Q&A with Entrepreneur & Education Expert, Ruth Wilson
In 1999, Ruth Wilson, MA, founded Brightmont Academy (formerly EA2), an accredited private school for students in grades 6-12 that uses an innovative one-to-one instructional approach exclusively. Ruth replicated the program to three locations within Washington State, serving as Executive Director until 2010, when she sold her company to a digital curriculum publishing corporation.
Brightmont continued to expand into other geographic areas and currently operates a total of 11 school campuses, located in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, and Washington, with Ruth serving as Director of Development. She is a certified principal and a board-certified educational therapist, an experienced team leader, engaging public speaker, and a board member for several non-profit organizations.
Can you tell our readers about your background?
I have a master’s degree in education and am a certified principal and board-certified educational therapist. Before founding my school, I had worked as a teacher and administrator in private schools and had extensive tutoring experience.
What inspired you to start your business?
So many of the students I was tutoring really needed a different school environment because some were bored while others were so far behind and putting in hours of effort on homework, and still earned low grades. I was just finishing up my principal certification and instead of entering a traditional school where some students would always be left in the wrong environment, I decided to open a school that would be customized for each individual student.
I wanted students to get credit for all of the effort they were putting into their studies and if they needed more time, I wanted to be able to give them more time. The results have been astounding and now, 18 years later, I’ve had the honor of signing many diplomas and seeing firsthand how well the one-to-one instruction model works for any student who needs something a little different from the norm.
Where is your business based?
The original school started in Seattle, WA, USA. The model has been very successful and the organization has grown over the past 18 years. We now have a total of 11 campuses, located in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, and Washington.
How did you start your business? What were the first steps you took?
The initial steps were very perfunctory – it’s almost like the state advised me on exactly what to do by dictating very specific steps in the application to operate as a private school. I quickly became busy writing the application, finding an office space to lease, selecting curriculum, and my own essential item, establishing a pricing model to ensure we could stay open at least two years while building up enough students to sustain the program.
These were very exciting times and I got lots of encouragement from everyone I talked to. But all quickly shifted from an idea to a real business when I signed the first lease and put my house up as collateral on the loan. Then I knew that my most important task would be enrolling students and serving them well.
What has been the most effective way of raising awareness for your business?
Word-of-mouth is by far my most effective marketing channel. When someone has experienced my school’s services with their own child or seen the results in one of their patients, then I’m likely to get referrals and the families are more likely to act on that referral. However, building a business organically through word-of-mouth takes a lot of time, and so to speed up that process, Google AdWords has been an effective way for us to connect with families who might otherwise never have heard of our offerings.
What have been your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?
Just like most entrepreneurs, I initially struggled with the seasonality of my business. Sometimes I would work seven days a week just to respond to all the interest. Other times, business was slow and I had to keep myself motivated and engaged in making calls and meeting with people who might refer. It’s particularly discouraging to be working your longest hours when revenue is the tightest, but that’s the tradeoff for having no cap on what you can achieve.
How do you stay focused?
Even when I’m tired and distracted, I know that the fatigue I feel is often nothing compared to the students and parents that I’ve made a commitment to help. Seeing them succeed and knowing I’ve played a part in that energizes me.
How do you differentiate your business from the competition?
Educators often use the term “one-to-one instruction” when talking about technology, and they refer to one student to one computer screen. It’s true that digital curriculum can be personalized for each student, but it is nothing like the one-to-one format used at Brightmont Academy where one teacher instructs one student throughout the entire session. There’s just no substitute for having the undivided attention of the teacher.
What has been your most effective marketing strategy to grow your business?
Transparency and authenticity. We’ve built our marketing strategy around a brand identity based on honesty, consistency, and results. Our messaging needs to align, and then we want to share as much information about our school and the one-to-one model as possible through our website and open houses where we invite prospective families in to see our campus, meet staff, and observe for themselves how attending a one-to-one school might work for them.
Our directors work as consultants to help parents understand the options available. While we hope they will choose Brightmont, in the end, it needs to be the choice that’s right for their family. We’re building a long-term relationship with everyone who visits, and even those who haven’t enrolled often refer someone else or return at a later date when we are the right solution for them.
What's your best piece of advice for aspiring and new entrepreneurs?
You need to love your product and believe wholeheartedly in your service because you will become the company’s primary spokesperson and cheerleader in addition to any other function you provide. Others will depend on you for energy, commitment, inspiration, risk-taking, engagement, and even time management. When you are truly excited about the results your organization is achieving, it’s much easier to prop up yourself as well as your team.
A close second is to develop good systems. It doesn’t matter how great your service is when your client gets sent the wrong invoice.
What's your favorite app, blog, and book? Why?
An app I love is Greenshot. It allows you quickly capture screenshots so I use it for note-taking, preparing slides for presentations, and social media posts. I read a wide variety of blogs with education and business themes, but I have to say I enjoy Travis Bradberry’s writings the most. As the author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, his posts resonate with me and always push me to reflect on how to improve my own communication and leadership abilities.
What's your favorite business tool or resource? Why?
Hubspot is a great resource that I use for tracking my referral sources and to differentiate who should receive different email messages. They also publish informative blogs and training videos that are very helpful since I had no formal training in marketing.
Who is your business role model? Why?
I’m fortunate to have had local mentors who were also small business owners, so in addition to coaching me on education decisions and adolescent development, I also observed firsthand the importance of solid hiring and training processes, taking time out for strategic planning, and analyzing financial and other performance data. I enjoy reading about different business models and the creative minds behind them.
What do you have planned for the next six months?
I recently started writing a blog, which is a new experience for me. I have to write for a broad audience since I’m so used to working one-to-one with parents and staff. Through my blog, I’m trading the approach of finding creative solutions for one person to a role that allows me to ask broader questions, provide general information, and initiate the conversation with a far larger audience than I’d ever imagined. I’ve learned a lot and am having fun!
How can our readers connect with you?