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Nived Ravikumar, Founder of Statement Guru

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Nived Ravikumar was born and raised in Southern California to immigrant parents from Chennai, India. Growing up, he developed a fascination with two of the region’s most distinguishing features: diversity and moviemaking. He has since blossomed into a world traveler (30+ countries visited) and expert storyteller. After working in the entertainment industry and at Google’s L.A. offices for several years, he launched Statement Guru as a “storytelling” service to a domestic and global clientele looking for help on their admissions essays. Nived is a lifetime member of American MENSA and currently completing his coursework as a Master’s degree candidate at Harvard University.

In your own words what is Statement Guru?

Statement Guru’s tagline is “My mission is your admission.” To that end, Statement Guru is in the business of getting clients into their dream programs by guiding them through the admissions essay writing process, from brainstorming to final polish and everything in between. 

While GPA, standardized testing and extracurricular experiences are all important, as admissions become even more competitive at elite institutions, it’s no longer enough to be smart or even accomplished. You need to have a story to tell; you need to grab admissions officers in a bold and vibrant way. No part of the application can do this like the statement of purpose (or personal statement). Despite this all-important component, there is a significant lack of understanding out there as to how to actually execute a high-quality admissions essay.

How did you come up with the idea of Statement Guru?

I didn’t. People decided for me! Let me explain. In my social circles, I had developed a reputation for being a strong writer, and I pursued career opportunities that allowed that skill to shine. For example, I was the Newsletter Editor for the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles for several years. Several of my colleagues and friends took notice of my abilities and approached me to help them revise their graduate school admissions essays. In fact, I got some free dinners and extra income out of it. Without direct experience in admissions, I relied on what I’d learned from screenwriting classes and storytelling theory. The acceptance success rate for those early clients was amazingly high, and my methods validated themselves. 

Could you walk us through the process of starting up Statement Guru?

Working with people I already knew in the Los Angeles area was one thing. Standardizing and tailoring my methods to a large audience was another. I needed a catchy name and, to my surprise, StatementGuru.com was available. It was short, memorable, and being of South Asian descent, the “guru” part resonated with me. From there, the process was about challenging myself in unfamiliar situations. For example, one of my early clients was a friend of a friend living in the Bay Area whom I had never met. To this day, I still haven’t met her! All of our interactions were over the phone, and at times, it was a bit awkward trying to pry interesting biographical tidbits out of a total stranger. Nowadays, these type of conversations are second nature to me, and my clients can sense that and feel at ease. I would say my first India-based client was another hurdle. I stumbled my way through it, and he’s in a master’s program at NYU now. So I guess I did something right!

Did you encounter any particular difficulties during startup?

I was so confident in my talent as an essay guru. I worked hard on building an eye-catching website and creating online advertising campaigns. For a couple of years, all that effort was met with a resounding silence. In hindsight, it makes sense—I wasn’t selling a product or tangible good, I was selling a promise, over the internet no less, that I could help someone I had never met, from some part of the globe I had probably never visited, write a compelling personal narrative. If you’re in a business like this, word-of-mouth and third-party referrals are everything. But where do you get those when no one is willing to hire you in the first place? It’s a catch-22. I had to do a lot of free and heavily discounted work in those days and wait for glowing Yelp reviews to trickle in. I would say critical mass was reached around two years ago. Since then, the focus has been less on gaining credentials and more about servicing clients and evolving as an organization. 

How have you been developing Statement Guru since startup?

This is a tricky one because so much of what Statement Guru is revolves around my way of interacting with clients and putting an essay together. The personal touch is what makes Statement Guru Statement Guru, but it is also impossible for me to work one-on-one with everyone out there who wants to work with me. Sometimes, I don’t have the time, sometimes, they can’t afford my quote. Long term, I want to indoctrinate additional tutors in “the Statement Guru way,” but for now, I am more focused on creating content that allows me to reach as many people as possible for as minimal a cost as possible. I have written an admissions essay book 50 Questions for Your Admissions Essay Draft (available on Amazon), I host the admissions-focused Statement Guru podcast (statementguru.podomatic.com) and I post articles on my site and sometimes on my colleagues’ sites.

