Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, I’m Prof. Jed Macosko, and I have the privilege of telling the story of how AcademicInfluence.com got started. I serve as president and academic director under the capable leadership of our CEO, Wayne Downs, and alongside an incredible team that includes Prof. Robert Marks, Drs. Winston Ewert, Brian Carlson, and James Barham, and Dave Tomar, Jenn Finley, and Dan Edelen. Our website helps parents and students find colleges that are a good fit. But more importantly, we strive to connect learners to leaders, which is why a large portion of our site is devoted to highlighting the works and lives of influential people.
How do we know who is an influential person? Thanks to the work of Dr. Ewert, we have developed an algorithm that measures how often a person’s work or life is mentioned in various databases. Primarily, we look at Wikidata, the text associated with Wikipedia, and the abstracts, titles, references, keywords in publications found at Crossref.org. As an example of finding influential people, here is the hero image of a recent press release we did about women engineers, which was also picked up for an article at Forbes.com:
Anyone looking into higher education for themselves or a child has a lot of information at their fingertips. But frankly, it’s too much information because so much of the data is handled poorly. Most commonly, college rankings sites put a lot of weight on graduation rates. It sounds reasonable, but in reality, the more selective schools have the best graduation rates.
Therefore, our colleges and universities such as our big public universities tend to not rank as well as private schools. After all, they accept more students because their mission is to offer educational opportunities to more people. So this as just one example (of a very common occurrence) shows that you would miss a lot of potentially great schools if you trust rankings too heavily skewed toward the reasonable-sounding graduation rate metrics.
This is why we have developed a machine learning system to identify and track the influence of the faculty and alumni of schools. It’s a revolutionary difference in the college ranking industry. Parents, high school students, or people wanting to get a higher degree will come to our website and find a ranked list of influential people in their academic disciplines. But they will also find a list of universities ranked by how many influential people work there and graduated from there.
With the typical filters, you might imagine would be useful (“In what region of the country would you like to live?” “Would you like to study online or in-person” etc.) students can find a school that matches their needs and one that has a history of employing and creating thought leaders. This is why we urge our readers to think about the whos of the schools when searching for the best. For example, when a student is interested in attending one of our nation’s HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) they can look to our website to help them find the most influential of these schools over a time period that corresponds with their needs.
We launched the current version of our website in August 2020, and as of the time of this writing in August 2021, our traffic, as measured by SEMrush, has grown to over 100,000 organic search visits per month. We monetize by generating leads for universities and college consultants and by licensing our proprietary ranking algorithm to other sites.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Everyone on our leadership team (i.e. the nine names mentioned above) was eager to build a college ranking system based on objective measures. For college professors, such as Prof. Marks and myself, the desire for greater objectivity stems from seeing our own institutions ranked each fall by US News & World Report and other sites that use surveys as the basis of their lists.
The strategy that seemed to work best for gaining organic search traffic was featuring scholars in rankings and interviewing influential people.
For our lead computer scientist, Dr. Ewert, the task of building an objective ranking system was attractive simply because it was a challenge (“Why do people climb Mt. Everest?” “Because it’s there!”) The rest of our team wanted to build a better way to rank things because they had collectively spent decades working with not-so-great ways of ranking colleges for a company that is currently our biggest competitor, and which we all hope will take notice of what we are doing so that they can improve their own ranking methods.
Even though all of us, for various reasons, wanted to build a better ranking system, the original team consisted of only Dr. Ewert and another computer scientist named Dr. Erik Larson, who now serves on our academic advisory board. In 2015 they earned a DARPA fund to create an algorithm that will track influence -- the impact of a person’s ideas across the web. That really got the ball rolling.
Later, Prof. Marks and I were added to the mix. We each consulted for the company a few hours a month as we maintained an active research and teaching schedules in the computer science department and physics department, respectively, of our home institutions -- Baylor and Wake Forest. As the project picked up steam, I started devoting over half of my summer break to working with Dr. Ewert, and we hired the other four members of the leadership team, as well as an amazing staff who now keep things running smoothly.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The “guts” of Dr. Ewert’s algorithm are not that hard to understand. First, his program counts up how many times a person’s works have been cited by other scholars. Then he counts the number of times that person’s name is mentioned on Wikipedia in the context of that person’s occupation. For example, Einstein’s name would have to be mentioned on the same page as the word “physics” or “relativity”, not on a page that merely mentions his name in the context of Einstein Bros. Bagels or the Disney-owned multimedia company, Baby Einstein.
Dr. Ewert realized early on that Wikidata specified the occupation(s) of most everyone who has a Wikipedia page and of many people who don’t have their own pages yet. For example, Prof. Marks has his own Wikipedia page whereas I don’t have my own Wikipedia page, but I do have a Wikidata page. But in both cases, our occupations are nicely specified, marked with a convenient code that Dr. Ewert could easily fish out.
Interestingly, our managing editor, Dave Tomar, only has a Wikipedia page under his pseudonym, Ed Dante but his Wikidata page gives his real name and occupation. So, Wikidata can be crucial in finding out people’s real names and what exactly they do that makes them influential. I’m sure Albert Einstein could have made bagels if he really tried, but that is not what got him famous!
Describe the process of launching the business.
Launching a site in the higher education niche is a daunting task because it’s a very competitive field. Add to that, launching a site with millions of pages is difficult because Google doesn’t like sites it can’t easily crawl. Add to that, coming out of nowhere and trying to prove authority for ranking colleges doesn’t happen overnight. So we had to think of ways to get to our goal of ranking colleges without ranking colleges. We needed to flank the competition by doing things they couldn’t do.
Knowing firsthand that a lot of rankings are based on very limited data and even worse, survey data, we began publishing articles and interviews that celebrated the scholars and their influence in their disciplines.
