Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Interview with Robin Richards, Internships.com
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
One of the more successful serial entrepreneurs here in Southern California has been Robin D. Richards, who most recently sold The NTI Group to Blackboard, and previously also was CEO of Vivendi Universal Net USA, the founding president and COO of MP3.com, and managing director at Tickets.com. Robin's latest startup is Internships.com (www.internships.com), an online site focused on aggregating internship opportunities and providing resources to potential interns. We spoke to Robin about the new startup, his executive team, as well as his angel investing activity here.
How did you decide to start Internships.com?
Robin Richards: After selling Notification Technology to Blackboard, we kind of sat around and said--where is there a marketplace, that can do some good, really needs to be developed using technology, and where there is no major player involved. We looked around for literally eight to ten months, by having a couple of young people bring us companies, research papers on potential industries, and other information every day. One day looking at the college internship area, Paul Ouyang, my partner, and I were sitting around, and Paul looks at me and says--I think we can make a marketplace here.
We started taking a deep look into this. If you are a college kid, in a time of high unemployment, you will want to get some experience to set you apart when you're looking for a job. But, if you try to find a place to find an internship online, you can't find any place. Kids from the big schools will get recruited, especially if they're in technology or economics, and the wealthier kids might ask Mom, Dad, or their uncle to hook them up. But, what happens to the other 25 million college students looking for an internship? Where's the marketplace? There is no marketplace, though there are are thousands of micro marketplaces. There is no single source for internship listings or site like ours, where you can get tools for resume preparation, or internship predictors or assessment tests, or even look at a series of videos on how to dress by industry, how to interview, or where you can learn interview techniques. That didn't exist on a mass scale, in one place, for anybody. There's a gigantic need for the demand side of the marketplace. But, what about the supply side, and where do companies go?
Describe that further?
Robin Richards: I talked to a couple of buddies who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and the problem with having a name brand, is if you put an ad in the paper for an internship, they get thousands and thousands--and sometimes, tens of thousands--of applications. It doesn't do them any good, and can often be negative. From a larger perspective, they'd like to be able to reach into a database, and look at students in the community, and see if they can give someone in that community a head start. But, there's no easy way to go do that. We also look at small and medium sized businesses, and visited a bunch of them, and asked them what they were doing to test drive future employees, and maybe do a good turn for the community. If you call colleges today, it's impossible to efficiently get an internship posted. They're too busy now trying to find works for seniors, to get them places, and plus with the financial crunch, career centers are getting depleted. They just can't reach into the class of freshmen, sophomores, or juniors to help companies get better candidates. When we've tried to call for an intern, no one pays much mind. You might be able to FAX something in, to have them put it on the board, and hope someone sees it. There's a giant need in the supply side to be able to go out to a web site, put your corporate profile down, and have a very efficient system for matching both the demand and supply side, matching the intern and the job at a local and geographic level. That just didn't exist.
How long has the site been up?
Robin Richards: We've been up and running for a week and a half. We have, by far, the largest number of internships available in America today, in one location, on our site. We're adding hundreds of jobs--one day we added over a thousand--every day. The marketplace is kind of like eBay--people are dying to have access to one, central place for internships. We've also hired a tremendous set of experience career counselors, who have had colorful or substantial careers, to supply services and products to our students.
It looks like you bought an existing property as part of startup up the site?
Robin Richards: We actually bought four companies, to get us started on this. We took a little trip and said--what are career centers doing, at the most elite schools at America, to help prepare students for jobs--and what companies are they using to do this. What content are they licensing? The career centers at the elite schools are paying anywhere from $3,000 to $15,000 to license content to redistribute to seniors looking for jobs. Those include how-to on resumes, aptitude tests, videos, coaching seminars, and more of that nature. However, they're more job related than internship related. We took a look at the most prestigious companies in those areas, and we bought them all. That brought us the expertise and content, which we reformatted for internships, and put all in one place. We're looking to democratize the opportunity and access for students at state schools and community colleges. Over 50 percent of bachelors go to student who started at a community college. We're bring world class content, reformatted, to people who just can't get it otherwise because their career center has been unable to spend money on that content, in a time when the state really should be putting a lot more money into career centers. We've been really fortunate that it has been well received, by career centers, small and medium businesses, and students. It's been a great surprise to see how fast they heard about it .
It seems this is a lot of the same team behind NTI Group and MP3.com?
Robin Richards: As that old African proverb says, if you want to go fast, go alone. But, if you want to go far, go with a team. We believe in that. Paul Ouyang, who has been my partner former, is behind the scenes with operations and finance, and is our strategist. Our other executives include Steve Sheiner, our Chief Revenue Officer, who has been working with me for 22 years. He's one of the smartest marketing people on the planet. Scott Harvey is with us for the fifth company since Tickets.com, and is our Chief Business Officer, heading up our large partners. Bruce Worman, is our CFO. We've had this team together for awhile, which helps us to go fast. Everyone know their job, and the only real tool that is sharper than a startup tool is speed and experience. We've been able to bring a team like this together really quick with lots of real experience.
What's your financing strategy on this new startup?
Robin Richards: It's a combination of our own capital, and that of our long term partner Kinderhook Industries. We've been doing business with these guys forever. The combination of Paul, Robin, and our long term partners Kinderhook has given us good success in the marketplace. It's allowed us, as a team, to bring on executives who otherwise would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and bring them on for moderate startup salaries and equity, because they believe not only in our mission and that they can do lots of good, but because they believe we have the capability to execute on the mission.
Your startups have been across a wide number of different industries, have you found it difficult applying your management team across those various areas?
Robin Richards: Business process and execution is 90 percent of the ingredients to success. There's not a whole lot you can't learn, and product knowledge comes quickly. We're brought experts from the field--Colleen Sabatino is our Chief Content Officer, and is one of the more respected career center executives in America, and Travlin McCormick came from Slingshot Labs to be our CTO, and is used to speed and has taken various types of businesses and fed them to MySpace--but I've never considered the industry an issue. If you have a good idea, a good marketplace with certain characteristics, every company needs technology, every company needs finance, sales, marketing, and operations--that's the hard part.
As an aside, I see you've been active as an angel here in LA?
Robin Richards: Yes, I'm investing in smart young companies that are solving a need.
Are there specific kinds of companies you've been investing in?
Robin Richards: I'm looking for entrepreneurs who will not be denied. Those are entrepreneurs who are so hungry, and passionate about their success, that they won't be denied. When I invest I look for an idea, and how I operate, it's more about the team. I look fro a good idea, with a very hungry, open minded young entrepreneur in the marketplace, who wants to do well by doing right .
Finally, back to Interships.com, what's next for the company?
Robin Richards: We'd like to get a quarter of a million internships posted, and we'd like to get over a million students coming to the site looking for them. We believe there between 2000 and 3000 colleges and universities we'd like to do business with, to create a wonderful ecosystem that will feed off each other and provide a whole lot of good. There's not a lot of statistics on internships, but if you look at the giant companies that do job postings, it's very clear this is very different. If you search on the largest job board, you'll find they don't even have 600 internships listed. We fully expect in the next couple of years, to reach the 10 million businesses in America, and democratize this whole process, and list 1 million internships. That would have a profound effect on training and opportunities in America for students.