Being a founder, entrepreneur, or a business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur” we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Ayden Berkey.
(Ayden is a New Jersey native and a 2020 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Post-graduation, Ayden has co-founded a scholarship search engine platform for students called Access Scholarships. When she is not working with and helping students, she enjoys binge-watching the Office and cooking up a storm in the kitchen.)
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Ayden Berkey: Of course! For a little backstory…around this time last year, I was a senior in college. As most seniors were starting to do, I was applying for jobs left and right, in the hopes that I would land an awesome one and be on my merry way. Shortly thereafter, as we all know, the world got turned upside down. Not only did this send me (along with the other millions of college students) home for the semester, but it also meant that job prospects were now looking terrifyingly slim.
Rather than continuing to apply for hundreds of jobs in a market that was just not looking bright, I decided that I could, and would, create my own job. During the months leading up to graduation, I had been helping my uncle out by writing blog posts for a website of his. It was something that I enjoyed doing, so I asked how I could get more involved. When he said that he was actually thinking about starting up a student-focused website, I thought, this is my chance to create something new and make an impact.
As it relates to the twists and turns of life in general, I have often heard people use the phrase “when nothing goes right, go left”. The way that I tackled that period of transition from college out to the “real world” was probably the first time in my life that I have actually acted on that saying for myself.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Ayden Berkey: To be honest, I can’t say that it was one moment or even one day in time when it all came together. I sat down with my uncle numerous times (virtually and in-person) and we spent hours upon hours just researching the higher education space, figuring out what’s already out there, and trying to identify those shortcomings.
Throughout those months of planning and research, the presence of the pandemic also led me to spending a good chunk of time just reflecting on my high school experience, my college career, and what things I could have done differently or better. One of those things, I identified, was the fact that I had not taken advantage of nearly as many scholarship opportunities that I should have or could have, to help me pay for school. I realized that I wanted to help students learn from that mistake, and to give them the resources that they need to get started and hopefully be successful with the process. So, I guess that was a bit of an Aha Moment for me!
In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?
Ayden Berkey: While I consider myself to be somewhat creative, I can’t say that I was always the type of kid who was coming up with new ideas left and right. On the other hand, a big part of being an entrepreneur is being able to plan, knowing how and when to take calculated risks, and always being open to learning new things. Those are qualities that I do think I have always had in me. It’s funny though because, as we speak, I am actually in the middle of a big brainstorming session for a new business idea that I recently came up with. I guess you could say that I caught the entrepreneurship bug from Access Scholarships!
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
Ayden Berkey: Definitely my uncle, for starters. From the moment that I first showed interest in what he was working on, he did not hesitate to introduce me to what he knew and tell me how I could get involved. Since then, he has been so helpful in terms of teaching me new tools and strategies, answering all of my questions (there are at least ten a day), and not ever saying “no” when I have a new idea for the site.
It’s not quite a story, but there is one thing that I will say which I think speaks to how awesome my uncle has been in helping me navigate our current endeavor. Literally hours within coming up with my most recent business idea, I called him up and we fleshed out the entire thing. Thanks to everything he has taught me so far about all the aspects of running a business, I had answers to all of his essential questions!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Ayden Berkey: As I am sure every entrepreneur does when developing a business idea, I spent a significant amount of time brainstorming about how my scholarship search platform was going to be different from the others that are currently in the space. One thing I concluded about the players that are currently out there is that they lack a sense of human connection.
When I was a student myself, and I would go online to seek out advice about navigating different aspects of my college journey, I always found that the most interactive and authentic platforms were the ones that helped the most. From the perspective of any student who is seeking guidance, the last thing anyone wants is to stare at a website or an Instagram page where you can’t quite decipher who is on the other end of that content.
With that in mind, I really tried to adopt a “small business” mindset meaning, no matter how big the platform gets, I will always be around for my weekly 1:1 office hours sessions and my bi-weekly Instagram lives to chat about scholarships and the ups and downs of college life in general.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Ayden Berkey: The first trait is eagerness to learn. When I started Access Scholarships, although I had a business degree, I had approximately zero years of “real world” work experience – ha! This of course meant that I had (and still have) a lot to learn. As an example, when I started our blog, I was spending hours doing research on topics and writing posts, but I knew that almost no one was reading them. Although I knew what search engine optimization was and that it was important, I had never actually implemented it in real life. So, I knew that if I wanted to start getting my posts in front of students, I would have to learn how to optimize the posts through internal linking, getting the right backlinks, etc, so that they would reach my intended audience.
