Jessica Brondo has been tutoring and volunteering since she was in high school. She took that passion and turned it into a career, working for an established SAT prep company when she finished college. After spending a bit of time there, however, she realized that they way they conducted their business–both in how they operated and what they were offering–wasn’t totally in line with her values. Instead of dropping out of the field all together, Jessica took a part-time job bartending and started building her company The Edge in College Prep (The Edge), which offers a “customized approach” to test prep and college admissions counseling.
Seven years later, Jessica has given up her bartending gig and The Edge is operating in New York, London, Frankfurt, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. Jessica is well on her way to her goal of being the leader in international test prep and she couldn’t be more excited about where her company is today.
Jessica took a break from her jam-packed schedule to talk to us about growing The Edge to where it is today, hitting her boyfriend with golf balls and… pole dancing?
How’d you come up with the name for your company?
At my previous job as the Director of another SAT prep company, I would take tons of client calls with parents on a daily basis. I’d say about 75% of the parents would continuously say that they just wanted to give their child “an edge” in the college application process. So I decided to give the parents what they’d been asking for: The Edge in College Preparation.
I also love the word edge as it has multiple meanings: an advantage over the competition, hipper than the Old Guard test prep companies, and on the brink of the next chapter of students’ lives.
What’s the very first thing you do at work everyday?
As soon as I get to work, the first thing I do is make myself tea and a green smoothie, then I put the music on, and then I look over my daily and weekly goals and set up a plan for achieving them. Email definitely doesn’t come until about 45 mins as it totally distracts me from bigger picture thinking.
How many people did you start the company with and how many people work for you now?
I started the company by myself and now work with 24 people.
What did you think you were going to “be” when you grew up?
I always, since I was about 8 [years old], thought I was going to be a doctor. Everything I did as a child, a teenager and young adult was geared towards this goal. I was premed at Princeton, but then fell in love with teaching and started down the test prep path and never turned back.
Remember the early days starting up? Maybe you can share one anecdote that describe the struggle you went through?
I think the one main struggle was the “solo-ness” of being an entrepreneur. I started the business in December 2005 in New York and didn’t hire my first employee until June 2006, so I remember that being a very cold, lonely winter albeit an exciting one as I was on the precipice of something great.
However, just as I was really ramping things up in New York, an opportunity came along in London in November 2007, and I ended up moving there alone to set up another office of my company. I really only knew 2 people in the entire city and worked from my tiny apartment or Whole Foods. I decided NOT to get cable and forced myself to go out and do things each night to get connected with the city, which I quickly fell in love with.
How do you handle frustration? When/how was the last time you dealt with frustration?
Most people will say that they’ve never seen me stressed out and that things are always “rainbows and butterflies” with me. However, any entrepreneur will know that that is TOTALLY not the case. I just deal with my frustration really well (and mostly in private). I’ll do anything from screaming really loudly (usually while I’m alone in the car), doing sprints to really loud hard rock music, going to the driving range, and pole dancing (in private of course). The last time I was really frustrated was a couple of weeks ago when my boyfriend beat me in tennis (I’m only a tad bit competitive) and I hit a ball really hard and it accidentally hit him in the leg. Oops. He forgave me and gloated the rest of the day.
What’s your office environment like?Is it the kind of place where everyone is bumpin’ away to house music or is it more traditional?
The office is a really open homey space. People work at a really long table facing each other. We have a super healthy stocked kitchen and often make green smoothies and homemade hummus and seaweed chips for snacks. It’s definitely a collaborative environment and there is usually classic rock music playing throughout the day.
How do you picture your company in 5 years?
I hope to be even more international (right now we operate in 4 countries and have worked with students in 13 countries)–I want to be the leader in helping international students come to the US for university. I also want to dive more into the tech side of our business and really ramp up our e-learning systems and expand upon our course offerings. I hope that we’ll have even more people working with us, and through the larger team hope to sell our program to 1000 schools and have our books published internationally.
Who or what inspires YOU?
