Lessons I Learned About Starting My Own Business!
Frances Kweller, J.D. is founder of Kweller Prep Advanced Tutoring and Educational Services. An intensive test prep and college prep program designed for busy and talented youth. Her article is designed to offer reflection, and hopefully inspiration, to her readers. You can reach Frances at fk@KwellerPrep.com or visit www.KwellerPrep.com for more information.
TRUST YOUR GUT!
You have to trust your gut. If you don’t trust your own judgment, then how can you possibly expect others to trust in you? You have to make decisions for yourself, even if you fail. The best lessons you learn in life are from the mistakes you yourself made.
I had my business idea to open an advanced tutoring center while a college student at NYU. I knew it had tremendous potential. My time back then was limited, so I got to hand pick the kids I would work with—and I chose the best of the best. Top tennis athletes, exceptional students, and community service oriented kids. They were all ideal candidates for me to work with. I knew that after doing test prep with these kids, I could help them secure not only incredible college acceptance letters, but also a multitude of scholarships. I can’t even count how many times I worked on scholarship applications with my high school kids and they won--nearly $100,000 per kid. The parent would invest around $2,000- $5,000 in my service, and reap the benefits from it within a few months.
My gut said over and over again, ‘GO BIG GO BIG GO BIG.’ I eventually listened, but only after I completed law school—three years later! Obtaining a law degree gave me a tremendous amount of confidence. I was the first person to go to law school in my family and when I learned that I had passed the NYS bar, I felt as if I could rule the world. I needed that degree—I needed those three grueling years in law school, to gain the confidence I lacked in order to eventually open my own business.
People often ask me why I don’t “practice” law. But I do. In fact, I use my knowledge from law school all the time—to set up my first, and then my second corporation, to create employment and non-competition agreements, to obtain licenses to use material from the College Board, and to work with other lawyers as I form my corporate structure.
BE WARY OF THE ADVICE OF OTHERS.
I work with a lot of well-meaning parents who only want the best for their children, but sometimes, they discourage their kids from trusting themselves, because as parents, they think they know better.
One of my best friends lives in Israel now. She said one of the biggest mistakes she ever made in life was not listening to her gut, and studying the wrong major. Her parents really wanted her to be in the business world, but she loved to study art. Business was simply not her thing. Instead if encouraging her to take art classes, they sent her off to Kumon learning school every day. It took lots of bad jobs, and many unhappy years until she finally learned to do what she loves—which is art. She now works for an art appraiser and is happier now than ever before.
If your gut says be a doctor, then be a doctor! If it says be a tennis coach, then be one! But be the best! Work hard and put your energy into doing that what you love.
DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF SOMEONE YOUNG.
We are a generation of winners. 22 year old Lady Gaga earned 68 million dollars last year. Mark Zuckerburg, creator of facebook, was worth 26 billion. Bill Gates started Microsoft in 1975 and was the richest person in the world by 1996. What do they all have in common? Besides all dropping out from their respective colleges, they made a fortune doing what they love, trusting their gut and executing ideas.
If I only had one dollar every time a parent met with me and said, “Wow, you are so much younger than I expected.” Time and time again, parents think I must be in my forties or fifties because I am a lawyer and run my own successful business. Even my tutoring staff is amazed with me. “you are so successful” Helen, my 18 year old tutor, says. But I don’t see it that way. After all, Mark Zuckerburg is that same exact age as I am, and by age 27, he had made billions of dollars, and changed social media as we know it. HE is successful. Look at Lady Gaga, and Bettheny Frankel. THEY are successful.
I will never settle with moderate success--I always hold myself up to higher standards. I have role models my own age. We live in a generation of winners and young wealth. We are, bar far, the most intelligent generation society has ever had.
The sheer volume of information available at our fingertips is incredible. We are winners. We are Young. We are going places that prior generations never even dreamed of. Lady Gaga made more than Madonna last year. We do not only look up to our role models; we out-perform them.
I wonder if I lose clients because I am so young—because they think that an older, more experienced tutor or college counselor to get their kids into the ivy leagues. I think parents who do not use me are making a huge mistake. I’m young, I’m savvy, and I’m optimistic. Best of all, I have a track record of getting kids into top schools, on incredible scholarships.
