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The Underscore Story

Written By:
Wednesday, May 5, 2021

A simple idea

In 2016, I was president of an enrollment marketing firm that offered a very traditional student search solution, much like is still (unfortunately) common today. We consulted our clients on which student records to purchase from SAT, ACT, and other databases, then we loaded the purchased records into our own proprietary system. From there, we set up and ran their communications, monitoring the campaigns week over week. Each week the team sent our clients their lists of inquiries, and our clients would upload the lists into their own CRM.

In April that year, I spoke with one of my clients who had recently purchased a new CRM that had them incredibly excited. They told me this CRM -- called Technolutions Slate -- had everything they needed, and they felt they could bring student search completely in-house. Oh, and that my firm was no longer needed to coordinate their search campaigns. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit disappointed, but I certainly understood their reason for leaving. The school would save tens of thousands of dollars in their operating budget by letting us go, plus they’d save countless man hours of exporting suppression lists from their system and uploading our lists of responders. I asked them if they would give me a demo of Slate, and they were happy to oblige. Within 20 minutes of the Slate demonstration, I turned to a coworker at the time and said, “If schools have this CRM, they won’t need us at all.” By the end of the demo, he said, “You’re absolutely right.”

A few weeks after the Slate demo, I went to the CEO of my firm and told them how we could revolutionize the operations of any enrollment office by assisting them with bringing student search in-house. I mapped out the services we could provide -- creative, CRM support, strategy/consultation, reporting and analysis, the list was practically endless -- and discussed how we could be at the forefront of a new way of handling a painfully outdated initiative. We could lead the charge!

To say the response I received was less than enthusiastic would be a huge understatement. Still, I was determined to keep my eye on this CRM and continue to brainstorm ways in which we could change the game for enrollment offices. When our quarterly board meeting came up, I decided to bring the topic up again and see what the rest of the group had to say. In these meetings, it was my role to inform the board of updates in the industry and discuss opportunities for growth. Slate ticked both of those boxes. When I told the board we could become a true leader in the world of higher education, they momentarily looked up from their iPads. But as soon as I explained that we’d need to phase out the software our developer had spent years trying unsuccessfully to perfect, and that we’d ultimately become a service company, they quickly diverted their attention.  

About four months (and a lot of soul searching) later, I concluded that I could no longer work for a company that refused to keep up with industry trends, that was ultimately holding its clients back from the success they so desperately needed. There was a more efficient and effective way to do what we were doing, and I decided to take the leap and start my own company.  And so, at the 2016 NACAC conference, I told my CEO that it was time for me to move on. There was a mutual sigh of relief, and I was encouraged to venture out on my own. After a few weeks, it was agreed that I could bring a few staff members from the Charlotte office with me to help in this new venture.

One of those people is still with Underscore today: Lizzie Lithgow. Lizzie and I have been through a lot over the last 10 years, and her commitment and vision to build Underscore is a major reason for our success. When I talk about the evolution of Underscore from this point forward, know that she has been there with me every step of the way. Lizzie - Thank you!

Photos from Underscore's first year in business

And so it begins

With the go-ahead from my old firm and a couple of trusted coworkers by my side, the wheels were officially set in motion. As of January 1, 2017, we would be on our own. We were thrilled to start a new journey together, to create something from scratch, something we knew would truly make a difference. There was only one problem - we had no money.

Luckily for all of us, one of these trusted coworkers was Jeff Bennett. Jeff was incredibly well known around Charlotte and had more friends than you could imagine. A friend of Jeff’s told him about the company she worked for, Brand RPM, was always looking for new talent to invest in. Later that week, we had a meeting set with David Anderson and Brad Gilliam, where we presented our vision for a new company and asked for an initial investment.

They had no experience within the world of enrollment, with our previous firm, or with the four of us. All they had were a handful of references from our former clients claiming that our plan would be successful. I remember sitting in their conference room and David saying, “You seem like good people.” And that was it. Two practical strangers decided to fund our new company simply because they liked us. A few short months later, they had us on the payroll, gave us an initial operating budget, and said, “Make it happen.” I will forever be grateful to them and their belief in us without any assurance that this vision of ours would pan out.

Not only did David and Brad give us the funding to start Underscore, but they also gave us a home. Brand RPM had just purchased a large warehouse in Charlotte and had a ton of space to spare. They gave us an office space (the warehouse’s old infirmary), keycards to the building, and that was that. We set up our desks in two rooms not much larger than walk-in closets. It wasn’t much, but it was ours.

