Dr. Shirag Shemmassian is the founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting. He and his team help high-achieving students get into America's top colleges, medical schools, and other graduate programs.
01:14 minute mark:
Agile entrepreneur takeaway: Keep doing what you love to do and money will follow.
Shirag starts off by explaining how a Ph. D. in Clinical Psychology got into starting an academic consulting business. It’s primarily started off with Shirag helping friends and family for free which generated enough interest to become a profitable business.
03:04 minute mark:
Agile entrepreneur takeaway: All you need are paying customers to validate your business and the rest will fall in place.
Shirag talks about how he started making money even before he formally organized or even had a web site. It all started as a side hustle and word of mouth. Then the referrals kept coming and Shirag could really sense that there is a viable business.
05:59 minute mark:
Agile entrepreneur takeaway: Don’t wait for that magical perfect price or perfect channels. Keep iterating.
Shirag talks about the trial and error involved in finding the fair price for his services. He started off with a price that he thought was fair but as he kept realizing that the value delivered by him to help students to get into top colleges like Harvard and Stanford was much higher, he increased his prices. In the process, he also learnt about other aspects of the business like marketing and promotion.
11:10 minute mark:
Agile entrepreneur takeaway: Be realistic about business challenges especially time management and growth management.
Shirag talks about challenges of time management and quality control. Given that the academic consulting is still a side business (even though a very health one), time management has been a challenge but he has gotten better at it. Second challenge is maintaining quality with other coaches he has hired to support the growing business.
17:36 minute mark:
Agile entrepreneur takeaway: Outsource where necessary. Don’t try to be a superhero.
Shirag talks about the operational aspects of his business. Shirag outsourced accounting and payroll. He uses Calendly for appointment scheduling, Skype and phone for coaching.
19:06 minute mark:
Agile entrepreneur takeaway: Be a constant learner. Be curious. You never know where that will lead you.
Shirag talks about his evolution from someone who wanted to become a physician and how his interest in mental health led him into clinical psychology. He also talks about his immigrant background and how that motivated him into keep driving himself. His natural curiosity led him into starting his business and he is now hooked.
22:01 minute mark:
Agile entrepreneur takeaway: Keep yourself surrounded by a positive group of people.
Shirag talks about his drive which is to take care of his family for a comfortable life and also people like Ramit Sethi who inspired him. He also talks about his wife, family members, and friends who keep guiding him.
24:25 minute mark:
Agile entrepreneur takeaway: Start now, pivot if you need to, learn from mistakes and keep going.
Shirag gives some parting advice for would be entrepreneurs. (1) Figure out what you have to offer and see if there is a market for it (2) Don’t try to create a market which is very difficult to do (3) Don’t keep waiting for ‘perfect’ everything. Start now, learn from mistakes (4) Start, pivot, fix things, and enjoy what you do.
Episode Transcript (Click to expand)
Ramesh: Hello everyone, welcome to the agile entrepreneur podcast. This is your host Ramesh Dontha. This podcast is about starting and building your own business with purpose, passion, perseverance and possibilities. Today we have an exciting guest, his name is dr. Shirag Shemmassian. Dr. Shirag Shemmassiyan is the founder of Shemmassiyan academic consulting. He and his team have been helping high achieving students get into America's top colleges, medical schools and other graduate programs. Dr. Shirag Shemmassian for you, Shirag welcome.
Shirag: Hey thanks for having me Ramesh. I appreciate the introduction.
Ramesh: Thank you. So, let me get started. First about you, it's definitely says Dr. Shirag Shemmassian. So, what is your doctorate in?
Shirag: I have a PhD in clinical psychology from UCLA.
Ramesh: Okay. So, you have a clinical psychology. How did you get into academic consulting?
Shirag: Yeah it sorts of been happening for a long time now. I describe myself as an admissions nerd. But really when I was growing up in Los Angeles and attending the high school I did; we didn't have a lot of resources when it came to college counseling. So, I was self-taught, because I wanted to go to great schools and when I was able to achieve personal admission success, there were a lot of people coming to me. So folks who were in lower grades, friends of friends, family members friends things like that and over time word-of-mouth grew as people were having their own success in part through my help and when it grew you know to a certain point, I said okay there's clearly something here and I was helping people completely free of charge. But I already knew that it was a it was a proven business idea and I just really love this work. Because you know admissions in the United States is such a high-stakes process that has a lot of consequences for education and career, so it's incredibly fulfilling to be a small part of student’s education and careers.
