Matt Wilkerson, CEO and Co-Founder of Paragon One, wants to help college students and recent graduates land jobs—not just jobs they’ll tolerate, but jobs that will lead them down a promising career path. He’s driven to do this because he knows what it's like to suffer defeat on the job hunt. After graduating from MIT, he hoped to land a position in investment banking, but he found himself facing rejection after rejection.
“I was actually getting rejected from every investment bank because I didn't have a background in finance,” he said. “They didn't really believe me that I was truly interested and passionate about this.”
After having such little luck, he decided to network with an MIT alum before heading off to an interview at Morgan Stanley. It was a smart move.
“That was actually a huge help toward getting me through the interview process.”
Paragon One strives to do something similar. It’s a platform that helps students and recent graduates land jobs by connecting them with advisors who guide them through the job hunting process. Nearly all users—97%—have successfully landed jobs or internship offers, and the company experienced 240% annual growth from 2016 to 2017. The team is led by MIT-trained serial entrepreneurs who have sold three businesses. An alum of Y Combinator, Paragon One has received multiple investments from VCs, including Learn Capital, University Ventures, and Foundation Capital.
I was actually getting rejected from every investment bank because I didn't have a background in finance.
“It’s a guided learning plan that helps students pick a career direction, and then walks them through steps to help them land a job,” Wilkerson said. “These steps include interview preparation, resume feedback, cover letter guidance, and guidance with picking a career trajectory. Students are paired up with advisors who walk them through this process.”
The Aha! moment
The actual concept for Paragon One might never have been conceived if Wilkerson hadn’t come down with an acute case of tendonitis while working as a junior financial analyst in that first job out of college. He typed all day, every day, until he literally couldn’t type anymore.
“In investment banking you're sort of chained to your desk,” Wilkerson said. “You're working 80 to 90 hour work weeks. You never leave, and everything always seems urgent. So you’re stressed out, and you don't have a good ergonomic setup. It's just a recipe for putting strain on your body.”
The tendonitis was so bad that even after visiting multiple doctors and some physical therapists, he had to take time off from work.
“I developed tendonitis from my hands and all the way up to my elbows, and into my shoulders,” he said. “The last day before I took time off, I was literally typing with one hand, it was that crazy. I thought ‘Well crap—my career is over. Who's going to want to hire me as a junior analyst?’ If you can't type as an analyst, you're kind of useless.”
Lucky for him, the VP in his department needed him to coach a group of summer interns—or summer analysts, a job that didn’t require any typing, These interns usually had no one around to teach them the ropes, and they'd struggle all summer as a result. With Wilkerson sitting behind them them every day, he taught them how to do their jobs better, and they excelled. By the end of the summer, every single intern had been hired full-time at the company, which was a rare occurrence.
Because they had someone sitting by coaching them the whole time, they developed expertise.
“In this case, because they had someone sitting by coaching them the whole time, they developed expertise,” Wilkerson said. “So they were actually quite competitive in the selection process. So I did the same thing with the first year analysts, and basically they just improved in their capabilities so much that it was just clear the impact of the coaching could have. So that that experience kind of sat with me as I moved forward.”
Between struggling to get a job out of college and this experience coaching summer interns, Wilkerson realized the power a career coaching system could have.
“Most universities and colleges have very poor Career Service Centers, and they don't really do a great job bringing the alumni network in to help students transition into jobs. So students are just kind of left to figure this stuff out on their own.”
His ultimate mission
Wilkerson sees Paragon One as a new kind of LinkedIn, one that especially helps those who are new to the workforce.
“LinkedIn is a great tool for people who are already established, in that it’s highly correlated with the amount of content on your profile, and you want to show it off. But most students or recent graduates don't have much to put on their LinkedIn profile, and they’re sort of embarrassed by it. So they don't use LinkedIn very much, and no one kind of teaches them how to optimize their story.”
Though Paragon One now caters to college students and recent graduates, Wilkerson hopes to one day use it to help those who have been in the workforce for some time.
“Today we're working with college students and recent graduates, but in five years, I think that will have migrated to people who have been out of college maybe 10 years, people who might be thinking of switching their career, he said. “And then after another five years, maybe we can look at people who have been out of college 20 years.”
But most students or recent graduates don't have much to put on their LinkedIn profile, and they’re sort of embarrassed by it.
In addition to the standard Paragon One service, Wilkerson and his team are piloting a program where they allow a student or recent graduate to go through the Paragon One career-mapper for no cost up front. Once the student lands a job, they end up paying 5% of their salary back to the company. If the salary is below a certain level, they’re not required to pay anything back at all.
After landing a job, the student pays the same 5% of their salary for the next five years. After the five years are up, they no longer have to pay anything, even if they never paid off the cost of the tuition. The program is called the Income Sharing Arrangement, or ISA fellowship.
