As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Linda Abraham.
Linda founded Accepted in 1994, launched the accepted.com website in 1996, and has grown Accepted ever since from a part-time editing service to a highly respected admissions consultancy. In 2007 she co-founded the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants and served as its first president. She also co-authored the book, MBA Admissions for Smarties, and hosts the Admissions Straight Talk podcast, which she started in 2012. Media outlets including CBS News, The Wall Street Journal, US News, Bloomberg Businessweek, BusinessBecause, and Poets and Quants have sought Linda’s perspective on admissions.
Thank you so much for joining us Linda! 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 had been a writing tutor during my senior year at UCLA in the 1970s and loved the work, but I did not see how one could make a living as a writing tutor or editor.
In the 1980s I was spending most of my time focused on my family; I had six children. By the early ’90s, my husband and I needed more income to support our family. I had friends who were writers, and they encouraged me to try freelance writing. I decided that before I established myself as a freelance writer, I would place a classified ad in the UCLA Daily Bruin, the student paper, and offer to do what I had done as an undergraduate writing tutor. The ad worked, but not exactly as I anticipated. I thought I would be asked to critique and edit research papers and essays. I did get those requests, but I was also frequently asked to edit statements of purpose and personal statements for graduate school applications.
As a lifelong lover of biographies, I discovered that working on application essays was just much more appealing and fun than research papers. I also realized that if applicants used the journalistic techniques that I was learning in preparation for that freelance writing career (never happened), their application materials would be more engaging and more effective.
I decided to focus my work on editing materials for graduate school applications. By then it was 1994. I was experimenting with online outreach via the online services in existence at the time, specifically AOL and CompuServe. Mere mortals like me did not yet have access to the internet.
Shortly thereafter the World Wide Web burst on the scene as a mass medium. Realizing that the internet removes geographic limitations, I launched our first website in 1996. Within a few years, my part-time, solo editing service had transformed into a full-service admissions consultancy guiding applicants from Australia to Alaska, Mongolia to Montana, and Zurich to New Zealand.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
The “Aha Moment” was when I realized I was being asked frequently to edit application essays and really enjoyed doing so. I sensed an unmet need in the marketplace.
This moment occurred more than ten years after I earned my MBA, but my graduate management education was oriented towards large corporations. “Entrepreneurship” was a new field. I even remember a classmate asking me if I knew what the word meant! (I did.)
Around the time of my “Aha Moment,” I was reading a lot about starting and growing a home-based business as well as pursuing a career in freelance writing. My reading revealed the value of “niching,” having a real focus to your business so you don’t spread yourself too thin and can excel in your work. I realized that if I became an expert in graduate admissions, I would provide a better service — and I could charge more for my time.
Focusing on graduate admissions allowed me to specialize in something I enjoyed and something for which there was a demand. With the internet emerging as a means of doing business remotely, I also realized that graduate admissions editing and advising was not going to be limited by any potential client’s willingness or ability to come to meet with me.
When I told people my business idea, it was met with a lot of skepticism. Whoever heard of a grad application editing service? However, I sensed the demand for the service, found the work fulfilling, and decided to focus my efforts on graduate admissions as an experiment. Shortly thereafter, in July 1996, I put up the first www.accepted.com.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
A prospective client made an appointment for me to edit a personal statement. I told him my fees, said that he would need to pay by check or with cash, and made the appointment. (I did not yet accept credit cards.) He came in a late-model car, had what was then a fancy laptop, and seemed prosperous. I did the work. At the end of the session, he reached into his wallet. Lo and behold, it was empty. And of course, he did not have his checkbook.
I said, “No problem. Please mail me a check.” Despite repeated reminders, the check didn’t come.
However, the saga continued.
The fellow called up and asked me for another appointment. I said I’d be happy to provide a second appointment after he paid for the first. He had tons of excuses why he couldn’t pay at that time and even more reasons why I should trust him to pay later. This conversation repeated itself a few times. However, the check never came.
