Innovation Destination Hartford spoke with CareerPath Mobile President/CEO Richard Portelance and Managing Partner Ben Grinnell about the startup’s involvement in Connecticut’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
INNOVATION DESTINATION HARTFORD: When and why did you start the company and how did the two of you come together?
RICHARD PORTELANCE: About three and a half years ago I was part of a team that was doing some website and marketing work at Valparaiso University School of Law. After we finished the assignment, the executive director at Valparaiso approached me about a problem the school’s career services was having—their students just weren’t engaging. He asked: What can you do for me?
We did some research and realized the students weren’t engaging with the career center because it wasn’t offering them anything substantial. The school had an 87-page career planning guidebook the students were basically using as a doorstop. Our suggestion was to break it out into milestones and put them into a mobile format broken out by month. Each month there would be milestones to help the students be career ready.
After we built and launched that system, 99% of the students downloaded the app in the first week and started using it. By the end of the year, the first-year students’ completion rate for the career services program went from 17% to 84%.
IDH: So you could see there was something marketable.
RP: Right. About two months later I got call from the director of the Center for Professional Development at Dartmouth College. He told me he’d spoken to someone at Valparaiso Law School and they wanted to implement the system at Dartmouth. So that was how we started.
Once I realized it was truly a company, I brought some friends together who had capital to invest. We spoke about it and decided we needed a day-to-day operations person. Ben was the first person I called. Thankfully, he said yes, and we’ve been together since April 2014.
BEN GRINNELL: Rich and I crossed paths about eight years ago. He and I both worked at Canterbury School, which is a private school in New Milford. I worked in the academic office of the school, he was doing information technology.
When he reached out years later, it just so happened that I was looking for an opportunity working in a startup where I could help build something.
My background includes some work in entrepreneurial economic development. I helped develop business incubators where we brought in startups and provided support services—similar to what’s going on at reSET. So I understand the needs of a startup company.
IDH: Speaking of reSET, let’s talk about the tie in and the ways in which your company is making a social impact.
RP: It’s been part of our mission from the beginning. We always wanted to have an impact with our business. And certainly the way we help students engage in the career development process, to get to know themselves, and then hopefully get a better outcome—get a job that’s more appropriate to their skills, their interests, and their capabilities—can make a huge impact for this country.
Students are facing a crippling amount of debt. And a majority of students who graduate and actually do get a job find one that doesn’t correlate to their degree. That’s just wrong. So that’s the social impact we are trying to affect.
IDH: Anything to add, Ben?
BG: Just to put it into perspective, Rich mentioned student debt. If you’re underemployed, there’s really no way you’re going to make a dent in that student debt. The big picture is that we’d like to see students better prepared for the job market because they are facing a lot of debt.
Ultimately, your success as a professional starts when you graduate from college. And you want to start somewhere where you’re happy and confident and compensated appropriately.
RP: One more point on top of that is, smaller schools and under-funded universities are really struggling to survive because they can’t afford large career planning teams to help students get jobs. The only way they can really reverse that trend is to have more engagement points.
CareerPath Mobile allows them to do that by making career services ubiquitous amongst all students. Everybody can access it. Everybody can have a CareerPath®. That’s going to help those schools to get ahead instead of being behind that curve.
BG: The product itself is fairly simple. It’s software as a service. The software resides in the cloud and we license it to colleges and universities. We brand it with their branding so when a student opens it up it looks like it’s coming from the college.
CareerPath is a subscription model so we charge an annual fee, usually based on number of users.
IDH: And does that help you gauge how it’s working?
BG: Yes. And then we charge fees for additional services—for connecting it to their student information system or expanding within the university to their athletic department, health and wellness, or other groups on campus. That’s how we generate revenue. That’s our business model.
IDH: It sounds like there is also opportunity for growth.
RP: Yes. Things are changing within universities. Micro learning is starting to really take off for people who want to learn about something outside of the classroom.