The second trait that I think has been crucial to my success thus far is my ability to stay organized and prioritize tasks. Of course, being in college and working to my own schedule definitely has helped me to develop this skill, but I honestly don’t think anything can really prepare you for what it’s like to truly work for yourself and to not have anyone telling you what you need to or should be doing at a certain time.
On any given day, I am likely working on half a dozen different tasks or projects, all pertaining to different aspects of the site. Take today for example. On my to-do list was to draft out and film 6 TikTok videos, research and write a blog post, send out our mid-month newsletter, check in on our Google Analytics, and prepare for a live event I am hosting tomorrow. Out of all of those things, you can bet that there are one or two that could easily capture my attention for hours (not looking at you, TikTok…). However, in order to keep everything on track, it takes an immense amount of organization and true prioritization of what has to get done versus what I want to be doing.
The third trait that has been instrumental to my success is my motivation. I really do feel that, as a recent graduate, it is almost my responsibility to be doing what I’m doing to help other students be successful. I remind myself every day that, by going out of my comfort zone in creating a TikTok, or hopping on Instagram live to talk about test prep, the information, resources, and support that I am disseminating to my audience is worth it if even just a few students derive value from it. My goal is to reach and help as many students as possible through my platform. Although this is a lofty one, it definitely helps keep me motivated to always strive to do bigger and get better.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Ayden Berkey: Early on in my Access Scholarships journey, before the website even launched, I was talking with my uncle about the potential of the platform and all of the ways that I could possibly see students using it in the future, like thinking real long term and big picture. My uncle of course admired the fact that I had so many ideas for the website. He also jokingly advised me to not catch the “entrepreneur bug”, because once you are in the mindset, you will never want to work for anyone else again. Unfortunately, I think he was a bit too late on that one! Just a few weeks ago I was doing my daily catchup with my best friend and we pretty much stumbled upon what I’m sure will be my next entrepreneurial venture in the education space. Looking back, my uncle was probably right, but anyways, stay tuned for that!
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?
Ayden Berkey: By now, it’s safe to say that the majority of my colleagues in the higher education space have made their way onto social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok in order to reach our shared student audience. While these platforms can be great in terms of widening reach, they can also be extremely addictive, stress-inducing, and overwhelming.
My biggest tip when it comes to successfully and happily navigating this part of the industry specifically is to set time limits for yourself for when you want to “allow” yourself to use the apps, and when you are going to give your brain a break. It may seem like everyone else is moving at warp speed and pushing out tons of content every single day, and while that may be the case, your own health and happiness is much more important than getting that video posted. The audience can wait!
What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?
Ayden Berkey: I think the first thing business leaders can and should do to build trust in their industry is to get a strong grasp on their audience. Take the time to learn when and how they prefer to be reached, and what content garners a positive reaction from them. Doing everything you can to show that you understand them is key to building credibility.
Additionally, I think that business leaders can build authority and trust by putting a face (or faces) to their name. If you have a website for your business, introduce your team on it and consider adding some fun facts or other information to make it more personal. Consumers are more likely to trust companies that introduce themselves as fellow humans, instead of companies that live behind their screens.
Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?
Ayden Berkey: From being a student myself and talking to other students/people of my generation, I know that we as a whole tend to skew more towards supporting local organizations or companies where we actually know who we’re speaking to on the other end. I can’t tell you how many times I have chosen not to reach out to a shop or business, because I just had that gut feeling that sending an email to “firstname.lastname@example.org” would lead me to a black hole of nothingness. People want that one-on-one support and acknowledgement, so when leaders prioritize that, it is both noted and appreciated (and more trust is ultimately built).
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Ayden Berkey: The first mistake I see CEOs and founders make when they first start a business is trying to roll out too much, too quickly. Especially if it is your first time in the industry or space, trying to tackle it all at once can be a massive beast, and it is one that you will likely be more successful in conquering if you chip away at it over time. I think the easiest way to combat this is to put yourself in your consumer’s shoes. Thinking: if I just came across this brand new website/company, and knew nothing about them, would I be overwhelmed right now? If you answer ‘yes’, consider scaling back.
The second mistake is one that I myself was definitely guilty of; I launched my website when I was still making major structural and design changes, and didn’t have nearly enough content planned out in advance of the launch. This error can of course easily be avoided by making sure that you have a very clear vision in mind of what you want to achieve and how you aesthetically want to portray it. Once you have figured that out, create a substantial amount of content so that in those first few weeks when you’re just trying to balance it all, you have one less thing on your plate.
Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?
