November 2005

Los Angeles Business Journal

Ticket In
by Rachel Brown

Janet Zhou had a resume typical of a business school applicant: University of Memphis graduate, computer science degree holder, Silicon Valley software engineer.

That was the problem.

Zhou had trouble translating her resume into a compelling story that would intrigue admissions officers at top schools.

“I was in engineering for most of my career, so trying to understand how to market myself and really getting the message of why I am unique is a difficult proposition for me,” she said.

Zhou, however, stumbled on Stacy Blackman, who runs Los Angeles-based Stacy Blackman Consulting and works with business school hopefuls to finely tune their applications.

Instead of concentrating on her ability to write computer code, Blackman counseled Zhou to focus on her crucial life lessons. That included her immigration to the United States at the age of 15 and her struggle to learn English and thrive in a high school culture.

Zhou ended up applying to four schools ”“ Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business ”“ and was admitted to three.

Blackman is one of a new breed of consultants who picks up where Graduate Management Admission Test prep courses leave off. Through one-on-one meetings and electronic communications, Blackman dissects applicants’ backgrounds to hone in on the details of most interest to schools.

“It is such an overwhelming process, so having an expert walk you through it gives you support and knowledge,” Blackman said.

Minting money
When Blackman started her service four years ago, there was barely any competition. But the field is beginning to take off.

With graduates of top MBA programs looking at six-figure starting salaries, Blackman prices her services accordingly. Her most popular package is $5,500 for four schools. She also offers a $2,500 one-school package, or $250 per hour of counseling. She claims that 97 percent of those who choose the four-school package get into at least one school.

Blackman has 12 consultants working for her now, up from four last year. She hires people with MBAs from top business schools who have admissions experience and who understand Blackman’s marketing approach.

To differentiate herself from the increasing competition, she is reaching beyond the core consulting business.

She has started an editing service, where applicants electronically submit their essays and Blackman consultants edit for content and style. She’s also begun two-hour boot camps covering the ins and outs of the admissions process. The camps, which cost $100 to attend, have been held in New York, and Blackman plans to roll them out next year to Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Chicago. Blackman also runs sessions at companies, including Lehman Brothers Holding Corp. and Credit Suisse First Boston, which are aimed at employees looking to get an MBA.

Blackman knows about business school applications from her own experience. She received an MBA from Kellogg, and her undergraduate degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Her post-graduate work made her a true believer in the power of an MBA. Business school had sparked her interest in developing ideas for new companies, and in her second year at Kellogg she started an online gift registry with two classmates called WebWisher.com. The company won business school awards, landed Blackman and her classmates on the cover of Fortune magazine and took her from Illinois to San Francisco. Eventually, the company was bought by WeddingChannel.com, with Blackman staying on to do marketing.

After WebWisher, Blackman got into marketing jobs at AirWave Wireless Inc. and Charles Schwab Corp. All along, people had been asking for her opinions on their business school essays, at which point she began wondering if she could do this for a living. “I started to realize that what I had done in marketing could be applied to people who wanted to get into business school,” she said.

While still working at Charles Schwab, Blackman posted an online ad at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business for her services. If she could pick up a few clients, she thought she could bring in a little cash on the side.

At first, the going was slow, but by 2003 she was in business full time and generating $125,000 in revenues. A year later she hired four part-time consultants, and this year she tripled the number of consultants as part of her expansion. She expects to generate $750,000 this year.

“I have been aggressively trying to grow this year through the Web, through workshops,” said Blackman. “I am really excited about the growth.”

*Stacy Blackman Consulting
2003 Revenues: $125,000
2004 Revenues: $250,000
2003 Employees: 1
2004 Employees: 4
Goal: To increase her core comprehensive service business by 50 percent and double the volume of the online editing service
Driving Force: The desire of MBA applicants to employ every possible advantage to gain entry into a top school