The strategy that seemed to work best for gaining organic search traffic was featuring scholars in rankings and interviewing a lot of the people who showed up as highly influential people in their disciplines according to our AI. Many of these people are Nobel Prize winners, have been knighted by the Queen of England, or have done some really cool research. So, we emailed the top five people from 25 disciplines and got impressive response rates (>40% in some disciplines) of people willing to be interviewed. Two of the people we interviewed, including Nobel Laureate Gerard ‘t Hooft, are pictured below.
We also worked very hard to lay the foundational information a higher education college search site would need: information about degree programs, study tips, etc. Since our machine learning can track influence, we created “study starters” on controversial topics. We covered the top 25 most talked about topics on the web (based on what our AI deemed to be the most widely discussed topics). For each topic, we show students who leading voices are, on all sides of issues, so that they can do better research and write better papers.
Aside from the content strategies, we have grown by word of mouth amongst academics, copious amounts of emails, press releases, and social media engagement.
In one instance, our Twitter connection ended up writing several stories about us at Forbes.com and touted our novel ranking system as “innovative and refreshing”.
Overall, it’s been a tremendous amount of work by some very talented people, and a year in, we still believe we are in the process of launching.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
As a site that is mostly known for research material -- finding thought leaders in various fields -- we don’t have a whole lot of returning visitors. We have excellent read times on pages which indicates that we have great content, but as soon as students get what they need for their projects or curiosity, they are often gone. We’re working to change that because we have a lot more to deliver to these students.
We’ve had more success with team members who have to learn their tasks from scratch than we have with members who came from companies in which they did similar roles.
That said, in our business vertical the customers often only use a college-finding service once in their lifetime, so the goal is not so much to retain customers as it is to foster positive word-of-mouth advertising. To achieve this, we screen our sponsoring partners to weed out predatory schools that pressure students and then burden them with crushing student loans. We want anyone who finds a university through our website to feel like it was a good match and to be grateful that we gave them information that helped them make a good decision.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We have moved quickly in partnering with online schools, brick and mortar schools, and college consultants. Most of our competitors have not attempted to generate leads for college coaches and counselors, but we feel that these partnerships are a natural extension of helping students find a school that fits their needs and to help them apply if they need that kind of assistance.
Most students who use college consultants use them to help them pick which schools to keep on their list and which schools they don’t need to worry about, either because they would likely be rejected or because they are too similar, and less of a good fit, than other “safety” schools on their list. We have compiled an extensive list of college consultants in nearly every state in the US and have already seen how this catalog has helped students on their college search.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
As a start-up, we need each person to wear several hats. We found that people who were really good at only a few tasks did not end up enjoying working with us. The best kinds of people to have at a startup are the ones who are super disciplined and who work on things without even being told to work on them. A start-up can be a lot of fun for people who enjoy the challenges that come with screaming endlessly into a void without hearing the faintest echo.
We’ve had more success with team members who have to learn their tasks from scratch than we have with members who came from companies in which they did similar roles. In a start-up, everyone needs to have an entrepreneurial spirit, even your content editors and formatting people. They all need to be thinking about what else can be done. Otherwise, at best, they just do their job; at worst, they just do their job while fostering bad feelings.
The other huge struggle for us has been focusing on the right things. We have a very big site and a machine learning system capable of ranking musicians, actors, and baseball players just as easily as it can rank scholars. We felt the need to “focus” on three points: ranking academics, college advice for prospective students, and ranking schools. Even though these things are all related, more focus on any one thing could have been the right move. It’s the difference between learning to fly and getting a Cessna up in the air versus learning to fly by trying to get a loaded B-52 off the ground.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Dr. Ewert, our main developer, uses the best available technologies. For example, he uses the Rust programming language, which was voted most loved five years in a row in the Stack Overflow Developer Survey, and PostgreSQL, the world's most advanced open-source relational database. He builds other tools and technologies rather than reusing technologies when required by the unique constraints of our algorithm.
Other companies may find it useful or necessary to use off-the-shelf components instead, but Dr. Ewert is extremely gifted and develops our software and algorithms faster than anyone else we have seen.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
This isn’t easy to answer. Our most valuable resources are our experiences in academia. Most of our team members have advanced degrees and are researchers at heart. As such, we pull ideas and inspiration from all kinds of sources.
A few of us walk on college campuses daily for our day jobs, so we live in this industry. Our CEO, on the other hand, prefers cartoons and analytics. But as researchers at heart, I think we all pay attention to everything we see and hear around us, sifting out in our minds what does and doesn’t matter for where our company is going. There’s no better resource than doing the things you’re sharing about.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
We have a lot of fun and like to kid each other at our weekly meetings. So, the advice we would give to other entrepreneurs is, “Keep it light!” There’s no need to get all hot and bothered about whether things are going well or not.
Even if you have invested your life savings and feel like all your friends and family will be crushed if you don’t succeed, and all of your enemies will say, “I told you they would never make it!” don’t let it get to the point where it all seems so serious and grim. We can’t say that every storm will pass, but we can say that storms DO pass, especially when you keep a bigger perspective and don’t make it all about yourself and your own vision for what should happen.
You also have to pay attention to yourself and your team members. There are a lot of days of disappointment and frustration. Telling a key player to take a day off even though you want a job done yesterday is often the better move. Even for the kind of entrepreneur who likes to be bet against, expect a struggle and know beforehand where and how you will recharge. Nobody is a machine.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always looking for good marketing people and people who like to write. We would love to hire someone who can follow in Dr. Ewert’s footsteps, but this has proved very difficult. If you think you are one of the best Rust coders in the Western Hemisphere, please let us know!
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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