What kind of feedback did you get for Statement Guru so far?

I never would have imagined that a seemingly simple thing like an admissions essay would actually be a complex, at times emotional process. It is essentially a mission statement for an individual. As many entrepreneurs can tell you, creating and refining a mission statement requires a lot of soul-searching and reflection. If working on your admissions essay does not create similar sensations in you, you’re doing it wrong. I’ve had many clients tell me they’ve found the process therapeutic, and it has helped them gain greater self-awareness and direction in life. I don’t want to take too much credit, as there are numerous ways they could have “found themselves.” But I’m happy to help, and it’s that kind of thing that makes what I do truly rewarding.

What is your strategy against your competition?

I work in a funny industry, so take all of this with a grain of salt. If you look at a university like UCLA, it receives nearly 100,000 applicants for its freshman class. 100,000! Per year! I’m willing to guess a majority of those applicants used some kind of professional service or resource to help them with their SATs. But what percentage hired an essay professional for their personal statements? Much, much lower. While I’ve met a few other essay professionals, some of whom are direct competitors technically, we are barely scratching the surface of the market’s potential. Rather than fight over existing clients, my colleagues and I would rather be collaborative and refer clients to each other if one of us isn’t necessarily the best fit. For example, my focus tends to be on graduate school applicants, like STEM students from India. A lot of my fellow essay tutors concentrate on only undergrad applicants, so they are happy to send along graduate school hopefuls. Because we are playing the long game and aiming for a bigger pie, reaching out to competitors and maintaining good relationships has undoubtedly made my business stronger, and I’m confident the feeling is mutual on their end.

Have you developed any industry insights that you could share?

The main thing I’ve noticed is that there’s a bit of a stigma around it, and one of my goals is to help bring essay tutors “out of the shadows.” My belief is that writing services that write essays for you don’t work, as far as admissions go. The best admissions essays are built on authenticity, and no one can represent you more authentically than you. What Statement Guru and other legitimate companies do is give our clients a set of tools and a pair of objective eyes so they avoid the numerous traps and pitfalls that can sink even the best writers during this process. I consider myself to be a coach. You never see coaches actually on the field competing, yet they help athletes unlock their potential. Similarly, those aren’t my words on the page, yet my client might have never expressed that set of words in that particular way without me around to help them have that breakthrough. 

What is the future of the industry?

I bet at some point SAT coaching was thought of as giving applicants who could afford it an unfair edge, but now, it’s standard practice. I think part of why is that it became accessible to everyone. You can go online and, without paying a dime, find sample exams and videos to make you better at standardized testing. Khan Academy has a bunch of those, and it’s way more entertaining than it should be watching Sal work his way through SAT/GRE/GMAT practice sets! If an applicant needs more SAT help and can pay for it, that’s out there, too. Right now, I see admissions essay resources in their infancy, and that world needs to be legitimized through the Sal Khans of the world. This process is confounded by the subjectivity of essay writing vs. standardized testing, but still, I’ve developed methods and practices that work 100% of the time. Can I guarantee admission? No, but no one can, unless you have a wealthy relative willing to make a large donation on your behalf! As more books are written, more podcasts recorded and more video content shot, I see my industry getting democratized like the standardized testing industry. The only ways to stay relevant are to keep getting results and to keep creating content, and I plan to do both.

Was there anything that disappointed you initially?

Disappointed is a strong word. I think it is more like being caught off-guard. In the early days, I tried to be as informal and friendly as possible in my client interactions to help build rapport. Because of that, I felt weird about asking for payment, especially in advance, when I hadn’t actually done anything yet. At the end of the process, I’d mention wanting to resolve payment. Usually, there was no issue, but there were a few times where this would drag on for months. I never enjoyed sending out reminder emails, and it left relations on a sour note. Now, I have to be more formal about this aspect, but I guess that’s what happens when you go from helping your friends and their friends to running an actual business.

What do you think about being an entrepreneur in Asia?

Though I have many clients based in Asia, my company is based in the U.S.. Because I don’t deal directly with any Asia-based companies, I don’t have much insight on this question.

