Starbucks on W Henderson — Derek Brown is a co-founder at Acceptd, the world’s largest arts network. He and the team at Acceptd work to better connect applicants with opportunities, as well as streamline the recruiting and review process for decision-makers. When he’s not growing the company he can be found doing CrossFit, biking, hiking and generally enjoying the outdoors.
Tell me about Acceptd.
Acceptd is an online network that helps connect artists with opportunities all around the world. Students come to our website to submit videos of themselves singing, dancing, acting, whatever it is that they do, to colleges, festivals, and competitions.
The process used to be very archaic because students needed to fly around the country to attend in-person interviews and live auditions. The goal was to get in front of somebody in order to get their talent assessed.
We took that process online to make it more accessible for the artists to find an opportunity that’s the best fit for them.
It must be really expensive for students to fly to these auditions and interviews. The travel costs surely limit the number of places they can apply.
Yeah. It’s really competitive too. A lot of these students are applying to six to twelve schools, which is a lot of visits. The costs add up quickly.
We also have one client in Nebraska who used Acceptd this winter because none of their applicants could make it to audition day due to the weather.
What led you to start Acceptd? Any particular inspiration?
My co-founder Don and I both had scholarships to the University of Cincinnati. We wanted to create a similar opportunity for students to showcase themselves. We realized that video essays were becoming more and more popular amongst applicants to performing and visual arts schools. We wanted to create a platform to provide that opportunity for students, especially after we further researched it and spoke with local universities about the need for it. We just honed in on creating a performing arts network.
Was this at the business school?
We had just graduated and Don just had a baby. He said to me, “Now’s the time. If we’re going to start a business it needs to be now.” We had talked about starting a business for years and that was the time to do it, especially given how much his life was about to change. We were just hanging out and babysitting his newborn and came up with this idea.
How many organizations do you have onboard?
In our first year we started out with two pilot schools. We had the University of Cincinnati, which has a very well regarded conservatory of music. We also had Otterbein University and they have a very prestigious theater program. Since then we’ve grown to over five hundred institutions.
We initially focused on kids who were applying to college, but have now found more opportunities for them to connect with, such as scholarship competitions, festivals, and summer camps. Really anything that’s related to the arts. We just crossed the one hundred thousand user milestone, which has been big for us.
We’re starting to get a really nice scale, which leads to tremendous feedback from students and their parents. We’re proud of the amount of time and money that we’ve saved both students and institutions. Previously schools would schedule thousands of applicants to come in, but now they use Acceptd to narrow their applicant pool so that they only invite the select few to visit.
You’re a very efficient matchmaker.
[Laughing] Yeah we’re the match.com for the arts.
At what moment did you and Don realize that Acceptd was not only a viable business, but going to be a success? I’m sure you had moments of doubt.
Oh yeah, like quitting our full-time jobs [laughing]. It’s really been a roller coaster of emotion. That can be day-to-day or even hour-by-hour, especially during the formative years of the business.
We knew we were on to something when our first schools signed up. Many entrepreneurs have an idea that they try to make fit, even if there isn’t any demand for it. We took a consultative approach, especially since we don’t have a background in the arts. We asked our schools, “What are your pain points? What problems are you trying to solve?” We then worked to build a solution around that.
How does Acceptd make money?
Application fees, primarily. Students pay us a fee of twenty to twenty-five dollars to submit their portfolio to different institutions. Previously they’d need to spend thousands of dollars on travel, so we’re a great value to them.
We’re now opening up additional services that make use of our growing database of students. Programs now want to recruit from our user base to offer master classes and summer programs, which in turn provides extra opportunities for our students.
How do students find Acceptd? Have you become the go-to network for applicants?
Yeah that’s what we’ve become, especially over the past year. Previously students would find us through universities, who would link to us as part of their application or within their marketing materials. Now we’ve become a trusted brand in the marketplace, like “Hey, if you want to attend a performing arts school, you need to be on Acceptd.”
