ScholarshipExperts.com banks on for-pay strategy

ScholarshipExperts.com banks on for-pay strategy

You get what you pay for. That’s the feeling of Ali Azhar, president and co-founder of ScholarshipExperts.com (www.scholarshipexperts.com, Orange Park, FL). Azhar is bucking against the tide by charging a fee for his online scholarship search service — FastWeb and Scholarships.com are both free services. Azhar feels that once customers know how effective his site is, they won’t mind ponying up the $30 basic fee for a list of all the relevant scholarships available to a student. “Ninety-five percent of people who use other services and then come to us feel we offer more value,” Azhar notes.

Azhar notes that students pay no money until ScholarshipExperts demonstrates its worth by spitting out a customized list of applicable scholarships. If the customer believes the amount of scholarship money is worth it, he or she must then pay a fee to get hold of the list. Costs for the service begin at $29.95 for national and state scholarship searches; $20 more will give information about local and institutional awards. An international membership costs $99.95. The award database currently houses over 2.2 million scholarships for high school students, undergraduates and graduate students, worth over $13 billion.

Database Differentiation

Azhar explains that customers are getting something truly unique with ScholarshipExperts — namely a database of scholarships that has been completely compiled by the company without the use of any outside or bought lists, and then matched directly to a student’s profile. The ScholarshipExperts database is updated and revised on a daily basis, and Azhar believes this makes his list more credible than more generic lists. Azhar argues that information suppliers who buy outside lists often supply customers with outdated and questionable scholarship data.

What’s more, Azhar thinks a big differentiator between his company and others is that he absolutely will not sell his list of customers — meaning customers will not be getting spammed or solicited by ‘partners’. He thinks parents of high schoolers are particularly interested in this feature.

“Our service is the one people are most critical of,” Azhar frets, “but we really have the best interests of the student at the heart of our strategy.”

Free for All?

Best interests or not, how will the for-pay model play in Peoria? There are some 700,000 scholarships waiting to be claimed out there, and lots of places to find out about them. Azhar admits it’s a challenge to convince guidance counselors and others that drive the process that his way is superior. He thinks that as privacy issues continue to grow, however, more families will see the importance of securing sensitive information about students.

Besides, the company has some heavy hitters in its corner. ScholarshipExperts is endorsed by Sallie Mae and the Wiredscholar website, and it’s also associated with Kaplan, Inc., powering Kaplan’s Scholarship Search Tool. Azhar notes that much of his traffic — about 50 percent — comes through his affiliations, including heavy-hitter Kaplan. ScholarshipExperts is also in “the latter stage of negotiations” with an unnamed Internet search company that would give major exposure to the company.

Azhar believes that between Kaplan and this potential deal, ScholarshipExperts will increasingly be known as a premiere scholarship search service. That’s impressive for a company that was founded on a friends and family round of $150,000, and an additional angel round of $250,000, and runs pretty lean at just eight employees.

Future Vision

While Azhar expects to ‘stick to his knitting’ and concentrate on winning over ‘for-pay’ skeptics for the present, he has some big ideas about the future. Most scholarships average about $2,000, and can come from everyone from a local car dealership to the VFW post down the road. One concept that has him particularly fired up is streamlining the application process for organizations, while simplifying the process for applicants.

Azhar is playing around with a Beta model of a universal application that he hopes would become an industry standard. Azhar thinks the industry could be revolutionized in the same way that the college application process was reinvented by the advent of online applications. It’s a daunting task, but Azhar doesn’t seem to mind swimming against the tide.

Whether it’s a ‘for-pay’ business strategy or revamping the outdated scholarship application process, Azhar thinks common sense will ultimately bring people around. “You know, it’s free to cut your hair yourself,” Azhar laughs, referring to his unique strategy. “But that doesn’t mean you’re going to get a very good haircut.”

Company Snapshot:

Company Name: Group 77, Inc. d/b/a ScholarshipExperts.com

Headquarters: Orange Park & Jacksonville, FL

Employees: 8

President/Co-Founder: All Azhar

Primary Business: Online scholarship search service

Financials: Not available

Contact: All Azhar, 904-739-9068, ali@scholarshipexperts.com

COPYRIGHT 2002 Nelson B. Heller & Associates

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group