Northwestern University senior Ben Weiss puzzled over the wasted time, money and resources spent in the competitive world of college football recruiting even before he arrived on campus.
Today Zcruit, the software company that Weiss founded to overcome the repeated inefficiencies and heartbreaks of a system in need of a major reboot, is creating a buzz in Chicago’s student startup sector.
Beta-tested by Northwestern football since 2015, the program has predicted whether a Northwestern player would commit to the football team with 94 percent accuracy, Weiss said.
“The majority of recruiting time is wasted chasing the wrong guys,” Weiss said. “This helps narrow down the approach so they are recruiting the right people.”
Zcruit uses data from four major recruiting platforms and a customized algorithm to help schools identify and recruit a top-notch player who fits a school’s unique needs and is likely to commit.
If a player has a low Z-score, for example, coaches may consider moving on to the next best candidate sooner rather than later, since recruits are statistically more likely go with earlier offers.
Zcruit has been a runner-up in a number of student startup competitions for venture capital, and, most recently, Weiss was one of 18 semifinalists and the only Northwestern student competing in the Future Founders U.Pitch.
The work that the Zcruit team did at The Wildfire Accelerator at The Garage last summer made all the difference, Weiss said. The team received $10,000 in seed funding, and The Garage staff helped move the product from an idea to a reality.
An economics major who is studying learning and organization change in the School of Education and Social Policy, Weiss doesn’t see himself as a natural entrepreneur. In fact, he has already accepted a job as a human capital consultant after graduation but was able to defer the start date to keep working on Zcruit.
“Recruiting coaches can get emotionally involved and believe a prospect is coming to their school,” said Chris Bowers, director of player personnel for Northwestern football. “Ben said, ‘how do we make it so it’s not a gut thing or someone’s insight?’ I think that’s pretty powerful.”
Bowers offered Weiss a job in the recruiting department as a freshman after he read an article the young entrepreneur wrote analyzing the impact of Northwestern’s small size on its football recruiting rankings.
Weiss spent two years observing Northwestern’s foot recruiting process. But it wasn’t until he studied the economics of college admissions that the lightbulb went off.
In the class taught by Northwestern President Morton Schapiro, Weiss learned about how regression-based algorithms are used to assess how likely it is that a student will end up at that school. “I thought, why not use that model for football recruiting?’” Weiss said.
Bowers credited Weiss with leveraging his relationships with the recruiting office to reach out to other schools that might be interested in the tool. “It was a pretty wise move,” Bowers said. “Zcruit is useful, and I think it will make it to market. There’s a lot of technology in football and recruiting, but no one is doing predictive analytics to determine the odds of where you’re going to school.”
In at least one case, Zcruit helped encourage Northwestern recruiters to pursue a player, according to Bowers. “I literally asked Ben, ‘do we have a chance with (a current junior?)’ Bowers said. “Zcruit said yes, but the numbers will decrease as he gets more offers and the pool grows.’ I think it gave us the confidence to push, knowing we weren’t spinning our wheels and wasting time on a person we had no chance to get.”
Weiss knows that it takes a village to create a startup and credits his teambuilding and organization skills to Zcruit’s success. Lacking experience with coding and statistics, he enlisted the help of a friend and fraternity brother, Danny Baker, who created a customizable algorithm that considers a variety of factors that could influence how likely a player is to commit to that school.
“It was a collaborative process,” said Baker, who is finishing his senior thesis in mathematical methods and social sciences. “I didn’t know much about college football recruiting and would bounce ideas off Ben. Once I got more information, I built an algorithm that quantified the factors behind a player’s recruiting decision.”
Weiss then brought in two software developers, Northwestern students Dino Mujkic and Gautier Dagan, to round out the team.
Zcruit launched in April of 2015, and Northwestern football started testing it three months later. In addition to Northwestern, two other universities are also testing Zcruit, one of few student-run software companies that operates out of Northwestern. It’s also unique among undergraduate startups because it’s not a product aimed at college students; it’s business to business.
“Ben is a great example of someone with an entrepreneurial idea where the passion really drove the product,” said the Wildcats’ Bowers. “He has a lot of great passion and energy and saw a need. And he has the guts to see if it will work.”
Learn more about undergraduate programs in Northwestern University's School of Education and Social Policy.