The guy’s excuses and reasoning were becoming increasingly entertaining. My husband would come home from work and ask me what’s the latest installment in this guy’s story.At one point, the client’s elderly father even called and asked why I was refusing to work with his son. I said, “I’m happy to work with your son once he pays me for the work I’ve already done and the work he wants me to do.” The father also tried to persuade me to just do the work.
I never got paid, and he never got any additional work, but I learned:
- Sometimes it makes sense just to laugh at our fellow human beings.
- Get paid upfront.
- Have multiple means of payment and make it as easy as possible for clients to pay.
- The people who don’t pay you will NOT necessarily be the ones who have the least money.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
My vision for the business:
- Accepted is a service business. That means we must serve our clients. That commitment is at the heart of our business.
- Provide advice and editing that enhances the chances of our clients’ acceptance while enabling them to maintain their voice and tell their story in their applications.
- Accepted strives to serve with integrity, which means among other things:
a. If a client or prospective client asks about the likelihood of acceptance, we do not sugar-coat their chances. If we feel the likelihood of acceptance is low, we say so. If that response means they work with another consultancy that will tell them what they want to hear, so be it.
b. While we have an array of services that include flat-rate and time-based services, the staff is not incentivized to sell “big-ticket” items. We try to match the appropriate, most cost-effective service to the client’s needs.
c. We will not write the essays for the client.
d. If we discover a client is plagiarizing someone else’s work — and it has happened — we end the engagement.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
There are several ways that we realize that vision, and it’s an ongoing process. We demonstrate both our expertise and our commitment to service with the volume and quality of free information (blog, podcast, masterclasses, and guides) applicants can find on the Accepted website.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Strive to serve our market, both clients and non-clients.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
The hardest time we faced personally and professionally occurred shortly after I started the business. Our youngest son, six years old at the time, was diagnosed with leukemia in November 1995. He initially responded well to treatment, spent little time in the hospital, and by June 1996, was in remission. That summer he even attended a camp for children with cancer.
While he was away at camp, I put up the first www.accepted.com, and business exploded. Sadly, in September, he relapsed. His doctors recommended much harsher chemo and a bone marrow transplant. With long hospital stays looming and five other children, I could not have continued the business. I was ready to take down the website. One of my writer friends said that she would handle the business until I could get back to work. She did.
Our son had the bone marrow transplant in January 1997. Tragically however, he passed away that April at the age of seven and a half.
Our entire family then had to pick ourselves up and return to our normal work, school, and life. It was not easy, but we did it. I cannot tell you where I got the drive from, I just knew I had to do it. My surviving children and husband needed me.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
Today we are blessed with five adult children, the spouses of four, and numerous grandchildren. All give us infinite joy.
Professionally, Accepted has grown from a tiny part-time solo shop to a thriving consultancy with 24 consultants, a “back office” staff, and thousands of clients whom we have helped gain acceptance to top undergraduate and graduate programs, mostly in North America, but also a few in Asia, Europe, and Australia. We have worked with applicants from around the globe.
Accepted also offers hundreds of pages of free advice on its site and blog as well as free masterclasses, guides, tip videos, and our podcast, Admissions Straight Talk.
That focus on service and providing excellent general admissions guidance in our free materials as well as outstanding one-on-one individual advice and editing in our paid services has created growth for the following reasons:
- Quality free material allows us to demonstrate our expertise while also helping those who cannot afford our services.
- Those same materials also allow applicants who are considering professional consulting to both find us and sample what we offer. They enable potential clients to know, like, and trust us before spending a penny.
- Our supportive candor, which is another example of Accepted’s commitment to service, usually increases trust.
- Clients who have a good experience with us recommend us to their friends. Referrals are the best source of business.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
A service business must:
- Commit to serve its market.
- Be willing to experiment, adapt, and improve as circumstances change and it becomes ever more expert in its field.
- Adjust and drop what is no longer working.
- Listen carefully to and assess feedback from multiple stakeholders: customers, staff, people who decide not to buy, and others.
- Hire great people to serve its clients.
