By my fifth year of college (with one more to go), I knew that I didn’t want to be an engineer. That unfortunately timed realization came to me after three difficult years of working towards a degree in mechanical engineering, and over a year and a half spent in painfully tedious internships. I had seen the industries and companies that I would be spending my career helping, and I just wasn’t passionate about any of it.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to take an upper level course in engineering entrepreneurship. That single semester changed my life more than any other experience had before, and set me on a completely new course in life.
A Semester of Discovery
About half way through the semester of studying entrepreneurs, I started mulling on ideas for my first business venture. Most of them were too expensive, required specialized knowledge, or were completely unrealistic. As I sorted through my options and ideas, one industry kept coming to mind: publishing.
Every day, I walked past a rack of freely offered copies of The Daily Beacon, the official campus newspaper at the University of Tennessee. I’d see students pick up a copy, work the crossword puzzle in class, and throw it away immediately after they’d finished. Meanwhile, every student I knew didn’t seriously rely on it as a news source. “What’s the point?” They’d respond when I asked if they read the school newspaper, “I get all my news from Facebook anyway.”
Finally, I had it! I was going to manage and build a nationwide news website for colleges with hundreds – no thousands – of contributors across the country. I was enthusiastic and completely unaware of what that goal would entail, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was truly my passion.
Back to Reality: Square One
Saying that you want to build the largest college news source in America is easy. Actually doing it is no small task, but before I had time to make financial models, analyze the competition, or figure out how to make such a website, I took to the streets.
I ran the idea by dozens of my friends on campus. Being a socially adept geek and an avid blogger, I had met plenty of pseudo-writers in college, and within a few weeks, our team was up to 20 people at the University of Tennessee alone. In the mean time, I learned to set up a website and came up with a clever domain name: Volblogs.com.
Taking it to the Streets
I knew that 20 people was cool, but 100 would be even cooler, right? I paid a friend $200 – most of my scholarship money from the semester – to design and print some posters and spent several hours canvasing the school. The next day was the first day of classes in the Spring 2011 semester, so I knew this was our time to shine; it was our coming out party. Within hours, the tidal wave began to roll in.
Managing and Attempting to Replicate Success
By the end of the semester, the UT-only news blog that I managed had around 80 contributors and was reaching 10,000 unique visitors every month. It was a successful initial test, and while my expenses were minimal, I still wasn’t making any money. As you may know, online advertising rates are low, and it requires millions of impressions in order to make a decent income. In order to sustain just a single salary, I would have to hit 10 or 20 campuses.
I immediately began searching for funding. Looking back, I wouldn’t have wasted so much time doing this, but the experience was still valuable. I entered a number of business plan competitions and began reaching out to larger news sources and startups. My hope was that by pitching my progress on one campus, somebody would entrust me with the funding to replicate my idea’s initial success to every college in the country.
Finally, an Opportunity Arose
I’ve found that as a rule, those who actively pursue new opportunities will eventually find them. The key is finding them before you hit the burnout point. By summer 2011, I was still in school full time, working part time as a technical writer, managing my UT student news blog, and trying desperately to find a partner to help expand the project. It was probably the most physically and emotionally trying time in my young life. I was putting in 80-100 hours of work every week, and constantly stressed out. I was pretty close to throwing in the towel.
One day while I was at work, a call came to my cell phone from a number I didn’t know. It was Greg Edson and Corey Cleek from a well-known college startup, Uloop. Uloop’s primary service to students was its classified ads platform, and I had contacted them in an attempt to embed their classified ads into my news platform. The call quickly shifted from talking about classified ads to merging forces in order to add my news platform to Uloop’s already thriving marketplace.
A Startup Within a Startup
For the first few months, I was running a startup within a startup. I was still finishing up school, so I wasn’t in close contact with the rest of the Uloop team, but I managed to get enough financial support to keep the college news network growing. Eventually, we finished negotiating the terms and I came onto the team as an equity-holding partner in the company. A year and a half later, Uloop News – as it is now called – has over 500 writers contributing at 4 dozen college campuses, and it has caused social media engagement with the brand to increase by 300%.
A Growing Vision
After completing the integration of my news organization into Uloop’s existing platform this year, the next step is to take our 500 writers and turn them into 5000. In the coming year, Uloop News is going to continue to become a more important part of the organization, and we plan on being active on over 200 campuses by the end of the year.
While Uloop isn’t wholly my company, I’m not naive enough to believe that a one-man team can make a strong company. Joining Uloop and operating a business withing a business has given me the opportunity to work closely with more seasoned entrepreneurs, and my passion and optimism is often kept in check by their depth of experience. It’s an exciting time to be in the industry of online publishing, and I have a feeling you’ll hear much more from us at Uloop over the next year.