In June 2011 Smarterer was a main dish presenter at WebInno30. We recently caught up with co-founder and CEO Jennifer Fremont-Smith to hear the latest.
Fill us in on Smarterer.
Smarterer has built a platform to test and score people on all of their digital, social and technical skills. Everyone has skills; but the types of skills and the tools associated with them continue to expand and evolve. There’s just no smart or simple way for professionals to validate and share the skills they have in a way the world can understand. That’s one side of the equation.
On the other side you have a different challenge. Businesses need to hire smart people who have really specific skills and capabilities. Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible for an employer to stay on top of what all those skills might be – let alone have a reasonable way to evaluate who has them.
That’s where we come in. We set out to solve these problems in three ways.
First of all we’re using crowd-sourcing really heavily. This is great because it lets us harness the collective knowledge of our users to come up with a database of tests and questions – which is constantly being updated – for every skill under the sun. In three months we’ve gotten more than 25,000 questions and 400 tests for today’s most important digital skills.
Second is our adaptive scoring algorithm. When someone comes to the site and picks a test they start answering questions right away. Our scoring system lets us hone in really, really quickly on their skill level. If someone is really skilled we’re going to skip all of the rudimentary questions and test them on the harder stuff; if they’re a beginner we’re not going to frustrate them with questions that are completely beyond them. Traditional evaluation tools might have taken two hours to measure of somebody’s skill in a meaningful way; we can get to their skill level in about 60 seconds – just 10 questions. It’s very fast and it’s very fun.
The third piece is a way for people to share their skills. After someone has answered the questions they get a badge with their score. It’s designed to be shared wherever they’re representing themselves online – LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, any career site, their resume, their blog – wherever. Any place where they’re saying, “This is who I am,” – that’s where our score should be. And every place where they’re being evaluated as a professional, where employers are looking for somebody or employers are looking at them to see if they’re the right fit – that’s where we want those scores to be used.
Where did the idea for Smarterer come from?
Dave Balter, the other co-founder, had the idea. His ‘aha!’ moment came as he was interviewing for someone to do statistical analysis at his company BuzzAgent. That’s not his job, and he wasn’t super familiar with all of the necessary tools or skills. He was interviewing probably the tenth candidate and asked, “So what are you really good at?” and the candidate said, “I’m really good at R.” And Dave said, “R? What’s R?” And the guy said, “R?! R is an open source statistical modeling language that you have to be really good at in order to do this job! If you don’t know R, you can’t do this job!” And Dave said, “Oh man, I didn’t know that. What about all the other people I talked to?” He didn’t know about R, because he didn’t have a simple way to know skills were really needed for the job. And the rest, as they say, is history.
How did you get involved with Webinno?
David contacted us to ask if we wanted to present; and it was great that he did. Our team was cranking toward the launch of our beta but there wasn’t a specific date carved in stone. WebInno became a forcing function and put this total fire under us to get our product to launch – and we literally launched at Webinno, five minutes before I went on stage.
Once we had the date we worked with Tech Crunch and a story came out hours before the event, and that was our launch – it was great. But of course – as is often the case – our site totally crashed thanks to all the traffic from the story so our CTO is sitting on the floor in the aisle at Webinno, trying to move the product onto a laptop so that I could run the demo. It was great.
How was Webinno as a launch platform?
It was fantastic. First of all it was just a ton of fun; I mean it was totally fun to get up on stage and do it. David agreed to be our guinea pig and was such a good sport – we actually had him take an Excel test up on stage in front of 1,200 people. I think that was pretty intense for him, and maybe slightly embarrassing. It was all a lot of fun. Webinno was also a great way to get in front of the ecosystem here in Boston, to get the word out about what we were doing and speak to a really large, valuable and engaged audience all at once.
How is Boston as a spot for innovation, and as a spot for starting a company?
Boston is great! This is one of the three places you’d want to be – Boston, New York or the Valley. What I love about Boston is that it’s smaller. That makes it really easy to know a lot of people, to get entrenched and become a part of the ecosystem. It has a small town feel and yet we have world-class universities, fantastic talent, brilliant people and lots of creativity. It’s a great place to be.
So how are things going for Smarterer now?
Things are going great! Just about two weeks ago we started to see our numbers do that wonderful thing – the proverbial hockey stick. Our numbers are starting to skyrocket and every metric we track is going gangbusters. By January 16th we’d had 800,000 questions answered [about seven months]. That day we flipped the switch on some things we’d been working on for a while and the numbers just blew through the roof – we had another 800,000 questions answered within two weeks. And it’s just going up from there!
It was the result of really methodical experimentation and figuring out what works and continuing to refine things. Eventually if you keep at it you get to that thing that Dave likes to call the Magic Button; you get closer and closer to figuring out what that magic button is and then you press it, and boom! Good things happen.
So what’s next?
More of this! Right now we’ve got a tiger by the tail, so I’m trying to make sure we hold on really tightly. We’re going to continue to evolve and mature the product and make sure that all of its parts are great – the content, the scoring system, the user experience – we want to be sure the hordes of users that are coming in have a fantastic experience that’s delightful and wonderful and gives them back a totally honest reflection of their skills in a positive way; and in a way that’s also valuable for employers as well.
What’s the strangest test that someone has made?
We’ve had a lot of what we call interest tests – the Harry Potter test is an example. Someone on our team created the initial questions because he’s really in to Harry Potter, but then this community formed around it and lots and lots of people started taking it and contributing questions. It may not be a job skill but it’s certainly important to fans. They really care about this and want to show off what that they know. It’s one of the more social tests we have with people sharing their scores all over. We’ve actually been approached by Warner Brothers about how they might use this test to further engage their own community. It’s really interesting stuff.
What advice do you have for people thinking about starting a company here in Boston?
It depends on the stage. They should find some smart people to do it with them. You need to find out if what you have is going be interesting to people before you get too far down the road and if it is you need to go as fast as you can. Try to make the cycle time as short as possible, so you can get to the answers that you need as and as cheaply as possible.
Any final thoughts?
Our big goal is to become the world standard in skills measurement. We want to measure every single professional on all of their digital, social or technical skills. There’s a huge, huge opportunity out there to be the alternative certification for all of these skills and we’re off to a great start!
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