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New Abroad 101 owners prioritise accountability

After what investors have called a “rough year” for the student review and course search website Abroad 101, members of the advisory board have acquired the US-based company with plans to bring it back from the brink of closure. The new owners intend to use the site, which attracts more than 2,000 unique visitors daily, to increase accountability in student mobility and advocate for “off the beaten path” study experiences.

The site is about to break 20,000 "linked reviews" and has 215 US university partners who actively promote it to their students

Investment group Ledra Capital and education entrepreneur Mark Shay acquired the company from the Westonian Group in December last year. Both Ledra and Shay were early investors and advisors in Abroad 101 along with co-founders of TripAdvisor.

The site launched in 2008 and was aiming to become the TripAdvisor of study abroad in the US, with co-founders of TripAdvisor acting as a sounding board.

Despite a difficult 2013 financially, Shay says from the user’s standpoint, the business carried on as usual – reviews of study abroad programmes were being posted by students and web traffic was stable. “But there were no new ad sales,” he told The PIE News. “I was able to jump in and push some of the levers to move things forward.”

Co-founders of TripAdvisor were acting as a sounding board

In the past two months Shay, who was a co-founder of EDU Directories, an educational directory business that included StudyAbroad.com, says traffic has increased to above 2,000 unique visitors a day and 10 new advertisers have been signed.

The site is about to break 20,000 “linked reviews” – comments that are tied to an active study abroad programme– and has 215 US university partners who actively promote it to their students.

An early investor in and advisor to Abroad 101, Mark Shay has taken over direction of the company

An early investor in and advisor to Abroad 101, Mark Shay has taken over direction of the company

Shay has bold plans to launch a subscription service for reports on student feedback that move beyond the consumer experience into the assessment of what was learned abroad.

“It’s an interesting time in higher education where so many stakeholders want to see accountability and everything measured,” said Shay.

“We see ourselves in a nice position to not just generate reports after the fact but also try to help the universities tally what the students were expecting and what they achieved and start to build some measures as to what the students is getting out of the study abroad experience.”

The site’s business strategy relies on featured listings and advertisements. Part of Shay’s strategy in the coming months is to increase the number of listings of programme providers, currently at 3,800 with reviews.

He’s also focused on engaging with study abroad advisors on US university campuses, the “super users” of the site who are increasingly using the Abroad 101 survey as a tool to measure internationalisation efforts.

“The advisors are responsible for the majority of review invitations,” he said. “They provide quality control because they approve the reviews, provide oversight and they’re giving us the name of the students and then match it to the programme they took.”

Venture capital investment over the past year pressed the company to prioritise profit margins over ethos

According to Shay, venture capital investment over the past year pressed the company to prioritise profit margins over ethos.

“We’re just trying to empower students to get more of them into study abroad,” he said adding that he and Ledra won’t be looking for any further investment partners.

“The plan is to bootstrap this,” he said. “Right now I’m working without a salary so every dollar that has come in since I’ve taken over just goes right back out to operations.

“We intend to have this as a modestly profitable and industry serving business for many years to come.”

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