Thursday Jan 26, 2012 by Keith Cline - Founder, VentureFizz
Welcome to the latest installment of Octane, our Q&A series with local entrepreneurs.
Today, we have Joe Cronin, the President & Founder of Edvisors in Quincy. Edvisors is a leading student marketing company operating a portfolio of interactive sites that provide information, tools, and resources to help further a student's education. You'll see links to some examples of their properties below.
In this interview, there's lots of great info in terms of Joe's background, how he started Edvisors (including how he bootstrapped the company), and advice for entrepreneurs, so please share it with your networks!
VentureFizz: Can you provide an overview as to your background and professional history?
Joe Cronin: I graduated from Georgetown University in 1989 and took a job at the Daniel Marr Boys and Girls Club in Dorchester. My boss and I built the Dorchester Youth Council (Inner City Youth Groups) from 3 groups of 10-15 kids to 10 groups of 20-30 kids. It was a great job. We had a week of educational programs, a week of community service and a week of recreational activities. Kids in each group who did the education and community service got to go on the fun activities. It was a good lesson in how to recruit and motivate groups.
After 2 years, I went to Bentley University for my MBA. I took full advantage of my time back in college and participated in service learning programs, study abroad, and internships. (Bentley has a lot more to offer than people realize.) One of the internships was for a company my brother-in-law was thinking of creating – International Education Finance Corporation (IEFC).
After Bentley, I took a job as a financial analyst at Bank of Boston. There was a lot of consolidation in the banking world at that time. After almost two years there, my brother-in-law asked if I would be willing to leave the corporate world and help him build his idea into a real company. I jumped at the chance.
IEFC created and marketed student loans to finance a student’s international education. As Vice President of Marketing, I built the company’s first website: AOL.com/members/iefc/islp.html – not very easy to remember. When I added a form and eventually got a lead from the site, I was hooked on online marketing. I left IEFC (which eventually was sold to Chase) to start Edvisors and focus on using the Internet to build great sites for students.
VF: What professional accomplishments are you the most proud of?
JC: Having more than 1 million students visit our in a single month sites (1st occurred in January, 2010). For me, the number of students visiting our sites validates that we are providing useful content and valuable tools. It is now much easier to get advertisers to work with us than it was when we had 10,000 visit per month.
VF: What does Edvisors do?
JC: Edvisors is about creating great sites for students. We are a leading student marketing company operating a portfolio of interactive sites that provide information, tools and resources to help further a student’s education.
Our sites connect our community of students, parents, employees and advisors to products and services to proﬁtably support our mission. Our business does well by doing good; ten percent of all proﬁts support the eﬀorts of the Edvisors' Foundation.
We deliver on our mission by providing an unmatched portfolio of online education resources, student loan products and education-related information and services through sites such as www.HowtoGetIn.com, www.ScholarshipPoints.com, Student Loan Network (www.StudentLoanNetwork.com), and the Edvisors Foundation (www.Edvisors.org).
VF: How was the idea generated?
JC: It was more of an evolution than a creation – and continues to evolve. Originally, around 1998, I started a web development company that offered to build websites for 3rd parties. As I waited (and waited) for business to come in, I started building out domains I had purchased. My background was in financial services and student loans – so I focused there. My earliest sites offered advice and resources for students. I continued to add more content to each site and they grew as well as new sites to focus on another topic or market segment (HS student, Graduate Students, Parents). We now have more than 20 popular sites serving a variety of audiences with a variety of products.
VF: How does the business & revenue model work?
JC: At a high level, it is purely an advertising model. We attract visitors to our sites and present relevant offers to a targeted demographic – 16-25 year olds enrolled in college or looking to apply.
ScholarshipPoints.com is a college student rewards platform. Students earn points for completing online activities. Advertisers pay us for getting students to interact with their site (read a blog, take a survey, sign up for a newsletter).
PrivateStudentLoans.com is a portal with information on how to pay for college using private student loans while offering a comparison of products from the top lenders in the country. Lenders pay for qualified visitors who have been educated on what they need to be approved.