My parents. My boyfriend. My brother. And my dogs. Truly inspirational and the best “fan club” a girl could ask for. Yoga grounds me and keeps me calm, cool, and collected. Golf keeps me focused. Good wine is my reward at the end of the day. The quotes “Enjoy the Journey” and “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” A bracelet my mom gave me with my initials on it that I never take off. Reminds me all day long of who I am and the person I want to be.
How’d you fund this venture?
We bootstrapped the venture for about 5 years and then when we launched our first online course for the SAT, we raised a friends/family round. We’re just starting to raise a seed round now to scale The SAT/ACT Edge, our online course, book, and iPhone app, and to create additional programs for more tests.
Got any great bootstrapping tips for the lean startups out there?
Find something that you can do to make money in your “least productive” hours. I’ve never ever been able to work during the hours of about 4-10 PM. Not sure why, but I seriously am super unproductive and get super distracted. Post 10 PM until about 3 AM is my witching hour and I can work at lightning speeds and right when I wake up (if I don’t make the mistake of checking e-mail) is also super productive.
Knowing this, I got a bartending job to fund my lifestyle while I was developing the curriculum for the company and doing the early phases of marketing. It was perfect. I’d bartend from about 4 PM-midnight. Come home do about 2 hours of work and then work again from about 10 to 2 PM. It was definitely a “grind,” but it allowed me to become profitable in just under 6 months WITHOUT taking on any funding. To this day I still own 100% of the equity.
What would you be doing if you had one year off and $500,000 to spend (and you couldn’t spend it on your currently startup / projects)
I’d probably be pursuing a new venture, but it would definitely be a passion project that combined travel, food, wine, music, yoga, and golf. I’ve always wanted to make a cookbook that features healthy versions of recipes at the top restaurants around the world, with suggested playlists for each dish, and wine pairings. It would definitely be a travel food site with amazing pictures of the trip and the recipes to match.
I could also see myself getting trained as a sommelier and traveling to all of the different wine regions in the world. Or doing extensive travel in India and getting my yoga teacher certification. And I would definitely definitely try to play golf 3+ times a week to get my handicap down.
Do you consider yourself a successful entrepreneur right now? If not, what’s it gonna take to make you feel successful?
Yes!! Confidence is key to the start-up game. I often analogize it to yoga where you’re told to focus on what is going on on YOUR mat, not everyone around you. While it’s important to understand the competitive, it’s imperative not to dwell on what they’re doing and stay focused on your goal. I think being in business for nearly 7 years (our 7 yr anniversary is in December 2012) is definitely kick-ass as so many start-ups and small business fall by the wayside. Hitting the 5 year mark was really special, but I definitely someone who is never satisfied with the status quo, and need to do much much more to be truly proud of my accomplishments.
Website you couldn’t live without and why?
Hubspot. Totally game-changing in terms of inbound marketing. Has taught me SO much about marketing, my potential clients, and my website. In love with the product.
Mobile App you’re in love with and why?
SoundHound. I’m a total music junkie and am seriously in awe of the app. I know it’s been around forever, but it’s still a favorite. I love being ANYWHERE. Clicking listen. Finding out about an amazing new song/band, and then being able to instantaneously download it. Genius.
Dogs or cats?
iOS or Android?
iOS. Total early adopter of everything Apple. I think in my apartment alone I have 16 Apple products.
What’s the greatest thing about your company/website/idea?
The Yes! Factor. When a student gets accepted to his or her dream school and calls you screaming (or crying tears of joy) and the parent hugs you like you’re the best thing since sliced bread, it literally puts me over the moon. I get chills just thinking about how special that moment is for our clients and to get to play a part in that point in someone’s life is really special.
Where can our readers get ahold of you? Facebook? Twitter? Google+? Personal blog? Any other projects you’re working on that we should check out?
And I’m about to launch a new Golf app: GolfMatch….in stealth mode at the moment, but think Match.com for golfers.
Courtesy of founder and The Edge in College Prep website.
The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only nonprofit organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and email lessons.