Charge what you need to in order to deliver a great service. At first raising your prices may seem unfriendly to clients. But if you charge low prices, you have to cut corners when delivering the service, such as limiting the time you spend with each client. Doing that just doesn’t work. For some of our clients success depended precisely on having enough time with us at the last minute to incorporate a new angle into their application materials. For example, one client totally re-worked her story when she had the insight that she’d rather join her family’s business than pursue a traditional corporate career, and writing about this was a big part of her success.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing David White. He studied EE/CS at Berkeley, graduating just after the first dot-com boom, and after spending a year in finance, joined a start-up company called Efficient Frontier (acquired by Adobe for 400M dollars) as its first employee. As GM of Efficient Frontier’s European business and in several other executive roles in the tech industry following that, David hired, trained, and developed large numbers of young professionals. His passion for helping others to develop their careers led him to co-found Menlo Coaching, a firm advising young professionals on how to advance their careers by winning admission to the top MBA programs in the US and Europe.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
The first part of my career followed a very standard path. I began as a programmer and moved on to roles as a sales engineer, a business analyst, and eventually a general manager in the online advertising industry. During this time I worked for a mix of start-up companies and large publicly traded companies. What I discovered is that the part of my job I enjoyed most was hiring and developing young professionals. I feel lucky that by co-founding Menlo Coaching, I’ve had the chance to make helping young professionals with their careers the focus of my work.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
The idea for Menlo Coaching came from my co-founder, Alice van Harten. After a successful academic career in the humanities, Alice joined Bain & Company in Amsterdam as a strategy consultant. Her Bain colleagues, who knew about her background in teaching writing and critical thinking, began to ask her for help with their MBA applications, especially their essays. It’s fair to say that strategy consultants do not enjoy writing essays, least of all ones that require deep personal reflection, as MBA application essays do. Alice guided everyone with the personal statements and deferred a few of the professionally oriented essay prompts to me, since she was new to the corporate environment back in 2006.
After we helped a few people who achieved great results, word spread, and before long we had a list of clients from various industries. Slowly we realized that there was a whole industry dedicated to helping MBA applicants with their applications and also discovered that most firms in this industry were high-volume “assembly lines” more interested in optimizing their own profitability than in helping young professionals maximize their careers.
To us this seemed crazy! With the MBA being one of the biggest career pivots in any person’s career, we knew there was an opportunity to offer a highly personalized service that focused on being honest with (prospective) clients about their chances to be accepted at top MBA programs and never compromising on doing what’s in the client’s best interest.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
We faced several challenges and decision points along the way. Initially we felt some trepidation about charging what we were worth. The first two years, our fees were significantly below market rate — so low, in fact, that prospective clients wondered what the “catch” was. In the very beginning, that wasn’t a problem, since our overhead was low and Alice and I were working as two freelancers from our home office. But to build a real business, we had to raise our prices so that we could invest in hiring skilled full-time staff to advise our clients and project management systems to save time and effort for our clients.
The most difficult period was when we decided we wanted Menlo Coaching to be more than two freelancers and instead to grow it into a real business. At that point we had around 15 times more inquiries than we had capacity to support. We sometimes joked between ourselves that it was harder to get a spot on our client list than to get into Harvard Business School!. We wanted to stay true to our starting principle of offering a high-quality, personalized service, rather than ‘cash in’ on this demand, and at first we struggled to find the right people to join our team.
At first we used our proximity to Stanford and Berkeley to hire people who wanted to pivot out of their academic careers, similar to the path Alice had taken. We quickly learned that while many had excellent critical thinking skills, they lacked the client focus needed to deliver a good result. We then considered recruiting admissions consultants who worked for competing firms, but there we ran into the problem that they had developed a client approach that was the opposite of what we wanted to offer: for example, one consultant we interviewed was used to taking on twice as many clients than what we set as our limit. As a result, even with our premium pricing, we couldn’t offer her the compensation she was looking for, and we didn’t want to turn into a high-volume assembly line ourselves.
