On Episode 12, Mark Willoughby and Victoria Consoles are joined by Deb Shames of Personal Best College Coaching to talk about the decisions she’s made in her line of work. From finding a balance between helping as many students as possible and making a living, to how best to serve her families, decision making is at the heart of what Deb does.
Thanks for joining us on Decision Dialogues. We’re thrilled to have you along. My name is Mark Willoughby, and I’m a Principal, Wealth Manager, and the Chief Operating Officer of Modera Wealth Management, LLC. Today, my colleague Victoria Consoles, who is a Senior Financial Planning Associate at Modera Wealth Management, and I will be chatting with Deb Shames. Deb is the founder and owner of Personal Best College Coaching, based in northern New Jersey. Since 2002, her firm has been providing independent College Counseling Assistance to families in the New York City, Tri-State area, as well as throughout the United States. Welcome everyone to the show, and I’ll hand it over to Victoria.
Thanks, Mark. And hi Deb, thanks so much for joining us today.
Oh, my pleasure.
For our listeners, Deb is not only a college coach and business owner, but a mom of three, and someone who still manages to find time to use her skills to help the community. So Deb, I’d like to kind of just jump right in if you don’t mind. I want you to be able to share with listeners a little bit about your business and how you got started.
Okay! So I have been doing this for the past 18 or so years. I started when I was pregnant with my third child. Before that I was a school counselor and basically decided to branch out on my own, because I didn’t think that I could realistically be at a desk at 7:30, having dropped three kids at three different locations. So I had been pursuing this for a few friends and family, just free of charge, on the side, and my husband said “Hey, why don’t you see if you can actually turn this into a business?”
At the beginning, it really was small. I think my first year I had six seniors that I worked with, and I was doing presentations at churches and libraries and that sort of thing. And I was a solo practitioner at that point. And over the years, I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve been able to grow my business, which for me is super important because it’s—for me, it’s about being able to help as many students as I can, and families as I can. So I now have a business that has five counselors, including myself, and I have five writing coaches, who work with us, helping students polish their essays and brainstorm ideas and get their voice to come across and that sort of thing. So this has been just a really incredible journey, and I’m excited to talk about it during the podcast today.
That’s fantastic. So you said you started with six clients, was it? Did you initially have expectations for the business? Were you nervous to start? What do you think was the market that you were headed into?
I think I definitely was nervous to start out, because I was not—I’m not a business-oriented person, I’m a counselor. That was what my training was in, and I’m fortunate to have a husband who’s got an MBA in finance. And so he’s really the business end of it, and handles all my back office stuff, and, you know, when I—and helping me sort of map out how we could do this and what it would look like logistically. And also, at the time, when we started, my kids were very young. I was pregnant with my last one, and then I had a three-year-old and a five-year-old. And so trying to manage all that, and he used to take the kids before I had an office space—he would just take the kids and leave the house because otherwise they would be all over us as we’d be having meetings—and I was going to clients’ homes carrying a suitcase full all my college books, and you know, that kind of stuff.
So yeah, I was definitely nervous in terms of, “Could I make it work? What would it look like? What was the the pricing structure that would make sense? Would people want to hire me? How would I find my clients?” You know, all that kind of stuff I think that any business owner probably struggles with, I would think. And then also, who’s my competition? And you know, how do you, where do you have that balance between competition and colleague? And it’s nice because now I really feel like I’ve crossed that, you know, now as I’ve gotten more established, I have these really nice relationships with counselors, you know, in the area nationally. So that’s been really awesome.
And how long did it take you from starting out to really feel like you knew what you were doing and you were able to get out there and start building your business? Because I know your business has grown quite a bit—you said you started as a solopreneur practitioner and it’s grown to, you know, you have staff working for you now. So what did that look like in the process?
I think there was definitely a learning curve in terms of just, the transitioning from being a school counselor, to being an independent educational consultant—an IEC is what it’s called in the business. Because there are just different responsibilities that you have to do. And as an IEC, we go much, much more into depth than a school counselor would ever have time to do. And in fact, I tell families, “I do everything that a really good school counselor would do if they didn’t have the caseload that they had, the other responsibilities that they had, and worked evenings, weekends, summers and holidays.”