Schools are starting to adopt that model for these co-curricular events. CareerPath Mobile enables students to get those micro learning snippets—15-minute blocks of something quickly on their mobile device.
We break it out into milestones where a student can click on milestone, such as etiquette or leadership, get the details about that milestone, and then compare themselves to their class. So whatever their group is—it could even be a small cohort of 15 students—they can see that 75% of their classmates have finished the milestone, so they better get going.
We do incentivize the students. We have a badging system built in. They really take advantage of that. They can stay engaged with their CareerPath whether it’s 2:00 a.m. or they are studying abroad.
IDH: How are you marketing?
BG: We have several ways to get our product out in front of people. Obviously our website. We also have an email marketing campaign with a national scope, so we are contacting schools all over the country. We go to a handful of conferences and workshops around the country to have face-to-face demonstrations and meet the people who are in the industry.
RP: What Valparaiso University did is very avant-garde for the school market, in terms of the mindset of schools compared to businesses. Typical businesses will take new concepts and run with them. Schools lag four to five years behind other industries. They are very cautious, they are a wait-and-see crowd. There will be a few entrepreneurs in the crowd, and everyone else will say: You try it, you fail at it or succeed at it, and then we’ll step in very cautiously.
So being mobile first and engaging students in this way is really just starting to happen now. We were fortunate to get that head start to really test this out at schools and to be in a position today to really accelerate that growth and be leaders in the field.
IDH: Any advice for people who are launching startups?
RP: I would say take your time. Don’t be afraid to seek out assistance from places like reSET. Make sure you do. Get an advisor. Make sure you understand your industry inside out and backward. The more patience you have, the better off you’re going to be at the end of the day. Because when you rush into it headlong, chances are you’re going to run into a wall somewhere.
BG: I would add to that, you have to be agile. We’ve had to pivot the business at different points based on what we learned. There was a learning curve in terms of learning about our customer and how our customer thinks and how they behave.
IDH: In addition to reSET, have you tapped into any other startup resources in Connecticut?
BG: A couple of years ago we connected with CTNext and applied to the Entrepreneur Innovation Awards. We got accepted and we pitched in New Haven. We didn’t win an award, but it was great exposure for us. It helped us understand CTNext in terms of what they can do and the different events they have to offer.
It also introduced us to the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Connecticut. reSET is one of those entrepreneurial ecosystem members. So this fall when they started their accelerator, we knew we wanted to participate in the program.
When you’re in a startup, sometimes it’s as though you have blinders on. All you know is what’s in front of you. Programs like the reSET accelerator help to take away those blinders so you can look at the big picture and figure out the steps to take to get your company from Point A to Point B.
It’s really helped us look at the business from a different perspective. Also, the people who have run some of the workshop are really well-connected and very experienced in terms of either their entrepreneurial background or their work with entrepreneurs. It’s definitely moved us down the path to something a little bit bigger—and moved us a little quicker.
RP: I agree with Ben. We had been looking for something. We were fortunate to get selected by the Connecticut Technology Council as a Tech Company to Watch last year. So we’ve been around the circuit a little bit.
Last year we applied for the MassChallenge startup accelerator. We made it to the final round and we didn’t get in. That was disappointing, but I’m really excited about what reSET is offering, because the program fits our needs so well.
IDH: Do you feel the entrepreneurial ecosystem is building here in Connecticut?
BG: I think Connecticut is doing the right things. There are incubators developing around the state. Certainly CTNext and reSET are promoting entrepreneurship and we are getting a lot of value from being in reSET.
So yes, it’s fantastic and I’m glad Connecticut has recognized the entrepreneurial ecosystem can provide growth, jobs, and a positive business climate for the state. Will it help? Absolutely. We’re feeling it. We’re an example of how it’s helping.
RP: I agree with Ben. From an entrepreneurial standpoint, Connecticut is very well-intentioned. There’s a lot of opportunity here.
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