At this point we took the leap of investing in our service, supplementing the 1:1 advisory work with a structured educational program, knowing that this would enable us to maintain high quality as we hired and trained new coaches from outside the industry. But the cost was significant and the payoff was uncertain.
We never considered giving up, but we did consider giving up on the idea of building Menlo Coaching into a real business. The challenges we faced in hiring people with the right skillset made us wonder whether it was ever going to be possible to find them and whether we wouldn’t be better off remaining small.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things are going very well these days. We consider our team to be our greatest asset and one of our proudest achievements. To get here we had to be both patient and flexible. We moved away from thinking that there was one ideal job profile that we should recruit and instead began to look at applicants more holistically, screening them for a wide range of skills, but not a fixed job profile. Our team now consists of people with backgrounds in journalism, film, academia, tech, and finance. Some of them have an MBA: for example, our lead interview consultant, Obinna Arizor, is a Tuck graduate who interviewed countless applicants while at Tuck. But an MBA is not a requirement: our consultants Yaron Dahan and Leslie Monstavicius have backgrounds in English literature with degrees from the Sorbonne and Stanford. In the end, knowledge of what an MBA is about and what the application process entails can be taught. It is much harder to foster an intrinsic interest in other people, an understanding of what makes for a good story, and critical thinking skills. So we’re looking for people who come in with a strong track record in those areas.
It was grit that got us here. In the first phase, we had to build the business at the same time we handled a full load of billable client work. It was only after we reached a certain minimum scale that we could operate like a real business with professionals to handle tasks such as marketing, sales, and operations. This meant long working days and working many weekends, which wasn’t always easy to combine with a family and small kids. We definitely had to make sacrifices and trust that they would pay off in the long run.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our absolute commitment to clients is our differentiator. My co-founder (and wife) Alice took her commitment to clients to a new level when she was pregnant with our youngest: on the day she gave birth to our daughter, she was still doing client work. The baby arrived about a week before MBA application deadlines, and Alice was back to doing client calls the same day. And I remember many a New Year’s Eve where at midnight I was in the office and Alice in her home office; we were emailing back and forth about our clients’ last-minute issues. We save our champagne for the second week of January, when most of the deadlines for the season have passed.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
We have a ton of stories about mistakes we made. When I joined Menlo Coaching full time, we believed that our family home had plenty of room for both the business and our family life. For a few months, we worked from a small room on the second floor. It didn’t take long for us to realize this was the fastest way to end both Menlo Coaching and our marriage. We are now occupying an office in a beautiful 19th-century villa in the center of town, where our team members all love to work.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
A lot of business advice focuses on doing things in a “scalable” way, and this was our initial motivation for trying to hire consultants from within the industry. What could be easier that hiring pre-trained consultants who could begin doing client work immediately?
But as I commented earlier, we found that most consultants inside the industry had settled into a model in which they served a large number of clients at a time, which was comfortable and profitable, but not in the client’s best interest.
We were too stubborn about pursuing this recruiting strategy because it sounded easy and logical. We could have been a year ahead of where we are now if we had begun by hiring consultants with the right fundamental skills and training them on our industry.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Creativity. On every issue, we’ve done what we thought was most effective, such as hiring an artist to co-author a graphic novel about MBA admissions as a way to get our message across in a humorous manner. Or when it came to interview preparation, we went beyond mock interviews and hired professional actors from the theater to deliver communications training to our clients. This has been a great win-win, as the actors got great jobs and our highly analytical clients in traditional industries, such as consulting and finance, got to experiment with new ways of presenting themselves.
- Commitment to our principles. We needed to be patient in order to combine our commitment to this vision with a desire to grow our business. This meant that we declined many clients (and the associated revenues) for capacity reasons rather than hiring B-level consultants to serve them. But by accepting lower short-term revenues, we gained a great reputation and client satisfaction that will serve us well in the long term.
