…I recognized the importance of maintaining a reputation of integrity, and convinced students (and parents) that my role was that of a helping hand that could guide them to become better writers themselves and let their own unique voice shine in their applications — thus leading to a better essay. I overcame this fear by seeing students’ joy at the end of the process (and their many referrals to new clients) as they marveled at their essays and at how much their own writing had improved.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel Coleman.
Rachel Coleman is an IEC (independent education consultant) and Co-Founder of College Essay Editor (https://collegeessayeditor.com/) who has worked for 6+ years as an independent business owner in the college admissions counseling field, helping high school students across all disciplines navigate their academics, financial aid, and college applications. Rachel received her B.A. in Comparative Literature from Stanford University and her College Counseling Certificate from UCLA. She is now an active member of HECA (Higher Education Consultants Association).
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?
I worked consistently as a writing tutor throughout high school and college, culminating in leading Stanford’s Hume Center for Writing and Speaking my senior year. When I graduated with Honors in 2014 and took a job working as a Legislative Correspondent in the U.S. Senate, however, I found myself missing my work with students on their writing, and missing my own writing as well. So, after much research and deliberation, I decided to quit my job and start my own company focused on empowering students to be effective communicators in the college application process.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I originally left my job in the U.S. Senate because I wanted to start a writing tutoring company. My “aha” moment came, however, when I realized how much demand there was for help with writing the Personal Statement in particular — the main essay in the college application process. I had assisted many friends and family members over the years with their application essays, so I was more than familiar with this writing style, as well as with how to help applicants’ find their own autobiographical voice.
Before I made the decision to focus my company entirely on college counseling, however, I reached out to one of the family friends who I had helped in the past to get some feedback. It was from her that I finally realized that I had a skill that was in high demand. Something that came quite easily to me, something that I had taken for granted, was — in reality — something that so many students and college applicants struggled with. Many applicants around the world simply had no idea what it takes to stand out in the American college admissions process. Our system here confused and frustrated them endlessly. My friend’s response was so overwhelmingly positive, and she even thanked me for giving her the long-term writing skills to succeed in college! After that conversation, I felt I had the confirmation needed to make this career change.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
My grandfather worked in college admissions for his whole career before his retirement in 2018. Prior to starting my company, I asked him for his professional opinion on the IEC industry. Did he think there would still be demand for my services in ten years? Fifteen years?
As soon as I asked this question, he not only gave me an enthusiastic yes, but offered to become my mentor. To this day, he is a great encouragement, and we have long phone conversations about the recent trends in the industry: the UC decision to go test-blind indefinitely, the new FAFSA rules that were in the second COVID relief package, which schools are requiring vaccinations of their students, and on and on. Higher education is a rapidly-changing field, and having my experienced grandfather as a mentor has been an incredible resource — not to mention bringing us closer together!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I would say it’s the individualized expertise that I bring to all my work that makes my company stand out. Having personally gone through the grueling admissions process for getting accepted to the country’s most selective universities, I’m able to offer students insights that I’ve gained firsthand from my experience. In 2015, my partner and I successfully petitioned our school to provide us with access to our own admissions records, which gave us an even deeper level of insight into the process.
There are many large firms in the industry, but I’ve been able to offer something different by providing this expertise 1-on-1, often dedicating many hours to a single student’s essay as we brainstorm ways to improve it. This individualized attention — rarely available at larger firms where there’s a pressure to rapidly churn out essays — is something I’m particularly proud of.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I work with 2–3 pro bono students each year. This work is incredibly important to me as these students typically have 100% financial need, are enrolled in large public high schools with limited attention from school counselors, and in many cases are recent immigrants who are unaccustomed to the complexities of the US higher education system. In all of these cases, I’m proud that the pro bono students I have worked with have received full tuition scholarships, and will all graduate loan-free!
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?
My absolute favorite part of my job is reading new student essays and subsequently watching students become confident about their own writing and power to communicate effectively. My ability to peer inside a student’s mind and motivations is an important asset when helping students become better writers.
For example, I worked with one student who was struggling to brainstorm his personal statement because he did not think he had any “college worthy” experiences to write about. After long conversations about his hobbies and academic interests, we decided to write about the friends he made playing online video games, and how he was able to apply the collaborative lessons of gaming in his own personal life. That essay ended up helping him achieve several full scholarships and many exciting acceptances!
Every student thinks differently, learns differently, and writes differently. I see my role as a writing coach to meet each student wherever he or she is in the process, and invent writing strategies or teaching strategies that fit that student’s needs. This demands creativity on my part, but is also an incredibly enjoyable part of the process! This creativity also helps me think outside the box when it comes to my business, for example using creative marketing strategies or interesting professional partnerships, such as test prep companies.
