Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Interview with Jerry Slavonia, Campus Explorer
Earlier this month, Santa Monica-based Campus Explorer (www.campusexplorer.com) raised its first round of venture funding, for an online site which helps students find colleges and other schools. We caught up with Jerry Slavonia, the firm's CEO, to talk about the web site, the team's background from Rent.com, and funding. Jerry spoke with socalTECH's Ben Kuo.
What is Campus Explorer?
Jerry Slavonia: It's a vertical search engine focused on postsecondary education. We're going to try to do this a little differently than some of the companies and websites in the space today. We're certainly going to try to innovate. We're taking a cue and will provide people with results based on the specific criteria they enter. There aren't that many sites that have attempted to do that. It seems like the search engines in this space lead you down the path to the sponsors who are footing the bill for the site. We'll certainly work with sponsors, but we will provide kids with results based on what they are looking for, whether we're looking at ad dollars or not.
Where'd the idea come from, and how did the company came about?
Jerry Slavonia: I suppose the first time I started thinking about it I was working on a search related project for Rent.com. We were trying to target college-bound students, and we were building a campaign around college related search terms. I noticed a couple of things that I liked about the market, including fragmentation and a super-long tail, and lots of search volume. That was way back in 2004, before Rent.com was acquired by eBay. It took a few years to actually pull it together, but here we are.
I think our readers would be interested in your background, can you tell us about your background at Rent.com?
Jerry Slavonia: I was part of the senior management team at Rent.com from May 2001 through March of this year, 2007. Rent.com was acquired by eBay in February of 2005 for $433 million, it was very exciting, we had a great experience, and we had a great team at Rent. The guys that are here now-- Brian Hartnack, who was Director of Product at Rent from 2001 through the acquisition, and became VP of Product at an IAC company called Gifts.com, is one of my partners here. Steve Caldwell, who was also at Rent.com from 2001 through February of 2007, left as basically CTO of Rent.com, and Eric Hammond, who was chief software architect and Director of Technology of Rent.com, was also a co-founder of ThisNext, and we were able to get him in June (he worked at ThisNext through June 1) to sign up and join our team. We've all worked together for basically five years at Rent.com, turned that thing around, and through its acquisition by eBay. These guys were critical at Rent--not senior management, but part of the management team--and have great interactions with each other. I feel lucky to have this team.
How far along is the company?
Jerry Slavonia: We've just started. We closed our financing July 20th, and the site is in beta. We're transitioning out of beta in April of 2008. In the next few months, we will dig into vertical search and other components of the site, so that users will be able to save searches, and use other tools when they login. You will be able to use the site whether you register or not, but you will have a better experience if you register. We'll never prevent people using the site if they do not choose to register. Our focus is solely on the structure of the site, to make it index-able from Google and Yahoo and the rest of the search engines. Because we have a small team, we haven't spent a lot of time on user experience, but over the next few months and into the middle of the year you'll see a much richer experience and a pretty healthy search engine covering 6,000 post-secondary schools, from 4-year degree granting to career education schools.
Can you talk a little bit about your experience with fundraising--was it difficult?
Jerry Slavonia: This is the first time I have ever set out to raise capital, and it was a very interesting experience. We really feel very fortunate with who we ended up doing the financing with. Jim Andelman and Rincon seemed to be the perfect fit. Their whole model and approach fit with exactly what we were looking for, which was a smaller amount of capital, than a typical raise. It was almost like a professional angel round, which was what we were looking for, and they are very area focused. He had heard about the team from Rent, and he introduced us to a lot of people, and in the end Kevin O'Connor was the one who fit, and we couldn't be happier to have a former founder and CEO of DoubleClick on our team. It did take awhile. It took many months, and we met lots of people in the venture capital community, mostly in Southern California but a few in the Bay Area. We tried to stay focused on local VCs. We looked far and wide, and we couldn't be happier with who we ended up with. The founders of Rent.com are involved as well, which worked out great. Of course it was hard, but it worked very well.