Just because you drop out of Harvard it doesn’t mean you’re the next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. And a group of mostly Harvard undergraduates who dropped out to run their startup realized that they’d be better off picking as their CEO a 60-year-old serial entrepreneur who had sold three of his companies for about $200 million.
In so doing, their startup is riding the crest of a breaking wave that could propel them all to great success.
This comes to mind in considering my July 10 conversation with Jon Carson who since January 2016 has been CEO of CollegeVine, a service that connects undergraduate so-called Near-Peer Mentors (NPMs) with high school students seeking college admissions and their parents.
As Carson explained, “CollegeVine is a virtual high school guidance platform that enables families of public school students to supplement their high school guidance to get the same quality of guidance as students at private schools.The company has been growing revenue at 3.5 times per year and between 2015 and 2017, the number of NPMs it employs has [skyrocketed] from 80 to 600,” Carson said.
CollegeVine’s “secret sauce is connecting high schoolers and their families to a network of highly talented college students at a range of top schools. These consultants have expertise in navigating the high school journey, proven academic success, and successfully completed the college admissions process. Due to age proximity they relate easily to teenagers. These consultants go through intensive training and are leveraged by proprietary, data-driven decision making tools,” he explained.
Carson did not excel academically at Babson College but his entrepreneurial skill manifested itself just as Babson was changing its focus to entrepreneurship. He started a beer delivery service and Babson decided to parade him in front of the media to tout the school’s new academic focus.
That — when combined with a book Carson wrote about entrepreneurship — helped gain him admission to the Yale School of Management from which he graduated in 1984. He worked at McKinsey during the summer and while at Yale realized that had he start a consulting firm and staff it with the smartest people from Babson. He sold that 12-person consulting firm to Baker Insurance in 1989.
He spent the next decade building up FamilyEducationNetwork which grew to become the largest education website on the internet with 270 employees then sold it to Pearson for $175 million in 2000.
He then took some time off and in 2003 joined BiddingForGood, a “charitable e-commerce marketplace with $60 million of annual gross merchandise sales comprising thousands of school/charity ‘sellers’ and half million registered shoppers/bidders,” which private equity firm, FrontStream bought in July 2015
From there, Carson was a startup mentor at the Harvard Innovation Lab (iLab) where he met the Harvard undergraduates who were running CollegeVine. “We had a speed dating session in which 10 mentors met with 10 startup teams. We chose each other. CollegeVine was doing $100,000 in revenue a month from their dorm room. I thought they had something special and encouraged them to consider whether they should drop out of college to pursue the idea,” said Carson.
The CollegeVine founders were three friends from New Jersey who met in seventh grade. Two of them were at Harvard and one was at U. Chicago. They did not get much help from their high school college counselors but with help from slightly older students they figured out what they needed to do to get into these elite schools. Others asked for their help and their reputation spread.
In the fall of 2015, they had to leave the iLab and they decided to take a leave from Harvard to work on CollegeVine — in January 2016 they made Carson its CEO.
Co-founder Zack Perkins went to high school in New Jersey with his cofounders Johan Zhang and Vinay Bhaskara. As Perkins explained in a July 11 interview, “I didn’t realize I was even qualified to apply to Harvard until very late in my high school career. I was in a competitive high school environment, which drove me to work really hard as I tried to keep up with my friends. It wasn’t until junior year that I started to really understand how my overall profile with some refinement could have a shot at top schools. I think this was an advantage because every activity I did in high school was something I enjoyed — reframing everything later for college was incredibly easy because my application reflected who I was.”
Perkins discovered that NPMs were more valuable to him than high school college counselors. He said, “As I went through high school, I always had slightly older mentors in the grades above me that helped advise me on which classes to take, how to progress in extra-curriculars, and what it all meant for colleges.”
He continued, “It always struck me as strange that it was more natural for me to go to older peers with questions about navigating high school than my school’s counseling department. I also watched a ton of my friends without the same peer relationships fall behind because they were just completely on their own.”
So they decided to drop out and work on building a business around that insight. “Our basic thesis was that highly trained college students could make powerful counselors if given access to technology and a great program, and so we started the company to give students all across the country access to great near-peer counselors. The incredible success of the concept even in just the first year showed us that we were on to something,” explained Perkins.
Why drop out of Harvard? “As our company grew, we found ourselves continuously making tradeoffs between the business and school. There simply wasn’t enough time in the day to really get the most out of Harvard and also achieve our goals for the company. My co-founders and I decided we wanted to focus on one thing, and at the time we were all in agreement that we were onto something pretty interesting with the company because of the strong revenue traction and clear market signals we had caught a wave. We all felt like we had stumbled upon a rare opportunity we just couldn’t pass up.”
Harvard has a really generous policy with leave and our advisors even encouraged us to take the time off to see our venture all the way through. From our perspective, there was virtually zero downside and only potential for a great experience.
Perkins and his cofounders trust Carson and he trusts them. As Perkins said, “The relationship only works because there is strong mutual trust; we respect Jon’s extensive experience and intelligence; Jon sees us as equals and gives us full autonomy in everything we do, with a healthy dose of his own mentorship.”
“The juxtaposition is incredibly powerful. We met Jon as we were approaching a pretty critical juncture for the company. The business was completely taking off and our aspirations for what it could be were scaling well beyond what any of us had possibly imagined. Jon started off as a volunteer mentor with us at the iLab,” Perkins continued.
Perkins believes the company is better off with Carson as CEO. “After working with Jon for a few months, we all came to appreciate a really strong team dynamic; Jon’s part was to help synthesize our vision and define the trajectory for the incredible momentum we were building in all aspects of the business. From our perspective, we were onto something so powerful that we wanted someone at the table that had seen the movie a few times to add a new perspective,” concluded Perkins.
Carson has learned a valuable lesson from his decades of entrepreneurial experience. “It is much better to work for a startup that’s catching a wave. It’s easy to tell — customers are seeking out its product and revenues are growing.”
That is clearly the case with CollegeVine.