Boston, New York City, somewhere in California — all were contenders to be the home of a small start-up looking to make a big name for itself.
The founders of InGenius Prep, a college admissions prep company, lowered their anchor here in New Haven instead.
Three years later, they have settled into a new corporate home in the East Rock neighborhood after incubating their enterprise in downtown co-working space.
“In many ways, New Haven is actually like the perfect start-up place because it’s much less expensive than Boston and it has all of the same resources,” said Joel Butterly, InGenius co-founder and CEO. “We’ve all kind of come to love New Haven in our own way. From just the perspective of a start-up, it’s kind of the perfect place to be.”
The decision to create a company that helped people navigate the gauntlet of college and graduate school admissions was sparked while both Butterly and company Director of Operations David Mainiero, also a co-founder, were both still in school — Butterly at Yale Law School, Mainiero at Harvard Law School.
Butterly said the company grew out of the recognition of a need in the market for admissions consulting that could take on more than a few select, wealthy clients, and that could harness the expertise of people who really know the admission process better than anyone: former college and graduate school admissions officers.
“Part of this market is sort of like how the test prep market was in the ‘80s and early 90s, which is basically small boutiques that only serve the ultra-wealthy,” Butterly said. He said these companies tend to provide their clients with guidance from a person who might have successfully navigated the process of getting into Yale, for instance, but has the perspective only of being an applicant.
“Admissions is sort of this incredibly complex and convoluted game at this point,” he said and the way to properly navigate that process is not to get advice just from someone who won the game, but from people who have been active in evaluating and facilitating it.
In less than three years, the company, which was started with no venture capital money but $7,000 of their own personal money, has gone from operating out of dorms and apartments to a co-working space at The Grove. InGenius Prep now calls the Marlin Business Center at 85 Willow St. home.
“At the time [the business was launched, co-founder Yosepha [Greenfield] was in L.A. David was still in Harvard Law School ,” Butterly recalled. “Yosepha started part-time, while David and I were still in law school. David was still in a dorm. I was in this horrible, dingy apartment on Lake Place — the worst location of all time. We worked remotely for a really long time from our crappy locations. It was very hard in the beginning to not feel that we had a physical plant. We were thrilled when we got an office because it gave us a sense of unity and tangible success.”
That tangible success has turned into 21 full-time employees, several of whom are now based in New Haven, and a network of more than 100 former admissions officers all over the country who provide remote, one-on-one admissions help.
Greenfield, InGenius director of marketing and student outreach, said when she moved back to L.A. after graduation from Yale in 2011, she “never thought in a million years” that she’d move back to New Haven. But the former women’s basketball captain said being a part of an education company near to her alma mater and other schools simply made sense. “It was a convenient place for us,” she said, especially with access to Yale’s cadre of professors as well as the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute.
Their new East Rock location is so convenient that all three live in the neighborhood and joined a new nearby gym, mActivity, at 285 Nicoll St. They said they’re looking forward to forging deeper roots in the Elm City.
Although the company is young, Mainiero said it has partnerships with established organizations like Teach For America. It also does some consulting work pro bono. He said one of the company’s goals is to do more pro bono work in and around New Haven public and charter schools, and with community colleges like Gateway.
“We’re not just working with individuals and families, but working with schools to help them develop their advising curricula, Mainiero said.
Greenfield said many InGenius clients come from word of mouth, but also social media and the free advice the company provides through its blogs and posts on the blogs of its partner organizations. “We’re not sales-y people, and we don’t want to be,” she said. “We hope that when people see the value of what we can provide for free, they’ll wonder how much help they can they get if they are actually paying for our services.”
That value has had a tangible result in New Haven. Greenfield worked with Hacibey Catalbasoglu, son of Brick Oven owner Kadir Catalbasoglu, on his application to Yale. He was just a young teenager when Greenfield was a student at the university. She got to know him because she lived across the street from the restaurant and spent her undergraduate years eating at the popular pizzeria. He and his dad reached out to her through Facebook after seeing her blog posts. He’s now a student at Yale.
“That was just something I did in my spare time,” Greenfield said.
“A lot of people go to admissions consultants with a very results-oriented frame, and they’re looking for, ‘I pay you this money, you get me in, or basically I get very upset,’” he said. “Obviously, we’re results-oriented as well, but we’re also process-oriented and we don’t see ourselves as a consultant, or a company, or an agent, we see ourselves as educators.”
He said the company is looking to help students build skills that will benefit them far beyond getting into the school of their dreams, but serve them through their college career.
“We’re not into setting students up with glorified pieces of papers or certificates that say they did something,” he said. “We want them to actually benefit from the experience. People just want to hear about how many students you get into Harvard or Yale, but it’s not about that.”
And they’re happy to be doing their work in New Haven, where they see a lot of growth opportunity.
“It should be a hub already,” Butterly said. “Everything is here waiting. It’s strange that it isn’t already but it’s getting there. We’ll be here for the foreseeable future.”