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Danny and Karen Umali: “We never even taught them the rules of the road before we put them behind the wheel”

Karen: Our approach to college planning is grounded in the fact that colleges act more like businesses than anything else. We hacked their business model by realizing that colleges are looking to buy freshmen as much as families are looking to buy colleges. By operating under this premise, we exploit the fact that colleges compete […]

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Karen: Our approach to college planning is grounded in the fact that colleges act more like businesses than anything else. We hacked their business model by realizing that colleges are looking to buy freshmen as much as families are looking to buy colleges. By operating under this premise, we exploit the fact that colleges compete against each other to get students to fill their seats each fall.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewingDanny and Karen Umali.

Since 2010, Danny Umali has been serving families in the metro Atlanta area as a private college planner. In 2014, Danny and his wife, Karen, launched Game Theory College Planners after realizing that disruption was needed to address the college problems of excessive student loan debt and delayed graduation. Their organization was also the first to fully incorporate professional social media guidance within the context of college admissions and financial aid. Today, Danny and Karen work with families nationwide and stay on the cutting edge of enrollment management trends in higher education.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Danny: Just over 25 years ago, Karen and I met in college. We made all the mistakes you could make. We got married right after our freshman year of college and we achieved an unintended yet unsurprising result: delayed graduation and no graduation. Faced with the obvious challenges of being married at such a young age and with limited financial resources, we had to drop out of college. Karen eventually finished college in 8 years, while working full-time. I went for 5 more years and never finished. I have about 18 months of coursework left to get my degree but working full-time in the retail industry, I never figured out a way to go back and finish the job.

In 2009 I transitioned away from my career in retail management into financial planning and wealth management. Shortly after, I was actually recruited to start a college planning agency here in Atlanta. The irony here never escapes me. I learned a lot about educational consulting and admissions counseling that year but I began to see that the traditional approaches to college planning were flawed.

So many financial planners focused on college savings plans and not at all on college selection or affordability. The slightly more talented planners did focus more on getting into college, but none of them gave a second thought on actually finishing college or paying for college. I realized that the current state of college planning and educational consulting had not changed for over 4 decades. If you fast forward to today it is clear that this is still the problem.

In June of 2014, Karen and I launched Game Theory College Planners to bring a new and truly effective approach to college planning. Our personal experience and failure at college has made us fanatical about keeping other families and students from making the same mistakes common with traditional planning.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Karen: Our approach to college planning is grounded in the fact that colleges act more like businesses than anything else. We hacked their business model by realizing that colleges are looking to buy freshmen as much as families are looking to buy colleges. By operating under this premise, we exploit the fact that colleges compete against each other to get students to fill their seats each fall.

Colleges go as far as hiring private consultants to manage their business model of buying freshmen. These private consultants are known as enrollment managers. Enrollment managers employ very sophisticated methodologies to achieve two basic goals: increased rankings and revenue. By using predictive analytics and game theory, enrollment managers encourage some students to attend (by awarding significantly more merit scholarship dollars) and encourage other students not to attend (by awarding significantly reduced or no scholarship dollars at all).

The use of merit awards can be leveraged to shape very specific class profiles with the intention of elevating the college’s rankings. An obvious byproduct of an elevated ranking is elevated revenue. It’s a very circular and self-sustaining business model.

Danny: We have taken the time to understand how the enrollment management machine works and have employed quite a few methodologies of our own. Through thoughtful college selection and an unwavering focus with on-time graduation, we create competitive markets for our students. As colleges compete with their wallets, we tilt the balance in favor of the student in the form of multiple college acceptances and maximum merit award letters.

What also sets us apart is that we have discovered that a student’s well-crafted social media footprint is a force multiplier with enrollment management. I don’t know how many colleges really read essays anymore, but we can quantify how a college will research applicants online through their social media profiles. This is why digital literacy is such a significant focus for us. Digital literacy is especially useful when college graduates eventually enter the workforce. As we all know, it’s not uncommon for employers to do online research on their job applicants. Early education in this area gives our students a significant advantage before, during and after college.

