Edwin van Rest of StudyPortals shares his entrepreneurial journey

Edwin van Rest, founder, StudyPortals

Edwin van Rest is the founder of StudyPortals – the international Study Choice Platform – helping students worldwide to find and compare the fast-growing international education opportunities. Edwin has always been a true believer in the value of international experience: while studying a Master’s in Industrial Engineering and Management Science at the Eindhoven University of Technology he spent a year at Osaka University. He did internships at the Olympic Games: both in Athens and in Turin. Furthermore he was very active in the world of international study associations – where StudyPortals’ foundations lie. Edwin’s expertise mainly lies in understanding student orientation needs, online technology and result-based recruitment for HEIs. StudyPortals has brought innovation to university promotion by offering an online, result based and cost-effective solution for universities to present themselves worldwide. Over 1,300 universities from 43 countries participate and StudyPortals was awarded the most promising social start-up in the Netherlands 2009. Edwin was granted the EAIE ‘Rising Star’ award in 2013, for his notable contribution to international higher education despite his only short career to date.

Rahul- Tell us about the key services your organization provides? How would you describe your target customer and the unmet needs you are serving?

Edwin- Our first priority is to help students get an overview of their education options internationally, and compare them on the basis of structured, comprehensive information on each programme and institute. We have by far the most information on on-campus education offers in Europe and online studies worldwide – this works: we have almost 3 million student visits per month. Secondly, we help higher education institutions promote their offer worldwide, through one channel, with a focus on results, reaching a better time and cost effectiveness than alternative channels and transparent. This works too: over 1,300 universities participate in our platform from 42 countries.

Rahul- How did the business idea originate? What was the turning point that made you take the plunge?

Edwin- When I came back from my studies in Japan I was full of great stories, many of my friends said ‘I wish that I had known about those opportunities’. At the same time, the Bachelor/Master (Bologna) system was introduced in continental Europe, resulting in a new decision moment for students if and where to study their master’s, and tens of thousands new Master’s programmes being offered all over Europe. We were frustrated as there was no way to find and compare all those programmes. We were active in an international study association’s committee on study-choice information ad expected the EU or a big publishing company to fill this gap but as nothing happened, we decided to fill it ourselves, focused to solve our own problem: MastersPortal.eu was born! At the same time I was working at my University’s international office, in marketing to international students as the tuition fee had just been increased 8 fold for non-EU students. I found that we had to use expensive and labour-intensive marketing tools of which the effects were either low or not measurable.

Rahul- What were couple of key hurdles in building the organization? How did you overcome them?

Edwin- We need the institutes to participate with us to provide a good overview to students. There are a lot of ‘advertising options’ out there contacting universities and it’s difficult for them to determine the value of each. In the beginning we first focused on Europe’s top 100 universities, after 1 year of passionate convincing, trying to make them see the student problem, we had 70 universities that participated. We then reached critical mass with many student visitors and also received the support of the European Commission. From that moment on we started to receive registration requests from new universities on a weekly basis.

Rahul- How do you see your organization evolving next three-five years in the context of customer and sector trends?

Edwin- We currently have a team of 42 people and we project this will be 100 people in three years’ time. For our student community we will make study choice more interactive with information sharing, more user-based content, chat and webinars. Also we are constantly expanding our information, as our ultimate dream is to make education choice transparent, worldwide. In that context, we are now rapidly expanding our DistanceLearningPortal. This is a tailored platform to help people who are considering to study an online programme. We developed the platform recently and grows very fast, here we first started to cover the whole world of options. We are now in a project with ICDE and UNESCO to publish on the world developments in both the offer as the student interest in distance learning. For universities we will expand on our marketing to reach even more students. We will dedicate most of our cooperation time to help tracking and calculating the success of (all) their marketing activities, really helping universities to reach their objectives.

Rahul- Based on your experiences, what are two lessons you would give to aspiring entrepreneurs in the field of international education?

Edwin- Focus on value rather than money. The whole HE ‘industry’ is and should be focused on providing a greater good to students and society. Only a small part of that value flows back to the industry. If you focus on the long-term value you create in making our world a little better, it’s a greatly rewarding environment to work in. Of course you need profit at some point to be sustainable, but if you focus on the monetary gains, you will become unhappy and probably fail. Something I learnt in Japan: improve your product, your team and yourself continuously. I believe we managed to make such a popular platform because we were the target audience ourselves and knew exactly what we needed. We are in continuous touch with our visitors and our clients and highly appreciate their feedback. We launch an improved release of our websites every Wednesday.