How I Pivoted 2 times to build $50k/month Uber for college admissions.

January 4, 2020

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Leo Sanada

Founder of ConnectPath Inc.

Tokyo

Please introduce yourself (name, age, country, job before starting a company) and what you are working on

Leo Sanada. I was born in 1984 (35 years old) and originally from Tokyo. Before starting my own company, ConnecPath Inc. (our consumer-facing brand is WeAdmit.io), I worked for Mitsubishi Corporation, which is the biggest conglomerate in Japan.

While working for Mitsubishi, I started a K-12 education non-profit business on extracurricular basis and run for 7 years. This passion culminated while I was earning my MBA at the University of Michigan in 2017 and decided to launch ConnecPath. Since then, I’ve devoted all of my energy to help high school students to go to college and beyond.

Leo

WeAdmit is an end-to-end, unique college counseling service with the goal of helping students find their passion and enabling them to pursue it in their best-fit school. WeAdmit’s curriculum focuses heavily on introspection, helping clients find what they truly excites them. Every one of our students gets assigned two counselors - a professional private admissions counselor with 10-20 years of experience and a “look-alike” college student at one of their top schools. Both of these counselors are selected to match the student interests to ensure success and provide highly relevant experience.

Counsellors

What's your backstory and why did you decide to start a business?

The story of my current startup journey traces back to the non-profit business that I mentioned above. When I was 25 years old while working at Mitsubishi, I met with a 13-year old boy Leo (coincidentally the same name as mine). He was the son of my former boss and I met him when the boss invited me to a weekend gathering at his home.

When I talked with Leo, I was so surprised at how he was knowledgeable about how the academic world and the real world are connected. For example, he completely understood how math would organize the world of information, how history would help us to predict the future economy, and how extracurriculars would equip us with teamwork to achieve a common goal. Although he was undecided in terms of future career at that time, I foresaw that he would find his career goal very soon and study hard to achieve that.

Through this eye-opening story, I learned a trajectory-changing lesson that all young people should have opportunities to think about who they really are, who they want to be in the future, and to know how they can achieve their life goals. Soon after finding this takeaway, I started the non-profit business that I mentioned above. Eventually, that non-profit organization grew with 40 of volunteers, involved 30,000 high school students in its various career education services/programs in 7 years.

Then, I wondered how I can pursue this goal on a massive scale with impactful outcomes. My ultimate answer is to start a scalable education-tech business in the San Francisco Bay Area. To scale out my mission, I needed to incorporate technology into this field. Young people are more open to technology, so I thought edtech product would quickly penetrate to that generation as well.

Closely looking at their first biggest ‘career event’ which is college admissions, there were so many inefficiencies such as school counselors have 500 students each and thus kids have only 10 minutes per year to consult college admissions with their counselors. This looked for me something that I should bet my life to revolutionizing.

Describe the process of starting and launching your businesses.

It was wild. Although I took entrepreneurship-focused classes at Michigan Ross MBA and got a preliminary version of the product, I just landed at the Silicon Valley without having any asset: no network, no co-founders, no investor, no friends.

With the idea-level product, I tried everything to seek a technical co-founder because I knew that I wanted to build a tech product but I was a business guy. As a result, I met with a great candidate whose name is Pradeep Gaddam.

He was a full-stack software engineer working at a unicorn startup based in Silicon Valley. After having multiple rounds of discussions, we agreed to start the company together.

It took two months since I started looking for a co-founder. Given that Pradeep and I were complete strangers when we met, I think it was fast enough timeline to make a collective decision to become co-founders of the startup.

Co-founders

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

The problem we wanted to solve has been the same since we started the company in September 2017, we’ve pivoted the business model twice.

The problem we are solving is the insufficient amount of college application guidance for high school students. The first solution that we came up with was to reduce the workload of high school counselors by automating the low-end, college admission-related Q&As using chatbot. We sold this product to high schools and districts and acquired a few beta test users. However, essentially this business didn’t go through.

Connectpath First Iteration

Then, we pivoted to the next business model to tackle the same issue with a different approach. The idea was to bring an alternative workforce into the college admissions guidance market: current undergrad students.

