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Now the developers of the rapidly growing "social studying" site are seeking a way to make it profitable.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Michael Rihani's company plans to address one of the largest hurdles that stumps most Internet companies at some point, the likes of which include Facebook and Twitter: How do you make money off a free service?
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Michael Rihani's company's new recruiting tool to link students to employers went live last week, for the first time guiding its users not just through college, but as they leave it, too.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Micahel Rihani stands at his TechPad work station. Rihani is a Virginia Tech alumnus and founder and lead developer of Koofers.com.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Koofers.com is a "social studying" website that has been used by more than a million students on 4,000 college campuses. It has widespread name recognition and is growing faster now than ever before.
Sunday, September 15, 2013
BLACKSBURG — You could take two large steps and pass through the main office of Koofers.com without ever realizing it.
The company keeps a low profile, occupying two cubicles worth of space inside TechPad, a shared workspace in Blacksburg. Its area is decorated with Virginia Tech memorabilia, company stickers and a rack of T-shirts it uses to get its college-aged users to contribute to the website because, "Students will do anything for a T-shirt."
But outside the office, the brand carries an aura that seems divorced from its humble roots.
The "social studying" site has been used by more than 1 million students on 4,000 college campuses. It has widespread name recognition and is growing faster now than ever before.
Even on Tech's campus, where the site was born just seven years ago, Koofers has gone so mainstream that no one seems to remember where it comes from. It's hard to find a Tech student who doesn't use the site, but harder to find one who could tell you it's the product of three Virginia Tech alumni.
Over the years, the site has grown into a studying community where students share notes, flash cards, professor recommendations and even copies of old tests they've already taken. Professors can be creatures of habit, so last year's tests could offer someone else insight into this year's test. At the very least it gives an idea of the kind of material to emphasize, if not some of the exact questions that will show up again. Finding the right study aide often means the difference between making the grade and not.
But for all the waves Koofers has made on campuses across the country, at its heart it's still a startup.
It has had its share of growing pains, failing to take hold in some markets while being labeled a cheating website in others.
Now it plans to address one of the largest hurdles that stumps most Internet companies at some point, the likes of which include Facebook and Twitter: How do you make money off a free service?
Koofers' genes are deeply ingrained with a hacker spirit. It's the attitude that first led its founders to challenge traditional study etiquette, and the reason they say they will never charge students to use their service.
A handful of venture capitalists from the East Coast to the Silicon Valley have contributed about $5 million over the past few years to get things off the ground. The site sells ads and takes advantage of a couple of other revenue streams to pay the bills, but cofounder Michael Rihani said Koofers has yet to see the kind of income it needs to keep growing.
The founders have considered ways to monetize the site, but have been unable to find one that meets its needs and lives up to the "do no evil" mantra. Anything that doesn't bring some form of benefit to the study community is off the table, which doesn't leave too many options behind.
An early idea was to create a Match.com-style service to connect college students with employers. It would let users create a profile, then charge corporate recruiters to search the database.
But before that could happen, the site would need to attract the kind of following that would make it worth recruiters' time. One or two campuses wouldn't be enough; instead it would have to have thousands of students at every major university.
Glynn LoPresti, another cofounder, said the task seemed like such a mountain that the company shied away for years.
Instead, their first attempts to make money went after what he called "low-hanging fruit" that eventually proved to be "failures from a business point of view."
They tried to sell textbooks, but it never really caught on. They partnered with LivingSocial to bring Groupon-like deals to campuses, but it proved to be more work than it was worth.
"We thought campus deals and the Groupon/LivingSocial model would work," Rihani said. "It's a very successful model, but for multiple reasons it's hard to execute on a college campus. And so we needed to try that and figure that out by actually doing it."
But now the company has circled back and decided it's time to tackle what everyone on the inside says they knew was the best option all along.
Koofers' new recruiting tool to link students to employers went live last week, for the first time guiding its users not just through college, but as they leave it, too.
Students will be asked if they want to opt into the program. If they check yes, they'll create a profile and fill it with basic resume information.
It will be free to students, but companies will subscribe for $5,000 to $15,000 a year, depending on size.
"It's a really great way to get employers connected with students they're interested in. It's a great way for students to get put in front of employers and be found by them," Rihani said. "It's a win for the employer, it's a win for the student and, obviously, it's a win for us to monetize."
Koofers has been down this path before, but this time the company feels it has found the sweet spot - the narrow intersection between its needs and those of its users. If everything goes according to plan, the new business model could be the thing that pushes the company over the edge.
"We just needed to get the critical mass and the product sticky enough that students were using it often so it would make sense for employers to go, ‘This platform is valuable because students are using it all the time,' " Rihani said. "It's taken years, and honestly, we wish maybe we could have gotten to it a little bit sooner. But now that we have such a large magnitude and ownership at many different campuses, in my opinion it's going to prove very beneficial to the employers who jump on board."
Koofers tracks its roots to a controversial, often secret reality of life at universities.
Since long before the Internet, or computers for that matter, organizations on most college campuses have collected old tests and notes to help their members study.
Teddi Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity, said the files have always been around and are almost unavoidable.
On Tech's campus, groups often kept the documents in large coffers, according to the history section of Virginia Tech's website. Over time, students began referring to the documents themselves as "coffers" and slang eventually softened the word to "coofers." Years later, popular usage would change the spelling to "koofer."
"When I was a student, we would go, ‘Hey, do you have the Math 101 koofer?' Meaning, do you have the old exam or study guide for the Math 101 test coming up?" Rihani said. "That was the word. It was a noun meaning old practice exam.
"It's weird that people go, ‘Koofers means something?' We basically killed the word and now it's our brand. Which is cool - it's just weird to me."