At the end of the day, we leverage an approach that helps students and families not only find the right colleges, but also use more of the college’s money to get their education paid. Families quickly learn that so-called “expensive” colleges can cost the same or less than so-called “cheaper” in-state colleges. As you can imagine, this can fly in the face of traditional admissions counseling that tends to preach the exact opposite. Furthermore, many traditional admissions counselors do not or will not even go near social media.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Danny: Early in my college planning career one of my students was telling me about her visit to Elon University. She told me that she tweeted about her experience and that within minutes, the college tweeted back. She asked me what she should do. I did not have a Twitter account at the time (I did not even know what a hashtag was) and my knee jerk reaction was one I have seen many college planners make. I told her to just make sure that she didn’t do anything stupid on social media so she would not look bad to the colleges. I taught her to be scared. I taught her to run and hide. It was a mistake to say what I did, but this became a very pivotal moment in my career.

That evening, I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had said. As a former employee at Apple, I took pride in being on the cutting edge and with enriching the lives of our customers. I realized that with this student, I had done neither of those things. I went online and looked up Melanie Romanaux, a former Apple colleague that had branched off as a professional social media consultant. I hired her and we spent several hours getting caught-up on the basics. What I learned changed everything.

Through my research with social media, I also came across Social Assurity. This was an organization that was educating students to craft thoughtful and professional social media with a mind for college acceptance. “Run and hide” was not in their vocabulary. I immediately reached out to the CEO, Alan Katzman, because I saw an answer to a major question that many college planners weren’t asking: How can we help students use social media in a meaningful and positive way?

We soon became partners. His courseware and expertise became a central component of our college planning process. Alan’s continued research combined with what we learned from the practical application of his educational courses lead to our discovery that social media and enrollment management are inextricably linked. This partnership ultimately allows Karen and I to further augment our college planning approach while Alan continues to refine his courseware and instruction. To this day, we are collaborative thought leaders in this space. We continue to do amazing things with our students. We could tell countless stories about our students leveraging social media with college admissions.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Danny: On the tail end of my retail career, I took on a position to manage the retail operations for a group of stores for the Life is Good apparel brand. What I brought to the table was over a decade of experience with big box retailers. Ken Hastings was the owner of these locations and this was the first time I worked directly with an entrepreneur and for a small business.

Unlike working in the corporate retail world, working with Ken was a more gratifying and personal experience. When I was working near his home base in Nashville, instead of putting me up in a hotel, Ken insisted I stay at his house and would even cook me dinner. Ken and his wife, Shannon, always treated me like part of the family.

With this kind of relationship, we could create an idea where the execution of that idea did not have to go through the usual layers of management for approval and review. We shared our collective vision of what we wanted out of these stores and I learned a lot from his years of experience as a sales rep for Life is Good and as a business owner. We made mistakes but when it worked, feedback was immediate. We could implement change in real time and grow the business. I learned that I could be more agile and solve problems more quickly in the small busines environment.

One evening, Ken took me out for dinner at this bar in Destin, Florida to celebrate the opening of a new store just down the street. As usual, we talked busines and the prospect of opening future locations. This was one of those life moments when an idea just hit me like a bolt of lightning: Instead of working for someone like Ken, why couldn’t I just run my own business like Ken? Why am I not the business owner buying someone else dinner to celebrate a job well done?

I remember all the details of that moment down to the mosquitos buzzing around my ears along with the sweaty beer bottle in my hand. In our relationship, a shift had occurred when Ken was asking more of the questions and I was providing more of the answers. Ever since that night, the thought of starting a business dominated my psyche. Not long after, I moved on and here I am 13 years later. Ken gave that to me, and I will always be grateful. I only hope to someday give that back to someone else.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Karen: Having worked in the education system myself, I can tell you firsthand that disruption and innovation are things that do not happen quickly in this arena. We did not go into college planning to make enemies, but we have found a lot of resistance from guidance teams in the high schools where we hope to form partnerships.

Early on, we thought that our innovative approach to college planning would be welcomed with open arms by high school administration and guidance teams. We learned that often times, we were quickly dismissed or even ignored. I think the status quo still dominates the groupthink we find there. When we point out how traditional advice can actually do more harm than good, we’re not winning many popularity contests in the school systems. We find similar resistance with many educational consultants we interact with. Often times, these consultants are still talking about essays, safety schools and “cheaper” in-state public college options.

