View upcoming events at Boston College
Books by alumni, faculty, and staff
Order books noted in Boston College Magazine
Join the online community of alumni
View the current BCM in original format
From dorm room to the top-floor office, from incubator to accelerator, the saga (so far) of a student startup
Tom Coburn is charming, and if he had gone through with his education plan—a biology major, graduation in 2013, followed by medical school—he surely would have developed a lovely bedside manner as a practicing physician someday. But today the redheaded 22-year-old Hopkinton, Massachusetts, native is one of Boston’s youngest CEOs, and on this autumn morning he’s targeting that charm instead at the construction workers building the brand new office space for his online startup, Jebbit, in the Landmark building near Fenway Park. Riding the elevator in the building’s historic tower, he chats easily with the hard-hat-wearing worker three times his age. The elevator doors glide open to reveal stunning floor-to-ceiling windows . . . and one of Jebbit’s programmers dangling like an orangutan, by one arm then the other, from the steel girders on the ceiling. The programmer grins goofily down at his colleagues slouched on a gray sectional sofa below him, their baseball caps turned backward and laptops on their laps. Coburn shrugs and smiles as he continues with the tour.
The construction worker chuckles and turns to Coburn: “I’ve been here a week and I still have no idea what it is that you guys do.”
“We’re in online advertising,” Coburn replies.
That’s certainly one way to describe it. Coburn’s company, Jebbit, is attempting to completely rethink the way we interact with ads online, and since sharing a first-place finish in the undergraduate Boston College Venture Competition (BCVC) in 2011, it’s gotten some significant traction. The past few years have been a bit of a blur for Coburn and his cohorts: They’ve been accepted to two of the country’s most competitive startup accelerators, raised $1.8 million in funding, found partners in brands such as Coca-Cola, Bose, and Ralph Lauren, and been named to the Boston Globe‘s “25 Under 25” hot list. Jebbit today has 13 employees, 10 of whom are under the age of 22 (and nine of whom occupy the same Cleveland Circle house). Last year, Coburn and two cofounders—chief technology officer Chase McAleese (also a member of the Class of 2013) and COO Jonathan Lacoste ’15—left Boston College before they could graduate to pursue Jebbit full-time.
“They’ve been the darling of the Boston tech community over the last year,” says Paul Tedeschi, an advisor to Jebbit and the CEO of Campus Agency, a marketer of brands to the “youth demographic.” The new office is the latest manifestation of Jebbit’s rapid advance: They’ve left behind a crowded startup cubicle farm and leased the 11th and 14th floors of the Landmark building—renting out floor space to other startups while they grow into their quarters.
When Coburn was in the midst of launching Jebbit in his dorm room three years ago, he became transfixed by the origin stories of other startups, the tales of small ideas that begat powerful brands. And as he’s found early success with his fledgling company, he’s begun to hone his own mythology. On a September evening in Stokes Hall, Coburn and Lacoste have been invited to speak at a “fireside chat” (sans fireside) hosted by the student-run Boston College Entrepreneur Society. About 15 young men and women snack on pizza as the two lay out their business’s humble beginnings from the front of the room.
Coburn traces Jebbit’s lineage to Shaw House (home of the Shaw Leadership Program) in 2010, when he and his freshman-year roommate, Jeb Thomas ’13, decided to collaborate on a startup idea for the BCVC prize. (Students at the time could earn $10,000 for a successful project, an award that has since jumped to $20,000). BCVC is student-run and funded by donations, and it has been nurturing undergraduate startups since 2007. (The top prize last year went to Phyre, a wireless technology company formed by three computer science majors.) Under its auspices, alumni volunteers with careers in business—from venture capitalists to lawyers to entrepreneurs—are assigned each fall to mentor entrants as they refine their business plans. Alumni also serve alongside faculty members as judges in the spring.