Ramesh: Interesting. So, when did you officially start your business?
Shirag: So, I officially started the business in fall of 2013 and when I say start, I literally emailed my parents and I think my best friend saying, hey I just started a business. Basically, to start getting the word out and letting them know that I was serious about doing this kind of work. But I was helping people get into these top programs for, I’ve been helping people get into these top programs for over 15 years at this point.
Ramesh: Okay. So, prior to 2013 you've been helping but you didn't get paid, that is when you officially started the business. So, can you actually go through the process of what was the official start of the business meant for you?
Shirag: Yeah it was just I think more about convincing myself that you know this is a real business venture and that I'm actually going to go for it. I think like a lot of people want to be entrepreneurs like I was back then, I always thought that I would start something. I didn't know what that would be or how I would go about it. So, I have zero formal business education and you know have since read books and taking online courses and things like that. So, I was unsure of myself for a long time. Whether I'd be able to do it. So, you know even sending that small email was a way to announce it to people close to me and in some ways to keep myself accountable right. Because inevitably I would get questions about things like, hey how's the business going and what are you up to these days and so on and it's you know, we started very small so I didn't have a website when I started or anything like that. It was entirely through word-of-mouth and in fall of 2014 my wife's best friend helped me set up the website and it's really in the, you know then is when I started taking things more seriously in terms of publishing content and you know getting the word out there in a bigger way.
Ramesh: Okay. So during the very first month people go through the process of first having an idea for a business, in your case the idea was already there because you've been doing it and then secondly people try to validate that idea for a market viability and in your case that is also not there, because you've been doing it for quite some time. So, then the next step is actually forming an organization and all this stuff. Is that what you started with?
Shirag: Yeah, I mean at the beginning was just me. So you know I figured okay I’ve been helping people and this is like I said I think a viable business idea, I think I can get paid for this. I had no idea what to charge, in fact I charged far too little at the beginning and I didn't really know how to get customers right. So I was relying on the same old word-of-mouth. But given that for such a long time I had been helping people for free, it was a shock to a lot of people that oh you're charging now, like that's not what I had heard. So I had to also find customers outside of that circle of people that I had been helping and that really came through like I said through referrals that my parents sent me or you know a former teacher sent me and stuff like that and I started reaching out before I had a website to various community organizations to do some public speaking, free of charge of course. Where I was just helping spread the word about what it takes to get into top colleges and medical schools. But also how I can be helpful to them in that regard.
Ramesh: Excellent. So basically, you've been building a customer pipeline through the referrals. You did mention the pricing aspect of it. How did you come down to what you are going to charge?
Shirag: Complete trial and error. So in the beginning it was very little amount. I would say for the first student who signed up for like a full plan you know to guide them through an entire application process, I believe the investment for them was like $1,200. The same plan today is $5,000 and so and I was the one doing all of the work and going through multiple rounds of edits and phone calls and stuff like that, I suspect I made below minimum wage for those first few students that I was supporting. I think what changed for me with pricing was first off you know I think just mentally I don't know that I was ready to charge higher, because I wasn't comfortable with it. So I had to get comfortable charging more and that happened I think in a few ways. The first is you know getting validation from customers that yes, I will pay X amount for this service right. I think it's all an idea until someone actually hands you their card figuratively speaking and when you take payment, you're like, oh like I think we can you know people are charging, no one's really arguing about the price. Which is a hint that you might be charging too little. You know if you start getting, you should get some pushback. Not so much that no one signs up, but some pushback right. I think that's when you’re finding your happy place pricewise. But then the other thing was I started reconsidering what I actually was providing. So a lot of times people say, oh I can find an editor somewhere else or my school there's a counselor at my school too and stuff like that and I was thinking, well I'm not simply offering you editing and counseling services to get into these colleges. I'm dramatically increasing your odds of getting into your dream programs, right? And whether I provide X service or Y service, as long as I can help you achieve your goal in an ethical manner, like then that's the value that you're paying for and that just completely shifted the way I was thinking and now I was like, you're not paying for X amount of phone calls and edits, you're paying for admission success and knowing how high-stakes the process is in the States and how strong the desire is to attend great schools like Harvard and Stanford and so on, the proposition became very clear in my mind and that also allowed me to you know to market and sell better. Because I believe things better and I can communicate things in a way that I think resonated with students and parents.
