisors!) from the conference but no sales. We learned our lesson: our users now come first in our product lifecycle.
After the conference we shifted our focus back to our student-facing platform and conducted a hundreds of student interviews. After focusing on our users, we began to experience growth and received our first major investments.
GH: What did you learn from your first customers?
Our earliest users showed us that college search is a lot more than filtering down colleges by size and cost. Effective college selection requires an assessment of hundreds of factors, each of which must be carefully weighted with the student’s preferences.
GH: What has the Boston ecosystem provided you?
I love the Boston startup ecosystem (especially the EdTech scene)! I’m a regular attendant ofThe Boston EdTech Meetup and Venture Cafe in CIC Cambridge. We currently work out of the LearnLaunch coworking space where I’ve met a ton of other founders. Since moving to Boston about 8 months ago we’ve gained new investors, new advisors and a ton of critical insight from mentors.
GH: What is the Boston ecosystem lacking from your perspective?
I would have loved an organization that facilitates talking with high school students, this was initially one of the largest hurdles for us before we had our first thousand or so users on the platform.
GH: What’s the best/worst piece of advice you were given along the way?
Non-users almost universally told us to make our student profiling shorter and less extensive. When we finally spoke to users we found out they actually enjoyed thinking introspectively about the questions. Although only ~10% of our questions are required, most students fill in all of them!
The best advice we ever got was “Stop coding, talk to a user.”
GH: What was the best thing that happened to you last year?
We did a sort of mini second launch last year where we posted on a relevant subreddit. The post quickly rose to the top of the subreddit and we received a huge boost in traffic and a ton of great feedback. It’s really gratifying to see people discuss your product and weigh in on what you should do in the future.
GH: What does the future hold for CollegeAI?
We’re going to keep talking to users and refining our methods until we’re an indispensable resource for students looking for college recommendations.