All of us know what LinkedIn and Facebook are: Networks on which people can make connections, learn about their peers, and keep up that impressive network for life after college. However, amidst all of those, a new challenger has appeared on the scene: AlumTalks. Although still relatively young, it has rocketed to prominence at Northwestern, a feat no doubt helped by maintaining a leading position in the Intel Innovators challenge. Such success does not come from nowhere. I recently sat down with AlumTalks co-founder Chirag Gupta to ask him how he molded the site from the beginning and where it would go in the future.
NBR: Hey Chirag. Hope you’re not too busy.
Chirag Gupta (CG): Not at all! This is why I agreed to meet, after all. Great to have the chance to talk about AlumTalks.
NBR: So, what is AlumTalks?
CG: AlumTalks is a start-up run by NU students, myself and Bill Wu, that seeks to connect students with alumni by providing genuine unbiased career stories. Our platform enables students to search for alumni based on career path and facilitates professional networking.
NBR: What is the the goal of AlumTalks?
CG: The goal is simple. In 4 words: connecting students with alumni. We use this mission statement to evaluate all of our decisions. For example, if we are debating a new feature on the website, we ask “Will this help students connect with alumni?” and of course if the answer is yes we pursue it. If not, we don’t. From another perspective, I might say that we are trying to eliminate the pain point of professional networking for all students. It should be easy to search for the alumni that matter to you and are willing and able to share advice with you, mentor you, and potentially help you secure careers.
NBR: How widespread are all of these efforts? I should hope the team is large enough to fulfill your vision.
CG: As of today we have 30 students on our team actively ‘reporting’ on the NU alumni network. We have featured a little over 100 NU alums and have over 300 unique requests from alumni that want us to feature them on the site. Eventually, we want to bring this to all universities.
NBR: Sounds pretty ambitious. How did it get started?
CG: It started with a small idea in a small dorm (Ayers CCI). Bill was looking to do high quality video interviews with NU alums that were willing to share advice with students. I was working on creating an alumni database for Ayers CCI so that new residents could connect with former residents and get a head start on networking. Bill and I worked separately at the beginning of 2011 and then realized around June that we had similar goals and tons of synergy, so we teamed up.
NBR: Any notable changes since that time? Walk me through the biggest alterations to the site since inception.
CG: One major change has been the type of content and our production process. We originally had a small team of video people, editors, and Bill was asking the questions in the interviews. After seeing that our work was sparking very real conversations, many other students wanted to pitch in and get a chance to talk to alums. Now we have over 15 writers (and growing) that follow up on the hundreds of requests that we have gotten from alumni. Writers are doing several stories each quarter featuring various NU alums and each new story (typically a text article) adds more value to the platform at large.
NBR: From all of that, you’ve obviously made a point to take a student’s perspective of the process. How do you imagine it’s used?
CG: Three major types of users (at least how I envision it):
a) proactive ‘natural networkers’ will be using it throughout college to build professional relationships that last
b) students actively seeking internships, jobs, or grad school, will validate their career path by reading the career stories
c) students inclined to write will register as AlumTalks Writers who want to bring awesome career stories to the audience of current students
NBR: Biggest threat or challenge starting up a website as a student, and this one in particular?
CG: Biggest challenge for me personally has been explaining to my friends how passionate I am about this. A lot of people think you’re joking when you tell them you are considering dropping out to build an idea. It’s tough at first to convince yourself that ‘the time is now.’
NBR: There are, of course, other challenges. As you are no doubt aware, this is far from the only career and alumni resource available to students. How does it differ from the main competitors?
CG: I guess the two big ‘similar’ sites that people ask us about are: nwuconnection.com and linkedin.com. Nwuconnection is NU’s alumni database, which is searchable and keeps a decent archive of everyone who has a diploma from Northwestern (200,000+ records). Students generally get a 30% response rate from this network (I estimate this after meeting with 1,000 students through my part-time advising job at UCS which I’ve had for 3 years now). With AlumTalks, you’re only looking at alumni who care about talking to students. While this will only be about 1/3 of all NU alums, the response rate will be closer to 95%. Bear in mind, AlumTalks only features alums that have opted in to our platform.
With regard to LinkedIn, their mission is to help people connect professionally and maintain lists of contacts (paraphrased). AlumTalks highly encourages students to use LinkedIn and I personally find it to be a great tool for professional networking (even with alumni). However, what LinkedIn lacks is stories. Sure any NU students can join the NU alumni group on LinkedIn and put up a message saying “I’m a Political Science major looking to get advice on law schools” but again you’re going to see super low response rates. By using AlumTalks, one can easily search for other alums who majored in “poli-sci” and then went on to law school (and are eager to share advice with students).
At this point Mr. Gupta began flipping through the tabs on the site to demonstrate the differences between the competitors and AlumTalks. This small tour ended up on one of the largest differences: the fact that AlumTalks had already progressed as far as it had in the Intel Innovators contest. I was curious; it seemed pretty serious.
NBR: What is this all about?
CG: Intel Innovators is a contest sponsored by Intel that allows anyone to submit ‘the next big idea’ and lets Facebook users vote and choose the top 5 that get to pitch for the $100,000 prize money. If we get enough votes and stay in the top 5, we’ll be pitching our business to a panel of 5 venture capitalists.
NBR: Wow, that’s certainly an amount to pay attention to. Almost 2 years of tuition! What would you do with the prize money?
CG: [The] majority of the funding would go towards web development. There’s a lot of new features and functionality we want to introduce and test out at Northwestern. We want to nail the model here and then scale it by bringing our platform to other universities. The remaining 30% would go into marketing, sales, events, and supporting our team that has been putting in something like 100 hrs/week collectively.
NBR: You clearly have bold plans for the future, and this only seems like one more way that those plans are becoming a reality. Do you see it always being a website? How will it expand?
CG: The website will serve as the backbone for many things. We plan to have a branch that puts on speaker events and networking events at campuses. We are also in a great position to eventually produce print publications or establish content partnerships with entities like Northwestern Magazine.
NBR: Can’t wait to see what you have planned, Chirag. I can see you fighting to return to your work on the site, but thanks for your time.