What is your definition of success?

To me, success is finding that “sweet spot” where you are able to do what you’re best at and there are people out there who value that. In the entertainment industry, there are many talented people, but if they can’t connect their creative output with a wide audience, they aren’t going to survive. On the flipside, there are a lot of cynical, meaningless projects that get made because the filmmakers knew an audience will show up. I can’t define either of these scenarios as real success. Creatives/artists/entrepreneurs have to figure out a way to build that bridge between who they are and what the people want, while being true to both sides. It’s not an easy balance. If it were, everyone would do it.

Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?

As I’ve mentioned, a lot of my background is tied to the world of filmmaking/screenwriting. While I still love movies and the whole artistic process that goes into making them, at the end of the day, it’s still just entertainment. Whereas entrepreneurship has changed and will continue to change the world in profound ways. As we’ve seen with something like Netflix, even the entertainment business can be flipped upside down by a well-implemented business idea. At the same time, I relate to a lot of how businesses are conceived of and developed. It really reminds me of the screenwriting and filmmaking process. I guess even as a filmmaker, I was an entrepreneur. I just didn’t realize it yet!

In your opinion, what are the keys to entrepreneurial success?

Love what your business does—and love business. 

Know yourself—both in terms of strengths and weaknesses.

Know your audience—you can never change human behavior; you can only work within the bounds of what people are willing to do. In both entertainment and entrepreneurship, I’ve seen huge chasms between what creatives think people want and what people actually want. 

Get comfortable with failure—a big ego will blind you from reality.

Be prepared to embrace the process—yes, it’s maddening, but I suspect most entrepreneurs are a bit mad anyway. If you are driven only by dreams of success and rewards, you’ll likely burn out before ever seeing them. The ups and downs of entrepreneurship are like being on a roller coaster 24-7. Some people are perfectly suited for this, most aren’t.

Any parting words of wisdom for entrepreneurs out there from your personal experience?

At the end of the day, people want to feel…

…beautiful

…connected

…important

…efficient

…safe

…listened to

…smart

…respected

…productive 

…healthy

…in control

…loved

…inspired

…heard

…satisfied

…clean

…responsible

…powerful

…stylish

…entertained

Whether you’re making a product, offering a service, penning an essay or shooting a movie, to be any good, form is crucial, so is function. But to truly be transcendent, you must also reach for the third f… you must deliver a feeling, or two, or a dozen.

Connect 

statementguru.com

facebook.com/statementguru

twitter.com/statementguru

yelp.com/biz/statement-guru

linkedin.com/in/statementguru

instagram.com/statementguru

Callum Connects

Norman Tien, Founder of Neuromath and Early Math Matters

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From a young age, Norman Tien, found his passion helping students as a math tutor and went on to translate that into a successful business.

What’s your story?
From the age of 14, I knew I would be in business for myself and started designing my company logo.

Growing up in a poor family, I worked part time while I was in school. That’s when I started tutoring and realised I had a gift to help students “see” mathematics. I delivered good results, and my students started to love math as well.

A turning point was when I was down with dengue fever and I realised I had to grow my business to the next level. I started a learning centre and that was the beginning of Neuromath. The initial years were tough as costs went up while my personal income took a dive. I almost gave up, but I pushed through.

Today, we have 3 specialty math enrichment centres managed and delivered by my dedicated team of teachers.

What excites you most about your industry?
“How to win” has always influenced how I position myself in the industry. I researched the psychology of learning, why some students are so naturally good at math, while others struggled. I managed to find the connection, and have always sought out niches to position myself so I can win.

In the beginning, I fused academic delivery with psychology to differentiate my services. Now I have a good team of teachers fully equipped with a psychological skillset.

In the next evolution of our business, we will incorporate technology into education in order to customise each student’s learning experience based on his or her needs.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and educated in Singapore. One key driver why I started a business was, as a youth, I witnessed how my dad struggled daily as a taxi driver trying to make ends meet.