I just spoke with one of my student’s college counselors yesterday. This counselor is older and jaded. He is not as optimistic as I am. I have worked with his student regularly for the past year and helped her go from a 1350 SAT score to a 2190. He sees her transcripts and worries. I see her SAT score and smile. I envision an amazing addendum letter to her college application discussing what an amazing, talented, albeit late blooming student she is. She went from a USTA National Tennis Ranking of 332 to 57. Amazing. Her sharp rise in tennis correlated directly with her higher and higher performance on her SAT. As her testing performance went up, so did her athletic abilities. She is incredible. She can hit the Ivy Leagues. And she will.
A young person sees what an older person may not. At my age, I am surrounded by young success. How can I possibly not be optimistic about my future?
DO WHAT YOU LOVE AND THE MONEY WILL FOLLOW
I am in the education industry, and I’m doing what I love. I’m not teaching at a school, because I don’t love that. I am a leader, not a follower, and I can’t handle bureaucracy. I can’t work as a teacher—simple reason: I could NEVER fail a kid. I work with kids until they become winners and I NEVER give up—my students will attest to this. I respect teachers so much; my mother was a school teacher for over 30 years. But even if I was the principal, I’d still have to answer to someone. So I won’t go that route (Unless I open a charter school for reasons I will mention in another article) I feel that my creativity would be restricted. I run a private practice. I need to be the boss.
Professionally, I can’t be anything else; it’s just not me. You have to do what you love to do. You have to know yourself—really know who you are. Trust me, the money will follow. The amazing part is that you don’t feel that you are ‘working’ when you do what you love. Your job is no longer a job—it is you. You actually enjoy talking about work—outside of work-- and in general, enjoying life. My highest levels of personal satisfaction came from Kweller Prep--launching something I love and creating something even larger than what I envisioned, with almost 200 students entering the Kweller Prep doors by the end of the first year (which, by the way, means I wasn’t thinking nearly big enough!)
Generation 2010 is filled with winners. My ambitious friends, who couldn’t find jobs, are opening their own businesses and are running them well—they are now the ones looking at resumes and doing the hiring. Our future is filled with alternative career options and I’m not going to let propaganda like CNN flash recession updates, or a jaded college counselor scare me away from taking risks or trying to place talented kids into top schools—on full academic scholarships.
TIMING IS A LOT, BUT EXECUTION IS EVERYTHING!
If I have learned one thing, it is this: Ideas are worthless unless executed. Since opening Kweller Prep, people have approached me with one idea after the other. Many claim that my success has inspired them and that they want to share their ideas with me. My response always is, “your idea is great, but how do you plan to go about executing it?” Without execution, your ideas are worthless. Completely Worthless. Executed ideas, however, are invaluable.
Sometimes executing your ideas means that you will lose friends, sometimes it means you will alienate family. But if you don’t follow through with something that you want to do, you will lose hope, and that is the greatest loss of all. Few people know this, (but after this article a lot more will), but my father (a man whom I admire and respect so much and speak to multiple times daily) was strongly opposed to me opening my own business. He had a different “picture” of how my life should go. When I decided to open my business, I told my father my “plan.” He strongly discouraged me and even threatened to stop speaking with me. He reminded me that we are in the midst of a recession, and I would have to be a complete idiot to take a loan out in such tumultuous time. I remember wishing so much that I had his support, but I also looked deep inside myself and listened to my gut—and continued to follow through with my plan.
THE HATE LETTER: My well meaning, very traditional father was adamantly opposed to me, a woman, opening her own business. Upon learning that I signed the lease, he was irate. Shortly after, he presented me with a letter. It went something like this: “I prohibit you from doing this. We are in the midst of a recession and what you are doing—taking a loan, opening your own business, signing a two year lease for tutoring after I paid for all of law school is ridiculous. Your business will fail. It will cost you thousands of dollars to run it. You don’t even know how to balance a check book. I WANT YOU TO WORK AS A LAWYER FOR THE GOVERNMENT. This way, you can make $40,000 a year to start, plus have full medical and dental coverage. You can set up a pension plan and a roth IRA. You can work from 9:00 to 5:00 pm and then retire after 20 years. THIS IS WHAT YOU SHOULD DO. I am your father and I know what is best. I would never mis-guide you” I wish I had kept the letter. Just the thought of working 9 to 5 makes me nauseous. Everyone has their calling—that kind of job or that kind of lifestyle simply is not mine.
