How College Students are Earning Cash and Connecting With Employers Online

By Anne Brown

In the next four months over 1.5 million college students from campuses nationwide are going to flood the job market, and most of these students won’t have enough real-world work experience to impress the decreasing number of employers willing to hire recent graduates.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), January employer surveys indicated that companies expect to hire 1.3% more graduates in 2009 than in 2008, but as the recession worsens, analysts are predicting that hiring expectations are not likely to become reality.

So how do college seniors prepare to compete in the most depressed job market in over 26 years? Here’s a hint: forget fancy resume packages and online job boards. Those days are gone. Instead, a new spin on crowdsourcing is allowing college students to earn cash and connect with employers online.

Ted Williams is the founder of GrouperEye.com, and innovative startup that awards cash prizes to students who solve real business cases for real companies. GrouperEye serves companies that need to discover and hire the best talent, and is the perfect solution for students who need a way to get noticed for their ideas and originality.

According to Williams, GrouperEye is based on three principles:

1. The system for young people finding meaningful work is broken.

2. The solution is for organizations to meet, talk, and collaborate with young people earlier, more often, and in creative ways.

3. Young people are valuable to organizations.

Young, fun companies like Honest Tea and The Motley Fool are just two of the firms currently looking for talent on GrouperEye. In a recent interview Ted explained how GrouperEye got started and where it’s headed.

AB: What inspired you to want to help college grads?

TW: I had a Christmas Party at my place in Washington DC last year. At the party, I couldn't help but overhear my most talented friends explain that their jobs were "okay". The next week, I emailed 20 of most talented people I knew from college and only 2 out of 20 were excited at their jobs. You can ask any college student and they will tell you- the system is dumb. Unless you have close to a 4.0 or know wealthy people than can hook you up with a job, finding a job is the Wild Wild West.

AB: How did you come up with the actual concept for Grouper Eye?

TW: Senior year of college, Professor MacDonald took our marketing class to Rockbridge Vineyards. At the vineyard, we learned about the wine making process and the history of that particular vineyard. The vineyard owner then handed us a wine bottle without a label. Our class's mission was simple: create a label and an advertising campaign to go along with it.

From a student perspective, it was awesome to work on a real business opportunity. The whole class loved it. Eight weeks later, the vineyard owner came to our class as each group pitched him their new bottle and ad campaign. The vineyard owner was floored with the results and had the opportunity to cherry pick the best talent from the class. And needless to say, the next time anybody in the class bought wine, guess which brand they chose? Yes, Rockbrindge Vineyards.

At the same time, I finished a 16-minute Google phone interview and they flew me out to the west coast for the second round interview. The flight alone was $1,100. I realized then that great companies are willing to spend tremendous resources to find and evaluate talent because they know that the success of their organization is completely dependant on the people that work there.

The big boys, Monster and CareerBuilder, don't do a good job with their college sites. These are smart companies and I am sure there is a good reason for this. My guess is that they do not see a lot of potential revenue in the internship/entry level job area. We disagree.

I am yet to find a company that focuses on real time case competitions like we do. The best company out there from a student perspective is experience.com, they offer some amazing experiences and they just get it. The other players are just job boards. Not to knock job boards as we believe they are useful for everything except internships and entry-level jobs. Finding your first job is a completely different process than finding you second job.

AB: How difficult was it to get started?

TW: I spent about two weeks making a power point of what the site was going to look like and how it would to function. I know that sounds silly and weird. Starting something is always difficult, there are about a million reasons to not do something. This is a difficult concept to start because there is a network effect - the more case competitions, the more students and the more students the more case competitions. It has been difficult, but so is sitting in an office and daydreaming about an idea all day.

AB: What has been the biggest success for you so far?

TW: We got the Motley Fool to post a case. I had some good relationships with several innovative small companies, but we needed a recognizable brand to get on board in order to give us some credibility. So, I sent a letter to David Gardner (co-founder of Motley Fool) listing the top ten reasons he should grab a cup of coffee with me. It worked. We sat in Starbuck's chatting together with Kara from HR and they decided to take a risk and post a case.

AB: Do you plan on growing the company?

TW: Absolutely. We think that the internship/ entry-level marketplace is extremely underserved. We are going to serve it: student-by-student and company-by-company.

AB: Can you explain the business model?

TW: Companies pay $199 to post a case on the site and $100 of this fee is used as the prize money for students. We believe this is a no-brainer for companies and we even refund them if they don't receive a minimum of five submissions. Our current goal is to get companies, educators, and students to trust that we will provide value to them.

Of course, charging $199 for case isn't going to lead us to fancy yachts and umbrella drinks, more like a payment plan for an inflatable raft and a six pack of Natural Light - we get this and we don't care. We are going to continue to roll out products that facilitate connection between companies and students. We see a lot of potential in connecting these companies and students; the market is simply under served. We have a lot of ideas and we are going to execute on them and let the market tell us what works and what doesn't.

We are fanatical about serving this market and changing the system. Of course we want to make a good living doing this, but that isn't what drives is. The chance to solve a problem that affects almost everyone is what drives us.