Ramesh: Excellent, excellent. Actually so I mean what I got out of that is from a business perspective, you looked at your product offering itself and then the value that offered and then you revaluated the pricing based on the value that you were giving, you are offering for the service and did you view any competitive research in the process?
Shirag: To be honest very little. So I looked at, you know I looked at other websites and I saw okay how is like packaging done and you know that was part of my business education right. How do you put things together and so on? But I didn't want to anchor our pricing to what someone else's pricing was, and I think that's a very important thing for entrepreneurs myself included to consider. Because you know sometimes people say oh well your competitors are charging X and you know whether it's us being able to help students achieve a higher success rate or perhaps we're more white-glove than other companies or you know for whatever reason I didn't want to peg myself to someone else and you know it also means that you're playing in a sandbox with a lot of other people right? So for instance Rolls Royce doesn't say, "Oh Honda's charging twenty-five thousand dollars, maybe we should charge twenty-five thousand dollars too for our cars." there's variable quality and you should be charging based on the level of support that you offer.
Ramesh: Actually that is a very good insight that you have there in terms of pricing your product. That's very nice. So Shirag let me ask you another question. You've been at it for about five plus years, is it your full time or is it a side gig so it's still a side gig?
Shirag: So it’s still a side gig. So I still do some work as a research psychologist and you know I helped develop psychological tests. But the business has reached a point where you know it can certainly be full time and takes up quite a bit of my time and I’ve been talking to my wife a lot about that transition and making sure that you know our life is set up, so I can not only focus on work but on family. We have a ten-month-old, so this is all very top of mind for us right now.
Ramesh: So I don't know much about what you do on the site. But is that considered a full-time job or?
Shirag: It is.
Ramesh: Okay so you have a full-time job and then you're still doing this. So then let me ask you this question about the time management. Because that is a huge huge issue for entrepreneurs. So how do you manage your time?
Shirag: Oh it's a work in progress. So you know in the beginning especially and you know this is still true, it just took a lot of work to you know to make sure that you're a meeting not only your current students demands, but if you're making a decision to grow, you can't just meet existing student demands. You have to also you know do other things to market and you know get additional support and things like that. So very long nights working on weekends, yesterday was Memorial Day and you know still working on Memorial Day. So it's a lot of work and you know it's been challenging at times. Because truthfully you know I wish it could be sometimes like oh you know at this time of day I'm done, and you know I can plan this activity and so on with my family or what-have-you. But I'm still learning that how to do that well. I think I’ve been better recently about when I'm on, I'm on and when I'm off, I'm off. I think a lot of times in the past you know work sort of trickled into personal life where you know I'd be checking my phone, when I really should be attending to loved ones and things like that. But I’ve been much better lately. I would say in the past year. I think having a kid really forced me to do this is you know saying, okay these are the times I work, and these are the times I don't work, and it's actually been really nice for me mentally and also for my family.
Ramesh: So looking at your journey, it seems more like you have a healthy customer pipeline. So the money coming in doesn't seem like an issue. But the other challenges that you have of course the time management aspect of it. Apart from these two, what other challenges did you face along the journey?
Shirag: Yeah, I mean Quality Assurance is a big one for me and I’ve been very fortunate to have people who work with me who are I think really the cream of the crop when it comes to supporting students with admissions and it goes hand in hand the time management piece. Because in the beginning when you don't have you know a ton of positive cash flow or when you're still figuring out like okay was it just the one-year fluke, is it's going to be a sustained thing. You know there are all of these doubts that creep into your mind or at least they did for me and so I think I was a little bit slow in hiring help. Whether that was you know bringing on other consultants to support students alongside me to hire a support person. I recently hired my first full-time employee to help me with marketing and it's not just like oh you know you know they can help me with one thing, and I can work more etc. It's in some ways like buying back your time, right? When you're hiring employees. Because there are all these things that I was doing that I found there are other people who can do it just as well as I do and so what can I focus on as a CEO that maybe I'm uniquely good at or you know uniquely positioned to do. But of course with growth comes Quality Assurance right. When you're the CEO and you do everything in your business, you're intimately familiar with everything and you have your own way of doing things right for better for worse. Some things I think you know the way I thought of it was a good idea and then other things you know people on our team have shown me that there are far better ways to do it. But the things that I think you know but when you grow, you don't have control over every piece. So you worry about hey is this getting done to the same quality that I would when I was doing it and you know fortunately because I'm so serious about who I bring on, that's been a very small issue for us. But it's something that I think about constantly, because I never want quality to dip.