I vividly remember driving into that warehouse on a very cold January day in 2017 and thinking, “We have no clients, no business, no prospects, and we're under a non-compete that doesn’t allow us to work with college or university enrollment offices.” In my 25-year career, college and university enrollment is all I had ever known. What had I gotten myself into?

First day as a small business owner

Our initial company name was Underscore_Branding. Our plan for 2017 was to focus on independent school branding, and maybe even work with some local Charlotte companies on creating and communicating their brands. At the end of the year, once our non-competes were lifted, we would go back to enrollment marketing. We showed up to work that day, looked at each other, and said, “What now?”

While Lizzie got to work creating our website and first brochure, Jeff and I began to compile a list of churches in the area that we thought might benefit from a bit of marketing. You read that right: churches. Needless to say, the religious sector in Charlotte didn’t have much interest in what we had to offer, especially considering we only had higher ed references.

Our first client was a friend of mine who owned a custom home building business, and he needed someone to create a few business cards. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. We took the job, printed his business cards, and sent out our first invoice for $150. We were officially on the books as Underscore_Branding. That was the first, and only business we did our first month.  At the end of January, we had a check-in with David and Brad, and I was absolutely petrified. We went into the meeting and said we did $150 worth of business but to please have patience. To their credit, they said, “We get it. Keep at it. We trust you.” (Again, what incredible luck that we met these two.)

Over the next few months, we started calling on independent schools, and business started to pick up a little. We were getting small jobs here and there and even began work with some local Charlotte businesses. We were losing money every month, but with our true determination (aka stubbornness) and grit, we were surviving. Lizzie handled all our marketing and project management, and the rest of us were just trying to sell.

There’s a story that I love to tell about our first few months in business, and it truly epitomizes our existence that first year. In March, we were asked to present at a small private school in Pennsylvania. It was a bit hard for us to spend $250 on a flight, but this was our first big step in the independent school market, and we had to take it. When I got to the school for my meeting, the receptionist escorted me to the nurse's office. School was just letting out, and there wasn’t much room for me in the waiting area during student pickup. As I waited, I picked up a copy of the school’s brochure. There was only one admissions requirement listed in the brochure: All students must be potty-trained. That’s right. Potty-trained. Five months prior, my clients recruited some of the brightest minds in the country, and now, here I was, sitting in a chair made for an eight-year-old, knees coming up to my chest, about to beg this school to hire us, and their only requirement for students to attend was that the child be potty-trained. The school was wonderful, and I loved their mission, but at that moment, I really questioned this whole venture.

Taking the next step

As the months went by and more clients came in (most, if not all, of whom had been potty-trained for years), we knew we had to start preparing for re-entering the higher education space at the end of the year. With our vision of running student search out of Slate as our North Star, I met with an old friend who was VP of Enrollment at a Slate school. I told him what we wanted to do, and by the goodness of his heart, he allowed us access to their Slate instance to test our theories. We hired a part-time consultant from a school in the Northeast who knew Slate very well. Together, we compiled a list of 79 initiatives we would have to coordinate to run an effective student search campaign out of Slate. Of the 79, Slate could handle 78. The only expectation it couldn't meet was running a direct mail campaign (fast-forward to 2020 and Slate can do that too). We were beyond excited.

Keep in mind, this entire time we weren't allowed to run an actual campaign for a higher education institution. Sticking to our non-compete, we ran a small internal BETA test for this school, which never sent to a single student. All our tests were run with dummy records we created within Slate. Even then, it worked like a charm, and we were more motivated than ever to get back into higher ed.

When I watched the ball drop that New Year’s Eve, I texted my team and said, “It’s on. Let’s do this.” From that point forward, we were going to revolutionize how schools handled Student Search.

The Student Search revolution

My very first call in January 2018 was to my good friend and former client Lucy Leusch of Oglethorpe University. I told her about our vision, and she hired us on the spot. I will forever be grateful to Lucy and her husband, Jay Williams, my former boss and mentor -- two truly amazing people and a couple of the best enrollment minds to ever grace college admissions. Oglethorpe was our first Slate Student Search client and is still a client today. Lucy has since retired, but her amazing staff continues to beat their enrollment records year over year. They are some of the hardest-working people I've ever known, and I'm sure Lucy’s experience and passion has much to do with that.