Ayden Berkey: I think the main reason why entrepreneurs (myself included) usually have more dramatic highs and lows compared to someone with a “regular job” is because there is so much personal investment in the company, business, and mission.
There has most likely been a time in every person’s life where they have had to work for someone else, whether it’s a part-time job at a grocery store or through their full-time 9-5 that pays the bills and puts food on the table. When you are working for a company that you did not physically build yourself, the experience as a whole is a bit more dispensable.
On the flipside, when an entrepreneur comes up with an idea from scratch, spends endless hours developing it and making it come to life, and finally pushes it out into the world, the level of emotional attachment and the drive to want to see your idea succeed are on a whole new level. So, ultimately, those big wins, and of course those big losses, are going to hit a bit more close to home when you are the mastermind behind the entire mission.
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
Ayden Berkey: There have definitely been a few “highs” so far throughout my short journey with Access Scholarships. One of them was when I hosted a virtual workshop on scholarships to a high school class in California. It was the very first time that I did this type of presentation, and, despite it being virtual, I was so nervous to “get up there” and speak.
I spent several days leading up to presentation day creating a deck and of course practicing it in front of just about everyone who I could get to listen. Long story short, the workshop was a big hit! I had originally expected that no one would have questions or really show any further interest after it was over. To my surprise, so many students had questions, and even reached out to me later on to say how informative and helpful the workshop had been. Not only did this give me a boost of confidence in my ability to host other similar workshops in the future, but it was a great feeling to basically have students telling me that I was doing my job right!
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
Ayden Berkey: While I have experienced some occasional success from my TikTok efforts, it has been a part of the marketing side of the business that has generally been difficult to grasp. A few days back, I spent hours researching the algorithm and trending sounds, brainstorming ideas for entertaining and relevant content, and making the videos. And the videos only get a few hundred views! It has definitely made me question whether or not I am doing anything right in terms of navigating social media and the latest trends.
Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?
Ayden Berkey: People always say that you shouldn’t let numbers define you, and I think that this saying should definitely also apply to social media metrics. Tracking likes, follows, views, comments, etc makes it easy to quantify how well you are doing by just looking at the numbers. But what I remind myself, in order to bounce back, is that yes these numbers are important and can be indicative of success, but they are by no means what defines you or your efforts.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.
Ayden Berkey: 5 THINGS YOUTUBE VIDEO LINK – https://youtu.be/93KvLw46ZQI
A support system — Whether it’s a whole team, a business partner, your friends and family, or all three, having a strong support system that you can celebrate the highs and push through the lows with is so important.
When I had my first video “go viral” on TikTok after weeks and weeks of feeling like I should just quit, it was an awesome feeling to be able to celebrate that small win with everyone who had been rooting for me along the way (even if that meant just laughing at how ridiculous my videos were).
To create a healthy balance — One thing I have definitely learned since starting my own business is that it’s all about creating a balance between the things that you enjoy a lot and the things that you enjoy less.
There was one point a few months ago when I was putting a lot of work into doing updates on our scholarship database. That type of work is definitely not the most enjoyable or creative, and unfortunately, I had lots of it to do. In the beginning, I was dedicating huge chunks of each day to working on the database. Although it was necessary, I felt like it was eating away at my creative side. At one point after a week or two, I decided that, in order to satisfy both sides of the coin, I can (and should) scale back on the mundane database work so that I can incorporate some of the more exciting aspects of the business into my everyday routine.
To remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing — This one for sure speaks to riding the lows. Pretty early on in the Access Scholarships journey, I launched a weekly initiative that I called Friday Office Hours sessions. These sessions are essentially time slots each week where students can sign up to chat with me one-on-one for free and get help with scholarship searching, writing essays, applying for internships and jobs, working on resumes, and more.
When students sign up for these sessions, I will usually spend around thirty minutes – one hour to prepare in advance for each meeting by putting together a list of scholarships and other resources that are unique to each student. There have been plenty of times where I have done a lot of this prep work, only to have the student not show up for the session and not ever reach out to follow up. As you can probably imagine, this is quite frustrating! When these things happen, I remind myself that there are so many students out there who are grateful for the resources that I am providing and take the time to tell me that. Those students are the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing.
To take time to analyze what you’re doing right and wrong — If I could start my Access Scholarships journey over from the beginning and do one thing differently, it would be to be more diligent in keeping track of my successes and my failures.
There have been so many things over the past few months where I just told myself “Oh, of course I’ll remember to not do it like this next time” or “Oh, I should definitely do it this way next time” and then I forget and make the same mistake! I recently started keeping better track of these things so that I can remember to implement or avoid them later on.