I think we have to realize that whether or not disruption is a good thing really depends on the perspective. From the public school system and traditional admissions counseling point of view, it can be hard to accept and implement change. From the family’s perspective, the stakes are too high not to consider all the options. Families are collectively in debt trillions of dollars in student loans and the majority of students that go to college never finish. The status quo is unquestionably broken. I think disruption, welcome or not, has to happen.

Fortunately, so many of our families see the immediate effects of our approach when the college acceptance and merit award letters start showing up in their mailbox. We can’t make everyone happy, but if we had to choose, we would choose our families every time.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Danny:

There is zero margin for error so don’t f*&k it up.

Bryan Ward is my mentor that got me into the college planning world. He told me, very plainly, that as college planners we work with the two things that are most precious to parents: their kids and their money. There is zero margin for error so don’t f*&k it up.

This has never been lost on us. We work with every family as if were sending our own kids to college and spending our own money to do it. We can’t f*&k this up. So, we don’t.

Being self-employed is the only way to go. No matter what happens, never work for someone else.

When I was new in the financial services world, I was meeting with a prospective client in a coffee shop hoping to land him as a client or at least get him open to the idea. I was an absolute failure that day. I was so out of my depth.

My prospect already had a capable team of financial advisors that he was working with and he shut me down pretty quickly. He did say something I would never forget. He told me that though I clearly did not win him over that day, at least I was moving my life in the right direction by going all in with what he called the “1099 life.” He told me that being self-employed was the only way to go. He told me that no matter what happens, never work for someone else. He said that if I stayed in the business long enough, I would eventually become the expert when all the experts have retired.

He was right.

When there is bad leadership at the top, the best people are always first to go.

I don’t remember who this was but someone once told me that when there is bad leadership at the top, the best people are always first to go. This helped me in two ways.

First, it taught me to be a great leader and to take personal responsibility. If the best people on your team are leaving, you are probably doing something wrong and things can fall apart pretty quickly. Since I took personal responsibility for my leadership, I could demand that employees hold their own selves accountable as well. A large portion of your time as a leader should be spent developing and mentoring your best people.

Second, it gave me the courage to leave an organization when it was time to go. Leaving a perfectly good paying job can be a real challenge. A lot of emotions can come into play but knowing this always guided me on the right path. This was a path that ultimately led me to start my own company.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

Karen: The way we see it is thatwe don’t sell a product; we offer an experience. To say that this is an emotional process would be an understatement. Tears are shed on all sides on a regular basis.

I think when we create an emotional and lasting experience for our families by doing our jobs well, the leads will follow. We get several leads each month from client referrals. This didn’t happen overnight, but it’s definitely part of our long game and we continue to see an increasing number of referrals.

Another great source of leads is repeat business. Oftentimes our families are faced with the challenge of sending more than one child to college. We frequently get a lot of repeat business because we do amazing work with the first student they send to college.

Co-workers and relatives are another great lead source for us. The college problem is very universal.

Danny: I think we have to practice what we preach. As experts on social media, we take what we teach and apply our own digital literacy with how we share these experiences that Karen just talked about with the rest of the world. Social media has enabled us to get our message beyond Atlanta. We have clients from Brooklyn all the way to San Francisco.

I think being discoverable on social media is an important part of lead generation. When I shop or plan a major purchase, I am on YouTube first, then Google second. So many people do their own research on YouTube, which is why we created a YouTube channel and why we vlog on a regular basis. I can’t imagine a prospective client looking for us online and coming up empty handed. I think building credibility, much less disrupting an industry, cannot happen without an active social media presence.

We strive to create meaningful content on social media. We have to give away what we can and share what we know with the stories that we tell. What we find is that what we get back is a lot of trust and good will along with great qualified leads.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Karen: I am too focused on what we are shaking-up right now. We are one of the few college planners out there educating students and families about the real problem with college: on-time graduation. Furthermore, we are one of an even smaller group of planners to present families with a truly viable option of going to better colleges by using more of the college’s money instead of their own.