We have high school teachers who recommend us to their classes, who make it a class project, which is really cool. We also have the viral effect of students telling their friends and that has helped us take off.
I can definitely see high school teachers recommending Acceptd to their students who want to take the next step in their arts career.
Our goal is to get students on the site as early as their freshman year. We want them to develop a working portfolio that demonstrates their progression. As they grow they can pick and choose which performances they want to showcase.
A lot of universities are looking for students with growth potential, who are coachable. Showing that progression in their portfolio is a very important part of that.
Where are the growth opportunities for Acceptd?
Our goal is to double the number of users we have year-over-year. We want to have two hundred thousand users by the end of this year, which is a big goal. We’re very much focused on creating an arts network, which we’ve only scratched the surface of. We work with fewer than ten percent of universities in the country, so there’s still a lot of room for growth.
One of the other areas for growth is transitioning our graduating seniors to professional opportunities. We’re in early conversations with some folks on Broadway, which would allow us to follow our users through their entire career. That would be pretty cool.
Do you have clients outside of the United States?
Yeah we have them across Europe and in Japan and Australia. We’ve never focused on getting clients outside of the US, so those relationships have come to us through referrals. The different arts communities are all very tight-knit. We take great pride in providing our services to our clients, which gives us a very high retention rate. It’s those relationships that get us our new business.
That’s obvious proof that your service has value and you’re doing it right.
We like to think so. By and large we’ve received great feedback, although any time that we’ve lost a client we make sure to ask why. “What was the platform missing?,” for instance.
The most important thing that I have learned thus far has been to hire people who are smarter than you, who are passionate about what they do. Acceptd wouldn’t be nearly as successful without our team.
What’s a typical day like for you?
No day is typical and that’s what I like about it. I’m doing everything from meeting with clients, to recruiting our employees, to setting the budget for the year, which is what I’m working on now. I also work a lot with the product roadmap and assist our sales team with anything they need.
There was a time when I answered every call and every email, but now we have a team that does that, although I still want to hear about the feedback we get.
What’s the biggest lesson that you’ve learned thus far? Have you learned anything the hard way?
It’s all been a learning opportunity, a lot of it the hard way. This is my first startup, so there was a lot that I didn’t know. The most important thing that I have learned thus far has been to hire people who are smarter than you, who are passionate about what they do. Acceptd wouldn’t be nearly as successful without our team.
Looking back there are always things that you would do differently. We’ve been lucky to have good mentors who have helped us avoid mistakes that they themselves have made in the past. I can’t think of anything specifically that I would have done differently, especially since it’s all part of the process of running a startup.
What’s the best part of your job?
No day of mine is the same and I love that variety. One day I am working exclusively on our products, while the next day I’m getting my hands dirty with client requests.
We have that small team that’s working toward a common goal and that’s really exciting. Acceptd is different from most companies because we’re all friends, we hang out after work, and all that gives us a family feeling.
Would you tell me about the venture capital that you’ve taken? It looks like a lot of the investments have come from Columbus.
Yeah, all of the investor money that we’ve taken has been local, which is important to us. Early on we explored some opportunities on the coasts, like accelerators, but we eventually decided to stay here. We wanted to prove that we could build a startup here.
I won’t say that it was easy to raise that sum of money because it wasn’t. That said, Columbus has its advantages. We don’t have the visibility of the coasts since it’s a smaller community, but that makes it easier to network. There aren’t as many startups competing for investments here either. It’s been really nice to know a lot of the big players in the community and be able to call them up when we’ve needed something.
Has it been difficult balancing immediate fiscal needs with your long term goals?
That has been a challenge. We want to grow our market share as fast as we can because we have nothing that we can patent. We’re in the game of growing aggressively, but we want to do it in a way that provides long term value for both our customers and investors. We don’t want to sacrifice the quality of our product in order to attain our growth rate. It’s important for us to focus on finding the right balance.