Once we had a client on board, we desperately needed a full-time Slate strategist to run our campaigns. We talked to a few people, but no one was willing to give us a chance; we didn’t have any hard numbers on how this would be successful. We were just this little company in a warehouse closet with very little to offer a fifth full-time employee. Just when we thought all hope was lost, I was connected with Ted Magdzinski at the University of Cincinnati through a mutual friend. We flew Ted in for an interview and I'll always remember his reaction when he saw our “office.” I could tell by the look on his face that he was thinking, “Are you seriously asking me to move my whole family here to work in this closet with you strangers?” To Ted’s credit, he too took a leap of faith and accepted the position because he believed in our vision.

With Ted joining our team, we felt it was time to make some real noise. We started actively selling our vision to schools and, before we knew it, word started to spread that there was a company that could run Student Search out of a school’s Slate instance. Perhaps more importantly, they heard our cost was much less than a traditional third-party search vendor. That’s when schools came running. By May 2018, we had more than 10 clients.

However, the belief in what we were doing was still lukewarm at best; we still had a lot to prove. I remember running into an acquaintance at a conference that summer. He was CEO of a company that offers outsourced Student Search, and he told me that our business model “would never be successful and candidly doesn’t make any sense.” He wasn’t trying to be mean, but as another lifelong higher education consultant, he was concerned that I was placing too many eggs in the proverbial Slate basket. It was also at that conference that another attendee, an interim VP of Enrollment, was overheard telling multiple people that our business model was a terrible idea and that we’d never last. Little did they know that was just the motivation we needed to hear.

A glimpse into Underscore_Branding's past.

As 2018 went along, schools came on board at an alarming rate; we were doing especially well. We quickly went into hiring mode and brought in a few project managers, (Morgan Cook, Selma Gomez) and two more Slate Strategists (Jim Rogers, Megan Robinson). These four are some of our key people to this day, all of whom I personally have a great deal of admiration for. To be honest, I truly admire all our employees, but these four are the cornerstone of what Underscore has become.

Coining the name “Slate Squad,” Ted, Megan, and Jim began outlining a plan for expanded service offerings, all centered around Slate -- the goal of every service being to help our clients harness the tools they already have in place and save them time and money along the way.

It was then that we began to realize we had to be more than just a search company. My team will roll their eyes at this, but it was around this time that I started preaching the phrase “create value.” Everyone at Underscore is tired of hearing me say it, and I know they snicker every time I bring it up, but it defines who we are. I knew we couldn’t just sit back and meet with clients to update them on statuses, checking the boxes of contracted deliverables. We needed to come to every meeting with new ideas and new strategies, to push the envelope of recruitment and Slate to get results. That term has since become the internal mission of Underscore - Create Value. This mission helped schools recognize all that our team could bring to the table, that we could do more with their communications efforts than simply send emails. We quickly expanded our offerings to include yield efforts, application generation campaigns, transfer communications, graduate and international campaigns, anti-melt, and more.

Underscore adds Jim Rogers, Megan Robinson and Jeremiah Tudor to its Slate Squad.

Movin’ on up

With the addition of staff and services, and with 2019 quickly approaching, we decided it was time for a few more changes. We moved out of our offices at Brand RPM and settled into an office of our own just down the road. We also took this time to reimagine the Underscore_Branding name. We weren’t the same tiny marketing company we started as just two years prior. So we partnered with our friends at Mindpower to help us better communicate who we are as a company and why we were all here. In January 2019, we became Underscore. That’s when things started to snowball. We were a successful, profitable, growing company, and we were starting to build a good reputation within the Slate community.

Since we started Underscore, one of my personal goals was to have our name mentioned at the Slate Innovation Summit within our first five years in business. And that summer, two and a half years ahead of schedule, Alexander Clark himself announced Underscore as the first Platinum Preferred Partner. I’m pretty sure the Charlotte office could hear our Slate team cheering in Chicago that morning.

It was a truly pivotal moment for us. As the inquiries came flooding in, we knew it was time to drastically expand our team. In the next few months, we brought on Jeremiah Tudor (Slate is his jam!), Brenna Burke (our idea queen), Chris Coons (the networker), Amanda Garay-Cedeno (the report guru), Emma Handron (the epitome of creating value), Ashlie Perry (our very own creative genius), Rob Tallerico (the trivia king) and Shane Phillips (our office manager and team mom).

