Scholastic Matchmakers: The Easiest Fund Raiser Of All Time

Part 4

Victims of our Own Success

The response to our 1994 mailing was massive. Hundreds of schools contacted us for information, and nearly 200 of them decided to use our service -- 10 times our previous year's sales! By November, Josh and I were doing nothing but trying to keep our business running.

Josh was responsible for all the marketing and customer service. We advertised 24-hour customer service on our 1-800 number, which was still ringing in Josh's bedroom. Customers called every hour of the day and night from all over the country, asking about their orders or inquiring about our service. (Josh's girlfriend was not especially happy about this.) Any time that Josh wasn't answering the phone, he was constantly making calls, trying to find a decision-maker at a school and pitching our service to them. He is a master salesman: once he was able to get in touch with the right person, his sales rate was almost 100%. Josh also became best friends with his spreadsheet, constantly calculating our exact margins based on the cost of all our raw materials and other expenses.

Meanwhile, I was working behind the scenes, responsible for all of the actual processing of the surveys that the schools were sending to us. This included developing the computer software, doing maintenance on our hardware, pushing all of the completed surveys through our ScanTron machine, printing the Compatibility Lists, boxing and shipping the results, and buying raw materials such as our custom stationery.

Starting in December of 1994, just as the final exams for my Fall semester at Hopkins were ending, the huge wave of hundreds of thousands of completed surveys started to arrive at the door to my college dorm room. 18 hours a day, I did nothing but push surveys through the ScanTron machine while desperately trying to keep our laser printer running and making 80-mile-per-hour runs to the FedEx office to ship completed Compatibility Lists. (I got to know FedEx very well that year. I saw them three times a day: they dropped off completed surveys in the afternoon, they picked up my Compatibility Lists in the evening for shipping, and I went to their offices to make additional shipments at night just before they closed.)

I worked continuously throughout the Christmas vacation and continued well into the spring semester. The work was overwhelming and, at the time, did not feel gratifying. I slept rarely and ate erratically. Since most of my friends had left Hopkins already, I didn't have much of a social life, either -- just work, work, work. It was terrible. The only human I saw regularly was John, the friendly neighborhood FedEx driver. Josh and I simply were not prepared for this enormous volume.

After four weeks of not going to my Spring semester classes, I knew I had to take the semester off. There was no way I could possibly hope to pull off a successful semester after missing four weeks worth of lectures and exams. I applied for a 1-semester leave of absence, which was granted.

Taking the semester off of school did reduce my stress somewhat (at least I didn't have to worry about failing all my classes!), but the Scholastic Matchmakers workload grew ever greater as Valentine's Day 1995 approached. It reached a fever pitch by the beginning of February. Day in, day out, I was doing nothing whatsoever except the continuous, incredibly grueling, and depressing work of processing all the schools' surveys within the promised deadlines.

The climax of all this work was the weekend leading up to Valentine's Day. A lot of schools wanted to be able to sell their Compatibility Lists on Valentine's Day itself, which fell on a Tuesday that year. This meant we had to overnight-ship everything by Monday night, making the weekend a D-Day of sorts. For months, we'd anticipated that I would have a lot of work to do that weekend. Naturally, when 5PM of that Friday came -- just as the shadows were growing long in my 33rd St. apartment in Baltimore, and every ScanTron technical support center on the east coast was closing -- our expensive, fancy ScanTron machine broke down. I spent the next 24 hours frantically trying to disassemble it and learn how it worked well enough to fix it, which I was finally able to do with $0.18 worth of hardware from a local shop. This earned me the permanent title of "Master of All Things Mechanical" from Josh. And everything was shipped out on schedule.

Finally, as the cold, heartless days of February gave way to a kinder, gentler March, the tension started to let up. Most of the Scholastic Matchmakers processing was finished. Josh was busy collecting money from schools, and I went to sleep for about a month.

Next: Building a Better Mousetrap

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Last updated: 3 May 1999