Innovation Spotlight

Online app eases process of applying to performing arts schools

By Debbie Briner
Photo by Tim Johnson
From the February 2014 issue of Columbus CEO

As parents of budding actors, musicians and artists know, it may cost thousands of dollars for audition tapes, transportation and lodging when pursuing admission to a top program for the performing or visual arts.

The digital application tool created by Derek Brown and Don Hunter provides students a platform to upload their work—a dance audition, a monologue reading or portfolio materials.

Columbus-based Acceptd is also beneficial to colleges and other performing arts programs as they manage volumes of admissions materials sent their way, some from students who obviously don’t possess the talent needed to get accepted.

To provide some perspective, John Stefano, chairman of Otterbein University’s Department of Theater and Dance, explains the numbers. As part of a consortium of schools participating in the National Unified Auditions, he and his Otterbein colleagues were used to attending hundreds of auditions.

“We would do two days in New York, three days in Chicago, two days in Los Angeles, and more auditions at school,” Stefano says. “A group of us were sitting around talking about this three years ago during one of these audition stops.

“At one point, I had seen 380 kids. And we only take 16 into the program,” Stefano says. “Realistically, half of them didn’t have any chance of getting into the program. And we were spending 15 minutes with each of these students who had invested a lot of time, money and emotion. “I said, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’”

That’s just what Brown and Hunter were thinking. The University of Cincinnati graduates wanted to help students find their right college fit.

The entrepreneurs noticed the rising use of video submissions by some high school students to stand apart from the pack when applying to competitive colleges.

They talked with academic staff in numerous programs at UC to better understand how to create a useful online applications platform that could help students yet streamline the process for schools, too.

Brown and Hunter launched Acceptd in 2011 with two universities: their alma mater and Otterbein. The service has grown exponentially since, to more than 100 schools and arts programs in its second year and now 400 in its third year.

For Otterbein, “It’s been a godsend,” Stefano says. Acceptd now provides opportunities for students to apply to schools, performing arts festivals and competitions, marching bands and even arts-focused high schools.

It’s also expanded to feature professional-level services that keep artists apprised of available creative work after graduation. “We want to be able to follow someone as they graduate and wonder, ‘What do I do as an artist?’” says Hunter.

Soon, professional dance companies, theater groups and orchestras could use Acceptd as a recruiting tool.

Some schools already do that thanks to a new feature Acceptd debuted last summer. Students and graduates can share virtual portfolios with recruiters. “We now have over 20,000 profiles for music, theater, dance and visual arts.”

The online portfolios allow for matchmaking of sorts between students and lesser-known programs with strong theater, dance or visual arts offerings.

“If I’m a high school student who is interested in theater or dance,” Hunter says, “the only places I know about are where my drama teacher went, or where my mom went, or Juilliard.”

Hunter points out that excellent theater, dance and visual arts programs exist in a range of schools, citing Ohio Northern University as an example of a school with a phenomenal theater and dance program. “But people don’t know where Ada, Ohio is.”

Many associate degree programs at community colleges are out there as well, he says. “There are great fits for everybody.”

Hunter and Brown funded their startup after completing Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business 10x accelerator program, initially, with $575,000 from TechColumbus, Columbus-based NCT Ventures and private investors. Early in 2013, additional funding of $1 million was awarded through TechColumbus’s TechAngel Funds.

Acceptd is free for performing and visual arts institutions and programs. Students pay a fee of $25 per application submitted.

The arts network aims to please. “One of the biggest compliments we get is how great our customer service is,” Hunter says. “We like to follow the Zappos model. If you call Zappos and you want to order a pizza, it doesn’t matter that they do shoes. They find a way to help you get a pizza.”

Debbie Briner is a freelance writer