When Luke Skurman was a high school senior, he knew he wanted to go to college on the East Coast and study business. And, even though he found plenty of information about notable professors and average SAT scores, the statistics out there couldn't give him a sense for where he'd fit in the best and be most happy.
"What I felt was missing, even though there are a ton of brochures and guidebooks, was the student feedback and user-generated content," said Skurman, who is now chief executive officer of Niche, a website that helps people make big life decisions. "I wanted to know, 'Do I need a car to get around? Would I need to join a fraternity to have a social life?' Those details were tougher to find."
So, just a day after he graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 2002, he and four others started a company called College Prowler and began printing their own college guides to demystify the process. Those first two years were difficult. Skurman's team survived off of just a few thousand dollars and struggled to find a business model.
"It was pretty bare bones," said Skurman. "Nobody had a salary. We put everything we had into it."
They pushed on and eventually sold more than 500,000 copies of their college guide, but quickly realized that their primary audience was online. At first, they charged for subscriptions, putting their ratings behind a paywall. It soon became clear, however, that they were limiting their growth because most people weren't willing to pay for content on the internet.
In 2009, they made the content free, which opened the floodgates. In 2013, they added a K-12 vertical to give parents information about every school — whether public or private — in the country. Around that same time, the company was renamed Niche.
Today, Niche has grown to 28 employees and has roughly 4.5 million unique monthly visitors. Late last year, the company launched Niche Local, a service designed to help people decide where they might want to live.
"Whether you're choosing a college, picking an elementary school or figuring out where to move to, Niche gives you a wealth of great information to help you make good decisions about life," said Skurman. "That's our mission."
As the company grows, Skurman sees Niche moving into international markets and launching several more verticals.
"I'd like for us to be one of the largest websites in the world," he said. "There is so much room for us to grow. We can be the definitive source to help people choose where to work, their doctor, or a landlord. When they're thinking about that decision, I want them to be thinking about how Niche can help them."