As SlideRoom celebrates its fifteenth anniversary, we caught up with its founder, Christopher Jagers, to get his reflections on SlideRoom’s prescient beginnings and its intriguing evolution.
Successful products are borne of true need plus the ability to fully recognize that need. When Chris Jagers first conceived of SlideRoom, he was driven by an uber-keen understanding of its marketplace need. His firsthand experiences as a stakeholder on both sides of the admissions equation gave him rare combined insights. He had been the student that needed a better, modern way to submit media in support of his own candidacy. Then he had become a higher ed admissions reviewer who needed to assess candidates’ media in an easier, streamlined way.
The art student’s perspective
The seminal part of Jagers’ product development journey for SlideRoom was, arguably, his experiences as a longtime art student. Growing up in Texas, he studied painting and drawing as an undergraduate at Southern Methodist University (SMU) and continued those studies at the graduate level at the University of Washington. His passion for art was steadfast, and his years of experience made him well-versed in the requirements for visual arts opportunities from jobs to contests.
Jagers was struck by the logistics of every new artistic submission he made. “As an artist, I was always applying for opportunities/jobs/contests by mailing my portfolio in the form of 35mm slides, which was very expensive,” he noted. The simple need to show his work for every new professional endeavor was an inconvenience at best. How many of his peers were not finding, or even seeking, artistic opportunities just because they didn’t have the resources to reproduce it for sharing, he wondered.
The admissions professional’s perspective
After graduation, Jagers faced the challenges of applying his artistic skills in a meaningful and lucrative way. Finding himself back in Dallas, he started teaching at his undergraduate alma mater, focusing on the intersection of art and technology in a role that he loved. “Working at a university also allowed me to be involved in the admissions process, which would turn out to be useful knowledge,” he said.
During his time as an instructor at SMU starting in 2003, Jagers became involved in the school’s admissions process. “I saw the full picture and all of the challenges from an institutional point of view,” he explained. While many of the trappings of life in the early 2000s had been brought online, admissions portfolios for arts programs were stuck in the anachronistically old paradigm of paper and film.
“I felt like everything was online except the ability to submit and review media at scale,” Jagers said. “There was a technical reason for this: accessible infrastructure for processing and storing of large amounts of media was not yet affordable or easily accessible.”
A vision that was in the clouds
Then in 2006, everything changed when Amazon released its Web Services (AWS) cloud-based tools. Suddenly individuals, companies and governments could access on-demand cloud-computing platforms and APIs on a metered-pay basis.
“Suddenly startups didn’t have to own their own data center,” Jagers advised. “They could pay as they go and virtually launch tons of processors whenever needed. This cloud infrastructure was a prerequisite, because hundreds of thousands of people all submitting large photos and videos right before a deadline requires enormous processing power, which would be prohibitively expensive to sustain all year.”
Jagers approached his employer, SMU’s Meadows School for the Arts, about implementing a system for online review of applicants’ portfolios, and they were receptive. Buoyed by the initial support, Jagers kept the pace and started digging in to collaborate with his technical co-founders on a prototype. The initial version was completed in a few months, and in January 2007 SlideRoom was officially used to receive and review portfolios for the first time by SMU’s Meadows School for the Arts.
The case for listening to customers
What happened next for SlideRoom could be a worthy business case study. “We received lots of useful feedback from SMU, and that’s how things got rolling,” Jagers advised. His customer-centric approach to refining the young SlideRoom platform proved to be a crucial choice from the start. In addition, he confides, the influence from one school to another was often what convinced programs to reconsider their clunky entrenched approaches and opened up doors. He said, “After three schools signed up for SlideRoom that first year, 30 schools joined the second year, and about 300 the following year.”
The excitement also included plenty of hard work from Jagers once it was time to promote his start-up. “I made cold calls eight hours a day,” he said. He also attended conferences which enabled him to casually connect with admissions professionals who were key influencers. Jagers marketed his product relentlessly because he knew that SlideRoom was serving a real need both for schools and students.
Committed to driving the product’s refinements by listening to the growing customer base, the evolution of SlideRoom “just got better and better,” Jagers said. “We added lots of features over time, while simultaneously improving the technology and overall design.” Customers were delighted to be heard, to know that their feedback was driving the next rev and to continue reaping even more benefits.
Greater automation over time enabled the SlideRoom team to scale while keeping their product development circle more intimate and nimble. “I think we revamped the entire system four times while I was there,” Jagers said, “which was a real pleasure because we could focus on the craftsmanship of the product.”
Maker portfolios for holistic review
In 2015, Jagers’ wanderlust brought him Cambridge, Massachusetts, to work more closely with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a longtime SlideRoom customer.
MIT’s admissions department was leading the charge with its concept of supplemental “non-arts” maker portfolios. The school believed in the power of additional admissions insights that included students’ soft skills, which could be gleaned by the assessment of their learning artifacts.
Jagers, a big believer in this holistic admissions approach, described MIT’s application of the platform as one of his favorites. “I really enjoyed seeing MIT’s maker portfolio because they received so many innovative and cross-disciplinary projects presented across every format: interactive 3d models, apps, code, video, et cetera. It is always nice to see SlideRoom fully utilized.”
Elaborating on his views of holistic review and admissions, Jagers said, “While I understand the efficiency (and necessity) of standardization via a traditional admissions application, that’s just a baseline. Seeing the whole person is something I think most people support conceptually. The challenge has always been practicality. A portfolio of creative work, I believe, provides a very quick understanding of a person’s ability and level of sophistication. You can learn so much about an applicant with just a glance, and it also allows room for recognizing different types of achievement. I can’t think of a more efficient and equitable way to gain that type of understanding.”
Over the years, Jagers has heard all the raves and all the reservations. What would he say to admissions professionals who are interested in leveraging a wider field of view, but are entrenched in the traditional review approach?
“The fear is that portfolios will create an untenable workload for admissions officers and more anxiety for applicants,” Jagers said. “In my experience, neither of those things happen. Logistically, SlideRoom has worked with plenty of schools to seamlessly integrate portfolio review into the larger workflow. And making a portfolio/project optional — something applicants can choose to include if they want — has a good track record with many schools as well as the Common Application.”
Looking back, looking ahead
Jagers has many fond memories of his early SlideRoom days, their small starter office in Dallas and the camaraderie that the original team’s work together created. “My favorite times were sitting at the whiteboard with my team to design new things. This might be in preparation for adding a new feature, or simply redesigning an old one. Each person brought different perspectives and the debates would sometimes be vicious! The creative friction was energizing, and the mutual respect allowed good solutions to be born. The interpersonal aspect was the best part. Over time, our tastes and perspectives were reshaped by each other. Working with that team was such a privilege and a memory I will always cherish.”
The team developed a refined aesthetic that was a driving force at every step of Jager’s SlideRoom journey. He and his colleagues took inspiration from Apple and other popular software platforms in the early days with the priority of delighting applicants and reviewers. Even now in New York, Jagers gets a kick out of meeting loyal SlideRoom enthusiasts.
“We took great pride in making SlideRoom beautiful and focused, more like consumer software,” he reflects. “I think that is a big reason it has such a committed customer base. Good software is difficult to make and I’m really proud of what we achieved.”
In September 2017, SlideRoom was acquired by Liaison International. The acquisition affirmed Liaison’s commitment to holistic assessment and expanded the company’s suite of tools that support strategic college admissions.