Arin and Brian Mitchell have turned their passion for helping high school students and their families achieve their educational dreams into a new startup.
Arin says she’s always enjoyed connecting and coaching young adults, having regularly led early-career leadership initiatives professionally and by working with McIntire mentoring programs to be able to reach out to McIntire third- and fourth-years. And in the case of Bullseye, a company she’s recently launched with her brother Brian, the LinkedIn Brand & Social Impact Communications Manager says she’s motivated by the prospect of being part of the process of helping high school students at scale, but that it ultimately comes down to family.
“I really believe in anything my brother sets his mind to—he’s the smartest and most hard-working individual I know, and anything he’s this committed to is inspiring,” she says.
For his part, Brian draws on his wealth of personal experience advising students. Having been called upon for assistance by his parents’ friends and a large number of hopeful teenagers seeking advice, he says he wants to share the knowledge that led him to secure admission at UVA, Vanderbilt, and Harvard, with full academic scholarship offers from the two former institutions. He’s driven by the idea of democratizing access to ethical and affordable private advising, especially after the recent college admissions scandal undermined public trust in the process.
“It shouldn’t just be wealthy families who can get access to top-notch college consulting. That was a huge driver in building a business model too, that for every three students who pay for our premium services, we provide the same high quality of services to one student in need,” he explains. “And for us, we’re starting close to home in the D.C. public school system with partnerships at several high schools.”
We recently spoke with the Comm School alumni siblings about their venture, the challenges they’re facing, and how they’re prepared to overcome them.
Congratulations on making your $10,000 goal through Kickstarter! What prompted you to use the crowdfunding platform to reach your early objectives?
Brian: Kickstarter is a great platform to rally your early supporters and grow an initial base of customers through pre-sales. We were able to clearly share our founding story and vision with the world through a centerpiece video, and ultimately we drove enough web traffic to our campaign to become the #1 apps project on Kickstarter in the United States for nearly a week. That type of traffic built on itself and helped us have a successful public launch.
Arin: Thank you! Securing that funding allowed us to finalize our web app and to launch right before students went back to start senior years of high school.
How will your platform’s premium features connect high school students with the right recent college grads? How will it try to ensure a fitting mentor/mentee match?
Arin: On the premium side, we have two sets of features, and both connect high school students with incredible mentors. First, there are our college advising sessions, which are 30-minute phone calls or video chats between mentors and students to ask questions ranging from what life on campus was like to financial aid or scholarship help. Second, we have a Bullseye Scorecard technology that actually evaluates essays submitted to us on four categories: voice, grammar, organization, and fluency. Our Bullseye mentors are all trained in taking the grades this scorecard shares and providing meaningful line-by-line edits to walk through with the high school student and his or her parents.
Brian: We have a mentor community of nearly 100 mentors coming from 30 different universities, and we’re hoping that the incredible range and diversity of our mentors will help there be a match for every student using Bullseye. Specifically, high school students can search for mentors based on schools they graduated from, on schools they applied to (and were accepted to), or even by name if they’ve heard of a mentor they want to work with. They can also view our mentors’ profiles to see what they studied in school, what their interests are, and what they’re up to professionally since graduating. Furthermore, certain mentors have specialty training in financial aid, scholarships, or the athletic recruitment processes. All of this provides a range of dimensions that we consider in matching up students with mentors. It’s also a big differentiator of Bullseye in the college consulting market: We’re transparent in who our mentors are and give families the ability to choose their advisers (if they want to). All of our mentors were trained with hours of college admissions strategy and are taking time out of their day jobs or higher education endeavors—many are in medical school or law school—to connect with high school students, as they really believe in our company mission and the technology we’re offering.
What can you share about how you envision Bullseye creating value or disrupting a particular space?
Arin: I think it comes back to what Brian mentioned about the incredible social mission that we have: For every three students who pay for services, we’ll offer the same set of services to someone who traditionally couldn’t afford it. Through partnerships in the works—like the one with SOUL Programs or working directly with guidance counselors at Wilson High School in Washington, D.C.—we’re investing money back into the system to help students of all backgrounds achieve their college dreams. The median college advising fee is $4,620, and the average student-to-counselor ratio in public schools is about 400:1, which is incredibly prohibitive for most people and can lead to a huge disparity in meaningful college advising support for students. We want to meaningfully invest in these communities and the incredible, talented young adults coming from them so that they can achieve their dreams. (Read more about Bullseye’s social mission here.)
Brian: We’re absolutely hoping to disrupt the college consulting space. Many students still rely on pen-and-paper to-do lists, hard copy planners, or extensive spreadsheets if they’re more tech savvy. While the Common App was innovative when launched, there really haven’t been many disruptive moments or technology advancements since. Many of our competitors like Crimson Education and CollegeVine offer great options, but their starting prices are prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of American and international families. For us, it’s all about providing an elite consulting experience in a distinctly non-elitist way: using innovative technology to deliver an equivalent experience at a fraction of the price of our competitors. Middle-class families can afford our options, and for families who cannot, we give them free access.
Brian, how did your time at McIntire ready you for the challenges you’re now facing with Bullseye?
Brian: I could speak at length about how I’ve translated the foundational business knowledge I learned in McIntire into a strong foundation for Bullseye. But the most empowering thing for me has really been the relationships I forged with professors, classmates, and other McIntire partners. Professors Gary Ballinger and Natasha Foutz have supported me and encouraged me to take this entrepreneurial leap, as have many of my Class of 2018 classmates, including Kumeil Hosain and Lauren Abraham, and countless others. When you have a community around you, it allows you to push forward when you’re feeling lost, and I think that’s part of the genesis of Bullseye, too. We’re giving high school students and families across the world a support system of incredible and diverse individuals who were in their shoes just a few years ago. We’re building their confidence up to pursue their college dreams.
What are the biggest challenges for your company going forward, and what are you most excited about as you approach the next stage?
Arin: The challenges—but also the rewarding moments—are everything that comes with launching a new company: getting the word out effectively, testing our pricing model, fine-tuning our customer value props, and measuring how helpful our services are in helping students achieve their college dreams. From a marketing and communications standpoint, one of the biggest challenges is building a brand that is inspiring and trustworthy so that students want to use us, but also one that parents and family members believe in and pay for premium services. Getting into college is a unique and special time for every family member involved, so it’ll be challenging but exciting to be part of this process and figure out where and how we can best add value.
Brian: Arin’s description of the key challenges we face is spot-on: The biggest one is scaling up our marketing efforts in ways that effectively reach our two target audiences of students and parents. In today’s digital world, it’s all about vying for attention; we’re competing not just against other companies but against attention span itself.
As a product guy, I’m excited about the many new features we’re adding to our web app, including Google Calendar and Google Docs integrations, easy text reminders for key application deadlines, and a discovery tool to help students find colleges and scholarships for which they’re well qualified. We’re also excited to launch native iOS and Android apps in the near future, as we’re already seeing 50% of our traffic coming on mobile.