Luke Skurman | Crain's Philadelphia

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Luke Skurman

Background:  

Niche compiles reviews and insights that help people make big life decisions, from where to live to which college is best for them. Luke Skurman originally started the company as College Prowler in 2002.

The Mistake: 

When we started College Prowler in 2002, I felt there was a huge opportunity in helping students and parents to choose a college more effectively by providing great information, research and facts on campuses. There were other college review businesses out there, like the Fiske Guide and university brochures. But what was missing was user-generated content that imparted more information than just academics; a source that addressed the whole college experience from the nightlife to weekends and food.

At first, we decided to self-publish as guide books. For the first five years, these books, which sold in book and college stores across the country, were our only revenue stream. But we quickly realized that books had very low margins. At the same time, we realized that our prospective buyers were going online to do the bulk of their college research. We had built the brand around the books and had gotten a lot of national press. People loved the product, but it was hard to run it as a profitable business. Our largest customer in 2008 was Borders Books, which is bankrupt today, and goes to show how much the market has changed.  

So we decided to shift to an online model with the help of businesses that wanted to advertise with us. We charged for this early online content. Then we realized people expected that content to be free. After much trial and error, we launched an online product and offered the content for free. We were wildly successful in that first year — about 2 percent (2.5 million) of all college-bound high school seniors registered for our site in 2010. 

By 2013, we were monetizing the site effectively, and it was somewhat niche and lucrative, but we were in a limited market. We could only build a business as big as these 2.5 million seniors. College Prowler was a great idea, but in the end, we realized that we were making a mistake by not going after a big enough opportunity. That was our biggest mistake. 

College Prowler was a great idea, but in the end we realized that we were making a mistake by not going after a big enough opportunity. 

The Lesson:

College Prowler helped us to perfect the recipe, and through the process, we learned that we needed to develop a new, bigger brand. It took us a while to figure this out. Only a couple million people a year choose colleges. It’s not a market like Facebook that’s impacting billions. As a content provider, we needed more unique visitors and more dollars per unique visitor. How much traffic you have and how well you monetize this traffic is at the core of everything. 

So we rebranded from College Prowler to Niche to bring that same know-how to a much larger market. We wanted to be a very big and very successful company, and now that’s what we’re on the path to do. Niche offers content on neighborhoods, K-12 schools, colleges and places and — coming next year — employment information. These are really important seminal decisions that impact our lives.  

Choosing where to live or where to send a child to school is not like buying a watch or TV. These are real things that are constantly evolving. We are really determined to be the one-stop site that helps people make these decisions. Ninety million people annually in the U.S. choose a company to work for, buy a house, go to college or will choose a school for their son or daughter. This requires huge data sets.  

From the process, I learned that a really big, successful business required a much bigger model market.  

Follow Luke Skurman on Twitter at @lukeskurman

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