“It’s for students who show a lot of grit and determination,” Wilkerson said. “After five years, they're done. So it's not debt like a student loan. It won’t go on their balance sheet. If a student says, "Look, I thought I was going to do investment banking, but now I've decided that I'm going to try and become an actor," they can do that. They're not obliged to take a certain job.”
Paragon One also caters to international students, and has partnerships in China.
“We partner with schools and agencies in China, who have international students who are coming to the US, and we help them with their internship and job search in the US given it's quite daunting to come to a new country to go to school, but also to try and see if you get an internship or work experience.”
What sets Paragon One apart from the pack
There’s certainly competition in the career-guidance marketplace that Wilkerson has to contend with. But to him, Paragon One’s advantage is that it’s the only career-guidance tool that takes students through a multistep process toward finding a job.
“There are a lot of projects out there tackling this from different angles, but we’re reinventing this category, which we’re calling career mapping. The difference is that the career mapper is about guidance, from start to finish, and no one’s doing it. Other companies aren’t trying to provide a guided process to getting a job offer.”
The proof of Paragon One’s edge is demonstrated through its success rates.
“We have a 97% success rate with students getting jobs or internships, who work with us for at least three months. And none of the other companies out there in these different categories measure student outcomes. And that's our number one metric.”
I think as we continue to build this community, as students graduate they can kind of carry the torch along the way and keep growing the community.
Paragon One is also also building a network and community of advisors for students to work with. As more students use the service, Wilkerson anticipates the advisor pool increasing, with former students returning to the community to serve as advisors.
“I think as we continue to build this community, as students graduate they can kind of carry the torch along the way and keep growing the community. That's that's how we see it taking place. You'll have people that are students, using Paragon One to make a career transition, and then they'll step into the role of advisor. That's how we see the community growing.”
“We're forming this community of students, young professionals, creating these micro-communities that surround the students. These micro-communities are advisors, or maybe recently graduated students who used to be Paragon One students, who are helping younger students move forward in selecting the right career, getting ready for the right job, and bringing them into the workforce.”
Why he chose to raise on Republic
After Wilkerson took Paragon One to Y Combinator, an angel investor in his company suggested he raise on Republic. At the time, it sounded like a big effort, so he passed. Not long after, he learned that a second season of Meet the Drapers would air in other countries, and he decided to pursue it given the large interest international students had in Paragon One.
“Meet the Drapers was going to be aired this network called Sony Entertainment TV, which is the NBC of India, and we have a decent number of Indian international students,” Wilkerson said. “We thought we could get more exposure in the Indian and and South Asian markets through them.”
From there, Wilkerson realized that raising on Republic would prove to be really great PR for Paragon One, and that it could activate its network and bring in new interested students.
How he’s making it happen
Wilkerson says the single most important thing that’s helped him become an entrepreneur has been his network from MIT. Prior to founding Paragon One, he founded AHALife, a fashion-based e-commerce platform with an MIT alum.
“The people I met in college were people that became my co-founders of both companies. That’s the number one thing that sets you up to become an entrepreneur. Everything else you have to do by learning, trial by fire,” he said. “Many people I met in college were early angel investors in Paragon One. So I can say that the biggest thing that prepared me for entrepreneurship was having a strong network coming out of college. And I continue to build that network and continue to invest it in years after graduating college.”
His Co-Founder, Byron Hsu, has always been an entrepreneur. He and Wilkerson have known each other for 15 years.
“We studied engineering together at MIT, and Byron became an entrepreneur because he just didn’t find a job that fit him in college. He basically brings a combination of both technical and operational expertise. So, he’s sort of a combination of both CTO and COO.”
In addition to Byron, Wilkerson has an engineer who previously worked for recruiting companies, including iRecruit in Australia. He also has a VP of business development, and a Director of Career Education, Alice Shen. Shen worked as a career advisor at Columbia where she ran a leadership program. At Paragon One, she oversees all of the career coaching. Paragon One actually has their own coach, Justin Mulatto.
It takes a certain amount of naiveté to become an entrepreneur.
Right now, Wilkerson is intentionally keeping the team small, instead of expanding it.
“We’re all feeling a stretch, but we’re not going to try and get ahead of ourselves.”
Alongside a solid network and team, Wilkerson says you need one other key quality to succeed at entrepreneurship.
“It takes a certain amount of naiveté to become an entrepreneur,” he said, “because if you knew about all the things that you're going up against and you could comprehend all of that, it would probably deter a lot of people.”
Wilkerson admits that Paragon One is a challenge, simply because the problem their solving is so complex. To him, the daunting task actually makes it a very viable investment opportunity.
“This is something that has a big impact—it's changing people's lives. And when you're changing people's lives, the solution will often completely reshape an industry. That’s what we’re looking to do,” he said. “We're looking to completely reshape how Career Services career advisory outside the college campus. The fact that it’s such a difficult problem to solve, I think is a bonus. You don’t want to be investing in something that’s solving small, trivial problems.”