Lessons Learned From A Midlife Venture Into Business Ownership
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
For almost twenty years, my business partner and I have run a college admissions consulting firm, Top Tier Admissions. We started our enterprise when I was in my forties.
Becoming an entrepreneur further into my career allowed me to build on previous experience in making decisions about the kind of culture I wanted. As a result, my perspective on what it means to build a high-growth, values-driven business often differs from some of the accepted wisdom.
If you are also thinking about becoming an entrepreneur, here are the key lessons I've learned in my two decades running Top Tier Admissions...
1. Personality matters
By “personality” I don’t mean how you light up a room when you dazzle folks with your charisma. Rather, ask yourself: What am I most afraid of? Our fears influence how we do business. My father lost his business late in life and his example profoundly impacted my risk tolerance. I know that I am both risk and conflict adverse. Understanding this about myself allows me to work around it when necessary, making decisions based on reason rather than fear.
2. Surround yourself with well-wishers
Isn’t it much nicer to spend time with friends and family who celebrate your victories, have your back when you need support, and want the best for you? Why should building a team at work be any different? Too often work environments are competitive, political or flat-out cutthroat. At Top Tier, we have found much more success emphasizing collaboration over individual performance.
3. Link your "why" and your "how"
Why are you building this business? What do you hope to offer the world that it doesn’t already have and then, in turn, how will it serve you and your family? My co-founder, Dr. Michele Hernandez, and I had clarity from day one: We wanted to deliver the truth about college admissions. Then the how became a pivotal part of the why. Kids were anxious not only because the process was unclear, but also because they were focused more on myths such as trying to be well-rounded versus understanding what they were interested in studying. We could help students discover their authentic scholarly selves and give them action plans to explore these areas well before college. Our why and our how became a seamless plan.
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4. Visualize outcomes
In college, I discovered a book called Creative Visualization by Shakti Gawain and found remarkable success with this simple process. If you visualize something in living color that you are working towards manifesting in your business, you can consistently achieve it. Science backs up the utility of this practice, showing that creative visualization has the same effect on our neural pathways as experiencing the actual event. By visualizing, you work out the kinks, refine the plan and try it on for size. Make sure too that you share so your team also has clear visual images of your company’s goals.
5. Be your audience
You’ve heard “know your audience,” but in my experience if you are your audience you will create a product, service or content that is just what those like you are looking for. When I wrote the book, "Don’t Worry You’ll Get In" with co-author Dr. Michele Hernandez, I wanted to know how to not only beat the stress I felt around admissions for my own children, but how to help them get into the very best schools possible. There had to be a way to look behind the curtain into this mysterious process. Our book did both and launched us into founding our business.
6. Let your intuition guide you
The older I get, the more I rely on my intuition. Of course, by “intuition,” I don’t mean a mystical process. By being conscious about the choices we make as a company, my intuition joins hands with the wisdom I’ve gained to pack a powerful punch. For example, synergistic partnerships are fantastic ways to create more opportunities for our community if all the quantitative and qualitative elements line up. Would I hire this firm to work with my kids? If not, then it’s a hard "no."
7. It is personal
When we launched Top Tier Admissions, it was out of a desire to lessen the stress so many families felt around admissions. I treat students and their families the way I want to be treated and the way I want my kids to be nurtured. While we are always professional, it is never “just business” for us. Connecting and caring so deeply can often be treated as a liability in the business world, but we believe this is a strength.
8. Conscious hiring
While we never sacrifice on quality, there are often intangible qualities we are recruiting for at Top Tier. The most impressive resume does not always translate into the right hire. We have had the best outcome selecting people who understand our collaborative, supportive working environment and genuinely want to mentor students not only through the admissions process but also in their search for their authentic scholarly selves. Being able to balance the competitiveness of admissions with the nuance of personal development is a tough task that requires a certain kind of person.
9. Stay true to your mission
Top Tier has become known internationally for our proprietary Application Boot Camp, an intense four-day event for which there is always a wait list. However, we know that the $18,000 price tag is not in reach for most people. Our mission originally was to provide guidance and clarity, and we did not want our mission limited by students’ income. In that spirit, we make available a range of materials for free, (blog posts full to the brim with up-to-date information) and our books are available in libraries around the world and we do pro bono work for a number of underserved students.
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