As I am often the last set of eyes on a document before students submit their college applications, I take my work as an editor very seriously. I know that these essays could mean the difference between a full scholarship or a partial scholarship, the difference between an acceptance or a rejection. I am a highly-meticulous person by nature, but I make sure to pay attention to every last detail. This skill set also happens to be immensely valuable when running my business as well, as it allows me to stay financially sustainable and rapidly identify trends in my industry so that I can respond immediately.
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?
“Take all the work you can while it lasts.” This advice was given to me by someone who didn’t believe there was a market for my services. However, not only is there an ever-growing market for college admissions counseling, but I’ve found that I produce the best quality of work when I work with fewer students and do not overload myself. I’d rather be the marathon runner than the sprinter, and finding the balance of how many students per year was my limit was an important learning experience.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Like any business journey, the initial investment and client recruitment stages are the hardest. The first year, I often wondered whether it would even be sustainable to go out on my own, without the security and predictability of a large firm or regular job. Having to make an investment in my continuing education, for example, was a tough decision, especially when clients were limited to word-of-mouth opportunities. Knowing that it could take time for those who needed my services to find me, however, I told myself that I would give this venture a full year before making any drastic changes. That resilience ultimately yielded dividends and today, business is booming.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
The number one motivator for me has always been the outpouring of gratitude that I receive from my clients (students and parents both) whenever they are accepted into their dream schools. Hearing how my business has given a young person one of the most important tools to succeed is something that I’m exceptionally proud of. Furthermore, when I help someone save $30,000 per year on their education through successfully attaining competitive scholarships and merit aid, it really reinforces the value of what I’m doing, and drives me forward.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
Being a founder means taking on much more responsibility, especially regarding what happens to your clients. There is no boss to oversee your work, or leader you can reach out to if the going gets tough in a particular situation. Last year, one of my pro bono clients from a developing country faced a drastic change in his family’s financial situation, as well as his visa/immigration status. This impacted my work with this family, as all of our efforts were conditional on him being able to actually attend — and pay for — university in the U.S. So I researched different options, and took action. I recognized that this financial change would necessitate dramatically altering the student’s college list, but ultimately, we wrote new essays for new schools, and persevered! This student is now attending a four-year institution and pays only $2,000 per year, which is within his family’s budget, so he will graduate without loans. So keeping that ultimate end goal in mind, i.e. the purpose of what you’re doing this for, is vital — through thick and thin.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
Because of the personal, individualized nature of my business, bootstrapping is the only option I ever considered. Also, because the business didn’t have many overhead costs, e.g. being a brick-and-mortar store, those kinds of financing decisions weren’t the most important ones to consider. What was important for me was to be completely independent in my business, and to have full autonomy over all of my decisions.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
Dedicating myself to my craft was an essential first step to becoming successful. When I was just beginning, I had the humility to know that I needed further education to become an expert in my field (college counseling). So I set about acquiring the education I thought was necessary, and positioning myself to learn from other experts. I enrolled in UCLA’s College Counseling program and graduated with distinction. That certificate program was an important stepping stone to gaining access to the membership organizations and networks that helped establish my credibility in this field.
Next, I joined those membership organizations, including NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) and HECA (Higher Education Consultants Association), which allowed me to access professional educational webinars that I watched, including on topics like how to market your college counseling practice, how to build your IEC business, and how to manage your finances as an independent educational consultant (including becoming an LLC, separating business/personal income, learning about self-employment tax opportunities, etc…). HECA also provides an email listserv of member professionals in the industry, which allows aspiring education consultants to post and respond to any question about the industry, running their business, etc. This allowed me to learn from other professionals’ experiences while resolving any stumbling blocks that I may personally run into.
Bottom line: I put in the work to transform myself into an expert. HECA has recordings of all its presentations over the past few years, and I took the time to watch, if not all, close to all of the webinars in its catalog. And this education, meticulous note taking, and expansion of my skillset paid off! In initial consultations with families, I was able to demonstrate my expertise across different subjects: from applying to Acting BFAs, to creating an Architecture portfolio, to understanding how the FAFSA treats divorced parents — I could speak with authority.
Positioning your startup in the “demand sweetspot” is critical. When I was initially thinking of starting my own business, I first considered becoming a more traditional “writing tutor” who helps high school, college, and graduate students on their writing. This was familiar territory for me. However, when I investigated the writing tutor landscape, I found it highly oversaturated. I could eventually carve out a niche for myself, but the supply of writing tutors was simply too high, and the demand was too low. During this research, however, I stumbled across a “college essay editing” site and everything clicked. I looked up the average guidance counselor to student ratio in high schools (although most educational organizations recommend a 250-to-1 ratio of students to school counselors, the national average is actually 424-to-1!) and realized how great the demand for college counseling (and its accompanying essay support) was in the United States.