In fact, my father was so angry that he had paid for my law degree and I decided to ‘work as a tutor’ that he did not speak with me my first three weeks in business. So much for a grand opening! I’m surprised my mom and dad didn’t walk around in black veils! For the first six months that I ran Kweller Prep, my father told friends and family that I was looking for a “real” legal job but I couldn’t find “real” work due to the recession. He was a man in deep denial. The truth was that I handed out no resumes. I went on no interviews, but my father for the life of him couldn’t come to terms with the fact that I was returning to do something I had done since I was fifteen years old—tutoring. Many members of my family were quite confused. I bet they still are. I went from being “my niece the lawyer,” which they would say with pride to “Henry’s daughter who wasted his money and got a law degree for nothing.” Ouch! Talk about harsh. It took about 6 months, $100,000 in earnings and a feature in the NYU alumni newsletter as an outstanding alumni for them to think otherwise. By the end of my first year, Kweller Prep generated over $250,000. I started with a -$10,000 credit card loan (I had to take a loan again my credit card because no bank would help me out).
I currently employ about a dozen tutors, and have professionally edited and proofread nearly 1,000 college applications and personal statements. I now offer an at-home tutoring option (to reduce overhead cost) and am in the preliminary stages of writing a grant proposal to open a charter school in New York and Los Angeles for first generation immigrant students geared to help them get into competitive colleges on scholarship. I blog, I twitter, I work on my website and face fear daily while writing up parts of my business plan to expand. I NEED to believe in myself, even when no one else will. I need to pray that I make the RIGHT personal and professional choices, and hope to remain a role model for all the kids who have come my way.
I need to be OK with my decisions, and need to always trust my gut. I have become best friends with my gut. I listen to it, and it leads me in the right direction. Always.
My dad recently made my day. It took three years. He sees how happy I am. I get to travel, and launch incredible business ventures. I am more confident now than ever before. He told me that he used to think that he was 100% right, but now he realized that after I opened the business and ran it successfully without his help, he had been 100% wrong. To me, his respect means more than anything in the world. Today, I have it. Had I not executed my idea, it might have been lost. Now I take my father to events where I do presentations on the business and hold informational workshops on competitive college admissions. My father is amazed each and every time. It took a while, and a very powerful idea execution to gain his admiration and respect in a way in which satisfies both me and him.
CREATE A BUSINESS PLAN
You have an idea? Great…. START, but that’s all it is. You can jot general ideas down on a napkin, or tape record yourself while you speak, or simply share an email with a friend to get the ball rolling, but you must have some kind of vision, some kind of plan that you can put into written form. Thinking small isn’t enough; to be successful in business—and in life—you must think big. You must put your ideas in writing. You must have a business plan. I get chills right before working on mine. But I have support. There are numerous websites that can help with this, and they even offer free consultations. You have to be crazy not to take advantage of these opportunities. You can speak with an experienced business plan expert for free! Your first step is the PLAN. You must at least have that. Then you need drive, ambition, and a touch of luck.
LEARN TO HEAR THE WORD “NO!” BUT STILL FOLLOW YOUR GUT
I read somewhere that a child hears the work ‘no’ seven times more than he hears the word ‘yes’ as he grows up. I think it gets worse as you get older. I will never say to my child or children that they cannot do anything. Everything is within their reach.
When I first approached people with my business idea for a tutoring center, I felt like I heard the word ‘no’ 40 times more than I heard ‘yes.’ “There is already a Princeton, and a Kaplan, and schools are packed with after school services- some are even free—why would they go to you?“ And there was more “You can teach. You can work in law. You can work in a company and have vacation days! Like 2 weeks a year!” My parents said no, my then boyfriend said no, his mom said no, the bank said no. I wanted $100,000 to open my business. The answer was unanimously “no-no-no-no-no.” Uggh.
One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with was hearing the word no, but moving on despite hearing that vulgar word. I am a natural people pleaser. In a way, I think everyone is. I knew I had a great idea, which was to create Kweller Prep – a learning incubator in Forest Hills, specifically designed for advanced children of immigrant kids. I was hoping to fill a niche. I wanted to provide exceptional support services for already talented kids. So many of those kids live in Queens, where there is a high 1st generation immigrant population, an area filled with talented, driven young minds, and parents who aspire to give their kids the best education possible.
People take for granted that smart kids will just ‘figure out’ how to get into a top college or university, but that is not the case. Over and over again, I was discouraged from pursuing my ideas-- first by my own family, then from my friends. The problem is that even the people who supported me (and there were very few), didn’t have the money or capital to invest in my ideas. Even those who said they would never followed through. This doesn’t mean they were bad friends, but perhaps they were just too busy in their own world to help me pursue my dreams. YOU HAVE TO PURSUE YOUR DREAMS. They are YOURS!