You know, so I think that having the opportunity to go visit more colleges was a huge piece of it for me. Having to figure out which things you know, to dos I could take care of myself versus needing assistance to do, which things I wanted to make sure that students were empowered to do as far as managing their own journey. And I sort of, you know, say that I’m the GPS, and they’re the driver. So I’m going to teach them what they need to know, but they’ve gotta, they’ve gotta drive the bus, they’ve got to make sure that they are following through and really owning the process. So I think that that was a learning curve for me to understand how much I should be helping them versus empowering them to help themselves.
Along the way, I’m sure there were some hard decisions and some easy ones. So could you kind of share for our listeners, what’s one difficult decision you had to make in the business? And then what’s something that you may find easy to make in either your day-to-day or overall business decisions?
I think that for me, the hardest thing was trying to figure what my price point was going to be. And you know, my mentality is always wanting to help as many people as I can—I do pro bono, I have pro bono students I take on every year, I work for a nonprofit, that helps low income, Black and Latino community college students transfer to four year schools. So I really have this sort of philanthropic bent to how I approach my life and how I approach my business. But I also realize it’s a business and I have to earn a living.
So it was trying to figure out how to not undervalue and undersell myself, which I did initially. I had a family, I remember when I first started out, I had a family who called me and said, “Well, I don’t understand, you’re saying that you only cost this much money, and I have these other people I’ve interviewed that are like six to ten times as much as you are!” I was like, “Whoa, okay!” And then once I started working, I think part of figuring out that pricing structure also, was how much work was actually involved. And so that was also a tremendous learning curve, because I figured out the first, you know, when I had those first six clients, I think I was earning about as much as I would have earned at a minimum wage job.
Because I just didn’t realize the amount of work that was going to be required. And so that was definitely a challenge. And I’ve raised prices as I’ve gone up, but I don’t want to price myself way, you know, out of families being able to afford me. So I have to find that balance. So I’ve now offered different pricing structures, depending on what a family needs, and what they feel that they can afford. And I try to, you know, I really do try to meet their needs. So I have hourly rates, I have a mini package rate, and then I have a comprehensive package rate, and we play with that as you know, as needed to try to fill the needs that families come to me with.
And I would say as far as easy decisions. Um, I think it was a pretty easy decision to realize that I had to expand, once I realized I couldn’t help the number of people who wanted help, without getting additional staff. And then, you know, finding the staff ended up being easier than I thought—I had one good lead, and that person led to multiple other good leads, and I had one person who had replaced me. The first person I brought on actually was someone who had replaced me when I had my now soon to be 24-year-old for maternity leave replacement, and she’s now been working with me for several years.
And then bringing in writing coaches was the other challenge. Because I knew that I could not do all of the you know, the editing, and the brainstorming, and all of that with every student to the level that I wanted to, without some extra help. And there were a lot of late nights, and I think the other thing that was really helpful and this was hard for me and easier for my husband, was automating certain things: Having technology help us. I am not a tech person at all. And so even, he had to push me to set up Calendly. I will tell you, it was the greatest thing I ever did. Smartest thing, I just now just send a link and I say “pick something that works.” And it’s great because I don’t have all that back and forth that I used to have. So, you know, certain decisions that automating stuff on certain things was definitely easier for me, but I’m still not a techie person. And I was talking to a colleague who’s 30, and she sent me a list of all the apps that she uses. Like, no no no no, that’s not moe.
Can I drill down on one of those difficult decisions, Deb?
You’re obviously a very generous, philanthropic person who has a passion for helping people. So I just think of you as you’re embarking in your business, working for minimum wage, right?
How long did it take you before you had to make the difficult decision to start raising your rates? And what did that look like for you considering your generosity and your philanthropic nature?
Well, I think that part of it is also that I’m a very trusting person, so I would tend to believe people at face value. So if somebody says they can’t afford me, I’m not like, “show me your tax return.” I think that I started to—after that call where that guy said to me, “I don’t understand, you know, why you’re charging so little,” my prices doubled overnight, because I realized— literally, they doubled—because I said, “I guess I’m not charging enough here.” And then I started talking to colleagues and finding out what the market was in our area, I think I’m still about at where most of my colleagues are—a little bit higher than some lower than certainly several.
The push for you is from what the market was telling you. It was external.
