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you've got talent: new online platform simplifies fine arts college admissions process

Founders of Acceptd, Don Hunter (left) and Derek Brown. Photos submitted
Founders of Acceptd, Don Hunter (left) and Derek Brown. Photos submitted
Imagine that you're a nervous, nail-biting 17-year-old riding in the back seat of your parents’ mini-van on your way to a theatre audition at a small, elite liberal arts college. Wouldn’t you want to know as much as possible about the program before memorizing all of your lines? If you could submit an audition video online, wouldn’t that be a whole lot easier?

Now step into the shoes of a busy college theatre professor. Your day-to-day responsibilities include grading a mountain of papers, mentoring students, developing coursework and, oh yeah, reviewing a zillion applications by next Friday. Wouldn’t you rather prescreen applicants beforehand so that you could avoid wasting their time – and yours?

Simplifying and streamlining the fine arts admissions process is the big, entrepreneurial idea behind Acceptd, a new online platform that allows applicants to submit their materials online and gives faculty a way to pre-screen applicants. It also allows administrators to review student applications in real-time in collaboration with other decision makers.

Yet Acceptd is about more than simply winnowing out lower-tier applicants, American Idol style. The software opens the door for students to apply to fine arts programs anywhere in the country, regardless of where applicants live. It also offers a secure, private platform that ensures professionalism and is much safer than sending a DVD in the mail.

The startup was created last year by business partners Derek Brown and Don Hunter, who came up with the idea while studying marketing and entrepreneurship at the Carl H. Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati (UC). They were both in the Lindner Honors-Plus program, which positions talented undergrads for advancement as business and community leaders.

Recently, this young, growing company was awarded a $500,000 development grant from Ohio Third Frontier, TechColumbus, NCT Ventures and other private investors. Brown and Hunter plan to use the funds to enhance their software, hire staff and secure contracts with more colleges and universities.  

“This is really our first entrepreneurial endeavor,” admits Derek Brown, who located his business in Columbus. “We thought of the idea when we were sitting around campus one day. We thought first about focusing on sports or scholarship programs, but everyone was pointing us to fine arts.”

Despite possessing only the seed of an idea, the duo soon discovered that they’d stumbled onto something with tremendous potential for growth. “Higher education is ripe for improvement,” says Brown. “The timing is right, especially in fine arts and performing arts, because they’re inundated with applications. We’ve made the process more efficient.”

“Acceptd serves a very real need, and not a need they’re trying to create,” adds Dr. John Stefano, Chair of the Otterbein University Theatre Department, a prestigious program that accepts only about one out of every twenty applicants. “I need to know if applicants have the skills and background to make it worth their while to travel for an audition. They’ve got a business future, no question."

Since launching Acceptd under the mentorship of Stefano and others, Brown and Hunter have secured contracts with the Otterbein Theatre Department, the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati (CCM) and the Ohio Northern University Department of Communication and Theatre Arts.

When they first began vetting their nascent idea, Brown and Hunter visited CCM to speak directly with faculty and administrators there. They quickly found no shortage of people willing to talk about their frustrations with the admission process. Competitive programs like CCM traditionally rely on regional auditions, which are time-consuming for administrators and costly for applicants. What they truly needed was a comprehensive online platform that would allow them to conduct virtual pre-screening auditions without leaving their desks.

Armed with this knowledge, Brown and Hunter set out to bring their idea to life. They created a virtual dashboard that allows faculty reviewers to have access to formatted headshots, audio and/or video auditions, portfolios and resumes of program applicants. The result is a time-saving mechanism for busy administrators that want to find the best and brightest, but simply don't have the time to sit through myriad auditions and offer feedback on every one.

Acceptd also opens up the auditions process. In the past, budding actors and musicians would have to travel to regional auditions on far-off campuses. With Acceptd, they can complete the pre-screening process online for a fraction of the cost. Students can also integrate social media and submit snappy videos even if they lack access to high-cost technology (even cell phone videos are accepted).

In the student portal of the website, applicants can also learn about the offerings of various programs, upload media and follow administrators’ activity as they review applications. If students are invited to submit a full application, they can gauge whether it’s worth their time and cost to prepare and travel to an audition based on their knowledge of the school’s requirements and competitiveness.

Brown says that Acceptd’s success would not have been possible without valuable mentoring from individuals such as Stephano, as well as critical early stage funding from Ohio Third Frontier and the wealth of business accelerators in Ohio.

Stefano still acts as an industry advisor to Acceptd’s five-member startup team. He first met Brown and Hunter in May of last year when they were honing Acceptd within the 10X New Venture Accelerator, a program housed within the Fisher College of Business at the Ohio State University. He was so impressed that he enrolled his theatre department as an Acceptd beta tester.

Brown credits Stefano with helping to tailor Acceptd to meet the needs of potential students and administrators and for providing encouragement. “Dr. Stefano was the first fine arts director to take a chance on our new startup,” he says.

Harnessing potential efficiencies in “disruptive” technologies is a concept that underlies the successful 10X Xelerator program. Entrepreneur Rich Langdale, who has founded eight successful startup companies over the past 25 years, helped to develop the program’s curriculum and mentored Brown and Hunter. Langdale’s venture capital firm, NCT Ventures, is also a key investor in the $500,000 development grant awarded to Acceptd last November.

“Rich was a great mentor throughout the program,” says Brown. “He forced us to go out into the market and see what it needs.”

Of course, strong businesses like Acceptd are born of promising ideas seeded in fertile start-up environments. Brown and Hunter received their first grants while they were developing their initial software applications in Cincinnati. In 2011, Acceptd also won a $50,000 TechGenesis grant from TechColumbus, a seat in OSU’s 10x Xelerator program and a $20,000 grant from the Ohio New Entrepreneurs (ONE) program of Ohio Third Frontier.

As former students who have known each other since they attended eighth grade together in Marysville, Brown and Hunter both know the value of a helping hand. Neither could have afforded to attend college without critical scholarships. Now, the two business leaders have not only benefited from the support of Ohio’s increasingly well-developed entrepreneurial ecosystem, but also have an opportunity to help others navigate the college admissions process.

“I don’t think we’d be here right now if it hadn’t been for Third Frontier funding,” says Brown. “It’s been instrumental in our development and allowed us to stay local.”

Photo 1: Acceptd founders Don Hunter (left) and Derek Brown.
Photo 2: Accptd team members, from left, Derek Brown, Brooke Paul, Don Hunter and Greg Ruf
Photos 3-6: Don Hunter and Derek Brown at Cincinnati Innovates
Photo 7: Rich Langdale of NCT Ventures
Photo 8: Tech Columbus
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