Luke Skurman recalls the anxiety surrounding his college decision like it was yesterday.
The year was 1998. While he grew up in San Francisco, he was shopping on the east coast, thinking about Carnegie Mellon but unsure what a life there would look like. Reliable student reviews on didn’t exist. Overviews on colleges were the fodder of marketing brochures.
So when he gave CMU the nod and moved across the country, it felt like he was leaping into an abyss.
“I read the brochures and took the tours,” he says. “What was missing was the students’ voice. That insider feeling that defines whether or not I would have a great experience.”
Upon graduation (with both a bachelor’s and master’s from CMU) Skurman tapped his inner entrepreneur and turned his experience into a company. College Prowler took off as a series of paperback books, a go-to resource for college shopping students with intelligent reviews of schools for students by students.
Always a forward thinker, he turned his attention toward the emerging web and saw the future. Forsaking the books, he transitioned his startup into an online platform, first through paid subscriptions and later as a free-for-all service. The move paid off. For instances like these, you require a great website that will lure customers to your business. A great website can only ever happen when the right designer or a team of designers are working on it.
“You have to be constantly be innovating,” he says. “You can’t stay stagnant. It’s like Wayne Gretkzy says, ‘skate to where the puck will be, not to where the puck is.’”
College Prowler continues to reign as a resource for college shoppers, providing stats, facts, polls and reviews on more than 8000 public, private and community colleges. At least 25% of all high school graduates today have a College Prowler account.
Skurman took another gutsy leap in 2013. He renamed the company Niche and moved the offices to a bigger space on Ellsworth in Shadyside. The first new vertical was Niche K12, a major expansion of the content beyond colleges into something bigger, in-depth data on every K-12 school across the country.
This month, Niche launched two more verticals, Niche Ink and Niche Local, with data and rankings on 80 major metro cities (so far) as well as towns, townships and neighborhoods in the country.
Want to know the 25 best cities and neighborhoods for millennials? Pittsburgh made the list at number 15, between Columbus and Phoenix. What’s the best neighborhood for millennials in Pittsburgh? That would be Shadyside, according to Niche.
This marks the first time a company has formed around neighborhood content, which is a significant audience, says Skurman. The audience not only includes recent graduates, fresh off College Prowler, but young couples thinking jobs, cities and children.
The neighborhood rankings are data rich and based on the Census’ 5-year-survey. A few clicks and you’ve got an accurate snapshot of communities across the country with graphics and visuals on: crime rates, schools, housing, education of the residents, racial diversity and more.
So when Niche says Shadyside is the best neighborhood for millennials, we mean is it’s the most established and stable place to live today based on our methodology, says Skurman. The formula doesn’t take into account up-and-coming or trendsetters.
“If we did the list again in a year or two, I would wager that Lawrenceville would make it into the top ten,” he says. “It has real momentum.”
The question is then raised: Will putting a number on lower-ranked communities and emerging neighborhoods have a negative impact on them by singling out their higher crime rates and less stellar school systems?
“All we want to do is spotlight the truth,” says Skurman. “We’d like to see schools get stronger and communities get stronger. We’re open to feedback.
“Rarely do people say, ‘hey you’re out of touch,’” he adds. “Mostly we hear, ‘wow you’ve really nailed it.”
Skurman isn’t shy about his ambitions for Niche. In short, he’s gunning to be the next billion dollar content marketing company. Judging by the volume of content the full-time staff of 25 (and hiring) has been cranking out, they’re well on their way.
“To put it into perspective,” he says, “we have more content than a Angie’s List, which is a publically traded company worth almost $1 billion. Our content is in the same league as Trip Advisor and Yelp and we’re just getting going.”
While Skurman isn’t releasing figures, Niche’s revenues quadrupled between 2010 and 2014. Reviews are pouring in at an impressive rate. On average, Niche receives 80,000 new opinions a day and about 2.5 million new opinions a month.
The majority of users are high school and college students; parents are the fastest growing demographic.
Andy Hannah, the former Plextronics CEO and an advisor to Skurman throughout the company’s evolution, says there’s plenty of room at the top in the content marketing industry.
“Niche has done something that is not easy to do—it has created content that is novel with tools and methodologies that are unique,” he says. “It’s a model that can be leveraged across a number of verticals. The opportunity is big.”
While Skurman is seamlessly remodeling and rebranding Niche, he hasn’t forgotten the challenges he faced gutting it out in the early days of Prowler. He is particularly passionate about helping the early stage startup community in Pittsburgh.
He is a co-founder and chairman of Thrill Mill, the nonprofit organization in East Liberty that runs the startup accelerator Hustle Den and the Thrival Festival. Thrill Mill started out as Business Bout, an early idea of Skurman’s along with several others including Thrill Mill pal Bobby Zappala.
The backyard BBQ began as an annual event to raise money for a startup competition before it grew into Thrival, a celebration of the local startup community with national musical talent, local musicians and artists.
He is also a founding curator of the Global Shapers Pittsburgh Hub, an initiative of the World Economic Forum, serves on the board of the Sprout Fund and is the youngest member of the Carnegie Mellon University Board of Trustees.
“My experience is the impetus of starting Thrill Mill,” says Skurman. “You don’t need a ton of cash today to start a business, but you do need to be in a nurturing, supportive environment and around like-minded individuals.
“I think Pittsburgh is fertile ground for a lot more start-ups in the years to come. I’m very bullish on Pittsburgh.”