Yeah, I think, for me, it was the market. But there are people—I mean, I had a family that I worked with, and when they came to the first meeting, I didn’t understand that there was— they’d been referred by somebody, and I didn’t understand what the financial situation was. And at the end of the meeting, when I told her what the bill was, for the hour of time, she looked aghast. And she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that. Can I just write you a check for like, a quarter of that amount, and I’ll send you a check, like every month?” And I’m like, “Oh boy.” I said, “You know what, it’s fine. Just, you know, pay me $25,” whatever it was. And she ended up sending me a check, and I ended up sending the ripped up check, and I sent it back to her. And I said, I ended up right, I think I deposited it, and I sent it back to them when the son was going off to college, and I said, “Go buy a coat.” And that, to me, was a super easy decision, that to me is not a hard decision to make at all. And I, when I have students that reach out to me, and I can tell from either their story or just the conversation, that it’s a challenge, it’s a non-issue for me. And so that, to me, is an easy decision to make.
Deb, you mentioned some of the pro bono work and some of the communities you work with. So I’d love for you to talk a little bit more about that, and sort of where you find balance between working for your, you know, your business, and then working for a nonprofit, and for some of the pro bono work you do as well.
Yeah. So I started working for the Kaplan Educational Foundation—this is my 13th year. And it was just a fluke thing that I happened to be on a national counselor Listserv on a summer day, and it popped up as a job thing, and I applied, having had some experience working with low income and first gen and minority students. And so I applied and got that job. And so that is, you know—that to me is like my passion project. That one, I get paid, but I’m not in it for the money. The work is way more than the money would ever be. But the reward is also way more than any payment could ever be as well.
My goal in working with those students, and I do a lot of pro bono work with their younger siblings who are high school students going to college—they’re all community college transfers. But my goal with that is really college access. And there are so many hoops and so many barriers that low income students have to face, that if I can make that just a smidge easier, that to me is a no-brainer. And I wish that there were lots and lots of counselors out there doing similar things—there are definitely programs that are similar to ours, although most of them are at the high school level, not at the community college transfer level. Yeah, I think that having the opportunity to serve them—I am okay taking on fewer students, and part of bringing in more staff on my team has allowed me to keep that job while still wanting to serve students in the private sector.
That’s fantastic. I love hearing about you know, the work that you’re doing, and then even talking about your students as well. You seem so passionate about everything you’re doing. So what’s the most rewarding part of either running a business or some of the other work that you’re doing here?
I think the rewarding part about running a business is seeing that, you know, that I have made a choice that is bringing in an income that supports, or helps support our family, so it makes certain things easier for us to have—it’s a second income, but it’s a significant second income. But I think the most rewarding part of the work that I do is the relationships that I’m able to develop with students, and in particular, helping students find schools that maybe weren’t on their radar screen, that are these hidden gems that they’ve never heard of, and then having them attend those schools and saying, “Oh my God, this changed my life.” Or working with my Kaplan scholars or the pro bono students that I work with, and having them say, “I never even considered that I could look at a school like that,” and helping them achieve that goal. And then knowing that they’re also going to pay it forward to somebody else. I think that, you know, that whole concept of paying it forward is huge for me.
That’s great. I love that. And then, so I want to go back to starting a business, because you talked about this being a second income, and I know starting a business is scary, right? It’s kind of you’re entering uncharted territory there. So is there anything you wish you knew when you when you were starting out with the business?
I wish I knew I was as much of a workaholic as I have turned out to be, because I definitely—I have a hard time walking away from it at the end of the day. And part of that is that I work in my house. And so when you have an office in your house, you’re not leaving the office to go home. So my laptop can come to me, to sit on the couch and watch Netflix, while I’m just deleting some emails. Or, in this job, you have to work evenings and weekends. You know, it’s just, it goes with the territory, because that’s when families are available. So you know, one of the things that we’ve chosen to do now, is I do not schedule clients on Saturdays.
So we can have a day where we just can run errands, and we can, you know, hang out and do family stuff, if you know—if anybody’s into doing family stuff, but the kids are teenagers and twentysomethings and post college at this point, so. But just being able to have a little bit of downtime, I think is, finding that balance is super important, which I haven’t necessarily done so well yet. I do attend webinars, I’m actually reading a great book called Atomic Habits, I think it’s by James Clear, great guy. But I have to now put those things into place, you know, to find that balance.
Yeah. Well, I mean, it sounds like you were able to find some sort of balance, too, because you started out right, wanting to be able to have kids and work a business and then maybe the job as a school counselor wasn’t really working out at the time compatible with your lifestyle. Do you think you could have started your own business if you didn’t have the support of your husband along the way?