Coburn and Thomas’s first few ideas fell flat, but they regrouped in their sophomore year after Thomas began taking a marketing class that had him spend $200 in Google AdWords to help a local business drive traffic to its website. The goal of the assignment was to introduce students to Google’s signature cost-per-click advertising platform: the formidable technology that accounted for more than 95 percent of the company’s $50 billion-plus in revenues in 2012. Businesses that are clever about the word cues they submit to make their ads appear can reap hefty financial rewards of their own. Coburn and Thomas’s new plan was to help local businesses use AdWords to build brand awareness and traffic on their websites. But the pair quickly realized online advertising’s major pitfall: Even when consumers click on an ad and trigger a cost to the advertiser, more than 50 percent of them rapidly leave—or bounce from—the advertiser’s website. “We were like ‘How can that be acceptable? How can companies spend millions of dollars on this when half of the people are literally leaving?'” Coburn says.
Coburn explains how he was wrestling with this fact one afternoon as he sat in Logan Airport in the spring of 2011 waiting to board the plane to a Boston College golf club tournament (he cites that moment as the point where his golf game began its rapid decline). “I was watching a TV show online, and a 30-second pre-roll ad”—a commercial preceding the content—”came up, so I opened a new browser tab and was checking my email while the ad played.” He realized that the advertiser had wasted its money because he wasn’t listening or paying attention to its message at all. Coburn says he wondered, “How could we guarantee a brand that a consumer has actually learned its message?” That’s when Jebbit’s core idea came to him: charging advertisers a “cost-per-correct-answer” fee instead of a cost per click.
He outlined a business plan on the flight, and in the next few weeks he and Thomas recruited a few friends to put together a BCVC proposal for a business they dubbed “Add It Up.” They would create an online platform that guarantees to a brand that consumers have engaged with its content and understood the brand’s message. To do this, they would draw consumers to a website that would take them through several pages of the brand’s campaign. A quiz layer would appear across the top of the site, asking questions about the company’s message: A restaurant might ask visitors who logged onto the site to identify items on its menu, or confirm its hours of service, or recite the charge for delivery. Every time a user answered correctly, he or she would earn cash—say, 10 or 25 cents per question—that they could accumulate on the site and then deposit to an online bank account. Users who “liked” a company’s Facebook page or provided their email address could earn more money, all of which they could cash out in full or exchange for discounts on the company’s offerings. Consumers would be able to log onto the startup’s website via Facebook, and each campaign could be targeted based on the demographics provided in their online profile. A young women’s clothing store, for example, could choose to have only college women see its campaigns, while a Boston gym would only target its campaigns to users in the New England region. By using this site, a company would know exactly how well its message was getting through to consumers, based on how well the users answered the questions. And the company would pay for the service only when a user answered questions correctly.
The business idea was solid enough to earn Coburn and his colleagues a first-place tie in the BCVC contest that year with little more than a PowerPoint. “We had mockups of what the site would look like and how it would work, but we had no actual software,” says Coburn. But now they had funding to make it happen.
One of the judges of the BCVC competition was Dan Nova ’83, a partner at the venture firm Highland Capital. He encouraged the team to apply for a competitive spot at the Summer @ Highland startup accelerator—a boot camp that provides student entrepreneurs with office space, $18,000 in funding ($15,000 at the time), and access to top entrepreneurial advisors. Coburn and his team learned they got into the program a week after their sophomore year ended, and ditched their summer internship plans to launch headlong into the world of startups. As they tried to incorporate, they quickly found that the “Add It Up” name was already being used by a major bank, so they scrambled to find a new company moniker. Coburn’s mother, a real estate agent, came up with Jebbit, a play on the word “debit” and a nod to Jeb Thomas, Coburn’s cofounder. (Coburn’s father is a mortgage broker.) The team spent the summer working 80-hour weeks as they began to develop their website and wondered how they would maintain this schedule when classes resumed in the fall.
“We started thinking, ‘How the hell are we going to go back to school and still keep up this pace?'” Coburn tells the room. As he began debating whether he should leave school to pursue the business full-time, he sat down with Peter Bell ’86, another Highland partner. Bell asked him how the site was coming. It was about 50 percent built. He asked Coburn about the number of clients Jebbit had acquired. They had just one, a consignment store in Newton Centre, which so far had agreed to spend $200 on a campaign. Bell asked about users. Again Jebbit came up short: They had none.