That said, I am very blessed to be in Singapore and to be given the right education. I see this as a very important factor to my success today.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore – well, for one, most of my businesses are here. Singapore is convenient for business and is very well governed. There are rules and systems that make the entire entrepreneurial journey more secure here. One big plus is the location: Singapore is a hub that allows us to connect to the world.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
船到桥头自然直 –
There is a Chinese saying that when a boat goes near the pier, it will automatically align itself (with the current). It means we don’t have to worry too much, that things will take care of themselves.

A mentor once challenged me: “But who can guarantee you can even reach the pier?”

It is such a highly competitive world we are in, who can guarantee success? This is the ONE question that has been etched in my mind for decades. The Chinese saying always comes to mind when I am positioning, designing and strategizing for my business.

Who inspires you?
Mr. Lee Kuan Yew – The fact that he started ruling the country just like a startup. With limited resources, he was able to find a strong positioning to differentiate his country from the rest of the of Asia. With hardwork and proper planning, he transformed Singapore from a fishing village to a prominent financial hub in Asia.

Because Mr. Lee Kuan Yew positioned Singapore so well, government owned companies, such as Singapore Airlines, have emerged as the best in the world.

His story inspires me, spurs me to understand that success is not by chance but by design – every little step, all the strategies are all planned out. Not at all by chance.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
My business coach, Marshall Thurber, shared with me the power of the “Trim Tab” – a small part of the rudder system in a ship. This Trim Tab, despite its small size, is able to influence the entire ship’s direction by turning it.

This metaphor helped me see that a man can influence the entire world if the right effort is applied. We are now living in an entirely new world, the way we commute with an app on the phone – that’s the power of the Trim Tab at work.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would embark on the same journey but I would seek a mentor at a very early age.

I have been through many hard knocks along the way, and I definitely could have shortened the learning curve if I had a mentor to advise me on the many aspects of entrepreneurship.

How do you unwind?
Driving down long highways helps me unwind, that’s when I let my mind relax and wander.

I love long distance driving and riding. My wife gave me a Harley Davidson Tourer for my 50th birthday and we intend to embark on riding holidays together in Asia.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Hong Kong – I love the fast pace and the vibrance of the city. I love the cars there and it’s a very unique and exciting experience for me. And of course, I love the food there too!

Everyone in business should read this book:
One Minute Millionaire – this book highlights the mindset of an individual that is the key determinant for success in whatever we embark on. As long as we know we have a very strong reason why we need to do it, we can do it!

Shameless plug for your business:
I am the CEO and Founder of 2 Math enrichment brands:
Neuromath is a Specialist Math Learning Centre that helps students from Primary 1 to Junior College, empowering them with strategies, skills and a strong desire to learn and problem solve. We use technology to train students to avoid careless mistakes reclaiming 30 marks or more in Math exams and achieve their full potential in math.
www.neuromath.com.sg

Early Math Matters is a premier Mathematics and Cognitive Development enrichment centre for preschool children aged 3-6 years old. Through purposeful play and our renowned EMM approach, we help learners build a strong foundation for problem solving at an early age, and instil in them a passion & love for math that will stay with them for life.
www.earlymathmatters.com

We are actively seeking passionate teachers, entrepreneurs and investors who are keen to grow the education business with us.

How can people connect with you?
I speak regularly at workshops for schools, parents and platforms demonstrating the use of technology for peak performance in education.

Do contact me at
www.NormanTien.com

Alternatively, you can connect with me:
www.NormanTien.com/facebook
www.NormanTien.com/linkedin

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Callum Connects

Mikyung Kim, TV Commercial Producer

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Mikyung Kim is a savvy producer who runs her own TV and print production business, based in Hong Kong.

What’s your story?
I am a TV commercial and print producer working with advertising agencies and brands to bring their communication needs to the screen. My background is in film production and I started my career in Hollywood working with Oscar winning directors Michel Gondry and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Before starting my own company last year to produce content directly with agencies and brands, I was with Ogilvy & Mather Hong Kong for nearly five years as the Senior Producer and Head of TV running the film production department.