While I’d love to mention every single employee we brought on after this, I would have to write forever to mention all of their contributions and unparalleled talents. Please know that Laura Murnen, Allison LaTorre, Matthew Herr, Laura Bald, Bruce Cairnduff, Jessica Severt, Chris Carl, Breé Shepard, Coty Walden, Amanda Johnson, Chris Besse, Nicole Nickerson, Emma Hayek, Martin Smith, Ryan Ostendorf, Sabrina Gregrow, Nina Sirico, Ansley Donaldson, and Elizabeth Orwig…you are all amazing assets to this company, and I am so grateful to have you as part of this team.

Slate Implementation

Once they returned from Summit, Megan, Jim, and Jeremiah came to me with even more ideas for how to grow Underscore in several exciting new directions. Megan knew there was an exploding opportunity in the implementation of Slate, but if we were to do it, we had to do it right. Those of you who know Megan, or have worked with her, know that this is no surprise. She wanted our implementations to be completely customized to each individual institution, and she knew each implementation had to include specialized training along the way. Most Slate implementation consultants offer an off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all model, but not Underscore -- and that’s 100% because of Megan. To her credit, Megan was only 26 when she joined the Underscore team, yet her vision and work ethic are unmatched to anyone I have ever worked with. It's because of this, and many other reasons, that Megan and the Implementation & Consultation team are one of the largest divisions of Underscore and a huge part of our company’s continued growth.

As you know, consultants in this industry usually must have 30+ years of experience to be well respected. But that’s the thing I love about Underscore. Yes, our team is young, but we’re innovative, thoughtful, and we work hard to make sure our clients get everything they want and more. We're passionate about what we do and the clients we serve. Put the Underscore team against anyone in the industry and they'll provide a more valuable experience, every time. Because here’s the thing: we don’t have to brag about our experience and knowledge of the higher ed space. Our work -- and results -- speak for itself.

Special Projects

Jeremiah also had an idea to grow Underscore by building custom student portals in Slate. The guy loves to build all day long. He loves his work, and his positive attitude and cheery disposition are contagious. Spend five minutes with him and try not to smile -- it’s simply impossible. I mean, have you seen him in those Georgetown College recruitment videos?! But on top of his infectious personality, Jeremiah knew we had to push Slate’s functionality even further. We could do more than create a simple application or student portal. With that, Jeremiah created our Special Projects division and tasked himself and his team with designing and developing top-of-the-line portals for students, counselors, coaches, financial aid staff, and advancement offices as well as parents and legal guardians. We’ve always said there are no limits to what Slate can do, so why not push those boundaries even further?

Enrollment Strategy

Jim Rogers and I have been friends and colleagues for almost 20 years now, and when we were able to bring him on board, I knew we had made it. Jim is everyone’s favorite enrollment guy. He’s a hard worker, and if you’ve ever seen him after hours at a conference, you know he knows how to have a good time.

As one of our enrollment veterans, Jim knew we could combine our team’s enrollment knowledge with Slate reporting and territory management features. Over the last couple of years, Jim has vastly expanded our territory management offerings, reporting packages, tele-recruiting training, yield and anti-melt strategies, and a handful of other enrollment services beyond our wildest dreams.

Creative Services

Who could forget about our Creative Director Ashlie? She has taken our company to the next level. Beginning as our first full-time copywriter and graphic designer in 2018, Ashlie has always been our secret weapon. Now, with a team of three by her side, she has taken it upon herself to ensure that no two communications campaigns are the same. Every email, mailer, and portal is written and designed with an institution’s unique brand in mind and with an eye toward the future of design. Ashlie's team is responsible for our clients winning dozens of HEMR awards over the past two years alone. Along with Selma Gomez, Ashlie is taking the world of Slate Print by storm. But that’s not all. Ashlie is also the voice behind Underscore’s brand -- emails, social media, brochures, websites, you name it. She is always there to lend her talents to anyone who needs it, and we could not be more grateful for the work she does for Underscore and our clients.

A few fond Underscore memories throughout the years

A new year ahead

Underscore was heading into 2020 with our five divisions, and business, as they say, was booming.  Then in early March, as news of COVID-19 started to spread around the world, we all wondered how this would change the world of higher education and ultimately our team. I’m sure for most office environments, the idea of working from home for a few months may seem ideal. But for our team, who truly enjoys each other’s company -- a team that thrives when we’re all under the same roof -- deciding to temporarily shut down the office and have all employees work remotely was not an easy call. Sure, we’ve had remote staff since our second year in business, but we can all admit that there’s nothing we enjoy more than being able to bounce an idea off a coworker over lunch or having a Slate strategist sitting right next to you when you run into a coding issue. It's because of this our team knew that instead of wallowing at the thought of being physically apart for so long, we had another opportunity to create value for the institutions we serve.