“He basically told me that we weren’t quite ready to drop out of school yet,” Coburn recalls with a laugh. “But he did give us some advice, which is probably some of the best advice we’ve ever gotten: Come back to BC, find other smart, hardworking, motivated kids to join us, and build out a team. So that’s what we did. We came back, and Johnny over here”—he points to Lacoste—”was one of the first 15 kids we brought on.”
Seeking freshman interns for Jebbit, Coburn and his team obtained permission from professors of the Carroll School of Management’s two-dozen Portico classes to make a pitch to their students. (The Portico course, required of all CSOM freshmen, introduces ethical theory in tandem with the fundamentals of finance, marketing, and other business disciplines.) Lacoste, Jebbit’s current COO, was a freshman at Boston College in 2011, but had already established himself as an up-and-coming entrepreneur, having won a local business plan contest in his Cleveland hometown as a high-school senior. He’d co-designed an online app posting events likely to attract local college students.
“I have to admit I was somewhat skeptical and unaware of the jargon” the Jebbit team was using, remembers Ethan Sullivan, a Portico professor and assistant CSOM dean for undergraduate curriculum, who was the first to invite them into his classroom. “But I was incredibly impressed with their tenacity and their ability to connect with people. They created this groundswell that really hasn’t subsided.”
By the time Coburn returned to the University for his junior year, the website was nearly built. Jebbit had accrued $21,500 in funding from BCVC and their summer at Highland and several potential clients were expressing interest. Now they needed the key part: users. The team quickly went about making sure every student at Boston College knew about Jebbit’s upcoming launch. One assignment for the freshman interns was to plaster messages all over campus
promoting Jebbit. “We went all around Fulton [Hall], wrote on all the blackboards,” Lacoste says with a laugh.
Coburn and company planned to turn on their early “beta” site at 10:11 p.m. on October 11—that is, at 10:11, 10/11/11 (they figured the mnemonic device would be a nice marketing tactic). Only the first 150 users to sign on would be allowed access to the site, with a chance to earn $20 for answering questions correctly about a variety of brands. Jebbit still had only one paying client, so the team decided to put some of the remaining prize money from BCVC toward paying users and help demonstrate proof-of-concept to other interested companies. Since they didn’t yet have a way of paying users online, they stationed Lacoste and other interns around campus to physically hand out $20 bills when users finished the round of questions. They had everything in place that evening, and hoped that by midnight, they might have 150 sign-ups.
“We said midnight is a little aggressive,” Lacoste recalled. “If it closes out by the end of the next night, realistically, that’d be great.”
The site went live at 10:11 p.m., and 46 seconds later it crashed. So many students had tried to log on that they overwhelmed the site, but the team got it back up within the next two hours, and spent the evening running through campus handing out payments to the full complement of 150 students. Jebbit was no longer an idea; it was really happening. “There was a buzz on campus,” Coburn says, and Jebbit had analytics to show potential clients.
Coburn can still rattle off the precise findings from that first night: On average, users spent four minutes clicking their way through each campaign, which meant they were a captive audience for 240 precious seconds (a typical television commercial is 30 seconds long). Eighty-nine percent of users felt they were now more likely to buy products from a featured brand, and 98 percent said they learned something new about each company. “All I did was repeat those stats for the next six months,” Coburn recalls now. “Those were pretty much the numbers I used to get our next 50 clients.”
Coburn and the Jebbit team knew that they were targeting a demographic that advertisers craved: college students looking for simple ways to earn cash. They applied themselves to bringing in clients, securing 27 in five months, including early deals with Bose, Coca-Cola, and Zipcar. In the process, Coburn also reshuffled the team and brought in classmate Chase McAleese, a whiz-kid programmer who had been working on his own startup on campus (LeapTask, an online concierge service for Boston College students, now defunct). McAleese overhauled Jebbit’s website two weeks before its official launch in March of 2012 (“I hardly slept. I barely ate. I was just coding like a madman in my room,” he says now). The team decided to widen their market beyond Boston, and within weeks had students at more than 1,000 universities across the country logging in and earning money from the site. During the summer of 2012, as the company was still ramping up, Lacoste returned from an internship in China, slept on Coburn’s floor, and worked, unpaid, selling Jebbit to clients. By the end of the summer, Jeb Thomas had decided to move on from the enterprise. “The business itself was something that I just wasn’t as passionate about anymore, and I didn’t feel like I was ready to start a business,” Thomas says. “I sort of wanted to gain real world experience.” Thomas graduated from Boston College in 2013 and now works in Boston as an analyst for TM Capital, an investment bank. He maintains a partial ownership in Jebbit and a close friendship with Coburn. With Thomas out, Coburn asked Lacoste if he’d step in and become Jebbit’s COO.
