By Mike Carlson
Illustration by Chris Gash
By his estimate, Eric Koester was batting a lowly .007 in the fall of 2016. The adjunct professor and Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business had been teaching a class titled Launching the Venture for the past three years but had begun to feel like he was experiencing his own failure to launch.
“Students would come through and then disappear out the other side,” he says. “I wasn’t encouraging many of them to become entrepreneurs — maybe one or two out of 300 a year. I asked myself, ‘What can I do that might help these students land their dream jobs?’”
Koester was searching for a game-changer. He resigned himself to the idea that this would be his last semester teaching and mentally set aside both faculty expectations and the fear of scathing student reviews. Koester picked the brain of friend and fellow entrepreneur Shane Mac, co-founder of Assist. They considered and rejected project-based YouTube videos, podcasts, and websites. In looking over their own professional lives, they found a common element: Both had published books when they were in their 20s. Although neither sold particularly well, the books had what Koester describes as an “outsized” effect on their careers.
“We realized that when you look at successful people, they are creating meaningful pieces of work that last,” he says. “It is not just tweeting or doing something ephemeral. It is doing something much more in depth. We want to do something that has a physical nature and stands out in a world that is gonzo digital.”
Koester decided that students enrolled in Launching the Venture would write and publish their own 200-page, paper books. Thus, Signal Class was born.
Generating a Signal
The name Signal Class comes from the work of Michael Spence, an economist who received the Nobel Prize for economics in 2001 for his theory, job market signaling, which postulates that a degree from a reputable school is a signal to potential employers that the applicant has formidable abilities.
For Koester, it was about finding a way to give each student a bigger signal in the hope of standing out amid the competitive landscape. His working concept: The depth of knowledge required to write a book would amplify a student’s signal in a unique way, attracting a dream employer or altering their entrepreneurial journey onto a path they never knew existed.
First, he had to sell the idea to the students, who showed up to class expecting the regular Launching the Venture syllabus.
The reaction among the class was mixed. William McDonald (B’18), a self-professed “math and science guy,” was cautiously optimistic. Shiv Jhangiani (B’19) reached for his phone to double-check the add/drop date for the class. Jaclyn DiGregorio (B’17) was utterly disappointed. She had enrolled in the class with plans for her own startup business and product.
“I was hoping the class would be something like generating an idea and then marketing a product,” she says. “I couldn’t understand the connection between writing a book and launching a startup.”
Twenty students were in the classroom for that first meeting. Despite their trepidation, and Koester’s fear that no one would show up for the second class, no one dropped. By the next week, the class — open to students across the university — had grown to 35 participants. Something about this challenge appealed to Georgetown students.
The Venn Diagram of Authorship
For students in Signal Class to succeed, they needed to recognize that the class was not a symposium on how to write a book in three months. Rather, the book would be a tool to help students understand what they love, develop depth in that subject, and then demonstrate that depth publicly.
But business students often have a strong pragmatic streak. With their eyes firmly set on the job market ahead, marketing majors came to him with boilerplate ideas such as “using social media for small businesses.” Koester knew those who chose safe topics would not only struggle with motivation, but they would ultimately miss out on unseen opportunities.
“The biggest thing I learned is that you can find niches when you combine two interests together,” says Koester. “The Venn diagram is where the most interesting stuff lives. When you combine two things together — like Steve Jobs did when he combined music and the phone and got the iPhone — that is where some interesting things live. I think you can find ways to combine things and become an expert in a space you did not know existed.”
Jhangiani may have had doubts about the class at first, but he proved the ultimate example of this Venn diagram at work. He knew that soccer, in some form, would be the basis of his book. A former elite player and one of the first Indian youths to be accepted to the training academy of a European club, he had his competitive career cut short by a cataclysmic knee injury.
Two passions had been with him throughout most of his formative years: soccer and his Indian heritage. So he decided to focus on the untapped potential market for soccer in India, and his idea became the book 1.3 Billion: A Footballing Revolution in the Making. He always knew he would enter the soccer industry in some fashion, most likely after spending five or six years in banking or finance. However, he recently turned down a banking internship to work for a multinational company that is exploring different ways to expand into India. The company found him because of his book.
“I am going to be staying in sports, which is a huge decision,” he says. “I think that without the book, I would have taken a much safer route.”
Adrian Abrams (C’18) and DiGregorio both had startup businesses in mind when they began Signal Class. However, through the exploration of the class, their books transformed into something more autobiographical, once again combining business interests with personal passion.