Do some of your investors expect a quick return?
We have over thirty investors from our various funding rounds, so managing their expectations could be challenging. Our investors understand that we’re building a product for the future, while still trying to grow as fast as we can. We would rather grow the company to be much bigger than seek a quick exit. There really hasn’t been a lot of push back from our investors because they’re onboard with our vision for the company. We’ve been fortunate to be really growing every year.
How many employees does Acceptd have?
We have eleven full-time employees right now. We’re looking to hire a couple more this year, as well as half a dozen part-time support staff. We get really busy from September through May, so we need to ramp up our resources.
How many developers do you have?
We have two developers, one person doing QA, and I serve as the product owner. It’s a small team. We were using contractors before and the transition to bring it in-house was difficult at times, but it’s been so important to have our own development team. We move so much quicker because they understand the bigger vision of what we’re trying to do. Often our developers anticipate our needs, which has been great.
It must be a lot easier to ensure that the development aligns with your vision. I’m sure your team of developers has a greater sense of ownership in the product than any contractors would.
Exactly that. Even though we worked with really talented developers, it’s just the nature of the relationship that lends itself to that. It’s been a breath of fresh air to have guys on the team who really invest themselves into what we’re doing.
What roles are you looking to fill in your organization?
We want a front end developer to ensure that our site is fully responsive, so that clients can easily review applicants from whatever device they might have. For instance they might be sitting in an audition room with an applicant right in front of them, so they may want to review the application with their iPad.
We’re also looking for a person to do marketing, to help grow the brand and form relationships with teachers at high schools. We’d love to create a curriculum someday where working with teachers becomes the default way of doing things. This position would manage that, as well as our social media efforts and our blog.
We also need new sales hires to go out and sign up more universities, festivals, and competitions.
What do you look for in a prospective employee?
I think cultural fit, at this stage of the game, is equally as important as talent. Obviously someone’s ability to do the job is important to us, but we’re such a small team that if someone isn’t a good fit, then it’s just not going to work out.
We also look for an interest in web technologies and the arts, which would be a plus.
Is it difficult to recruit developers coming from a non-technical background?
Yes it is, especially early on. The first developer we hired was such a leap of faith, both for him and for us. Imagine two business guys trying to interview a developer. We look back upon it and laugh, especially since we never even asked for his resume. We were just going with our gut. He was referred to us from some folks who worked with him.
It’s easier now because I can talk about Acceptd and our vision, while our developers can come in and have the technical conversation. They really believe in where we’re going and value our culture too.
If you weren’t running Acceptd, what would you be doing?
Starting another business? I don’t really know. I think in some regards this was inevitable for me. You have to be a little crazy to leave a comfortable job to start something from scratch. Maybe working for another startup if it weren’t my own.
In passing I’ve thought about what I’d do after Acceptd and I think it would be another startup. I really enjoy the energy of creating something from scratch. It would be really hard for me to go back to the corporate world.
What are your interests outside of work?
I recently started CrossFit, which has been helpful as a way to relieve stress. I like the community aspect of it too.
I love being outdoors, going hiking, and biking. I recently learned to scuba dive as well. I’m getting married this summer and we’re going on a scuba diving trip, which will be a lot of fun. I try to keep my life as balanced as possible with the demands of the startup.
I’m sure you’re pretty busy with Acceptd.
Our business is very seasonal. Half of the year we’re crazy busy with processing applications. The other half of the year it’s slower, but we’re also gearing up for the next year. There’s still down time, though.
What are your goals for this year?
We want to continue on our growth path to hit two hundred thousand users and double our clients. Early on it was easy to double our numbers, but it’s a lot more work now.
This year we also want to become the brand that students and artists trust to help them find the right fit for their careers. We need to add more universities and programs to our system to do that.
Last year our goal was to break even and we did that, so this year it’s just to continue on that growth path by making smart investments and working hard.