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A Conversation with Luke Skurman

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As a business major at Carnegie Mellon with an emphasis in entrepreneurship, Luke Skurman was required to put together a mock business plan for a class project. His idea, a publishing company that would write brutally honest guidebooks about the biggest American colleges and universities, became a reality. College Prowler, as the company is known, recently celebrated its three-year anniversary. Skurman, 25, has since appeared on CNN; he and his co-founders have been profiled in The New York Times, Publisher's Weekly, Entrepreneur and The Washington Post, among others.

 

How did the idea for your business first come about?

I was going to a public high school in the Bay Area, and I knew I wanted to study business, but it happened to be that the best business schools in the U.S. were all on the East Coast. So I went to my guidance counselor, I read the traditional guidebooks, I looked through the campus brochures. I said to myself, "I'm going to spend the next four years of my life somewhere, I'm going to meet all these people, but I don't know what the schools are really like. What are the dorms really like? What's the computer situation?" I didn't know what was going to happen.

 

I went back to my high school classmates and I said, "Are you guys having a hard time with this?" Everyone was stressed out about choosing the right school. It seemed like there was too much uncertainty with the decision process. And so many people were going through this -- there's 3.7 million high school seniors every year right now, and over 70 percent of them are college-bound.

 

That's a big potential market. 

It's big. And no one was certain about this at all. So I came back from spring break, wrote down about six different business ideas and pitched them to some friends.

 

What were some of the other ideas?

One was about baseball cards. Nothing was great, except this one. [College Prowler] got everyone really excited. The idea was [to] get information, and to really tell what's going on at each school -- to create a whole college portal. Then in the fall of 2000, I took Entrepreneurship 1. Basically, the point of the course is to come up with a business idea. We used the course as a place to try and see if College Prowler really had any viability, and we won the interclass competition. Everyone thought it was a really great idea.

 

Have you always been an entrepreneurial type? Were you running a lemonade stand when you were a kid?

Yeah, I just love anything to do with business. I'd buy a big jar of candy at Costco and sell it on the school bus. And I was buying and selling baseball cards all day long. I'd sit in the baseball-card shop and negotiate with the shop owners all day. Business just always got me excited.

 

Why is that? Is it the money?

It's part of it, sure. But I think it's more the idea of innovation and creation -- making something better and more efficient. And being able to help people, and actually create something that has an impact on people. I think being an entrepreneur is kind of like being an artist.

 

What do your parents think about the business?

Oh, they love it. They're jazzed. In the beginning, my mother was more the cheerleader, and my dad was more the conservative, wanting to make sure this was really going to work. But now, after seeing that we've gotten in Barnes & Noble, and seeing all the press coverage we've gotten, they really see it now.

 

So now that you have all this information about all these other colleges, would you still go to CMU if you had to do it all over again? 

Yeah, I think Carnegie Mellon probably was the best possible school for me. I mean, there are things about it that I didn't like then and I still don't like now -- I really wish they had a great football team or a basketball team to get excited about. But you can get lost in the shuffle easier at other schools. You get so much attention at Carnegie Mellon; the small, tight-knit community really helped me a lot. I think [CMU] is pretty much the perfect school.

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