Then, I discovered the international market for non-US students applying to US schools, and realized that this was a market with high demand and little supply. And it was here I chose to position myself and my company.
3. Sustainable Financing
Many startups seek out investors out of necessity and are then accountable to them. In my case, however, I decided to fund my own venture (with a small initial budget dedicated to achieving the needed certifications and continuing education) as I had very little overhead costs. My only major costs when it comes to running my business are: membership organization fees and the aforementioned education and certification fees.
I did my own outreach and marketing as well, researching how people search for college applications help online, and thinking of creative ways to find my clientele locally, including giving high school presentations and building relationships with target demographics.
I’ve often faced the prospect of having to refuse clients who expected me to write their essays for them, which I consider unethical. There were many such requests, and at first — when I started my business — it felt risky turning away so many paying clients. However, I recognized the importance of maintaining a reputation of integrity, and convinced students (and parents) that my role was that of a helping hand that could guide them to become better writers themselves and let their own unique voice shine in their applications — thus leading to a better essay. I overcame this fear by seeing students’ joy at the end of the process (and their many referrals to new clients) as they marveled at their essays and at how much their own writing had improved.
5. Making the best of fortuitous circumstances
When the pandemic struck, my business flourished. It was likely a combination of 1) the stock market booming, 2) the college admissions landscape becoming more unpredictable as standardized testing became optional, and 3) parents and students finding themselves at home together for greater periods of time, inevitably talking about college.
Thus, requests for college counseling assistance during this time period dramatically increased, and I was ready to meet the demand, quickly adapting to the new Zoom reality and educating myself on how the pandemic had changed the college admissions industry.
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?
The most common mistake is not taking full responsibility and dedicating yourself 100% to owning both the successes and potential failures. What I love about being a small business owner is the freedom and autonomy I have to direct my life and my business. Yet I also recognize that this dynamic demands more responsibility and self-determination (there is no framework I can use to determine if I’m doing something correctly, no boss I can call to double-check my work). I either succeed or fail by the strength and strategy of my own actions, but simultaneously I’m rewarded by the satisfaction of taking ownership of my own work product. A self-reliant and self-motivated person will succeed as a business owner because these traits are essential to forging a new path, even as you learn from your own mistakes. But don’t expect to be able to lay the blame elsewhere — that sort of mentality will only lead you astray — and set you up for failure — in the long run.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
To maintain physical and mental wellness, it’s important to maintain a work-life separation, especially as business owners often don’t stop working when they get home. But as tempting as it can be to work from anywhere in the home, I decided to compartmentalize not just my space, but also my mind whenever I take on business tasks or student meetings at home. I designated a single room to function as my home office space, so as to keep work and leisure activities separate.
Next, I kept any work-related electronic devices in that space for the majority of the day, especially devices on which I checked email or that have constant notifications/pop-ups. For example, I eliminated email notifications on my phone, and only check my email and respond to my email when I’m in my designated work space (although I still keep to my rule of turning around essays and emails within 24 hours to deliver the best service).
Now, I’m not only hyper-focused and productive when I’m working, but fully enjoying life when I’m not working. My strategy not only led to increased productivity but also decreased stress and mental fatigue from an “always-on” mindset.
As for physical health, my standing desk and laptop stand have worked wonders!
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. 🙂
I would start the “Financial Aid Literacy Movement.” You may have heard of Financial Literacy Month (April), and the movement to empower people to take the reins of their own finances. Well, I would love to lead the charge for financial aid literacy as well! There are so many families who do not realize how much they could be saving in the college process, not to mention the students who think college is unaffordable, when they could actually be attending tuition-free. I currently make financial aid planning, and finding a school that’s the right “financial fit” a core part of my counseling, but I hope this movement grows so more Americans are aware of the educational opportunities that are available to them!
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Hands down, Scott Galloway. I’m a fan of his podcast, The Prof G Show, and especially appreciate his commentary about the higher education landscape in a post-COVID world. Professor Galloway is an insightful academic, and I would love to discuss his ideas for the future of a more accessible educational system.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I periodically write blog posts about topics in the college admissions world that I think are important for families to learn about. For example, one of my recent articles was about how families can evaluate the financial health (and future financial health) of a school before committing to it. That article (and the rest of the blog) is here: https://collegeessayeditor.com/essay-editing-blog/
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!