I was pleasantly surprised when kids with very low grades came to Kweller Prep for help. I did not turn anyone away. “The center is not designed for you, but if you commit to working your butt off, to deactivating facebook, to learn with and respect the tutors here, then I’ll take you in.” One after the other, they unanimously agreed. Multiple students went from 60 to 90 averages thanks to Kweller Prep. We helped some gets get out of the school system entirely; we arranged to home school, alternate schools, and charter school them. Overall, I observed one success after the other.
REJECTION HURTS.GET OVER IT.
I remember after law school, I was finally confident enough to open my business. I had, after all, a law degree that I knew I could fall back on. I had a top undergraduate degree from New York University—from which I graduated early, in 3 1/3 years with high honors. I decided to go, with confidence from one bank to the next to promote my small business idea.
Talk about getting no support! Citibank shut me down completely. The small business banker said I must be ‘in business’ at least 2 years before I can even think about applying for a loan. She also gave me her two cents that I would be better off working for another tutoring center for a few years and then opening my own. Why people offer free advice—which turns out to be well-meaning but bad advice—is beyond me. After completing law school, I had momentum—I wanted to open my own business. I was ready to do so. I opened it and I did really well. Had I taken the Citibank’s business specialist’s advice, she would have set me back a few years. Or worse, I would have lost my momentum or entered into a non-compete agreement with another tutoring company, which could potentially have prohibited me from opening my own unique center.
SBA rejected me. That really hurt. I had nowhere to go except the credit cards after that. I maxed out my credit line. I was very lucky. My business did well, and I paid my loan back, ahead of time!
I received a letter from the SBA that my business got nominated for best local start up business by a woman in 2010. I was very flattered and very confused. After all, the guy who nominated me was the same one who couldn’t help me secure a loan from SBA to start my business in the first place! I just didn’t get it. The letter said that I helped create more jobs in this horrible economy and if I won the award, then 60,000 copies of the SBA newsletter would go out with Kweller Prep featured on the cover. Wow! I was honored, but not interested in the publicity. I found it strange, if anything, the same people who nominated me now were the ones who couldn’t invest in me back then.
I was also going through some immense personal changes I have no desire now to write about now. The timing was off, and the nomination,all the potential publicity, while flattering, just didn't sit well with me at the time. I didn't want Kweller Prep on the cover of 60,000 fliers, not yet at least. I had so much more to do. I wasn't ready.
Getting rejected hurts. Get over it. Move on. Look what wound up happening with me-- the same people who refused to give me a business loan later nominated me for best local start up business!
LEARN TO DELEGATE!
You have to find people you trust, and you have to, above all, trust yourself. Even though you might be able to do a fabulous job of running the entire business on your own, it can be emotionally and mentally exhausting. You must, my dear readers, learn how to let go and delegate. There are only 24 hours in a day and you can only do so much. However by delegating, you can essentially create more time—more time to clear your head, and more time to think about bigger, better and more important things.
When I hired my first tutor, Risheen, I delegated to her the job of instructing students how to handle the critical reading sections on the SAT. Risheen had perfect SAT scores. She graduated from Columbia University, with high honors and was obtaining a professional degree from NYU in social work. I was at first nervous at having her work with ‘my kids.’ I was very possessive (grrr! Mine mine mine!). But as the business began to grow, I knew that I couldn’t teach and run the business single-handed. You can find her here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b9qJs9NTTm8&feature=player_embedded
Much to my surprise, the kids started to love Risheen. I BECAME JEALOUS. She worked for me on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and the kids requested her on Mondays and Wednesdays. I was so happy that she was a good fit, and so happy that she was so likeable, and jealous when the kids started to gravitate to her. I was learning to let go, and, boy, was that difficult. For the sake of my business and for what I had created, I had to find more amazing tutors. The kids had to love them. I had to learn to let go and allow them to be loved. I hired more and more incredible staff. It took a lot of trial and error. I gave the kids complete control over the hiring decisions at Kweller Prep. This empowered them. If they liked the tutor, I kept them; if not, I fired them. It was that easy. After the kids selected the tutors they liked the most, I began to train, and train and train. But I trained carefully. I had all the tutors sign confidentiality, non-disclosure, and non compete agreement.
THERE ARE PEOPLE OUT THERE WHO KNOW MORE THAN YOU. MEET THEM. HIRE THEM.
