This Founder Built a National Business By Helping Kids Get Into College
Getting into college is something worth celebrating -- but the process of getting into college is nothing short of excruciating. In 2007, Neha Gupta was a recent college graduate, and the memory of applying to schools was still fresh: It was a confusing experience that sparked arguments with her parents and left Gupta feeling isolated. To bring in cash, she started offering to help parents and students navigate the intense, draining application process, and as her clientele grew, College Shortcuts was born. Today, the Houston-based business has nearly 100 Ivy League–educated employees helping teens across the country target potential schools and perfect their applications -- while providing a heavy dose of emotional support. Here’s how she got started.
1. Get the word out.
“This company started with $500 and a really ugly logo,” Gupta says. “A friend who was a graphic designer helped me with it, and it was hideous. We had nothing. The phone number on our website was my cell number.” To drum up early business in a world that hadn’t yet been transformed by social media, Gupta went analog: “I put an ad in the newspaper just to see if families needed assistance.” Then she had to seal the deal.
2. Dress for the job you want.
When prospective clients reached out, Gupta would arrange an in-person meeting -- essentially an interview in which students’ parents decided whether or not she was trustworthy. “Being the nerd that I was, I showed up to people’s homes in a suit with a two-page résumé in hand,” she says. It helped her win over moms and dads, and as a young 20-something, she was more easily seen as an ally by teens. “We’re not the nagging parent or the crusty counselor,” she says. “We’re the helpful sibling. Once people saw that, moms were like, ‘You’re hired.’”
3. Staff up.
Gupta was a one-woman show at first, but within three months, she’d exhausted her bandwidth. “Our first employees were friends of mine -- other top students who wanted to do this part-time,” she says. Before too long, she was getting requests from outside Houston. (“Moms talk,” Gupta says.) As she considered a long-term plan to scale, she focused on taking advantage of new technologies that were already being embraced by teens. “I could have opened an office in other cities and been a blip in those markets, but we’re in a time when the internet enables you to have a team all over the country,” she says. “We can embrace video chat, work with kids across the country, and have the same impact.”
4. Focus your mission.
The company was originally named Elite Private Tutors, offering both application assistance and subject-specific tutoring. But as the college arm of the business grew, Gupta realized she needed a brand name that better communicated that mission and created College Shortcuts as its own entity. “This is really about helping kids create an ideal college application,” she says. “My entire team is Ivy League–educated, so whatever college a student wants to go to, we can help. That’s what we needed our name to explain.”
5. Get emotional.
As the company has evolved over the past 12 years, one thing has remained constant: Gupta and her team acknowledge and embrace that their clients are at an emotional, complicated moment in their lives. “I look at my competitors and it’s a lot of data-driven males using technology to give XYZ results,” she says. “That’s great -- and we have data, as well -- but this is about someone’s child leaving home for the first time. We make it clear that we have the heart to help these students go from teen to adult.”