SyllabusCentral passes 14,000 members: Lessons Learned

Back in July of 2008 I co-founded a website called SyllabusCentral. The idea behind SyllabusCentral was simple – create a platform that makes it super easy for professors and students to post, update, and view syllabi online.

SyllabusCentral currently has over 13,200 members and is adding about 20-30 new members a day. The site generates about 8,000 unique visitors per month and about 94% of those visitors come directly from search engines. The average visitor spends a little over a minute on the SyllabusCentral and will view a little over 3.5 pages.

THINGS WE DID RIGHT

1.) Outsourced document hosting to Scribd

When you are building a start-up it is important to understand that you can’t do everything. When you try to do too much, quality will suffer and you will have done a lot of things just okay. One of the cool things about creating a start-up today is that you don’t have to build every new technology in-house. One of the key decisions we made with SyllabusCentral was to outsource all our document hosting (in our case syllabi hosting) to a third-party service called Scribd. Through Scribd’s API, we were able to use their document hosting and viewing service to do things like convert a Microsoft Word document into an embeddable format that was easy to work with and provided our users a great user experience. If we had tried to develop this technology in-house, it would have taken us months and the end product wouldn’t have been nearly as good as Scribd’s solution.

2.) Focused on SEO

A decision we made early when designing the architecture for SyllabusCentral was to have a maniacal focus on search engine optimization (SEO). We knew that we had a significant opportunity to drive a lot of free search engine traffic though organic rankings since long-tail keywords like professor names, class names, and school names with the word “syllabus” appended to them had little competition and lots of searches.

3.) Made it super easy to upload syllabi

If you can make your website easy-to-use, you dramatically increase your odds of success. This is one of the things we did really well. One example of this is using Scribd as our document hosting and embedding solution. Traditionally, it was very difficult to view Microsoft Word documents on the Web. You either had to download the document to view a document, and even then sometimes you wouldn’t have the right version of Microsoft Word or the user uploading the document would have had to convert it into a PDF, which for the average internet user isn’t an easy task. With SyllabusCentral, all our users had to do was browse any file on their desktop and they would then be able to view the syllabus right in their browser regardless of the file type. Back in 2008 there were very few websites using this technology, so it was a competitive advantage for us.

4.) Made it super easy to request a syllabus from a professor

The other thing we did that was innovative was to make it super easy to request a syllabus if a syllabus wasn’t already on the website. All a visitor had to do was enter the professor’s email address and the class that they would like to get the syllabus for. We’d then send the professor an email that came from SyllabusCentral notifying the professor that one of their students has requested that they upload a syllabus to the site. All the professor would then have to do is click a link, browse the syllabus on their computer, and click “upload”. The entire process from start-to-finish would take no more than 30 seconds.

5.) We served a need in the marketplace

Finally, SyllabusCentral was serving a real need in the marketplace. At the time, the idea for SyllabusCentral was solving my own need. As a college student at the time, I thought to myself that wouldn’t it be nice to be able to view the course syllabus while picking classes and have it so that you could order your textbooks online in advance of the first day of classes. When I searched online, I found that a similar site did not exist, so I decided to fill this void in the market. Today, 94% of our traffic is from student searching for syllabi online.

LESSONS LEARNED

1.) Chicken or the egg

In order to attract visitors to SyllabusCentral, we needed an extensive library of syllabi. But in order to build an extensive library with thousands of syllabi, we needed thousands of visitors to upload syllabi. This was the problem of the chicken or the egg. How do other companies solve this problem? Usually with money, which unfortunately for us was something that we didn’t have access to at them time. Had we had some money to spend on hiring cheap labor to find and upload syllabi all day, we probably would have been able to reach a tipping point where we had enough syllabi on the site to make it extremely useful. Hitting this critical mass is crucial for any start-up.

2.) Monetization

Monetization is a big buzz (or taboo) word in the start-up world. While SyllabusCentral had a solid plan to monetize the site, it required a large and active community to execute. The eventual model was to have students viewing syllabi weeks in advance of classes starting. If we could establish this behavior, then we’d be able to automatically scan the syllabi for an ISBN# of the textbook for that class and offer the student a price comparison of the textbook of that class. The student would then be able to order the textbook, have it arrive in time for classes, and save a couple hundred dollars per semester in the process. Sounds good, right? If only SyllabusCentral reached the critical mass to make this a viable business model…

3.) Think big, but start small

When we started SyllabusCentral, we had high expectations for the site. Right away we tried to conquer the world. Looking back, this was probably a mistake. A more strategic approach would have been to smart small, prove out the business model, and then slowly expand. Had we focused on 3-5 schools from the start and focused on really making those schools successful by establishing a large library of syllabi and a strong user base, we would have then felt more comfortable investing more money into the business and expanding to additional schools.

4.) Have a solid marketing plan in mind

Promoting a new idea is never easy. Right away we realized it was going to be very difficult to acquire new members at a low cost. We knew we’d have to rely on word-of-mouth and organic search engine traffic in order to really grow the business. While organic search engine traffic has been great, we never reached the critical mass of syllabi on the site in order to really get the word-of-mouth engine going. If you are starting a business, make sure you have a solid plan to acquire members at a low cost. If you have a capital intensive marketing model, you will need to have a high lifetime value of a member in order to justify every marketing dollar you spend.

5.) Cyclical businesses can be difficult

One of the things that made it really difficult to identify trends and adapt the site accordingly was the fact that students typically only register for classes two times a year usually around November and then again in April. This made things difficult because if we wanted to test a new idea we’d basically have one shot to get it right, and if we got it wrong, we’d have to wait another 4-6 months to test it again. While this type of business is nice in that it is very exciting two times a year, it can be frustrating in that you don’t get that slow steady growth with continuous tweaking and improvement.