The way it worked was an Uber for college admissions. High schoolers who have quick college-related questions come to our mobile app and find college mentors who are online now. High schoolers send an on-demand session request and the text-chat session starts if the college mentor accepts the session. After the session is done, high schoolers pay money for the college mentor and we took a cut as the on-demand marketplace provider. We saw a decent success with 10k+ downloads of the app but we concluded that it was not the product scaling to make $100 million revenue.

Interestingly, the reason why we decided to let go of the chatbot and the mobile business is common in that it was unclear exactly which relevant market we addressed. In other words, there were no reference markets for both products. No other competitors provide schools/districts with chatbot solutions that automate Q&As. No existing market that high school students buy a fraction of the time of current college students. They did have pain but nobody paid money for the said pains that we uncover via user interviews. That’s why although they trusted our services to some extent but didn’t pay money to us, which made us feel it doesn’t work as a business.

Then we started over with a totally different view. What is the very obvious market that they pay money in order to solve a certain pain in college admissions space? We concluded that it was $2B domestic college consulting market. The mainstream product of the market is $4,000-$20,000 consulting packages whose main buyers are parents who have high school kids. We carefully decoded why parents buy these products and designed our own version of the product, taking advantage of what we have learned by then. Eventually, we came up with our current flagship product WeAdmit.io.

I was surprised to observe that soon after we started the sales of WeAdmit parents bought the product with a very high conversion rate. I thought this is a so-called ‘product-market fit’ that with minimum marketing efforts the product sells itself.

Connectpath counselling team

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

After achieving $100k+ revenue, we’ve tentatively stopped taking new clients in order to focus on our existing customers. The business model of WeAdmit is a ‘managed marketplace’ in that we assemble a team of strangers (a professional admissions consultant, a college mentor, and a financial aid expert) and have them work like a fully functional team like they’ve worked for a long time. In order to achieve this status, we need to clearly define the scope of work, workflow, protocols, and procedures of consulting. What we are working on right now is to build internal documentation and resource libraries for our consultants/mentors to do an amazing job as efficient and autonomous as possible.

Completing this process makes us more scalable. We are almost done with that phase and restart taking new clients. A series of new marketing campaigns are lined up and will steeply increase the top line in 2020.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Before starting my own business, although I was in a profit-center of my previous company, I’ve never thought about why my users buy our product. After starting the business, I had to build products that are sold immediately after product development.

In general, there are so many competitors who have more resources out there, but paradoxically, I need to sell my product to customers right away with much fewer resources. To achieve that, I truly understand for what pain clients pay money in order to solve it, what niche of needs are unmet by the existing providers, and how we can deliver the solution as fast as we can.

I’ve never experienced to work under such a situation before but after starting my business, I’ve had to do this every single day must make some results before our cash runs out. Before I was unaware of this lesson, I spent countless days to feel so bad and depressed. After I found out this lesson somehow, my mindset has been completely changed and now I enjoy doing this job.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We use Slack, Zoom, and Google Drive when delivering the client-facing service of WeAdmit. They are pretty classic but just enough to provide the minimum viable version of the service, especially right after launching a new product. Now we are building our own software to replace these third-party tools so that the UX will be improved.

What are some sources for learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?

Y Combinator’s Startup School is the best place to learn. It’s completely free and open to everyone. They organize the way startup founders learn at a very early stage. We graduated from the program of Summer 2019 batch and I was personally amazed by the quality of the service and community.

Advice for professionals who want to get started or are just starting out?

Just start it! I’ve heard so many excuses from ‘prospective’ startup founders who never start their business. They often say ‘if I find angel investors’, ‘if my MVP acquires customers’, ‘if I find a great cofounder’. Paradoxically, without taking risks, you'll never convince investors, never complete the product development that sells itself, and never attract your business partner who will embark on the crazy startup journey.

The best way is to gain the first momentum to get the ball going. The trigger is very simple: you quit your day job today, trust me, that’s it.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

Yes. We are hiring a founding employee who will be in charge of growth/marketing. As mentioned above, we are ready to expand our marketing outreach. If you are interested in the position, please submit your application via this link.

Where can we go to learn more?

Visit https://www.weadmit.io/