LoPresti, the oldest of the founders, was a member of Tech's Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity in the mid 1990s. It wasn't known for having the largest koofer library, but it got the job done.
He said he still remembers driving to the frat house late on the night before a big test and spending far too long going through the collection page by page. It was maintained "the way you would expect a fraternity to manage it." As a result, he would often come up empty-handed. Some tests were missing, others were stained with beer, and they were all disorganized. On top of that, students who weren't part of certain organizations couldn't get to the files.
The system was inefficient and unfair. LoPresti knew the Internet offered the key to a better way.
He bought the "Koofers.com" domain name during a moment of inspiration in 1998, designed a cheesy logo and then let the site sit empty for several years. He knew enough to get that far but wasn't ready to take the next step toward creating the website.
Almost a decade later, two other Tech students felt similar frustrations and independently had the same idea for a website.
Rihani and LoPresti first teamed up when Rihani asked to buy the domain in 2005. Patrick Gartlan, the third original cofounder, contacted them the next year to say he already owned Koofers.net and Koofers.org, and he wanted Koofers.com. After some negotiations, Gartlan decided it would be better to join their team than try to compete.
In 2006, the trio set out on a mission to build the largest koofer library ever. The difference: Theirs would be free for anyone to use.
They began scanning tests in their bedrooms, one page at a time. Later part of the team would rent a Chevy Tahoe and travel to do the same at 14 college campuses between Washington, D.C., and Miami.
As the study community grew, students started uploading their own tests and eventually became the driving force behind the site.
By 2008, half of the Virginia Tech campus had an account and Koofers.com had spread to 10 other campuses.
Today, Koofers no longer advertises in Blacksburg, but it still reaches 98 percent of the Tech student body each semester. About 70 percent of freshmen usually sign up before their first day of class, according to the company.
The site boasts a presence of more than 1,000 users at 200 schools, 2,500 users at 100 schools and more than 5,000 users at 40 schools
Its library now hosts almost 300,000 exams and more than a million flashcards.
For so long, koofers had been tucked away in frat house filing cabinets. But now, they're sitting out in the open for the world to see.
"I'm providing insight into something that has been a dark secret for a long time," LoPresti said. "It's not against the honor code. ... The fact of the matter is, it's a secret only because it provides an unfair advantage. That's the only reason fraternity files have a bad stigma, because it's unfair to everybody else."
Questions of integrity
On the surface, Fishman agrees.
Now that most students have a camera phone, she said professors should assume that every test passes into the public domain after it's handed out once. They should rewrite the test for next year and encourage their students to use the old ones to study. The process of reviewing old exams can actually be a great way to master the material, she said.
But for this to work, everyone needs to have the same access to the tests.
"It's a very widespread thing," Fishman said. "In some ways they [Koofers.com] really are evening things out. It's not fair if only some people have access to that previously given material and other people don't have it."
Many universities have taken this same stance in policies concerning the use of koofers. Under most circumstances, they're considered OK as long as the professor handed back the test. At that point, "these materials should be accessible to all students," according to Tech's Graduate Honor System Constitution.
"It was interesting, disruptive, potentially controversial technology," Rihani said. "We knew from day one that the service could be used potentially in malicious, inappropriate ways, almost as a shortcut for learning. We never wanted that. We always wanted to improve higher education."
But of course, that's not the end of the story. Koofers users are college students, a demographic known for its propensity to push limits.
There have been a few cases when the company has recognized that cheating was occurring on its site. It used to let students upload homework until it was realized that everyone was just copying each other the night before the assignment was due. Other times, tests that professors planned to reuse were sneaked out of the room and ended up on the site.
"We are absolutely dedicated to maintaining the academic integrity of our site and the universities," LoPresti said. "When we are notified by anyone of an exam that violates academic integrity or was not returned to the students, we take it down without a fight. Our site is not intended to do anything but provide the equal access that is called for in the vast majority of teaching guidelines and honor codes."
But Fishman said that's not good enough.
When she first heard about Koofers, she had extensive conversations with the company about academic honesty and the ways it could use its new technology for good. International Center for Academic Integrity membership is usually reserved for universities, but she invited Koofers to become a corporate member for several years.
But as the study community grew larger, she said it seemed the company lost control of the materials on its website.
She said some professors don't make new tests every year, so it's important they have a way to keep them from getting out. When those instructors started complaining to her that they couldn't get them off Koofers.com, Fishman decided in 2012 not to allow the company to be a part of the center.
LoPresti agreed that it can be a problem when the wrong test leaks out, but he said their library still works better than when an old test goes into a filing cabinet.
"The bottom line is, if it's on our site, it's already in the fraternities and the sororities. And guess what: No professor knows about it," he said. "They have absolutely no insight into it.
"On the other hand, when it gets posted on our site, teachers are not only invited to our site, they're encouraged to go to our site and see. It's the fraternity file you have insight into. What that allows you to do is see what's out there, react accordingly and if something has been placed into the public forum that's not intended to be there, they can actually reach out to somebody and say, ‘This doesn't belong.' And we react."
The Koofers team knows there will always be a variety of opinions on the service they provide. It comes with the territory when you introduce a piece of new technology.
But over the years, they say, things have settled down. Students have jumped on board and many professors use their site as a teaching tool. Tech has even featured Rihani on the "career coach" section of its alumni page.
In the end, acceptance was the first step toward getting the company in a position to launch its new recruiting venture.
"I think because we genuinely were on the right side of academic integrity was a huge part of it [people becoming more accepting of the site]," Rihani said. "Of course if you're more successful, you'll get more support. But I honestly think that the upholding academic integrity and being very serious and having the right intentions played a strong role in getting support."
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