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My business partner and I have operated a college admissions consulting firm, Top Tier Admissions, for almost twenty years. The first few months of 2020 were business as usual as we prepared a new class of applicants for the admissions cycle ahead. Then came March.
You know too well what happened next. Standardized tests were canceled. High schools closed. Colleges closed. Students were sent home. Sports, clubs, and every other activity were canceled. What would this mean for both our business and our students? Was college even happening in the fall? Given how radically the landscape had changed, was it time for us to pivot?
Pivoting has become one of those hot topics in mainstream business media. When an economic crisis arises, countless think pieces are written about how to pivot your business to respond to the external environment. But pivoting is a huge gamble, requiring deep resources and the ability to fail with minimal consequences (hence why the term is often associated with venture-backed startups). And, one must ask oneself if there’s even a solid reason to pivot.
As a small business owner, while you might feel pressure to look anywhere and everywhere to increase your top line, resist the urge to pivot. Instead, focus on your mission.
Define your mission
In the college admissions space, disruption is something we are used to. While high-profile ‘recruiting’ scandals and a renewed focus on racial inequities have dominated headlines recently, a larger cultural shift was quietly occurring. Once, the conventional advice for admissions was to be a multi-hyphenate, “Renaissance” man or woman. Play a sport, volunteer at a charity, master violin, and get perfect grades – this was most people’s perception of the formula for the perfect college candidate.
The reality was different, but we understood why most people believed this to be true. The admissions process was (and is) opaque. My business partner and I set out to demystify it—me with the goal of destressing parents and children, her with the intent of spilling secrets from her time working in an Ivy League admissions office. We wrote a book, Don’t Worry, You’ll Get In, together before we ever met. The book did well, reaching thousands, but we wanted to personalize our approach and help more students read between the lines to take focused action and get into their top-choice schools.
We knew from our own experience that helping your child get into school is the ‘last’ big thing you do as a parent before your kid leaves the nest. It is an inherently emotional process. Many self-styled experts take advantage of that, optimizing for acceptance at brand name schools via resume-building rather than a child’s personal growth and development. We wanted to focus on the latter, helping our students become scholars.
Of course, our firm’s overt objective is to help kids get into their top choice schools without needless stress – but that isn’t our mission. Our true mission is to give students tools to be authentically themselves as intellectuals and scholars. Who are you? What do you love? Where will you continue to make contributions as you grow as a scholar? We help them make a concrete plan so they can take action in these scholarly areas.
Related: How to Write Your Mission Statement
Change workflows, not value propositions
Given our overlying goals, we have always been judicious about scaling, ensuring every growth decision was an investment aligned with our guiding principles. For example, one of our earliest product offerings was the original Application Boot Camp™. We look forward to it every year because of the high-quality, one-on-one time it gives us with our applicants and their families. We have waitlists every year and over 60% of our students come from referrals. It has become somewhat of a cult following to be a “boot camper.”
In early 2020, when it became clear that there was no way we would get all our kids together for in-person, multi-day College Admissions Boot Camp, we got to work translating this proven program to a virtual event. This didn’t mean pivoting away from a product we knew was a fundamental part of our students’ development. We just needed a new way of delivering our proven value – and it was a success.
Years ago, based on a decision to scale our business to international clients, we had invested in digital tools. Zoom had long been our most reliable way to reach students who lived in places like Papa New Guinea or Jakarta. The substance of our coaching didn’t change in 2020, but our workflow did. All our communication became digital, including our newly virtual Boot Camp.
Connect your customers to your mission
Migrating everything to digital was just one change; frankly, it was the easiest one. We found ourselves counseling students through a totally different high school landscape. Were we only focused on admissions or the “admissions formula,” it would have been an immensely frustrating year. Too much is up in the air to project with any certainty what college would look like for our students in Fall 2020 into 2021.
Keeping our mission – to develop scholars who lean into their passions and carve out a niche for themselves – in mind, we coached our students to see their new circumstances as an opportunity to grow rather than a total hijacking of their high school experience. Sure, you can’t attend swim tournaments or go to Prom – but you care deeply about mentoring younger girls. How might you empower those who are now in shelters? What do they need? The result? Our student created a program that is putting feminine hygiene products in local shelters.
We are so proud that, during the pandemic, ten of our students have been featured in the national news for projects that they undertook. We have worked with young people accepted to top colleges who go on to become Fulbright scholars, Rhodes Scholars, National Poet Laureates, and Eco-Heroes. We know that COVID-19, while it might alter our students’ college experience, won’t fundamentally disrupt their growth – and this is how we define success in a very chaotic year.
Having a clear operating mission is critical as a small business. When your business is challenged, you will have much more confidence finding new ways to deliver your tried and tested products and services rather than being tempted to totally pivot away from your core offering, as a well-resourced company might. Because you are so well-versed in your business, you can trade out how you are connecting clients with your primary value proposition without gambling the entire business. Use your existing business structure in a new cost structure.
When a crisis comes, don’t panic and don’t pivot. Instead, find new space within your stated mission to achieve your goals. You are the expert in your space. Trust that expertise and stay focused. It worked for us as we emerged with one of our strongest years under the most challenging circumstances.