What excites you most about your industry?
How it’s constantly evolving! Every day is different and it’s certainly never boring. I love that it’s a creative industry and that my job involves talking to people with creative minds on how we can bring a story on paper to life. It’s exciting that the advertising industry places high value on the creativity and effectiveness of content. I’ve produced a few commercials that creatively push the envelope with fun and sometimes wild ideas that have converted into positive brand awareness. Ever heard of KFC Finger Lickin’ Good…Nail Polish that yes, tastes like chicken? https://www.adweek.com/creativity/kfc-just-made-edible-finger-lickin-good-nail-polish-yeah-tastes-chicken-171245/

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in Seoul and raised in Hong Kong until graduating from high school at HKIS. I spent my university years in Boston at Emerson College and worked in Los Angeles at Anonymous Content and Partizan Entertainment. But on a brief visit back to Hong Kong in 2010, I decided to move back and continue my career here, and it was the best decision I ever made.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Hong Kong is my home so it will always be my favourite city for business and for me personally. What I love about Hong Kong is that while I am based here, I can actually work with agencies and brands from anywhere in APAC. If I need to attend an important meeting, I can just hop on a quick flight easily. I spent most of 2017 working in Seoul with Korean agency Cheil and Samsung, and currently I am working with Japanese agency ADK and Toyota based in Singapore.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Fake it until you become it,” from Amy Cuddy’s TED talk. Worth a watch. This helped me early in my career when I felt like I was under qualified for the job I was in. I learned to fake my confidence and fake a powerful body language until I truly felt that confidence became something real. It was nerve wracking at first but it worked and now I don’t have to fake it.

Who inspires you?
My friends. Noelle who worked part time jobs while being a full time student to pay her own tuition while we were in college together. Osti who is a lawyer focused on supporting developing nations and a board member of Redress, an environmental NGO working to reduce waste in the fashion industry. Vanessa who runs a real estate company, co-owns the gym Crossfit Asphodel, started a health foods business called Quo and NGO The Keep Moving Project to promote wellness in our community. Cathy who will be the first Asian woman to direct a big budget superhero film starring Margot Robbie with Warner Bros and DC. And too many more to name!

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
5.2 million plastic bottles are thrown away in Hong Kong every day. Plastic pollution is a major issue for the environment and we as responsible citizens can do our small part by reducing our consumption of unnecessary plastic. I do mine by having a water filter at home and carrying my own reusable water bottle with me everywhere I go. I love the brand Hydroflask because the stainless steel material keeps water hot or cold for hours, so I don’t feel tempted to buy a cold water at 7-11 on those hot, humid days we have here.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
About five years ago I purchased my very first stock and put one month’s salary into it, which at the time was a lot of money for me. Knowing how that stock has performed now, I would have put all my savings into it.

How do you unwind?
Exercise is essential in my daily life to help clear my head and de-stress. My go to is a workout at Crossfit Asphodel, running outdoors, yoga and hiking. But a glass of red wine and live music at Soiree in Soho on Sunday night works pretty well too!

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
One of the best trips I ever took was to the island of Lombok in Indonesia. Two girl friends and I did a 3 day 2 night hiking and camping trip to summit the Mount Rinjani Volcano. It was physically challenging but mentally relaxing. There was no cellphone reception, no distractions, we had the company of nature and nights with skies full of shooting stars. It was pretty magical. We then went to the Gili Islands for a few days of scuba diving, yoga and sitting on the beach doing nothing but sipping on coconuts. That was pretty relaxing too.

Everyone in business should read this book:
“Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office” by Lois P. Frankel and “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg. Essential reads for every working woman and/or man who wants to know how to support the working women in their life.

Shameless plug for your business:
I am a TV commercial and print producer that can plug into an existing advertising agency or brand team to produce their communication needs. Many advertising agencies these days are scaling down so they have creative directors and account services but may not have an in-house producer, so I can fill that gap by becoming a part of the existing agency team. For brands that want to produce content directly without involving an agency, I can also bridge the gap by bringing my production knowledge in-house and working as part of the marketing/brand team and liaising with the other departments in the company such as product team and ecomm.

How can people connect with you?
They can email me at [email protected]
or visit my website at mkimproducer.com

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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