Ramesh: Yeah that is true. I go through that myself all along. For example graphics is something that I want to outsource it, but the messages that go on that stuff is I want to own it right. So coordinating that stuff is always a tough one. So we talked about the customers and then the people that you're hiring also a little bit we touched upon. Are your customers, the students mostly remote or local physical, can you talk a little bit about how your business operates?
Shirag: Yeah so, we support all of our students 100% remotely. So it's done over phone, Skype and email and I think it's actually really nice. Because we don't have any time or location or traffic constraints or anything like that. It works out very well for our students and for our team and also our consultants are all over the country. So many of them I’ve never met in person. But we've you know obviously we've communicated and they've gone through an interview process and all this kind of stuff and you know people live all across the country, they serve students all across the country and its really allowed us to I think expand our customer base, but also be flexible in this work. Because it's been a big value of mine for the business to work for our lives, rather than us have to dramatically modify our lives to fit the business.
Ramesh: So I mean do you have a system or some software that you developed for how you deliver whatever you're delivering. So how does it work?
Shirag: Yeah, we actually have no software that you know that we've developed for the business. So we use phone, we use email and you know Skype. Because it works really really well. If I you know if we built the software, there's no telling like if that would work exactly the way we want it and also like people would need new logins and all I think it adds a level of complexity and perhaps we'll get there at some point. But for our purposes and for our students’ purposes, you know phone and email work really really well. So we keep it very simple in that way and it allows us you know we're editing essays and having phone calls and things like that, it's pretty smooth.
Ramesh: Ok so then what other tools do you use in your business. I know you talked about Skype. But let's say cover accounting, all other aspects, so what are the tools that help you manage?
Shirag: Yeah happy to list all those. So for bookkeeping services I outsourced bookkeeping to a company that I believe is based in Baltimore. It's a smaller company. His name is Harris Calsavitch. I believe that's how you pronounce it, it's called www.outsourceto.us, they're great, so I'm happy to you know promote them. So you know since I have a full-time employee now, I have no idea how to do payroll and benefits and things like that. But there's a fantastic company I believe they're based in San Francisco called Gusto, they've been incredibly helpful in providing like a seamless you know environment to manage HR and then finally I use Calendly, to manage you know complimentary consultations that students and parents can schedule with me to you know to talk about our services, their admissions process or whatever they like. So we do use some existing tools. But that's, I don't think I'm missing anything, that’s the extent of it.
Ramesh: That’s excellent. I mean a very smooth and simple operations there. Okay so let's talk a little bit about you. So dr. Shirag I must mean you as a person you always, I mean did you guess imagine that you would be starting a business at some point growing up or talked a little bit about you and your dreams?
Shirag: Yeah growing up I'm not sure I thought about starting a business. So you know my parents are immigrants from Lebanon and you know they escaped the Civil War there in the 70s and you know they eventually moved to Los Angeles. Where we grew up in the Armenian community. So we're ethnic Armenians. But my parents are from Lebanon, born and raised. And you know like a lot of other immigrants they taught my brother and me like, go to school, become one of these few professions, get a great job and you know go for the secure thing and all that stuff. And so I always had it in my head to be a physician. I always thought I would be a surgeon growing up and I was actually pre-med all throughout college too. I was like Cornell, I was pre-med, I did very well there. But I grew up with Tourette syndrome and I was doing a lot of mental health research in college and so that's what really led me to clinical psych and pivoting in that direction. But I think I would say after undergrad, there were a few of my close friends who we all had you know immigrant parents and we were all having these conversations in our early twenties about like is this it? You know or are there like other options? And you know I don't want anyone listening to this to take it the wrong way and that you know getting a great job in a you know a great professional field is a bad thing or anything like that. In fact you know I still have a job and I love what I do, and I love mental health and things like that. But we were just questioning like is there anything else out there and so I started getting very interested in things like, personal finance and investing you know owning real estate, starting a business and there are all of these ideas coming in. Once you get into this self-help and investment and entrepreneurship rabbit-hole, you can go as deep as you want to go right and so I’ve gone incredibly deep and I don't know that I can get out of the hole I dug myself into and I'm perfectly happy with that outcome. So I think you know like I said growing up it wasn't really there. But I think once the seed was planted, I guess the rest is history.
