We spoke to Joel Butterly of InGenius Prep about application/admission consulting.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Joel Butterly: I’m a bit bored and out of shape, but otherwise healthy. My parents are a bit older, so they have to self-quarantine quite a bit, but I would consider ourselves extremely fortunate this far.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded InGenius Prep.
Joel Butterly: I was born in Lexington, MA, and grew up in the Boston area until about 13. At that point, we moved to rural New Hampshire/Vermont. From a young age, I had planned to be a lawyer, which played a big role in my passion for debate throughout high school and college.
After high school, I attended Dartmouth College, where I majored in Government and Geography and had a minor in Ethical Philosophy. After graduating, I spent a year working as a personal trainer and writing a book while living with my girlfriend (now my wife) in England as she pursued her first master’s degree.
The following year I entered Yale Law School. Although I was deeply impressed by the students and faculty, it quickly dawned on me that law was not my calling. I was more drawn to higher-risk endeavors with more flexibility and opportunity for creativity. Thus in 2013, during our first year of law school, we co-founded InGenius Prep.
The basic concept was simple: your application is considerably more important in the admissions process than your test scores. Yet, despite the existence of a multi-billion dollar test preparation industry, no such equivalent existed on the application/admissions consulting side. We set out to become the dominant player in that burgeoning niche industry.
How does InGenius Prep innovate?
Joel Butterly: Sometimes, we innovate by design, and sometimes we innovate by necessity. By design, we try to be extremely non-hierarchical in our brainstorming and idea generation process. Ideas are given equal weight regardless of origin; as a result, we do tend to get a lot of great ideas from newer or younger staff that can be combined with the operational expertise of older team members and turned into great opportunities.
Necessity, though, is truly the mother of invention. As a fast-growing company without investors, we are frequently faced with novel challenges to which there are no existing solutions. In the absence of investors who can help solve the problems, we tend to lock ourselves in a room, and we do not leave until we have a full action plan. The people in the room vary, and generally, the rule is we only take the key stakeholders for a given issue. Sometimes that involves our executive team, and sometimes it does not.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Joel Butterly: I have said many times to our team: “We are not immune to the coronavirus, but we are nonetheless extremely fortunate.” Whereas other companies have seen enormous declines in annual revenues, we have managed to keep ourselves on track financially. Fortunately, despite having to make pay reductions in many instances, we still have not had to lay off a single person, which we are extremely proud of. Currently, we are looking forward to bringing everything “back to normal” in Q4.
In terms of day-to-day challenges, most of our work is done remotely, so the work itself has not suffered at all from what we can tell. I think we all miss spending time with our colleagues at the office, but otherwise, things have been smooth.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Joel Butterly: Yes, we had to make many difficult decisions, often with inadequate information. The most important lesson was trying to be as transparent as possible with our team. You will always have people who don’t understand, but ultimately, being extremely straightforward with the challenges the company was facing was critical to maintaining trust during a very uncertain time.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and InGenius Prep in the future?
Joel Butterly: I exercise a lot. During quarantine, I converted an entire floor of my home into a gym. A healthy diet and no alcohol helps as well. If I’m not working or exercising, I’m spending time with my wife, Emily, and my dog Hazel.
The goal of InGenius Prep has been and continues to be becoming the dominant global player in admissions counseling. We will continue expanding geographically (we currently have 14 offices in four countries), adding new programs such as career counseling, subject tutoring, etc. We will reach our goal, whether it takes three years or ten. We feel very confident in our business model and our ability to grow, so as long as we stick to our playbook, we should get there in time!
We are also interested in building more scalable solutions to make these services more affordable with time. We have invested in (and launched) some class-based programs that will hopefully become more popular with time.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Joel Butterly: We have many competitors, but this isn’t a field with a ton of innovation, so competition isn’t particularly fierce. Frankly, there are too many competitors to name, and that is part of the attraction of this industry to me – it is so fragmented. There is no “Kaplan” of admissions counseling.
We stay in the game by improving our services every year. Adding new features, new curriculum, and investing enormously in our own intellectual property. Many companies in this industry are essentially middle-men, just serving as intermediaries between a consultant and a student. We work extremely hard to be much more than that – providing a ton of resources through the company that students cannot get elsewhere.
Your final thoughts?
Joel Butterly: This pandemic will end. The world will return to normal. And when it does, there will be more opportunities than ever before. So there is much to look forward to.