We teach families to get past the absurdity that too many colleges are reporting and even bragging about their 6-year graduation rates. Could you imagine if your high school routinely graduated students in 6 to 7 years? You would never consider going to that high school. Unfortunately, many uninformed families are routinely sending their students to get a degree at the “cheaper” in-state college with the poor graduation rates. Ironically, they are overpaying for the privilege to spend an extra 2–3 years in college.

Danny: Beyond what Karen just said, I really don’t know. What I can tell you is that the only way to shake things up is to do our job well and to listen to what our students and families are telling us. The students and families are the true innovators by giving us unfiltered feedback of what is happening in the real world of college admissions. We really have to pay attention. We just have to recognize it when we see it, no matter how ridiculous or how left field the observations are. We always have to approach potential solutions with an open mind.

We also have to accept the fact that there might always be a better way. We have to accept the fact that we might not be the smartest people in the room. When that young student told me how Elon University responded to her tweet, her simple question on how to respond allowed us to significantly alter the trajectory of our business. I was certainly not the smartest person in the room that day. She was.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

Danny: When we were sheltered in place in the early weeks of the pandemic, we all had some extra time on our hands, didn’t we? During this time, we watched a lot of YouTube videos. This is when we discovered Kara and Nate. Like us, they were a married couple working together every day. In their case, they produced a YouTube travel vlog with a goal to visit 100 countries in 4 years. They eventually accomplished this!

They had a singular focus and it was such a wonderful escape to watch them travel the world. They do a great job sharing their experiences and their stories along the way as if you were literally there with them. They also showcase the daily challenges and the doubts that all entrepreneurs have that we instantly connected with. Despite being wildly successful vloggers, they have never lost an ounce of their humility. They ultimately inspired Karen and I to launch our own vlog. Through their stories, you get this sense that you’ve known them all of their lives, but in reality, we’ve never met. I hope to create the same experience for the families that watch our vlogs over time.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Danny: “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

— Eric Hoffer

This quote continues to ring an emotional chord with me every time I read it. There is a story not only in the meaning behind the quote but also behind the story of the man that wrote it. To me the quote represents the struggle I feel with the partnerships I tried to form with high school counselors and educational consultants. But time and time again they all seem so wedded to the status quo. I would also encourage anyone to read up on Mr. Hoffer. This man led a very fascinating life and had some profound insights that are as relevant as ever.

Karen: “Pessimism is destructive, realism lacks imagination and optimism opens all the doors.

— Bert Jacobs, co-founder Life is Good

On the business side, the families that we work with who are optimistic are engaged in the process, coachable and communicate completely. We sometimes have difficult conversations, but the end result is amazing. Our optimists are our huge success stories. In our personal lives, optimism leads to more doors being opened, stronger bonds formed and more love to go around.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Karen: I believe that we need to take digital literacy and education for our high schoolers very seriously. This younger generation was born during the digital age. In my time, the right of passage was getting my driver’s license and eventually, the keys to my own car. Today, it’s when students are finally old enough to get their first smart phones. Let’s face it, these devices are not just phones. They are powerful supercomputers infinitely capable of so many things.

Students today have access to such vast repositories of information and can simultaneously interact with society at large in real time. They can do all this without ever leaving the house any day of the week and at any time of the day. We’ve basically given them the keys to a very fast and dangerous car but never taught them how to drive. We never even taught them the rules of the road before we put them behind the wheel.

Danny: I think we see evidence of digital illiteracy often in the news cycle where you see students posting things they shouldn’t on social media. We see the harsh consequences of these misguided actions. Why is there no education around this in our schools beyond “run and hide?” We need to teach our students that social media can be leveraged as a tool not just in the college admissions process or the job search that immediately follows, but with life beyond. With a little education around social media, our students usually run with the ball. At some point, they start teaching you things about social media you never thought possible.

How can our readers follow you online?

Danny: You can subscribe to our vlog, College Walk and Talk: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCS02H_AnCLOydoizzP-zYVg/

You can also connect with us on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/dannyumali/ https://www.linkedin.com/in/karenumali/

If you want to learn more about us and our organization, here is our website: https://gametheorycollege.com

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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