Maria Wich-Vila was pregnant and immobile on her living room couch in Los Angeles when the Aha moment came.
Ever since she earned her MBA from Harvard Business School in 2005, the 43-year-old had worked for a succession of tech startups in the wireless and mobile space. Through it all, however, she often found herself dispensing advice to ambitious MBA applicants, a habit of sorts developed when she had volunteered to help HBS admissions host events for prospective students.
It was now the autumn of 2009, four years removed from HBS. She was a digital media consultant and an MBA admissions counselor. On that couch, in the first trimester of her pregnancy, Wich-Vila was frankly dreading having to go through still more time-consuming rounds of consulting with her clients. And that’s when her non-stop mind, which mimics her rapid-fire manner of speaking, kicked in.
A $299 SUBSTITUTE FOR AN MBA ADMISSIONS CONSULTANT WHO CHARGES THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS?
“Wait, Maria,” she thought. “You’ve had this background in the tech business and a lot of the admissions process is repeatable. The advice is the same whether you are working with an engineer or a Teach for America person. It isn’t going to vary tremendously. Any process that you can repeat can be digitized.”
And so she began to wonder whether it would be possible to replicate what she did with applicants one-on-one in a mobile app. “That was the first kernel nine or ten years ago because I found myself giving the same advice over and over again,” says Wich-Vila.
Enter ApplicantLab, a software platform that does exactly what she imagined. Through interactive quizzes, brainstorming exercises, to-do lists, and hundreds of instructional videos, Wich-Vila brings MBA applicants through every single phase of the application journey—at a tiny fraction of the cost of what a traditional consultant would charge, just $299.
NO HAND-HOLDING: ‘YOU HAVE TO BE A SELF-STARTER’
“There are a lot of people who cannot afford traditional admission consulting,” she says. “I am not taking away any business from them. There is a reason why there are still concierges at five-star hotels, even though Yelp exists. And even though TurboTax is good enough for most people to do their taxes, there are plenty of people who still have accountants.”
Indeed. Truth is, however, it takes a highly self-motivated person with the discipline to use ApplicantLab successfully. At its most simplistic level, the platform is little more than a modernized digital version of a step-by-step workbook for applicants. “You have to be a self-starter to get the most out of ApplicantLab,” Wich-Vila concedes. “I am not going to nudge you. But the people who tend to come to ApplicantLab were not going to spend $10,000 to start with. This is not for people who want all the personal hand-holding and service they would get from a consultant.”
Not surprisingly, Wich-Vila is confronting the inevitable doubt that accompanies any entrepreneur with a new idea. “There is some skepticism,” she admits. “I am sure TurboTax faced the same thing. For every new product that comes along that tries to digitize something that was the purview of trained experts, there is always going to be some skepticism.”
GETTING RAVE REVIEWS IN POETS&QUANTS’ DIRECTORY OF MBA ADMISSION CONSULTANTS
Still, users of ApplicantLab give the product and Wich-Vila rave reviews in Poets&Quants’ directory of MBA admission consultants. Even though she personally stopped doing much one-on-one consulting a couple of years ago, Wich-Vila and her platform have racked up 56 favorable reviews, enough to comfortably put her among the ten most highly reviewed consultants in the business.
Users of ApplicantLab say the product is something of a lifesaver. “Coming from a non-traditional background, I was totally lost about how to go about the MBA application process,” writes a Class of 2021 admit accepted by Stanford Graduate School of Business. “Most admission consultants were very pricey and unaffordable. Then I stumbled upon ApplicantLab, and I was astonished how it covered the entire nine yards of the MBA application process.”
Adds an applicant accepted to both UVA Darden and MIT Sloan, “I’d say the most important piece of ApplicantLab is that it works on your schedule! If you need to check things at 2 a.m., you know you can go into your account and start reviewing prep material or jotting down ideas for your essays. I found myself constantly going back to her videos for refreshers or ideas on how to start a particular essay.”
JAMES MURDOCH TRIED TO CONVINCE HER THAT BUSINESS SCHOOL WAS A WASTE OF TIME
If you told Wich-Vila that she would be doing her own startup when she was at Harvard Business School, she would have laughed you out of one of the school’s modern tier-classrooms. A Princeton University undergrad who had been working for two international divisions of media magnate Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, she had been told that an MBA would be useless. “James Murdoch (Rupert’s son) tried to convince me that business school was a waste of time,” she laughs.
Undaunted, she applied anyway and got into HBS. “I went in a little bit skeptical and grumpy that they had us take an entrepreneurship class as part of the required curriculum,” she says. “But then that class really opened my eyes. The case method is famous for a reason. It’s an amazingly effective way to learn. I am not normally a drinker of Kool-Aid, but I came out a true believer. In this case, they got me. I not only drank the Kool-Aid, but I also ingested the brochures.”
Yet, Wich-Vila isn’t shy to share strong opinions that might cause disagreement among business school deans and faculty who see a higher purpose in what they do. “Business schools,” she flatly tells ApplicantLab users, “are in fact a business, and what they live and die on is their brand. After all, it’s not as if you need an MBA to practice business. It’s not like there is a licensing exam at the end of your two years. The number one thing they need is a strong brand and at its core, the brand of a business school is built by the students it lets in.”
Like most people in the business of helping applicants with elite admissions, it all happened pretty much by accident. After graduating from HBS, Wich-Vila would work her day job at a startup and on nights and weekends help candidates to HBS, Wharton, Kellogg and other top schools. “At that point, I was not charging for my advice,” she says. “I was doing it pro bono. Then, one day, an engineer I helped who got into Wharton told me, ‘I don’t know what your day job is but whatever it is, you need to quit and do MBA admissions consulting full time. You need to start making money from this.’”
‘I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE HYPOCRITICAL OF ME TO ASK SOME KID FOR TEN GRAND’
For at least a month, Wich-Vila recalls, she seriously considered putting out the proverbial shingle to do full-time admissions counseling. “But I started looking at the pricing and how much I would I would have to charge people to make a living from it,” she says. “It was like $300 an hour or $4,700 for a one-school package. I felt really uncomfortable charging that amount of money. My parents are public school teachers, and I didn’t use a consultant. I have this scrappy, social justice part of my value system. I thought it would be hypocritical of me to turn around and ask some kid for ten grand in exchange for what I know. I am a Latina and from a lower income background and it didn’t feel right.”
She registered the ApplicantLab name in 2010 and then filed for trademark protection for a logo that consists of a laboratory beaker filled with bubbling liquid, capped by a lit lightbulb, just before Christmas in 2012. Yet, it would take a couple of more years before the beta platform would launch. “It took me a really long time to take the admissions consulting practice and digitize it,” she acknowledges. “I had to think through what questions I ask people and what process I walk them through. I was testing out certain things on Google Docs and colorful Google spreadsheets. You think of admissions consulting as more of an art than a science, but a lot of it can be digitized.”
The first version of the platform, built by recent engineering graduates who were launching their own web design firm, went up in 2014. It had to be torn down and rebuilt. The latest and third iteration of ApplicantLab was the beneficiary of some contacts she made while pitching her business at a regional shark tank-like contest at UC-Irvine for Harvard Business School’s New Venture Competition in 2015. Her pitch won the audience’s favorite vote and some welcome funding from an angel investor who saw her on stage.