Oh god no. He’d get mad, even, if I thought that that was a thing! No, I really, truly could not, because we really complement each other in terms of how we approach things. You know, for example, I had written a curriculum that I wanted to put out there, and so every family gets—we’ve now finally put it on paper, virtual paper—it’s a 70 page book called The Coach’s Playbook, and it outlines everything that we cover, and we do cover it all. But this way, a family can go and refer back to it. I had it on my computer, all the ideas. And I really struggled with seeing “how do I get that onto paper in an organized way by chapters and whatnot,” and he’s able to do that. He’s a finance manager, he does decks and all this kind of stuff all the time. So with his help, I was able to do that. I would never been able to do that. Without his support in managing the kids and taking carpools and going and covering things when I have to work on the weekends, whether it was sports practice, or karate, or other errands that needed to be done, cooking. You know, if I had client meetings all day on Sunday, you know, I can walk out of my client meeting at 12:30 and there’s lunch ready, you know. So I’m very lucky that I have his support in terms of making this business work.
You know, we’re in the middle of a pandemic right now.
I’m not sure if you realized! But I want to hear how things have changed for you along the way. You mentioned technology not being your strongest suit. But it sounds like a lot of what you do is from inside your home, and I want to hear how that’s either, you know, changed your business or challenged your business along the way.
I think actually, for me, I’ve been pretty lucky. I feel almost a little guilty that I haven’t had to pivot as much during the pandemic. I was already doing Skype meetings before I knew that Zoom was a thing, or FaceTime meetings, with my students. And so oftentimes, like I have families in New York City, I have families in other parts of New Jersey and in Westchester, and I’m in northern New Jersey. And so, you know, it wouldn’t necessarily be the easiest thing in the world to have a 7:30 or eight o’clock at night meeting when somebody has to get in a car and schlep a half an hour or an hour. So I was already doing that with families instead, you know, after the initial meetings. And there were some families that because of distance or lack of access to a car if they were in the city, that I never actually met in person. So this just sort of stepped that up, but it was a pretty easy pivot.
And then we run essay workshops for our students and we had always done them in my house and it was, you know, we’d do like a four and a half hour workshop, we’d feed students so they still like us. And it was very chill, very relaxed, and we had to pivot to online this year, and it actually ended up being really good because we shifted how we’re formatting it. And instead of doing one long chunk on a day, we’re doing it over the course of three days in shorter bursts, and the students were able to retain more and get more out of it.
Probably a more effective way of teaching, I’d think.
And yeah, it really was, it was really a much more effective way of teaching. And there were certain things, there were certain workshops that I was able to run online, that, you know, I wouldn’t have done online prior to this. So I think it’s been, it’s been really good. And I think the other thing—in the past, I’ve had families who have said to me, “You know, I think you’re just too far away. I don’t know. Susie does better with somebody sitting right there with her.” And now I think everybody understands that you can do stuff virtually. And it’s not necessarily worse.
And so does most of your new business generation come from current clients, former student clients? Or do you spend a lot of—do you invest in different marketing techniques?
I actually don’t do any marketing whatsoever. I mean, I have a Facebook page, I have Personal Best College Coaching has a Facebook page, I have an Instagram, but I don’t really know how to post, so I need to actually get someone to post for me—again, it’s an age thing. But I would say probably 80 to 90% of my business comes from word-of-mouth referrals. So it’s previous clients, current clients, former students, and a lot of, it’ll come through like various town Facebook pages, whenever somebody posts, you know, do you know anyone who does college counseling, and then somebody will recommend me that way.
Yeah. I mean, I can only imagine, you know, parents being at a sporting event or something like that, and that coming up in conversation as the college decision is so important as they enter those later years of high school.
Yeah. Yeah, for sure. For sure.
So I want to pivot here, as we’re coming up on the last few minutes, but I’m curious: Have you had a failure in the business that you kind of look back at and think you wish you had done something differently, maybe something that you learned from along the way?
I think going back to, you know, when we were talking about fees, and stuff like that, just understanding how to position myself within the market that I was doing, so that I could reach the maximum amount of families, while not pricing myself out of the, you know, out of the market for some, and not undervaluing myself to others. You know, and there’s definitely a range. Even within families that I have, where they’ve got a comprehensive package, some kids are super independent, and they’re talking to me on their own, and some I’m talking more with Mom and Dad and trying to engage the kid with great difficulty.
I think there are always failures in terms of, you know, of an outcome that you wish had been different for a family or for a student that you had no control over. I can’t think of anything that was a major failure, except how I was initially structuring my pricing.
