Graduway, a startup that wants to help colleges and universities more effectively engage with their alumni, is officially launching today with $1.1 million in seed funding from BTG Pactual (Latin America’s largest investment bank), former 888 Holdings CEO Gigi Levy and RSL Venture Partners, which has recently invested in Vengo and OneSpot.
Why the interest? In part, it’s because the U.K. and Israel-based startup is setting the bar high: It’s already working with institutions across 14 countries in the U.S., Europe and Asia, but, ultimately, Graduway wants to power the world’s alumni networks. Yep, all of them.
Graduway founder Daniel Cohen admits that it’s an ambitious goal and that the company has a long way to go, but he sees plenty of opportunity. In spite of the fact that there are already a handful of competitors in the alumni networking space — including Harris Connect, Alumni Magnet, iModules and Easyalumni, to name a few — the majority of schools today still struggle to maintain positive relationships with their graduates. Most of the platforms in use today are littered with outdated personal information and suffer from low engagement levels, Cohen says.
“Time and time again we’ve found that schools have literally lost contact with the majority of their alumni, which, ironically, is their most valuable asset,” Cohen continued. “If you look at the user statistics for their platforms, typically, all you’ll hear is the sound of deafening silence — of a dead network.”
While that might err on the side of the dramatic, it happens to resonate with my own experience as an alum — and probably yours as well. Here’s the problem: Schools typically spend an inordinate amount of time and money creating their own branded networking platforms, which usually just end up serving as glorified alumni directories.
Research shows, Cohen says, that branded platforms lead to higher engagement levels versus non-branded platforms; yet, in the end, it’s still just a branded alumni directory that usually requires manual data entry. And how many people do you know who regularly return to their alumni directory to make sure contact information is up to date? Not many. Alumni forget to update this information (or are too busy) and that leaves overworked, small alumni teams to manage and curate their networks, which is a losing proposition.
What’s more, many schools choose to use snail mail or monthly email news blasts as their primary forms of communication with alumni. Today, some schools have begun to opt to build alumni groups on social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook, which tends offer better ROI than a branded directory. User information stays up to date, its free, simple to implement and it’s much easier to convince alumni to join (at scale). The problem, however, is that while it’s easy to get alumni to join, it’s not so easy to get people engaging. Cohen says that a typical alumni group may have 10,000 members but only two to three discussions or comments each week.
Of course, boiled down, the goal of alumni relations is to create an empowered alumni network and, in turn, secure financial donations from graduates — ideally increasing those annually (whaaaat?!?) — putting the school in a better position to attract brainy new students. Unfortunately, without the rabid, reunion-going and tradition-proud culture at schools like Princeton, that’s a tough mountain to climb. Unsurprisingly, most schools suck at this and the options above aren’t particularly attractive.
Graduway wants to help schools solve this problem by combining the best of both, giving institutions their own branded alumni networking platform that is built around existing social networks. The idea is to provide alumni with a trusted and exclusive environment to network, doing so in a familiar ecosystem of social networks — in terms of the registration process, profile, information sync and person-to-person connections.
The startup also aims to help schools engage with their alumni by encouraging them to discover how best to leverage their own network to help alumni get ahead once they graduate, for example. Graduates are encouraged to offer ways to “give back” to their school, like helping to mentor recent grads, introduce them to their contacts on Facebook and LinkedIn, answer industry questions or connect them with people inside their own company.
Graduway enables schools to set up a basic platform in a few minutes and add features as they go, with the goal of ultimately saving schools time and money. Through the school’s official alumni site, the platform also encourages recent grads to join LinkedIn if they haven’t already, for example, and makes it easy for them to port their social profiles on to the alumni platform.
In turn, the startup charges schools when they want to build a custom, branded alumni network. Granted, that sounds appealing, although judging by the startup’s available pricing info, that’s not as cheap as it sounds, which could be a problem. There’s little doubt schools are looking for a better solution to their alumni networking woes, but not if it costs a boatload.
Today, the startup is working with 40+ schools and plans to use its new capital to begin adding to that total, although it doesn’t (as of yet) seem to have a sustainable customer acquisition strategy. However, in the near future, Graduway will be looking to strengthen its commercial relationship with companies like LinkedIn, which could provide the customer acquisition boost it will need if it ever hopes to hit scale.
For more, find Graduway at home here.