I am a lawyer, but I invested in hiring an experienced lawyer to help me draft such important documents. I also did a thorough background check on each tutor, as per my attorney's advice. There are people out there who know more than you. You just have to accept that in life. Don’t fight it—use them as resources. After all, you go to a mechanic for your car, a doctor for your health, and hopefully a knowledgeable lawyer to help you execute contracts for your business dealings. You need to go to those who have experience. It will save you time, and in the long run, a lot of money.
HIRE THE RIGHT STAFF
After a lot of trial and error, you will eventually learn to hire the right staff. You will eventually train the staff you like most. You may unfortunately train a competitor, like Princeton review and Kaplan did when they trained the founders of the now multi-million dollar test prep industry Revolution Prep. But that is a risk you have to take. If you avoid risk, you may also avoid highly profitably opportunities. You can’t suffer from ‘analysis-paralysis.’ Sometimes, thinking too much gets you nowhere. You analyze until you over analyze, and the thinking process exhausts you. Act now, think later, then process. Take a bite of the apple so you at least know what it tastes like.
TAKE AN ACCOUNTING CLASS
In college, I dodged basic accounting like the plague. In fact, I made it all throughout college and law school without taking a basic tax class. I feared I would fail the subject and managed to do without it—all because I didn’t want a bad grade. A class like accounting should be required. After all, the only things absolutely certain in life are taxes and death. I think that taking an accounting class should be ungraded. College kids should just take the class to learn and not fear a bad grade in an unknown area—but that is a separate discussion entirely. If you have the option to sit in on an accounting class (called “auditing” a class) go for it! Just sit in the back and take notes. This way, you don’t have to worry about getting a grade. Just enjoy and absorb the information.
HIRE A GOOD ACCOUNTANT
I went through three accountants my first year in business. The first one came highly recommended, but screwed up my filing status. He also put me on the radar with auditors. I paid him $400 to file my taxes. He used TurboTax, which I could have done myself for free. The second accountant had over 20 years of experience, which was great, but she did not handle the amended taxes with the care I wanted. Actually, she didn’t handle them at all. She held onto my tax return information for 2 weeks and let it collect dust in her office. I thought she was working on it. I thought she was helping me make a timely amendment, but she had bigger and better fish to fry. I was a new business, and low on her priority list. She returned my tax file to me untouched and told me to leave it as is, and be prepared to explain to an auditor that I made a one-time boo boo with my tax filing status in the event of an audit.
What an idiot. I was so angry. At that point, I began to complain to my friends, and they found me a trustworthy accountant, Alex Muratov. He really took control of my business. With Alex, Kweller Prep went from being a sole proprietorship (which I created) to a Corporation. Alex saved me money. Alex explained tax law to me. Alex helped me transition from paying my staff as 1099 employees (private contractors) to putting them on payroll.
Finding a good accountant is like finding a good doctor. The right one can save your life. The wrong one can end it. Alex is young, ambitious, clear and persistent. He has been practicing for 11 years and really knows his stuff. Most of all, he knows how to explain. This was something I needed that the other accountants really lacked.
BEWARE OF FREE ADVICE
Everyone offers me unwanted, uninvited, free advice, all the time. A lot of times it is negative advice. I’ve reached a point in my career now where I don’t even hear the words said anymore; all I hear is the negative and I nod but I zone out completely as to what the person is actually saying. I love this about myself. I do not process the word NO. What if Steve Jobs had listened to that evil word. We wopuld never have the ipod or Ipad! You will be surrounded by “nay say-ers” all your life--“Why are you opening a business?” “90% of business fail.” “You are wasting your talents.” “Get a ‘safe’ job with a pension, retirement plan, and ‘benefits’” “You are taking on too many responsibilities.” “So-and-so ran a business and HE failed…”
Learn to deal with them. Their negativity is like venom. You need to walk away before the snake bites. It will hurt.
I recently decided to post a 1 day workshop, called SAT in a DAY on facebook. I launched it before anyone had time to offer me free advice on it. People flew in from around the country to attend my workshop. It got rave reviews. I then launched it in Manhattan (www.ColumbiaScholarsPrep.com). I found a great lawyer to help me get the legal work done, and I couldn’t be more excited about this venture.
I have never been happier before in my life than I am now. I am in my element, and I hope this article inspires you to be too. I have a lot more lessons to learn down the road, and I’m excited to see what the future has to bring. 2011 has been an incredible year, despite the recession, despite the falling trees of Forest Hills, and despite the really bad free advice I got, and fortunately taught myself not to listen to. Thanks for reading!