Also, I think I’m getting to the point, but not necessarily, where if I have a family that I don’t feel will be the right fit for me, and I won’t be the right fit for them, then I’m at the point where I can say to somebody, “You know what, I don’t know that we’re the best match for each other,” which is a really hard place to get to. And I don’t do it often. But I, you know, I think sometimes you have to realize that it’s not going to be the right—like that it’s just not going to work. It’s gonna be more draining and more taxing than it’s worth to have that client, when you can tell from the get-go that it’s you’re just not the right person for that family. Or they’re not the right family for you.
Yeah, no, that makes sense. I mean, I can’t imagine that being an easy conversation to have. But I’m sure you’ve learned along the way, what makes sense for students, because it sounds like you want—you have everyone’s best interests in mind along the way.
Yeah, and I think that the hardest thing, you know, one of the hardest things, and I don’t think it’s a function of me, but like trying to, you know, when I have a family who’s only all wrapped up in like, college rankings and that kind of thing—that’s not what I’m about. I’m about, “Let’s find the right fit for the student, let’s find a place where they can thrive academically, they can thrive socially, and the rest will work itself out.” But it’s not—if all you’re concerned about is the rankings then we’re not going to be the right fit for each other.
How long do you think you’re going to keep up with your business for? It sounds like you’re “go go go” and never slowing down, but I’m curious what you see for a future for the business.
You know, I don’t see myself giving this up anytime soon. I’m 53, and I’m going to be an empty nester soon enough because my youngest is going off to college in the fall, and my middle one is graduating from college next year—she took a gap year during COVID this year. And my oldest is living at home, but as, you know, is getting ready to start looking for apartments since he’s graduated from college a little over a year ago. And I think, you know, I’ll keep doing it as long as I—as long as it’s fun. Eventually maybe I would pivot completely to doing pro bono work, if money was not an issue at all. And you know, just be able, again, there’s so many people who don’t have access, and there are things that we just take for granted, you know, when you grow up in certain privileged situations—that you don’t even realize your privilege. And then you’re like, “Oh, nobody told these other kids this.”
So I see myself going for many, many more years. I don’t know if my husband is thrilled about that or not. I don’t know what else I would do. I’m not like a—I don’t have tons except for my Peloton, and, and taking walks and playing with my dog and hanging out with my husband and friends. Like, I don’t have—I don’t woodwork, I don’t knit, I don’t like, I don’t do any of that stuff. So I need something to fill my time. I’m not a good cook. So I don’t know, I need something.
Well, I mean, it truly does sound like you love what you do, and it sounds like such a rewarding job and experience for you. So I’m not surprised that you don’t see an end in sight anytime soon.
So Deb, before you go, we have one final question: So what is the last non-financial decision you had to make?
Oh, wow. Actually, the last non-financial decision I had to make was making lunch today. Because as I said, I’m not a great cook. And I kind of—everybody in my family, we have one who’s vegan, and one who’s really a meat eater, and my husband and I could go either way. And so figuring out something that I actually made for lunch today, that there were options for all four of us that live in this household right now, was the non-financial decision I had to make. And I actually prepared it and had it ready when people were ready to eat lunch, which is also a rarity.
I love that. That’s great. Well, Deb, thank you so much for your time today. And where could our listeners find your website?
Yeah, first of all, it’s my pleasure. And anyone who wants to find me, they can reach out or they can find the website. It’s www.personalbestcc.com.
Thank you, Deb. We appreciate your time. And we love listening to you talk about your business. It’s fantastic. And thanks so much.
Thanks so much for having me.
So thanks very much to Victoria and Deb for letting us listen in on their conversation. We appreciate their time and perspectives. And thank you for tuning in. We hope you’ll join us next time on Decision Dialogues for more stories from successful business owners. So long for now.
Deb Shames is the founder and CEO of Personal Best College Coaching, which works to assist parents and students with all aspects of the college process. From setting a timeline, outlining the process and creating an action plan for applications and standardized testing, producing a list of prospective schools, to assisting with essay brainstorming, editing and application review.
Deb has been helping students and their families navigate the college process for over 20 years. She started her career as a public school counselor and guidance department chairperson, and began working as an Independent Educational Consultant in 2002 when she founded College Coach Deb and Associates, which later became Personal Best College Coaching. Deb has also served as Transfer Admissions Advisor for the Kaplan Leadership Program since 2008.
Deb earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Human Development and Family Studies from Cornell University in 1989, and her Masters in Applied Psychology/Counselor Education from NYU in 1992.
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