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Smarterer, seeking to validate your skills with online tests, raises $1.25 million

Posted by Scott Kirsner  April 4, 2011 08:14 AM

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Wine stewards can prove they know their sauvignon blancs by attaining the rank of Master Sommelier. IT staffers can show they're comfortable around routers by becoming a Cisco Certified Network Professional, and law school grads must pass the dreaded bar exam before they're allowed to practice.

But for most of us, there's no test that shows we excel in our field — especially if it involves emerging technologies like Twitter, Google Web site analytics, or Python programming. So if you're in the job market, or looking for work as a consultant, how do you show that you're a superstar, rather than just marginally competent?

Smarterer, a new Boston start-up, is out to solve that problem, providing an "authentic benchmark" of your skills compared to those of the mediocre masses, in the words of co-founder Dave Balter. "We're out to fix the 'skills' box on everyone's resume," says Balter, who is also the CEO of BzzAgent, a word-of-mouth marketing agency located in the same South End office space as Smarterer. "It's the most important resume element, but what does it mean when you say you're 'proficient' at Excel?' We're going to be the gold standard of scoring skills."

The company just closed its first funding round, raising $1.25 million from True Ventures; another major VC firm that Balter wouldn't name (Update Smarterer disclosed in June 2011 that this was Google Ventures); and local angel investors including Dharmesh Shah of HubSpot, Bantam Group's Joe Caruso, and Shikhar Ghosh, former CEO of OpenMarket.

With ten questions about a specific topic, answered in 60 seconds or less, Smarterer aims to supply an initial score that suggests how well you know the topic. The company is experimenting with star ratings, percentages, and also the Glicko rating system used in competitive chess, developed by a Boston University math professor. The company's founders imagine that people might post their scores on LinkedIn profiles, share them on Twitter, or include them in their resumes, and while they insist they are not focused on generating revenues in the short-term (test-taking will be free), eventually they say an industrial strength version of the tests might prove valuable to human resources executives and recruiters.

"There's a human hunger for recognition and validation," says Balter. "So we're building a tool to say empirically, 'this is what I know, and this is what I'm good at.'"

I tried two of the Smarterer tests at the company's offices last week. First, I took the Twitter skills test — something I thought I'd be reasonably good at — and got a 68 percent. (I had to quickly come up with answers about hash tags, and who will see a message that begins with another user's Twitter username, like @JohnSmith.) After answering another set of questions, my score had risen to 77 percent.

Then, I tried a topic I know nothing about: Ruby on Rails. I simply clicked on the most plausible-sounding of the four multiple choice answers, before the allotted time elapsed. My initial score was 65 percent — not much worse than Twitter — but when I answered another few questions, it slid to 61 percent.

Jennifer Fremont-Smith, Smarterer's co-founder and CEO, says that users will be able to add their own questions, and even create new tests of their own — like how well a prospective waiter knows a cash register system, for instance. "The only way to get to the very top ranking is to add questions to the site," she says. Better questions will get you more points. And test-taker's scores will degrade over time, and so users will need to come back and answer new questions to prove that they're still up-to-date on a certain area of expertise.

People will inevitably try to game the system, Fremont-Smith acknowledges. "We're thinking about ways to solve that," she says. The timer is one way to prevent test-takers from looking up answers online or in a book, but the site will also need to create a vast collection of questions on each topic.

The tests felt pretty addictive; I wanted to keep improving my scores, and so, Balter says, did an analyst at a venture capital firm the company met with recently. "He took the test for Excel on the screen in front of several partners in the conference room, and throughout the meeting, he kept trying to improve it," Balter says.

Right now, users need an invitation to try out the tests (Fremont-Smith says they're giving some out now to early testers), but Smarterer will begin a more open beta test this summer.

The company's blog shares a bit more about Smarterer's strategy. The third Smarterer founder, chief technology officer Michael Kowalchik, is a former EMC engineer who was also on the founding team of Grazr.

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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