I met with Keaton Swett the perfect week for me to understand the power of his San Francisco-based startup called MindSumo, now with an East Coast office in American Underground.
I’d recently posted a part-time videographer job listing, and watched dozens of applications come into email. Nearly all of the candidates were qualified for the position based on schooling and skill set, yet all of their applications looked the same. Swett and his two Stanford University graduate co-founders recognized this challenge three years ago, entered Stanford’s accelerator StartX and built an online marketplace for corporations to post challenges and young job or internship candidates to propose how they’d solve the challenges.
MindSumo offers up cash rewards to the winners, but in most cases the prize comes along with an interview opportunity or job offer from companies like Facebook, Microsoft, Zappos, IBM, Apple, PepsiCo, Amazon, Google, eBay, Procter & Gamble. The list of blue chip Fortune 500 corporations and startups goes on.
The business model was compelling enough to attract Google Ventures and other investors to provide $1 million in 2012, and a follow-on round of nearly $1M in 2013. Swett and his cofounders envision MindSumo becoming a sort of LinkedIn for college students and young graduates, eventually providing a critical mass of candidates so recruiters would pay for access to the database. But the bread and butter of the site is that extra level of insight into the candidates as a result of the challenges they complete. Durham startup Windsor Circle is testing out the tool now—its challenge is to brainstorm ways of personalizing messaging to e-commerce customers.
So far, 50,000 students from nearly 300 universities have used MindSumo, and 15 percent of those who participated in a challenge ended up with an interview opportunity at a company. 150 companies have paid the $5,000 or higher fee to post challenges on the site—MindSumo expects the fourth quarter to be its first profitable one.
MindSumo’s work is important. A report by the Economic Policy Institute in May 2014 found that 8.5 percent of college graduates between 21 and 24 are unemployed. But an even more compelling statistic is that 16.8 percent of young college grads are underemployed, meaning they’re working part-time or not at all because they haven’t found a job that matches the skills they developed in college. Many have given up searching.
It’s pretty clear that young people have trouble differentiating themselves in the talent pool. And MindSumo found that many lack the specific experience expected by employers.
“One motivation for MindSumo was just personal experience,” Swett says. “Despite that we all went to great universities and got a great education, we felt there was a skills gap between what you learn in school versus what you are actually asked to do in a job.”
So how did Swett, and a new MindSumo office, land in Durham?
Here, we have another example of the trailing spouse phenomenon. Swett’s wife is a graduate student at Duke University, so he convinced his co-founders to let him open an East Coast office. It made good sense too. About 25,000 students graduate from Triangle-area universities each year—MindSumo has already started planning campus events to spread the word.
The region is also a hub for many corporate technology and life science companies. Swett has already met with Red Hat and hopes to get introductions to other local executives to post challenges, and jobs, through the site.
And he was pleased to find a startup community that reminded him of his hometown in New England.
“The Triangle area has that smaller feel while at the same time cultivating a real entrepreneurial community,” says the Johns Hopkins University grad. “It’s fun to be in on the ground floor of that and hopefully I can take the experience in the Bay Area and be a resource for startups here.”
Swett took his first opportunity to share those experiences at a recent HelpFest at American Underground. Above, see the presentation he gave about raising venture capital. And stay tuned for more MindSumo campus events, and perhaps its own hiring spree, in the Triangle.