Just a few short days into Underscore’s first work-from-home week, we immediately jumped into client support mode and decided to build a document to help our clients with the potential pandemic-related issues we knew would lie ahead. We spent about two weeks outlining hundreds of ways colleges and universities could adapt to our new normal, and more importantly, we were all ready to help our clients implement these strategies at no additional cost. There’s a quote that Lizzie loves from Mister Rogers that goes, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’" While the whole world seemed to be crumbling around us, I couldn't have been more proud of the ideas our team brought to the table and the time they spent helping our clients through an unthinkable time in our industry and our country’s history. There was no ambulance chasing, no "What’s in it for me?" mentality -- just a group of talented, hard-working, and empathetic people who want what’s best for the world of higher ed and the future of our educational system.

There’s no doubt that 2020 was a tough year, and an awful time to run a small business, but I’d be lying if I said we haven’t come out the other end having learned an incredible amount about ourselves, our team, and what we can bring to the table. We learned we could do a complete Slate implementation without ever stepping foot on campus, that we could provide effective training sessions virtually, and that we could maintain healthy relationships with our clients through Zoom and other digital platforms. And surprisingly enough, our largest growth as a company was between the months of May and December. Business, once again, was booming, and we owe it all to our staff.  

A Carnegie Company

This past October, I received an email from an old friend, someone I have respected in the higher education space for as long as I can remember: Joe Moore, CEO of Carnegie. We've attended dozens of NACACs together, and have spent countless hours talking over drinks about business and how things have changed for both of our respective companies. But the topic of this conversation was one that Joe and I had never had before. He was hoping to set up a time to talk about Underscore and discuss the potential of partnering with Carnegie on a few upcoming opportunities. During our chat, the synergies between the Underscore team and the team at Carnegie became abundantly clear. Carnegie has always been known as a powerhouse when it comes to digital marketing and communications, brand development and market research, and psychographic segmentation and digital marketing. And Underscore offers the specialized Slate knowledge that the Carnegie team wasn’t able to fully tap into on its own. We realized in that short call that with our combined teams, we would be the preeminent higher education marketing firm for enrollment, retention, advancement, and so much more. There was nothing that our teams combined couldn’t do.

After a few more conversations with Joe and Carnegie COO Meghan Dalesandro, I recognized it was time to take Underscore to the next level. Over the course of a few months, a plan to merge Carnegie and Underscore was born. We both agreed this couldn’t be like other mergers or acquisitions. Underscore needed the flexibility to remain fully intact -- our team, our company culture, our brand, the ways we operate and provide our services to our clients. None of that could change. We had to operate on a strict business-as-usual protocol. And with their assurances, I was in! It was truly the perfect scenario for Underscore and all our constituents. We get to keep all the benefits and nuances of being a small company with the added resources of a higher ed powerhouse. What’s not to love?

The future is very bright for Underscore (now a Carnegie Company). Our team will learn new skills and build their résumés with new knowledge from a respected organization. And at the end of the day, we will be more comprehensive, more complete, and, ultimately, we will create even more value.

So there you have it. What started as a vision built entirely around a CRM that we didn’t create was able to merge with one of (if not the) most respected organizations in higher education after just four years. I can’t say there haven't been some setbacks or tough decisions along the way, but at the end of the day, this journey has been the greatest experience of my professional career. I could list a thousand reasons why, but it really comes down to just 34 -- and I am fortunate enough to call those 34 reasons the Underscore team.

Not a bad story for a simple idea.

Special shout outs to the following people who have been our biggest fans and most loyal supporters since the very beginning:

Ashley Zullo, Beth Riley, Caitlin Douglas, Cory Piper-Hauswirth, Dale Gaubatz, Danny Green, Dave Roberts, Dawn Medley, Drew Melendres, Eddie Wright, Erika Matthews-Jackson, Gail Sweezey, Lauren Sciocchetti, Maggie Karpauskas, Michael Thorp, Stacy Ledermann, and Whitney Lewis. We cannot thank you enough for your continued support.


Read the official press release here.


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