Other sites, like FinancialAidForum.com offer a place for students and parents to ask and answer questions with others in the same situation. Our blogs and content sites provide tips and advice on applying to and succeeding in college. These sites display internal or 3rd party ads where we earn fees on a CPM basis.
VF: What lessons have you learned along the way, since starting Edvisors?
JC: As we all know, great people make great companies. We have those great people. The hard part is keeping the good ones.
Giving up responsibilities, as is often mentioned in case studies for start-ups, is a personal challenge for me. As we have grown, we now have more people responsible for areas I once controlled. Managing this is a work in process, as my coworkers will confirm. What has been great is that the people we are bringing in or promoting can actually do most things better than I could have done them. It is rewarding to see the company improve in many areas that have been underserved in the past.
VF: How did you fund the company? Did you bootstrap or raise outside capital?
JC: Originally, I worked on the sites part-time, nights and weekends. Once traffic to the sites increased I was able to sell advertising. With enough traffic, I was confident I could make the leap to go off on my own. My guess (hope) was that if I could make a little money doing web development and online marketing working on the company part time, I should be able to at least make a living dedicating myself to it on a full time basis. That is when I ventured out on my own.
I worked out of my attic (it is too cold in the garage here in New England) and self funded the company. My wife was working at the time so that helped a lot! Traffic and revenues grew to allow me to rent some office space in Quincy, MA and hire my 1st employee (in 2000). We have been growing ever since with a significant detour during the credit crisis. We have always remained profitable and had a record year for revenues in 2011.
VF: What advice would you give entrepreneurs in Boston who are starting a company?
JC: My advice would be to get some experience at a young and growing company (we are hiring) and learn from people who are doing it. I have read that it is easier to start a company today due to the availability of open source tools, cheap services and experienced people who you can hire. I am not so sure about that. Things were a lot simpler 10-15 years ago. For example, good domain names are hard to find so you have to work hard at coming up with a creative name that is not taken. Yes, there are more open source tools but choice makes decisions harder. The space is crowded and competition is fierce. I remember when I could buy quality traffic from GoTo.com for $0.01 per click.
VF: The market has been very active in terms of hiring and talent is in short supply. What has worked for you, in terms of building out your team at Edvisors?
JC: Our goal is to find good talent and keep it. To be successful, we do a variety of things. We spend a lot of time in the interview process. We hire young people and help them grow into more significant roles. We bring in experienced people to get things done right the first time and to help groom the younger team members. Our benefits package is very competitive (401K, Profit Sharing, 100% Health Care, Free Parking). We buy lunches, have monthly socials, work on teambuilding and whatever else we think might work.
We know that our company, still small and growing fast, requires a different personality. We are not for everyone. We love people who have core areas of expertise but are willing to do whatever is asked to get a job done. Not everyone is comfortable multitasking – but that is where we are today. We try to find people who enjoy the challenges that come with working at Edvisors.
VF: Any suggestions around managing your time while building a company & product that you can pass along?
JC: If you know what you are doing and have a great team around you, you should be able to do what you want without ruining your life. If I am working too hard, something is wrong. I then look at how we are getting things done and there are usually many opportunities for improving productivity through more efficient operations. It also helps if you are having fun – that it does not feel like work.
VF: Any other points of advice or inspiration for entrepreneurs?
JC: Go mobile. Build great tools that solve problems.
VF: If you weren't focused on building Edvisors, what are some other underserved markets or emerging technologies where you could build a business?
JC: I think there are huge opportunities in redoing things that were done 5-10 years ago, using the tools and resources available today. We are building a new scholarship search engine for our site www.studentscholarshipsearch.com (Don’t look at it now, come back in 4 months…). We are incorporating Google+, commenting, OpenGraph and other new technologies to make it a more valuable tool for students. We plan to create a mobile version. We are completely reinventing the scholarship search engine. The established players have a dominant share and are comfortable. We all know that big players constantly lose their market to new entrants; it is just a matter of time. We try to keep pushing ourselves to get better and do simple things in new ways.
Otherwise, I would suggest someone start a school offering a PHP certification or training program. I am not sure I could do that, but someone should.
VF: Personal question - what are the last 3 books you have read?
JC: Most recent books: Outliers, Hunger Games, and Steve Jobs