Stories Related to the 5 items mentioned above:
1. There are many examples of Accepted’s focus on service. That focus comes through when training our consultants. I emphasize that when advising clients on what service to purchase, they should recommend the service that the client actually needs — not the one that makes us the most money. There are no incentives at Accepted for selling the most or the most profitable services. This commitment is evidenced also by the many late nights our consultants put in as deadlines approach.
Here are a couple of specific examples:
- Consultants are trained to give candid, albeit constructive feedback, not only to clients but also to prospective clients who are considering hiring Accepted. Sometimes that commitment means that we have to say, “At this point in time, you are probably not competitive at your target programs. We suggest you do A, B, C, D to become competitive. We’re happy to advise you now, later, and throughout the process, but we advise against applying now.” I would rather lose a sale as a result of our candor than create false expectations.
- An applicant wanted our assistance with his MBA application to Harvard and Stanford, typically the two most difficult U.S. MBA programs to gain acceptance to. And he wanted to purchase what was at the time our most expensive service. I explained to him why his chances at these two elite programs were poor. The more I explained, the more he wanted to buy the service. While I am not normally this blunt, and don’t recommend being so blunt, I finally told him, “You are throwing out your money if you purchase this service.” That gave him pause. He said he wanted to think about it overnight.
2. When the business was young, it was an editing service. As it grew, we became more skilled at what we did and added related services. It became a full-service consultancy. Concurrently, I adapted by broadening the experience requirements for hiring new consultants. When we first started, the ability to write and edit was paramount. By the mid-2000s a background in admissions was equally important if one wanted to become an Accepted consultant.
We are constantly experimenting — trying out new approaches to marketing, or new ways to present our services. Sometimes simplifying and sometimes expanding. Admissions consulting is evolving. Marketing is evolving. And we have to evolve with our environment and market.
3. Along with a willingness to experiment must come a willingness to say, “This isn’t working.” For example, there was a time when we decided to experiment with a new service closely related to the work we do for applicants: editing documents necessary to advance in one’s career, specifically resumes, cover letters, and similar materials. The idea was to offer these services to clients and non-clients who needed them. We found it never made much money and distracted from our core mission. We abandoned it after a few years.
I don’t regret the attempt to try something different, nor the decision to shut it down.
4. I am constantly getting suggestions from clients, consultants, and our back-office staff. I take such suggestions very seriously, even if we don’t implement all of them and even if I’m not initially inclined to accept the suggestion.
For example, a few weeks ago, a consultant sent me a Slack message suggesting a certain initiative. She saw a need in the marketplace that was not being well met. At first when I saw her suggestion, frankly, I was not that interested. It sounded like it would take a lot of work and investment. However, I decided to give her a call and keep an open mind. She gave me a little more information, I listened, and we started to brainstorm. I realized that if we take her idea in a particular direction, it could both serve our market, be an improvement on what’s out there to deal with this issue, AND possibly bring in business.
We need to work on this further, but I think Accepted will move forward with it. There are lots of examples like this.
5. This is key. Accepted has an amazingly talented, dedicated staff.
I constantly aim to hire great people. For example, I was once interviewing a prospective consultant, a former admissions dean. I asked her a behavioral question about how she would handle a problematic but also common situation. I liked her response better than my typical response to that situation and changed my approach! Needless to say, she was hired.
Sometimes I take inquiry calls from prospective clients or their parents. The calls usually are about service options and the qualifications of the consultants they might work with. Towards the end of some of these calls, a prospective client might ask, “Can I work with you?” I haven’t worked individually with clients for years. I love telling them that the consultant I’m recommending is far more qualified to assist them or their child than I am.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person for whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There have been many people, but I have to first give credit to my husband, Mark Abraham. He supported my trying to build the business in the first place, when it seemed like a far-fetched, nutty idea. He also was frequently my sounding board as it grew. In 2008, he joined Accepted and has taken on those responsibilities that I simply don’t like, thus allowing me to focus much more on growing Accepted.
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 an “I Can Change” movement. We have worked with and spoken to so many applicants who overcame all kinds of difficulties on their way to achieving incredible success. I’d like people to realize that whatever life has handed them — and everyone has challenges and difficulties — one can choose how to respond. We can usually either change our circumstances or change and improve our response to circumstances.
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