StartOut Blog

AANHPI Founder Feature: Dyllen Nellis

Dyllen Nellis (she/her) is a current member of the StartOut Growth Lab’s 11th cohort with her company, Dyllen’s College Essay Advice. She always wanted to pursue an entrepreneurial path and manages to do so as a full-time college student at Stanford.

Dyllen’s College Essay Advice empowers students to discover their sense of self and effectively communicate their personal values, experiences, and potential in well-crafted college essays. They offer college essay editing, private coaching, educational videos, and an award-winning, comprehensive online course to craft a successful college essay.

Dyllen, how did your College Essay Advice business begin?

Right off the bat, it was never intentional. I never set out to create a business, but in 2018, when I was applying to colleges, I didn’t know how to write a college essay with strategy. I had strong goals to get into top universities, but my school didn’t offer much guidance with the essay writing component.

I researched independently and looked at articles, videos, and everything I could to develop my strategy to stand out in admissions. And the results spoke for themselves! I was accepted into every school I applied to, including top universities like Stanford, UCLA, USC, and NYU. 

I gained incredible insights about myself while writing these essays and wanted to help other students experience their journey of self-discovery. Too often, I watched the well-being of my friends crumble during the application process, and I wanted to prevent that.

I started making videos on YouTube to share what I learned, and rather quickly, they blew up online. More and more people wanted advice, and by this point, as a freshman in college, I needed to figure out a way to scale.

How did you develop the curriculum for College Essay Advice?

Shortly after COVID hit, I took a gap year because I was over online school. I had more free time and wanted to earn an income, so little by little, I started developing the business side. I created my website to share my resources and allow students to submit their essays for me to review. I posted about three videos weekly and had regular Zoom meetings with students to help craft their essays.

After researching different approaches to college essay strategy, I developed my own that felt more intuitive and designed for Gen Z students like myself. I brainstormed in a sketchbook, created a framework, created an entire online course, and launched it in September 2020. The course, The Ultimate Guide to Craft Your Story, has undergone several iterations over the years. I’m happy to share that students who went through my program have been accepted to top schools such as Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, and UCLA! 

What helped you with developing the business strategy and plan?

Most of everything in this business, I learned on the fly. I only had an official business mentor this year through StartOut. But before that, I researched online and connected with others who worked in the college admissions space. I am grateful for my friend, Janae Young, who was in my freshman dorm and ran her own business focused on SAT and ACT prep. She had been studying business since she was young, and we’d get on calls and collaborate. I would learn so much from those conversations. She taught me the basics of running a webinar, pricing, and how to communicate your value. 

With the course itself, I had to create a unique framework and develop a cohesive skeleton that would be tailored for Gen Z students. In 2021, I hired a team to help me with the essay editing. After returning to school that year, I had a series of moments where I felt overwhelmed, so I’ve been learning how to automate and continue to expand my team. 

How do you balance being an entrepreneur and a full-time college student?

I’m fortunate that Stanford let me create my major – Human Centered Design and Engineering – which incorporates business, product design, and computer science principles. My schoolwork complements the stuff I already do with my company.

When people ask how I manage everything, I keep a detailed calendar for every hour of the day. I love making lists and logging my to-dos. I’m very organized, so having a clear idea of what needs to get done and when helps me manage. 

Being at Stanford is hard. The culture is very grind, grind, grind, but you must take care of yourself simultaneously, or things will go south. My girlfriend has stressed the importance of prioritizing well-being, which has helped me better care for myself. After all, I’m a college student, so I need time to unwind, decompress, and just exist as a human being.  Sometimes I just want to lie down and watch some TV, and that’s okay!

How did you discover StartOut?

My girlfriend told me about StartOut. When we were creating a separate startup, she found the organization online. I felt my company could benefit from StartOut’s program offerings and applied for the Growth Lab. 

I applied for Cohort 10 and didn’t get in, which made sense for where I was at the time. But after implementing an evergreen sales system for my course and skyrocketing my sales, I applied again and was accepted into Cohort 11. 

It’s been a great experience, and I’m happy to have these one-on-one meetings with folks. The most valuable part has been talking with Maca Baigorria from Avocademy because our business models are similar. I’ve also benefitted from conversations with Chris Davidson about predictive analytics, how to predict your revenue, and then how to map out your plan to get there.

Growth Lab has helped me realize the true potential of my company. I’m fully committed to pursuing this beyond college to continue to help thousands of students worldwide gain access to higher education. 

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