Coburn, McAleese, and Lacoste all say that their grades and their social lives took some significant hits as they worked to launch Jebbit while still students—but that they found the crucible of the college environment provided them with both a support network and a safety net of sorts. At the fireside chat in September, a young woman raised a question about their Boston beginnings. “What are the advantages and disadvantages of being tightly knit in Boston?” she asked.
Coburn explained that the mentors they’ve found within the startup community in Boston have offered guidance through the roughest points—when Thomas left, for example, and the times when they’ve needed to reshuffle their team or overhaul their website. And he said that, while their ultimate goal is to be a national company—one that brands can use to target any demographic they like—it was a huge advantage for them to focus their energy on college students and build their identity first by targeting the quarter-million students in the Boston area.
John Gallaugher, associate professor of information systems and a faculty advisor to the BCVC, would agree. “We really are in this golden age of collegiate entrepreneurship,” he says: “It’s never been easier for a student to take his or her idea and to experiment with a business. We’ve got the cloud and the app store, and open-sourced software, so you can literally start a business with beer money.”
By February of 2013, Jebbit had way more than beer money—they’d raised $500,000 with the help of angel investors and the venture firm Boston Seed Capital. Coburn, McAleese, and Lacoste decided to take a leave from their studies to grow the business full time. (They worked with the University to ensure they’d be in good standing to finish their degrees later on.) A few weeks after they left college, they learned that they’d been accepted to TechStars, a prestigious startup accelerator in Boston that would provide them with $100,000 in additional financing. They were the youngest team ever to be rewarded in the international competition for a TechStars nod.
Coburn is humble about getting the TechStars spot, pointing out that they had applied the previous year and not been accepted, but observers of the tech industry say that the contest confers some serious bragging rights while giving fledgling business owners access to big players who can write big checks. “These workshops and incubator programs help startups raise money,” says Sullivan. “Very early on, they were able to learn how to talk about their brand and their product,” he says of the Jebbit team. The TechStars program was a crash course touching on much that business school teaches, which was particularly helpful, Coburn points out, as he was still a biology major when he left Boston College. (As a backup plan, he’d applied to medical school and had been accepted.)
Gallaugher says that he’s been impressed by the maturity of the Jebbit team and their ideas since he first met with Coburn for some BCVC guidance in 2009. Having cultivated access to collegiate users, “Jebbit has the holy grail of advertising,” he says. “And a consumer-facing business like this, it’s inherently viral. So getting one side of the two-sided market was no problem. The magic that they pulled off, that really shows their maturity and ability to carry themselves well, was that they were able to get top-tier advertisers.”
Coburn, McAleese, and Lacoste now serve as the company’s three chief officers: CEO, CTO, and COO, respectively. McAleese leads the (often unruly) tech team in coding and building out ad platforms. Lacoste focuses on developing relationships with advertising firms who are looking for new ways to serve their clients, and Coburn is always looking for the next brand to bring on board while working to raise funds to keep Jebbit growing. This past summer, he established Jebbit’s board of directors, naming two early mentors to the board along with himself.
David George is a board member who first began advising the team while they were at TechStars. “There’s certainly tons of ad technology around engagement, but I haven’t seen anything to date that’s taking [Jebbit’s] approach,” he says, to explain what drew him to Jebbit. The competition includes sites such as Jingit, which offers cash on behalf of brands to users who fill out surveys, and Dailybreak, which rewards users for answering quizzes about pop culture, fashion, and other topics. Jebbit is different, George suggests. “It’s pushing the consumer to actually think about the brand” and to internalize what its ads tell them.