For example, in the past, I would highlight scholarship opportunities on my social media platforms and, for each scholarship, I would post an individual link to it on my Linktree (link in bio). Not only was this a laborious process (because I was updating the links every single day), but I found that the scholarships were each only getting a few clicks at most.
Recently, I decided that I wanted to create a permanent page on my website dedicated to highlighting these daily scholarships, so that the effort I was putting into my social media posts could have a place to live and wasn’t going to waste. When I created this page, I updated my Linktree to show one link to my “Scholarship of the Day” page. Not only does this make my life easier, but it has been getting more traffic too. So, by taking the time to gather insights from these initiatives and their respective successes or failures, it helps me to be more successful in the long run.
To include your users in the journey and enjoy the ride — Lastly, one of the best ways to successfully ride the highs and lows of your entrepreneurship journey, in my opinion, is to share those milestones with your users.
It’s awesome that so many of the students I work with are so invested in watching Access Scholarships grow and reach more people. A few weeks back, we hit 10,000 followers on Instagram. Of course, I knew that it was going to be coming soon, but I didn’t actually even realize that it had happened until a bunch of students reached out to me in the comments section of one of my posts (and through DM’s!) to congratulate me for reaching 10k. To feel like they were celebrating that moment with me was so cool, and it made the actual achievement of hitting the milestone so much more meaningful.
We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Ayden Berkey: To me, resilience means having that sort of toughness that allows you to persevere and bounce back twice as strong from tough times and low moments. Someone once told me a Japanese proverb that translates to “fall seven times, stand up eight” which I think really encapsulates the meaning of resilience.
One characteristic that all resilient people have is optimism. Rather than spending excessive amounts of time thinking about what happened in a situation, a resilient person is one step ahead, thinking about how they can do better and improve on their strategy when they stand back up and tackle the beast again.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?
Ayden Berkey: I think one situation in my childhood that contributed to building my resiliency was my parents’ divorce. They got divorced when I was three years old. While I have no memory of that actual experience, I can think back to plenty of times throughout my childhood and young adulthood where I have felt stressed, sad, and confused as a result of it. As a young child, I often failed to understand why the situation was the way it was, and just thought of it as being an unfair circumstance that I couldn’t remove myself from. But, I do think that their divorce ultimately had a formative influence on the way that I now approach and handle tough situations. The ups and downs of that experience instilled in me a lot of strength and a greater ability to process difficult situations with a clear mind.
In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?
Ayden Berkey: Generally, I am pretty good at staying positive during difficult situations, and I credit almost all of my ability in being able to do this to two things: deep breathing and perspective. I really believe that no matter how difficult or stressful a situation is, it can always be immediately brought down a few notches with a few big deep breaths. After that, I will usually head over to my notebook and write down a few things: what the situation is, how I’m feeling about it, how I’m planning on handling it, and the worst possible case scenario. Then, I draw a bunch of big X’s through the worst possible case scenario and tell myself that there’s no way I’ll let that happen! That usually gets me organized, at ease, and ready to tackle any challenge with a positive attitude.
Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.
Ayden Berkey: Positivity is one thing that is, without a doubt, contagious. When a leader especially has a positive attitude or outlook on a situation and makes that known, not only does it instill confidence in their clients and team, but it often inspires them to continue to work towards their goals. As I’ve said, a big part of what I do involves talking to students on a daily basis and helping them navigate the world of college and scholarships. I have had sessions with students where they express concern over an essay not being strong enough or not feeling prepared enough for an interview. In those situations, I maintain a positive outlook not only because I believe in them, but because I know that if I am optimistic and I make that clear, then it will help bring out the optimism and confidence in them as well.
Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?
Ayden Berkey: My favorite inspirational quote is a line from the song ‘Scarlet Begonias’ by the Grateful Dead. The lyric is “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right”. While I always think that there is a silver lining in most situations, I really do think that this lyric is especially fitting in my life right now. If it weren’t for this crazy turn of events over the last year, I definitely would not be running Access Scholarships right now, or talking to you! Not only does this quote remind me to always look at the positives of every situation, but it also motivates me to be the best I can be while doing that
How can our readers further follow you online?
Ayden Berkey: I’m sure this is no surprise, but you can pretty much find me everywhere online! My website is accessscholarships.com, and my Instagram and TikTok accounts (main socials) are @accessscholarships.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!
Ayden Berkey: A big thank you, right back at you! It has been a pleasure.