Ramesh: You have a kind of a smooth evolution into a business as opposed to other people. You know they work, and they get fired and they say, hey what do I do now? I want to start a business and even none of those kinds [21:37 inaudible]. Okay so it's more of a self-reflection, figuring out who you are, what you want to do kind of stuff and then it evolved into a business, very nice okay. Right so I mean what drives you. Like either mentors or people inspire you or books or things that drive you and keep you motivated?
Shirag: Yeah, I'm glad you brought this up Ramesh. Because you know I feel fortunate and that I am fairly intern driven person and goal oriented. So there are certain things that I want to achieve personally. But also you know a level of comfort for my family and I want to absolutely do everything I can to help our students be successful. I take their trust very seriously. So I think for the most part those things are sufficient to drive me. But it would be a mistake for me to say that I you know I do this all alone and it's all internal or things like that. Because I have a few close friends who are also interested in this kind of like personal development and entrepreneurship and pushing themselves and so we keep each other accountable. My wife pushes me, but also reminds me about what we're doing this all for. You know to build a comfortable life for ourselves and you know positive support the people that we help and then in terms of mentors and books and things like that, I was very fortunate several years ago, I would say back in 2014 to come across the work of Ramit Sethi, perhaps other people have brought up his name as well. But he's an entrepreneur who writes a lot about personal finance and entrepreneurship and online business and all this kind of stuff and at the beginning of 2015, you know I was on his email list and I signed up for this course called zero to launch and it was all about you know starting and growing an online business and that's what really helped me in terms of like producing content and guest posting. These are things I had never really heard about and that I think accelerated the process for me and I took that stuff very seriously. Since signed up for a more of Ramits courses, had a chance to meet him in person and get involved with other folks who in his community and I think that in some ways has been the rocket fuel for my work and like I said I don't get paid for saying any other stuff. I just really believe that his work is incredible and has been a major driver for me and for my business.
Ramesh: Yeah, I know, that’s good. Hey as we come to the end of the podcast here, one question I wanted to ask you is if I'm sitting at home and I want to start a business, so what tips can you all for me?
Shirag: Boy there are several. I guess I think some of them revolve around mindset right and then other ones revolve around doing stuff and you know a lot of would-be entrepreneurs out there I think it's like they're looking for the tool or the right time and things like that and I don't think there's a tool or a right time that's going to solve you know whatever the issue is. I think one of the one first things are getting very clear on what it is that you want to offer and first make sure that there's a viable market for it. So just and so you can reflect on things that you've seen other people get paid for things that you're good at, things that people compliment you on and then see like is there anyone else out there doing this and getting paid for it and sometimes when people see others doing something and getting paid for it, they think oh my gosh like there's too much competition, I shouldn't enter there. The other way to think about that is, oh like that's a viable market right. So make sure you have like a market. Don't try to create a market. I mean very few companies in history are successful at doing something like that. But identify what desires are, where else there's an existing market and figure out, okay do I have an existing skill set or do I receive like compliments for something that other people get paid. I think that's really really important. It helps bring, make things more tangible rather than just sitting in a room by yourself and wondering what should I do? Because that's not really going to get you anywhere and then the other thing is to start, right. We're also worried about like breaking things, right. If I start this activity, I'm going to screw it up, what if no one pays me, all this kind of stuff. And you know what? There's some, in some ways that's a fortunate position. Because when you're small, you're judged far less and when you make initial mistakes, no one really finds out about it, right. Versus when you grow and all that kind of stuff, you have more exposure and whatnot. So just start and realize that you know you're not expected to know everything from day one. I've been in this for years now, I still don't know everything and I'm a work in progress. I think just like every other company and entrepreneur. So, start, learn, pivot when you need to, fix things when you need to, when something works double down on it and I guess enjoy it however much you can.
Ramesh: Shirag actually you know what, looks like it you stole my script. That is precisely fantastic, that is exactly how I operate and how I tell. That's phenomenal. I'm so amazed to see you tell the story the way I will tell, that's exactly that the way to do it.
Shirag: Oh I am glad we are aligned.
Ramesh: Completely. So excellent Dr. Shirag Shemmassian of Shemmassian academic consulting. Shirag thank you very much for your time.
Shirag: My pleasure Ramesh, likewise, thank you.