Problem-solver

Chico State grad grows company with class-scheduling service

Robert Strazzarino says he owes much of his success to mentors at Chico State and Chris Friedland, founder and CEO of <a href="http://build.com/">Build.com</a>.

Robert Strazzarino says he owes much of his success to mentors at Chico State and Chris Friedland, founder and CEO of Build.com.

PHOTO BY HOWARD HARDEE

CHECK THE SCHEDULER: Students can access College Scheduler for free at www.collegescheduler.com

Last time the CN&R met with Robert Strazzarino, in 2007, he was a 22-year-old Chico State student launching an Internet startup out of his bedroom. As a sophomore majoring in computer science, he'd written software to generate every possible class schedule based on students' personal criteria, and the service was just beginning to generate outside interest.

Strazzarino is now 30 years old and his company, College Scheduler, which employs 11 people in an office in north Chico, has become somewhat of a force in higher education. Since Chico State began paying for College Scheduler in 2005, he's sold it to about 130 universities in every corner of the country—as well as in Canada and New Zealand. Prominent clients include Ohio State University, Penn State, Arizona State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

During a recent interview, Strazzarino recalled that the idea was born of his own frustration with “going to register for the next term, looking through the offerings, and realizing pretty quickly that there are thousands of ways to take the same classes.

“If a student wants five classes that have five sections each—so, five offerings throughout the day—there are 3,000 combinations,” he continued. “Obviously, a bunch of them conflict with each other, but a human isn't going to be able to look through them all.

“I knew it was a problem for a computer to solve.”

So Strazzarino began writing software. Programming was nothing new for him—while he was in high school in Redding, he ran a small business building websites. He soon had a program that downloaded information on classes—including time of day, dates and instructors' names—from Chico State's website and sorted it into a database. Then he wrote a proof-of-concept to make sure his algorithm evaluated all possible schedules.

Strazzarino was originally excited because he'd arranged his own schedule so that he had classes only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which, as a track athlete, was helpful for working around practices. Then he started telling other students about the program and letting them use it for free. The program eventually caught the attention of Chico State's administration, and once they purchased the software, Strazzarino was sure other universities would do the same.

A pair of academic scholarships allowed him to save money that would have otherwise been spent on tuition and books, and he hit the ground running with the business once he graduated in 2006. The following year he successfully pitched the service to Sacramento State. Strazzarino would like to say the company took off from there, but selling his concept to more schools and finding the right sales team was a struggle.

“It was really slow at the beginning; it's hard to get universities to trust you when you're just a young person with basically no references,” he said. “The first 50 schools took six years and 11 months. The next 50 schools took 13 months. So, it takes an enormous amount of time to build a reputation and get institutions to trust you.”

A turning point came when Strazzarino hired Chico State graduate Haley Zitnitsky as a salesperson in 2009. “She joined when I had seven schools, and she brought on five in her first year,” he said. “She almost doubled the company by herself.”

From a business standpoint, the biggest challenge has been finding enough money to travel to trade shows where administrators from various universities gather. That's the most effective method of selling the product, Strazzarino said, “because cold-calling is just annoying.” But it's certainly expensive—sponsoring a one-hour presentation at some conferences can cost up to $7,000.

So, what's next? Though Strazzarino couldn't mention many specifics, College Scheduler is involved in the development of a new product designed to help students graduate college quicker.

“We're focused on getting students into the right classes and helping administration figure out how many classes they need to offer to get students through,” he said. “This new product is going to help students stay on track.”

Strazzarino also wants to help students get on an entrepreneurial path. He frequently speaks at Chico State and encourages students to run with their business ideas.

“College is the perfect time,” he said. “It's very low-risk when you're a student; it's not like you're going to lose a bunch of money. Typically, you don't have any. So, I encourage students to just go for it.”