- Focus on people. I invested heavily in developing our first hires, and people who joined the company in entry-level roles are now running our sales and operations functions.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Remember why you took this job, which will inevitably have to do with the satisfaction you get from interacting with people. When the deadlines get closer, it can be easy to lose sight of this and feel overwhelmed by all the tasks in your email inbox. When that happens, I go back to that client connection to feel energized again.
Working hard can also be addictive, and you get a real rush the weeks before the deadlines when you’re going all out on helping your clients get to the finish line. It can be difficult to wean yourself off the hard work when the pressure comes off. However, it is important to take some time off in the low season in order to stay fresh and come up with new ideas.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Starting a business can be seen as a risky, all-or-nothing affair, perhaps even with a romantic angle to it: you give up your old job and sink all of your savings into your new venture while you work from a garage. I would recommend launching a first product or service first, while staying employed with your corporate employer, before committing to work full-time for your own business. Once you have some traction, you can make the leap to work on your business full time.
Another misconception is that you should aim to occupy the biggest niche — but those are also the most competitive. There are many interesting problems to be solved in areas that you might not have heard about, like our business. Because those niches are underdeveloped, there are great opportunities within them to develop a competitive product or service.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
I think that hands down the administrative aspects of a business tend to be the most underestimated; I certainly didn’t realize how time consuming they would be when we started Menlo Coaching. As a cross-border business, you need to put in a lot of effort to handle your administrative affairs correctly. Fortunately, we get advice from a number of specialized experts.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Don’t look only for “perfect” clients. Although top MBA programs are known for admitting students who studied at Ivy League universities and then worked for companies like McKinsey or Goldman Sachs, one of my most successful clients was a man named Jason who started out at a community college and then worked for a small, local accounting firm when he applied to MBA programs. Many people would have told him that he’d never be admitted, but I saw great potential in his story of overcoming challenges as part of an immigrant family and also in his story of serving others through his extracurricular activities. As we dug into his background, we even found ways to present his accounting work as relatable to management consulting, which was his post-MBA goal. He was admitted to the Fuqua MBA program at Duke, and was kind enough to record a video about his story as an inspiration to other MBA applicants from less traditional backgrounds.
- Charge what you need to in order to deliver a great service. At first raising your prices may seem unfriendly to clients. But if you charge low prices, you have to cut corners when delivering the service, such as limiting the time you spend with each client. Doing that just doesn’t work. For some of our clients success depended precisely on having enough time with us at the last minute to incorporate a new angle into their application materials. For example, one client totally re-worked her story when she had the insight that she’d rather join her family’s business than pursue a traditional corporate career, and writing about this was a big part of her success.
- Act like a large business even if you’re a small business. Some of the transformational moments for our company were things that we initially felt were exclusively big-company activities, such as acquiring a company to deliver test preparation services to our clients or starting to outsource tasks across borders. Our research associate Puja, based in India, has become an important member of our team and is the engine behind the many free resources about top MBA programs we publish for applicants.
- Give away some value for free, even to people who aren’t your clients. Although we certainly save our best material for our clients, we have published hundreds of articles and videos providing free, high-quality advice to MBA applicants, and even receive thank you notes from applicants who succeed after using those articles on our website.
- Be ready for anything. We’ve faced unexpected challenges, such as “astroturfing” (fake positive reviews) published by competitors or the time that we helped an applicant to win admission to HBS — pretty much the biggest achievement possible in MBA admissions! — who then tried to blackmail us by threatening to post a bad review.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
We would start a movement to talk honestly with young people about their career options. On the one hand, there are many talented people who miss out on “elite” career paths such as management consulting or investment banking simply because they don’t know about them. At the same time, there are many people who pursue banking or consulting jobs because they feel this is what’s expected of them, then burn out; they would have been happier if they knew about some of the many alternative career paths that were available to them, even if those were less famous and prestigious.
How can our readers further follow you online?
We publish hundreds of articles and videos on the Menlo Coaching website and also on our YouTube channel.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!