Scott Savitz, of the venture firm Data Point Capital, has also joined the board. He offered Jebbit an additional $750,000 in funding as the team finished the TechStars program last summer, bringing the investment amassed by Jebbit to the current total of $1.8 million. “They’re very self-aware and they’ve surrounded themselves with a lot of smart people,” says Savitz of the founders. “I feel like every day they’re coming in and learning, and what’s nice about that is that they’re learning quick. They’re quick to change what’s not working and quick to expand on what’s working well. And I don’t think they know failure yet, which could be a positive in many cases,” he adds.
Every week, Jebbit’s staff of 13 gathers around the office couch for a “town meeting.” Going clockwise around the room, each employee is expected to share recent high and low points and thank the colleague who helped him or her most. Coburn believes such team-building efforts are key to a company’s success, and that’s also the reason why he’s sharing an apartment with eight other employees. Aside from the occasional ski outing or movie night, members of the team typically work at all hours and plow through 18-hour days.
In late November, the high point nearly everyone cited was “Jebbitsgiving,” turkey with trimmings prepared at the apartment for the entire staff. But despite that positive vibe, this meeting was a bit more tense than most: Coburn, McAleese, and Lacoste had presented their 2014 goals to the team a few days earlier, and the group was asking questions about exactly where Jebbit-dot-com was headed.
As Jebbit has taken off, Coburn and the team have been retooling their business strategy. In the town meeting, they discussed their decision to move beyond the college market and, perhaps more important, to shift the company away from being a destination website—one that users need to know about in advance—and toward the placement of Jebbit’s technology “throughout the web,” Coburn says. That shift took effect in January, with an announcement that Jebbit had “graduated” from its days of catering to college students. The shutdown of all campaigns on the Jebbit-dot-com site was met with some frustration from its fans, who had grown accustomed to using the site as a way to earn quick cash, but Coburn says the move reflects a larger vision for the company. Ironically, that vision means the company will now be competing in the very marketplace Jebbit was meant to subvert: amid the clamor of online banner ads. The Jebbit-enabled ads will stand out, Coburn says. Companies will promote the campaigns through their social media channels and websites, and Jebbit will entice users with the same reward system that has proven to be their differentiating factor.
Users on the old Jebbit-dot-com website answered more than 1 million questions and earned more than $100,000. Coburn and colleagues have the data to show that those users demonstrated 78 percent better memory retention of a brand’s message than individuals exposed to a typical banner ad, even months after they’d seen the campaign. As Jebbit has begun to add its cost-per-correct-answer technology to “native” websites—meaning the campaign is embedded in a brand’s site, matching its color scheme and logo design—they’ve found that brand engagement has tripled.
There’s still some uncertainty about whether this new plan will prove fruitful, particularly as nearly every company with an online presence—Google included—is trying to secure an edge in the rapidly evolving frontier of online advertising that’s now increasingly going mobile. “Saying ‘If you build it they will come’—that doesn’t happen on the Internet,” says business consultant and Jebbit advisor Jere Doyle ’87, founder of the online marketer Prospectiv (geared to female consumers). “I think they have a great foundation, but the next 18 months will be critical for them. Internet years are like dog years,” Doyle says, and “not everyone is going to build Instagram or Twitter. It’s about who can hire the right team.” The Jebbit team has been growing, and they’ve brought in some impressive—and mature —hires. Lucy McQuilken of Groove Mobile and HP is now acting as their “contract” CFO, and they’ve recently brought in Matt Belson, a 10-year marketing veteran, to help them with sales.
“We were college students, with no background in entrepreneurship or the ad tech world,” Coburn says, sounding incredulous as he looks around Jebbit’s Landmark offices. For the moment, he’s alone on the top floor, and the building’s gorgeous, arched Art Deco windows offer panoramic views of the Charles River and Fenway Park. Coburn approaches the windows that face west, and points. “See that hill over there? That tower? That’s Gasson Hall,” he says. He turns east, where the towers of Boston’s financial district glimmer in the morning sunlight.
Janelle Nanos ’02 is a senior editor at Boston Magazine. She earned an MA in journalism from New York University, was a reporter for New York Magazine, and served as an editor at National Geographic Traveler.
Read more by Janelle Nanos