Identify an Old School Need Then Build a Business Using an API

Kin Lane
Feb. 22 2012, 12:00AM EST

Two Oregon entrepreneurs, Jake Weatherly and David Shear were having trouble expanding on an huge opportunity selling software to college students. Of the 3.2 million youth age 16 to 24 who graduated from high school between January and October 2010, about 2.2 million or 68.1 percent, are enrolled in colleges and universities. To Weatherly and Shear, these 2.2 million students represent not just today’s software users, they represent the market of tomorrow. Talk to the Gillette or Visa about the power of building brand awareness with college students and you’ll understand the untapped buying power within the 2.2 million U.S. college and university students.

There is one problem though, when your selling to a student online, the ability to verify that someone is a student currently involves faxing a proof of identity, a process that often will bring any online sale to a screeching halt, making student sales a missed opportunity for many companies, and at the very least a very costly, and slow process.

Weatherly and Shear approached me in spring of 2010, to help develop a technical solution, to answer whether someone was enrolled in a college or university. Through some programming kung fu I quickly identified that you could verify students at about 65% of the top 50 universities, by name and email using their public directory forms, with about 1 hour of work per university. Essentially I was able to write a script that would ask the university if a student went there, via their public web site.  This type of scraping is a great proof of concept, but by no means a method for building a solid business on top of. Weatherly and Shear needed a more viable way to get reliable enrollment information. After a lot of research they found an existing organization that was already part of the government mandated process of tracking student enrollment for financial aid. This existing organization already provided student enrollment verification, but had not moved into the Internet age, and did not posses the expertise or technology to make their information accessible programmatically across the Internet.

Fast forward two years. Weatherly and Shear have formed SheerID, a student verification system, where they have leveraged their industry connections and delivered the SheerID API that can be used to verify if an individual is enrolled as a student at a college or university. SheerID has identified an existing businesses resource, that hasn’t been brought into the Internet age, and by decoupling it from the established business entity that currently manages the process, they were able to deliver it as a valuable API resource.

SheerID has some work to do, launching a new API developers area, and execute on their strategy making their student verification API available to open and private developers, as well as available on existing platforms like Drupal, Joomla and Magento e-commerce. But the two entrepreneur’s approach to building a business around an established business need, that has not caught up to the Internet age, represents a great model. We’ve seen companies like Twilio take an established utility like SMS, and by exposing them as an API, deploying a developer area around it--that you can build a viable business.

What other proven business resources could be packaged up as a simple RESTful API, allowing someone to build a businesses, where the product is the API--an delivers the next generation of business resources.

Kin Lane I am a programmer and entrepreneur, with a focus on the business of APIs. I study how APIs are changing the business landscape, and the rise of API driven developer ecosystems. I share my insights by blogging on API Evangelist and ProgrammableWeb, and put into action as API evangelist for CityGrid.

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