A health and nutrition advocate who has conquered disordered eating and yo-yo dieting, DiGregorio wrote The CUSP Method, her personalized approach to living a healthy lifestyle that is aimed at college-age women. The book has allowed her to fulfill twin passions of helping young women take control of their health while starting her own business.
“CUSP helped me realize how I would articulate my passion into a business, how I would find a market for it, and how I would target that market,” says DiGregorio, who recently raised $20,000 through Kickstarter to fund a CUSP It app. “It has shaped my journey incredibly. My company is growing quickly. My Instagram went from a couple hundred followers to over 1,000 in a couple months, all college girls in sororities across the country.”
Abrams used his personal experiences as a first-generation, lower-income college student and an interest in academic counseling to write A.T.T.E.N.D.: A Hustler’s Guide To Hacking College. He initially shied away from including too many intimate details about his life, wary of falling into cliché or fodder for people who like to romanticize trauma. But Koester encouraged him to share deeply with the readers. The book has since become a best-seller in two Amazon categories, Parent Participation and Education, and Education, Aims, and Objectives.
“This book has me on a different path than what I intended,” Abrams says. “My initial goal was to position the book and have that be my way to enter the field of academics and allow that to fuel my startup idea. I have put the startup idea on the back burner to pursue some things that I did not know were out there, such as positioning myself as an independent consultant or launching a speaking tour.”
The Journey to Depth
“The real thing that you want people to have is a voice, not a brand. And you can’t have a voice if you don’t have depth,” says Koester. “That is the secret of Signal Class: You can influence your outcome, but you can’t do that by having an active Twitter account. You can do that by influencing people who matter to you, demonstrating your depth of knowledge and what you care about. That is the secret in our new world.”
William McDonald didn’t even have his book, Vested! The Millennial’s Guide to the Next Generation of Investing, halfway completed when he was able to leverage his newfound depth into opportunity. The finance and management major and member of the Entrepreneurship Fellows Program had brainstormed ideas about a bipartisan news aggregation service and on-demand experiences for adventure sports enthusiasts before settling on the topic of peer-to-peer lending and equity crowdfunding.
“My first email was to Dan Macklin, the co-founder of SoFi, which is now valued in the billions of dollars in the student refinancing marketplace,” says McDonald. “I remember thinking how cool it would be to get him on the phone. This guy is a pioneer, one of the earlier successes in the peer-to-peer space. To get five minutes with him would be unbelievable. I pinged him, and he got back to me within one minute and scheduled a call within the next two days. Time after time I would get responses like that.”
A few weeks later McDonald had an interview for an internship with Lead Edge Capital, a large growth equity fund. Feeling he had made a misstep during the meeting, he offered the principal interviewer a deal: Let McDonald work as an analyst for a week, and see if he could come up with some interesting investment opportunities.
McDonald put the Signal Class playbook into action. He scoured the web for contact information of CEOs at the helm of hot startups. Most of them said they didn’t have time to speak with him, but one CEO had his cellphone number in his email signature. McDonald successfully cold-called the CEO, who then spent 20 minutes explaining his business to the Georgetown junior.
“I came back a week later and told the principal at Lead Edge Capital that I cold-called the CEO of an interesting startup in Germany on his mobile and was able to pick his brain about his business model and metrics,” says McDonald. “He said that he was impressed with the hustle and immediately sent me on the next round of interviews.”
Since then, McDonald has been offered full-time employment with Lead Edge Capital. After his book was published, he sent an email from his new place of employment to the CEO of a premier equity crowdfunding platform, a guy who had ignored his requests for a Signal Class interview. McDonald included a link to his book in the email. He received a response within an hour. It read: “Hey Will, looks like a really interesting book. Would love to connect, but I am honestly more interested in poaching you.”
“Passion is the most important part,” says Jhangiani. “If this was something I was even half as passionate about, I would have dropped out in the second week.”
For Koester’s part, he describes his role as more of a coach than a teacher. He has to know each one of his students, so when they reach out to him (which happens often and at any hour), he is able to answer their questions and guide them through their frustration. The extra effort is worth the payoff, he says.
“These kids can get hired at any job in the world because they have been coached,” he says. “That is part of the magic of this.”
Fifteen books were published after the first semester of Signal Class, 14 of which became Amazon.com best-sellers in their categories. This fall, 10 additional books are slated for publication from the most recent class. The young authors have been surprised by the outsized impact the book has had on their careers.
Does that mean more books might come from these fledgling wordsmiths?
“As I get older and I have something else that is on my mind and in my heart that I want to talk about, another book is definitely a possibility,” says Abrams. “Anytime soon? Probably not. That was a lot of writing.”