My business partner and I have been running Top Tier Admissions, a college admissions consulting firm, for almost two decades. We began our business when I was in my forties.
As I progressed in my career, I was able to draw on my previous experience to make decisions about the type of culture I desired. As a result, my viewpoint on what it takes to build a high-growth, the values-driven company frequently differs from some of the conventional wisdom.
If you’re thinking about starting your own business, here are some of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my two decades of running Top Tier Admissions.
1. Personality is important.
I don’t mean the way you light up a room when you dazzle people with your charisma when I say “personality.” Instead, consider this: What am I most afraid of? Our fears have an impact on how we conduct business. My father’s business failed late in life, and his example had a significant impact on my tolerance. I am well aware that I am both risk-averse and conflict-averse. Knowing this about myself allows me to work around it when necessary, making rational rather than fear-based decisions.
2. Surround yourself with people who wish you well.
Isn’t it much more enjoyable to spend time with friends and family who rejoice in your accomplishments, support you when you need it, and genuinely care about your well-being? Why should it be any different when it comes to forming a team at work? Workplaces are often competitive, political, or downright cutthroat. We’ve had a lot more success at Top Tier by emphasizing collaboration over individual performance.
3. Connect your “why” and “how.”
Why are you establishing this company? What do you hope to give the world that it doesn’t already have, and how will it benefit you and your family as a result? Dr. Michele Hernandez, my co-founder, and I knew from the start that we wanted to tell the truth about college admissions. The how then became an important part of the why. Kids were worried not only because the process was unclear but also because they were more concerned with myths like trying to be well-rounded rather than understanding what they wanted to study. We could assist students in discovering their authentic scholarly selves and provide them with action plans to investigate these areas prior to entering college. Our why and how merged into a single strategy.
4. Visualize the end result
I discovered Shakti Gawain’s book Creative Visualization in college and found remarkable success with this simple process. You can consistently achieve something you visualize in living color that you are working towards manifesting in your business. Science backs up the effectiveness of this technique, demonstrating that creative visualization has the same effect on our neural pathways as actually witnessing the event. You can work out the kinks, refine the plan, and try it on for size by visualizing it. Make sure to share so that your entire team has a clear visual representation of your company’s objectives.
5. Put yourself in the shoes of your audience.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “know your audience,” but in my experience, if you are your audience, you’ll create a product, service, or piece of content that is exactly what people like you want. I wanted to know how to not only beat the stress I felt around admissions for my own children but also how to help them get into the best schools possible when I wrote “Don’t Worry You’ll Get In” with co-author Dr. Michele Hernandez. There had to be a way to get a glimpse behind the scenes of this enigmatic process. Our book did both, and it was the catalyst for us to start our company.
6. Follow your gut instincts.
I’m becoming more reliant on my intuition as I get older. Of course, I don’t mean a mystical process when I say “intuition.” My intuition joins hands with the wisdom I’ve gained to pack a powerful punch by being conscious of the choices we make as a company. Synergistic partnerships, for example, can be a fantastic way to expand our community’s opportunities if all of the quantitative and qualitative factors are in place. Is this a firm I’d hire to work with my children? If not, the answer is a resounding “no.”
7. It is a private matter.
Top Tier Admissions was founded out of a desire to alleviate the stress that many families experienced during the admissions process. I treat students and their families in the same way that I would want to be treated and how I would want my children to be nurtured. While we are always professional, we never treat our clients as “just business.” In the business world, connecting and caring so intensely can be seen as a liability, but we see it as a strength.
8. Hire with care
While we never compromise on quality, there are many intangible qualities that we look for when hiring at Top Tier. Even the most impressive resume does not always equal the right hire. We’ve had the best luck finding people who understand our collaborative, supportive work environment and genuinely want to mentor students not only through the admissions process but also in their search for their true scholarly selves. It takes a special kind of person to be able to balance the competitiveness of admissions with the nuance of personal development.
9. Don’t stray from your mission.
Top Tier is known around the world for our proprietary Application Boot Camp, a four-day intensive event that always has a waiting list. We are aware, however, that the $18,000 price tag is out of reach for the majority of people. Our original mission was to provide guidance and clarity, and we didn’t want our ability to do so to be limited by the financial means of our students. In that spirit, we provide a variety of free materials (packed with up-to-date information), our books are available in libraries all over the world, and we provide pro bono services to a number of underserved students.